Written by Jen Brown

Voices

School daze

When the recently retired Jen Brown volunteered to work at a mission school in Kansas, she found herself adrift in a world of worry, snow and out-of-date mashed potato.

Illustration of sledging in the snow

Illustration by Claire Jones.

It was 2007 and I was a volunteer at a Montessori mission school in Kansas. I was 60 years old and had just retired from my job as a minute-taker for Children’s Services at North Tyneside Council.

At a Christmas party I’d overheard a friend of a friend talking about her plans to help out at an American mission school and I remember commenting wistfully that I would love to do something like that. She said, “Come with me, then.” I was a bit drunk at the time and was shocked to hear myself say, “Alright, I will.” And I did.

My sense of excitement lasted until the moment I was shown my new living quarters. The house, in freezing Kansas City, looked like the Bates’ dilapidated house in Psycho.

I’d like to use the word spartan to describe the facilities but because it rhymes with tartan, I can’t. Tartan is too cheerful a connotation and it detracts from the reality – the reality of a dark and foreboding mansion a world away from my comfort zone of canny North Shields.

The statue of Our Lady and multiple pictures of Jesus Christ on the walls did little to warm me up or allay my mounting sense of anxiety. So I kept my passport behind The Last Supper and myself to myself. To say I was scared was an understatement of gigantic proportions.

“It dawned on me rather late in the day that I had absolutely no business being there.”

The friendly nuns at the convent next door helped take my mind off the house, the extreme cold (temperatures of minus 25 degrees were not uncommon) and the fact that I was helping out in a Montessori mission school with no qualifications whatsoever. It dawned on me rather late in the day that I had absolutely no business being there and I wore my heavy sense of displacement like a mantle.

The children, on the other hand, were wonderful. Aged between two and four, they were attending a strictly run religious school with strange and hard to understand rules and, after chapel, were frequently led into class by a complete stranger – namely, me; quaking in my Geordie boots. And yet there they were with a smile on their sweet faces and their best foot planted firmly forward. Every morning they sang a little song to the tune of Oh My Darling, Clementine. It went, “Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Sat-ur-daaaay”. Shamefully, I remember joining in with tears in my eyes thinking only of how quickly I hoped the week would go by.

The answer, for me at least, was sledging. I sledded with the kids on a daily basis, on a tea tray. We tore around the schoolyard and did our best to ignore the fact that some of the children were not allowed to go outdoors because they hadn’t managed to sit still for long enough in their pre-playtime circle. The circle was meant to be a way of bringing the children together at the end of the morning, just before recess, allowing them to gather themselves (and, sadly, remain still for a little longer than I thought necessary). I was reprimanded more than once for grabbing a child, shoving on his or her coat and taking them out to the playground, regardless of how they’d behaved. One of the stricter nuns told me, “You will learn, Miss Jen, you will learn”, but I never did.

The circle was a cruel kind of discipline for infants of such tender years and it got me down. As did the pressing of tiny fingers into dishes of holy water, accompanied by exasperated cries from teachers for the children to get on their knees because they were in “God’s house!” I don’t believe anyone intended harm but some of those children were still in nappies, carrying their feeding bottles. It was unsettling enough for me to occasionally stay away and clean the house instead of helping at the school.

Wherever I spent my day, though, I spent it worrying. Worrying about the kids; worrying about the creepy staircase I had to climb every night to get to my bed; worrying about the statue of the Virgin Mary at the school’s entrance, what said Virgin was thinking and why the hell she was looking at me like that anyway. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t switch off.

I lasted six long weeks before a very welcome chest infection got me home. Sitting in the head’s office on my last day, a small boy passed by and asked if I was to be in his class that morning. When I told him probably not, the disappointment on his little face and his, “Aw, man!” was confirmation that my time at the mission school in Kansas City had not been so badly spent after all.

“We tore around the schoolyard and did our best to ignore the fact that some of the children were not allowed to go outdoors because they hadn’t managed to sit still for long enough in their pre-playtime circle.”

Looking back, I still can’t quite believe it all happened. My role at the school, my terrifying abode – it seems too far-fetched. I was ill prepared for the drastic lifestyle changes of Kansas City and had no idea what a mission school was, let alone a Montessori one.

My thoughts often drift to the children I met, especially as I now have two little grandchildren of my own. I heard shortly after returning home that the little boy who spoke to me on my last day had been expelled for inappropriate behaviour towards some of his classmates. Up until then I had never heard of a four-year-old being expelled and I hope I never will again. But what do I really know about schools…or anything? Not a lot. Although I do know that serving up instant mashed potato that has exceeded its expiry date by more than a year cannot possibly be right, and queries about such matters should NOT fall on deaf ears. (Thankfully, the kids were fine.)

An interesting footnote: upon my return home I received a form from the school asking me to state my qualifications and experience of working with children. The school explained it was just for their records. No such request had been asked of me before this. Better late than never, I suppose.

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Written by Jen Brown

A Hollywood based Geordie pensioner living on her wits. Affectionately known as Nano to her granddaughters. Instantly likeable. (Daughter's words!) @MmePcato