Guest Writers

Lessons From Mrs. Gurney: Guest Post by Penny Thoyts

Don't you love Penny's hair?

My guest blogger today is not a blogger at all. She could be though. If she weren’t so busy raising daughters and sewing. Penny Thoyts and I met at another website a few years ago and developed a lovely cyber friendship.

I know what an amazing mind Penny has and when she showed up here, I knew she would have an amazing story to share. Penny was born and raised In Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire – one of the most affluent towns in the United Kingdom.

Penny’s parents were devout Christians, and she was raised a Christian, too. At age 16, Penny started to rebel; she abandoned her education and got into all sorts of trouble. Amazingly, Penny found her way back to academia and earned advanced degrees in Biology with Analytical Chemistry. While studying for her PhD, Penny met her husband. Together, they have two daughters, aged 12 and 9. Diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder in her 30’s, Penny now works as a Youth Worker. At 41 years old, she is not finished rebelling

• • •

Lessons From Mrs. Gurney

Mrs. Gurney was a family friend, sort of. She attended the same church as my parents, and they knew her well. A little too well perhaps. She was a large woman, very overweight (in a time when being overweight was uncommon); she was opinionated and held views that were not always consistent with my parents’ views. She attended church meetings and made everyone very well aware of what she thought about whatever was on the agenda – and a few things that weren’t on the agenda no doubt. A woman with a domineering personality, Mrs. Gurney was a little bit scary. She was also quite loud. When she read the lesson in church, the whole town heard it. And she read the lesson like only a primary school teacher could. God, (we will assume for these purposes that He exists and that He was in church while Mrs. Gurney read the lesson) probably took great care not to fidget too much whilst Mrs. Gurney was reading the Bible lest He be reprimanded.

When my mother learned Mrs. Gurney was to be my teacher when I was eight years old, she was a little concerned. She needn’t have been. Kath was a wonderful teacher. She was very strict and, to tell the truth, I was a desperately shy, withdrawn, child who was frequently picked on. No one picked on me in Mrs. Gurney’s class. No one would have dared bully anyone in front of Mrs. Gurney. It wasn’t that she was especially caring or particularly alert to the terrible traumas that could result from bullying, it was just that bullying was not on the schedule and if it wasn’t on the schedule, she had no truck with it. I was safe in class with Mrs. Gurney. It’s hard to explain what a relief it was to enter that classroom.

Mrs. Gurney was big on the three R’s. It was Mrs. Gurney who taught me the difference between “two” “to” and “too”. I still remember the carefully hand-drawn posters on the wall. The first had a picture of two sweeties (candies) that said: “two sweets”. The second had a picture of a jar of sweets, the jar overflowing. The words under the picture read “too many sweets”. The third hand-drawn picture was of a signpost, the sign read “to the zoo”. The posters were at the front of the class. I saw them everyday for a year. If your eyes wandered from your books, they would inevitably wander onto her posters. She had another set of posters illustrating the words “there” “they’re” and “their”.

Mrs. Gurney had no favourites, nor did she appear to dislike anyone. She sat at an old-fashioned oak desk and had a drawer full of red pens. If you spelled a word wrong, you wrote it out ten times at the bottom of your work. If you spelled twenty words wrong, you wrote all twenty words out ten times. It was not negotiable. An error in a sentence, a misplaced quotation mark and the sentence had to be written out again in your exercise book. She also had silver and gold stars in her drawer. They were not given out willy-nilly. You earned your gold stars and they were highly prized.

The classroom was arranged in a rather Victorian style. We sat at double desks and a boy was always seated next to a girl (to stop chatter). The brightest children sat at the front. We had exams twice a year in all subjects the results of which determined your position in the class – literally. The brightest (or most academically successful) boy sat next to the brightest girl – and so on round the class – until you got to the back row “thickies”. The children at the back of the class were not ridiculed or humiliated for being at the back however: that was just how things were. Ridiculing people wasn’t on the schedule.

Even if you were sat at the back, you couldn’t expect to hide away and learn nothing. Mrs. Gurney was one of those frightening quick fire teachers. Daydream for more than a few seconds and you would hear her bellow: “James Smith! What is 7 x 9?” or “Jennifer Jones! What is two thousand and twelve in Roman numerals?!”

What is more she would wait in silence for several minutes until you got the answer or at least made a good attempt at answering. If you didn’t get the answer right, you could guarantee there would be more questions headed your way later in the day. It was terrifying, but by George it worked.

She sounds awful, but she wasn’t. She was firm and fair. She treated everyone the same and she expected everyone to succeed. Do a good piece of work and you would see “good”, “very good”, or “excellent work” written in red pen. If you were really lucky she would write a few words of praise. She never gushed, but she did notice.

To me, Mrs. Gurney is everything a primary school teacher should be. She was a little frightening, but we learned. And surely that is the point. She didn’t really teach me to enjoy learning (although I can’t recall ever being bored or disinterested in her lessons), but she did teach me that hard work gets results. Doing well is satisfying. Even now, I gloat a little that I don’t confuse “to”, “two”, and “too” like so many others. I am privileged to be able to gloat. I can only be inwardly snobby because she taught me so well.  All those poems I had to learn by rote, all the poems I had to write myself, the mental arithmetic, history, fractions, technical drawing, the copperplate handwriting, science, geography (well, maybe not geography) – it wasn’t always easy. It was challenging, but Mrs. Gurney expected us to succeed and we wouldn’t dare do otherwise.

