I found out today that one of my favourite teachers from highschool, Narelle Ward, has died. I’m not sure of the particulars, but I’m sorry that she’s gone. She taught me English in years 11 and 12, a time during which I almost universally lost faith in the idea that NSW schools were capable of teaching English at all, let alone well. Mrs Ward was unique in standing apart from my cynicism: she suffered no fools, had a wicked sharp sense of humour and knew how to use it. While other teachers tried to pussyfoot around the incomprehensible jargon thrown at us by the Board of Studies, she stated frankly that of course it made no sense – but I didn’t write it, don’t blame me – the system had weathered worse before and even if the wording was a load of rubbish, we were still bright enough to dig around and discern what was actually meant. Which, with her help, we were.
When I egotistically complained that a short story I’d entered in a competition probably hadn’t won on the grounds of being fantasy, it was Mrs Ward who tactfully removed the chip from my shoulder, citing chapter and verse on other student sci-fi stories which had won in similar circumstances. ‘It’s not about genre – it just has to be good,’ she said, not as criticism of my writing, but as a reminder that no matter how well I wrote, it was perfectly possible that others could write even better.
Like all the best teachers, she told us stories that had nothing to do with class: about her life, about her family. The first word her twin boys learned from her, she joked, was ‘share!’ . Once, she taught with a young, passionate, red-headed woman, who, in protest at the expected dress code for female teachers, stormed into the headmaster’s office wearing only red high heels, the bottom half of a bikini and a white men’s business shirt – and this was in the seventies. Mrs Ward was one of those rare teachers who not only knew how to discipline the rowdier elements in her classroom, but still be liked. She was fair, fiercely intelligent and believed in her job; because ultimately, she believed in her students.
It’s always hard to tell in retrospect, but I believe she liked me. It’s rare for student and teacher to share any conversation outside class or the hearing of classmates, but from time to time, we did, whether it was walking between buildings or in odd corners of the day. When my short, unassuming, tweed-jacketed Latin teacher was fined for speeding outside the school, I ended up being, via the circuitous route of a strange morning, the first one to tell Mrs Ward the news, having just walked through the tutor’s study and straight into the laughter-filled aftermath of Mr Tate’s confession. The astonished, scandalised and delighted look on her face, coupled with her low-voiced, disbelieving, ‘No-o!’ remains one of my favourite high school memories.
For all of that, I can’t claim to have known Narelle Ward well. But she had an impact on my life, and perhaps – as students somtimes do – I impacted on her, too. I’m sorry that she’s gone, and that I won’t get to see her again at our five year reunion. I’d been looking forward to hearing her jokes and observations, and seeing how she was. Now I won’t. But I can think of her, instead.
Thanks, Mrs Ward. You’ll be missed.