I'm not sure whether Miss Sulley was a good teacher or not. Perhaps I might find out by the end of this vignette.
Like all great characters, others' views will be polarised and no one ambivalent. Some people will think that Miss Sulley was wonderful and others, awful. I fell into the former camp-Miss Sulley was my favourite teacher.
|Hunters Tryst Class 1961-1968 photograph circa 1965-P4|
It's a shame that the class teacher, Miss Sulley doesn't appear with the class
I can recall older pupils discussing Miss Sulley. That she was considered to be eccentric, was undoubtedly the generally accepted opinion; however some pupils also said that she was the best qualified teacher in the school. Perhaps she had completed an M.A. before doing a teaching diploma, presumably at Moray House, Edinburgh. Until the past week I was unaware that she had attended St George's School for Girls, Edinburgh with the Blades' Aunt Marjorie, sister of Charles Blades.
She was quite a large lady, with an ample bosom; she was bespectacled, and had a colourful sense of dress and jewellery. Did she have a small light moustache? She wasn't stylish. If anything her dress sense may have been slightly zany, combining an interesting mix of clashing styles. Critics may have suggested she had dressed in the dark, but somehow it worked in its way and it was very much her. Also, I think, because of her background and sense of herself she was confident. She wore make up and as Liz Blades says in a comment, she remembers her lipstick being all over the place. She would have been around thirty five years old at the time-very much in her prime.
It's not enough to say she was eccentric without giving some examples. At least twice a week she would send me for messages. I would have to run from the school huts (the temporary classroom units situated at the back of the main building between the main school and Oxgangs Avenue) up the various stairs to the playgrounds and then across the Hunters Tryst School playing fields. Once I'd reached the perimeter of the school grounds I would have to climb over a high, precarious, padlocked school-gate. From there I would cross the road at Oxgangs Bank to the Broadway shops.
Sometimes I would also have to buy some Vick sweets for her too. They came in a dinky packet and were an interestingly, triangular shaped lozenge. They were menthol and eucalyptus and were quite pleasant. I was occasionally given a Vick sweet or digestive biscuit as a reward. Meanwhile, the class drank their one third of a bottle of free school milk through a straw while Miss Sulley enjoyed a cup of coffee and her digestive biscuits and quietly contemplated life.
She always used to time me on these sojourns-quite shrewd and insightful. She must have realised this would appeal to my competitive side and ensured I was away for the minimum amount of time. It probably gave her a good indication of when I should be back. If there was a queue in Forgan's I would be bouncing up and down anxious to get away for the downhill sprint back to the classroom.
Other teachers must have seen me from their classroom windows, but nobody ever said anything. I could have had an accident on these outings-even been knocked over by a car, but perhaps she had worked out the odds and concluded that I was reasonably streetwise. I wonder what the health and safety police would say today. However, I suspect that she really hadn’t fully thought through all the possible implications.
She sometimes used to disappear into the classroom cupboard. Goodness knows what she did in there. Sometimes she was away for some time-did she have a snack or even forty winks? Once or twice it seemed to be for a worryingly long time. On other occasions she might emerge wearing a different outfit-perhaps she was going on to a lecture, play or visitation after school.
She never had any trouble controlling the class and yet she was never threatening at all. She was an excellent performer-after all teaching is theatre with the class as an audience. I'm sure her father's background in the theatre and her time at St George's would have helped to develop this trait and nurtured her colourful persona.
Her classes were interesting, particularly history. After listening to BBC Schools Radio and the adventures of Alexander the Great we had discussions or did some project work.
The hard work was often done in the mornings and the afternoons were more relaxed. Sometimes she allowed us a little nap. They’re called power naps today, so she was clearly ahead of her time. Indeed, on some of these occasions I recall looking up at her from our resting position on our hands and forearms. I would catch her looking vacantly into space, completely oblivious to me; her spectacles would be resting on her nose, her mouth hanging wide open and her face slightly screwed up on one side. It wasn't an attractive pose, but I always found it a fascinating one. What was she thinking? Was it nothing at all or was she reflecting on the weekend just past or the weekend to come; or of romance or the lack of it? Who knows?
I would have been happy to have remained in her class for the rest of my schooldays at Hunters Tryst Primary School. So, although I was excited about going back to the main school, particularly to what was the best classroom in the school (top floor second) with a lovely outlook across the playground and sports fields toward the Pentland Hills, I was sorry to leave her class. And if I had known what was in store for me and what was to befall me in Primaries Six and Seven I would never have left her class.