Mrs. Gurney didn’t teach me to love learning, that came later. She taught me how to learn. She taught me how to think, how to concentrate, how to listen, how to focus, how and when to ask questions and she taught me to persevere. Try, try and try again. If you don’t persevere, you risk failing and failure is not on the schedule. Mrs. Gurney gave me the tools with which to learn and without those tools no one can enjoy learning. Without those tools, learning is like climbing Mount Everest with no food and no oxygen whilst dressed in jeans and a sweater.

I still see Mrs. Gurney from time to time. She is elderly now, and her eyesight is failing. She is still opinionated. She was a devoted wife and, as far as I am aware, her two children love her and visit regularly. She still attends the same church as my mother. Nowadays I call her Kath (most of the time).

Some years ago I went to the church to attend a party in the hall. I was in the kitchen counting out cups and saucers for the tea when Kath came in and started bossing people around. She saw me counting cups and saucers out loud and said briskly, “Have you counted them right? You need 40 for tea and eight for coffee!” I turned to her with a grin and said, “Yes, you taught me to count proper; there are five rows of eight”. Satisfied that I was up to the job of counting out cups and saucers, she went on to ask what I was doing with my life. I told her that I had just completed my PhD. Her face lit up and she said, “One of my children! A doctor!”

I don’t think I have ever been so proud.

What teacher would you like to run into now that you are an adult? What would you want to say to this person? And what would you wish this person could say to you?

 • • •

If you have writing chops and are interested in submitting a memory about a teacher you had and can explain how that person helped you (or really screwed things up for you), as well as the life lesson you took away from the interaction, I’d love to hear from you! Contact Me. Essays should be around 700-800 words.

If you write for me, I’ll put your name on my page of favorite bloggers!


11 thoughts on “Lessons From Mrs. Gurney: Guest Post by Penny Thoyts

  1. Penny! Thank you so much for being here today. I don’t remember having any teachers who were quite as strict as your Mrs. Gurney, but I do remember Professor Huff, my history college professor.

    I made us sit in alphabetical order and my maiden name starting with an “S”, I wound up in the back row against a wall of windows at my side and another at my back. It was an 8 am class, and I remember how he would throw open each window, and — come winter — I kept on my coat and hat and mittens and shivered through each class as I tried to concentrate on all the famous women throughout American history.

    He called everyone by last names.

    One particularly freezing cold day, Professor Huff shouted: “Schuls! You have Quaker blood?”

    I’m sure I looked baffled.

    “You are positively quaking back there. See me after class.”

    When I met with him, he was kind. He told me that the chill was designed to keep people awake, but he could tell I was an eager student. And an early bird. He assigned me to a new seat in the front row, all the way across the room, far away from those open windows. I felt positively chosen.

  2. Penny-What a great story, what a great teacher and what great HAIR! Now, I know I’m here to comment on your story (which I love) but as an artist, I’ve just got to tell you I LOVE your hair! LOL! I wish I could rock out red hair like that! You’re brave in so many ways, but that hair takes the cake 😀

    Thank you for sharing your story and Mrs. Gurney with all of us. I think we all need a Mrs. Gurney in our lives just to show us that life can be fair if we work hard.

    1. Thank you.
      My hair is pink now 🙂
      Told too many of my teenagers where to get the red hair dye I use and they’ve all copied me. Red hair everywhere! I had to be different so I went pink, and this time I’m not telling them how to do it!

      I reckon that life is sometimes unfair even if you do work hard. But if you don’t work hard you stand no chance!

  3. Penny I love your hair and am getting mine colored today!
    It was so great that you expected the bossing and had a ready answer. I am glad she broke into a smile with pride at what you had accomplished!
    Great post~

  4. Penny, I could hear your voice so clearly as you spoke of your beloved teacher. You are a beautiful writer, another trait of which, Kath, oops. Mrs. Gurney, would surely be proud. Inspiring!! Thank you

  5. This is a WONDERFUL post, Penny! Thanks so much for sharing. I actually had the good fortune of seeing my beloved kindergarten teacher at one of my best friend’s weddings a few years ago. She was our favorite teacher and came to the wedding as a surprise. Knowing she cared that much [to travel several states to the weddding] spoke volumes. It was also a hoot to find out she and her husband had retired and begun working as civil war reenactors!

  6. This is such a wonderful post. My two scariest teachers were Mrs. Williams for language arts in 5th grade, and then Miss Kirkham for math in 7th grade. I’ve had so many wonderful teachers. One morning on Facebook I posted as my status 75+ names. I think I had to post status #2 to allow for all the characters. They were the names of every teacher I had from first grade through undergraduate and graduate school. My fb friends didn’t quite get it…but I just might do it in this blogging community because I do think they…you… would get what I did.

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