The very best teachers are those who teach you the important things in life, those lessons that matter and that you’ll reflect on years down the line. Occasionally, one of those teachers will enter your life and make enough of a difference that it becomes impossible to continue in the same direction – the seed they plant will eventually blossom into something quite unexpected and you’ll look back and realise the magnificence of their work. I had one of those teachers and I owe her a lot.
It was Chris that interviewed me when I’d first applied to study Midwifery back in 2002. I was 22 years old at the time, married (young), and I’d thought I’d known exactly where life was taking me. I remember sitting across from Chris – me every bit the middle-class child, her – the last thing I’d expected from a university lecturer. Her cropped pink hair, khaki shorts and green Dr Martens had quite frankly terrified me! I think Chris had known that she was ‘new’ to me and that there was a lot for me to learn but I could see instantly that she was intrigued. Out of over 600 applicants, I was one of 16 hopefuls to become a student midwife that year. .. and one of four to be assigned to Chris as a tutee.
Over the course of the next three years, Chris challenged me in ways I could have never expected. Running late to lecture one day, my high heels clattering over cobbles, she’d shouted her concerns. ‘Who are you even wearing those for anyway?’ she’d shouted after me, stopping me in my tracks. ‘For me’, I’d instantly replied but already the seed had been sown. I’d walked the rest of the way, pondering on her words whilst already recognising the untruth I’d spoken. I didn’t wear those heels ‘for me’, I wore them because they made me look taller and slimmer and therefore more acceptable to those who judged me only for my body. Not for the people who entertained my mind and thoughts and certainly not for me. To this day I still wear flat shoes or boots and when people ask me why, I always have an answer!
Chris’ ability to stand aside from the crowd was remarkable and her courage inspired me to be so much more. Throughout it all she’d held me accountable, forcing me to examine my behaviour and to redefine myself by my own values. Now I stood on picket lines and fought for what I believed in and my clothes came to better reflect my own choices. When I’d worried about writing a dissertation that challenged pedagogy within the establishment that’d trained me, Chris had encouraged me to speak my truth. I’d eventually graduated with a 1st Class degree and it was Chris that I’d kept in touch with, her virtual presence ever reassuring.
Of course, a teacher only has but a short period of time to make a difference but in the years that followed, I continued to follow Chris’ inspiration. Having shut down an old social media account, we’d sadly lost touch but I thought of her often, particularly as my life took on new opportunities. Despite multiple attempts to find her, Chris had remained allusive, appearing in my thoughts at quiet times when I’d once again find myself searching for inspiration.
It’s in that way that I finally found her tonight, her name appearing on my screen under a message that didn’t make sense. A mutual friend had helped search for a home for Chris’ cats after she’d ‘sadly died’ in October 2016. I’d missed her passing and the sadness was all at once overwhelming. I can still picture her beaming face and sparkly, mischievous eyes, her voice, playfully challenging my own. Her death feels so unreal whilst she remains so alive in my mind. Her energy still feels so alive.
Chris was that special teacher who’d somehow managed to capture my mind and turn my life around. She taught me the value of supporting the under-dog and the need to question everything, particularly systems of authority. In her presence, I learned how to stand away from the crowd and how to meet the eyes of those who’d gossip about that. She gave me the tools to become who I am today and the guts to chase after my dreams. Perhaps the legacy of a great teacher is the blossoms of seeds planted long ago, a scent that they may never actually get to share. I hope I can continue to honour the lessons that she brought me – ‘with woman’ all the way.