Attending St George's School will mean that she came from a middle class background-certainly compared to working class Oxgangs. St George's is a long established fee paying school set in the lovely Ravelston area of Edinburgh. It has an excellent website and there is some delightful archive film, including the schoolgirls dancing outdoors and of sports days from half a century ago.
The school will have influenced her, not just because it is high performing academically, but because she would have been exposed to an excellent cultural education too. I suspect Miss Sulley’s interests were very much on the cultural side. As I said I occasionally bumped in to her in later years during the 1980s and 1990s at author events at Waterstones. I suspect that she was also interested in the theatre too and perhaps the visual arts. I came across some references to an Edmund Sulley whom I presume was her father. What a wonderful name. It's so uncommon a name I assume he was the television, film and stage actor. He performed at Edinburgh Festivals; and had small parts in Dr Finlay's Casebook. It would also seem he was the co-author of Moo-A One Act Farce published in 1936. Also, he was a member of the Antiquarian Society. They resided at Netherby Road, Trinity, a rather select part of Edinburgh.
At this time there was a clutch of talented ladies who taught at Hunters Tryst Primary School including Miss McAdie; Miss Hume; Mrs Falconer; Mrs Orr; and Mrs Berwick. I think they were and remained friends in the years afterwards, probably meeting regularly for coffee and cultural events.
In later years, whenever I spoke very briefly to Miss Sulley I never sensed warmth toward me the way I had when I was young. Perhaps that was how things were and are-both parties having moved on. I hoped we could exchange some mutual acknowledgements to each other-that I was very grateful to her and that she might say something positive in return, but no, there wasn't such a conversation. Instead, we only spoke of the author or discussed the book for a minute or two and then went our separate ways.
She never married nor had any children. I wonder if this was a great sadness to her. Perhaps not having children was not an issue when she had to spend so many hours with them throughout the day and the school-week; teaching is such a demanding profession.
Did she long for romance? Did she have a sweetheart? For the generations after the First World War, many ladies were spinsters and had to earn a living, teaching. Muriel Spark writes memorably of this in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Miss Brodie was influenced by the charismatic Miss Kay, Muriel Spark's teacher at James Gillespies School for Girls in Primary Six and Seven.
Miss Sulley of course was from a later generation, but perhaps she too fell into teaching as the natural way to earn a living, rather than it being a vocation. I don't know. All I do know is that I and many others owe a large debt of gratitude to Miss Sulley. Whenever I think of her, it is with very great affection and love.
Comment from Liz Blades: Hi Peter, that was a lovely tribute to Elizabeth Sulley. I would say that as far as romance is concerned that she, my aunt Margee and Miss Hume all had their future plans dashed by WW2 and the dearth of men at a time when they would have otherwise been walking out with a young gentleman.
Comment from Doreen Rutherford:She was a very special lady. I loved our afternoon naps when she would close the blinds and say "wheesht heads on the desks! "We all obeyed immediately without any resistance. I will always remember her with great affection, as I'm sure most of her former pupils do.
Comment from John McDonaugh: Peter what a wonderful piece on a woman who undoubtedly created and influenced so many gifted and not so gifted children. We were the lucky ones like you I thought her as the best teacher I ever had her eccentricity was what made her unique. What makes it more pleasing was without ever getting the chance to tell her she knew she had us all enthralled and glad we had her as our teacher.
Comment from Deborah Cullen: Thoroughly enjoyed this extract on Miss Sulley Peter as I too was taught by her, mid 70's for two years. I loved her eccentric gentle ways and can completely relate to a lot of what you say. She would honk the horn of her Citroen at around 08:30 where she would arrive in the school car park desperately looking for a gal or two to assist her with the numerous shopping bags filled with God knows what and an excess of jotters she'd been marking the previous night no doubt. I was always willing to help as she would reward me with a sweetie!! In her class it was always interesting as she was indeed a fab if slightly unorthodox teacher and would sit and apply her make-up which really did look like she'd applied it in the dark and in fact I was never sure if she knew where her lips stopped and started and as you say she would pop in to the cupboard in a Mr Benn style and emerge with a different outfit!! She would often wash "daddies" smalls in the sluice room/ cupboard and hang them on a small clothes horse in there too whilst we were hard at work, or meant to be anyway lol. She was an incredibly colourful character and she stays imprinted in the hearts of many sh encountered I'm sure. I was quite tearful reading her obituary at the end of your extract. Rip Elizabeth Sulley x