St. Catherine’s was the British Embassy School in Athens that I attended from 1961 to 1963, between the ages of seven and nine, three years during which I leapt out of bed every day looking forward to school. When I first started, St. Catherine’s couldn’t have had more than about sixty students altogether, and by the time I left, there were still not much more than a hundred. There were eight to twelve children in each of my classes and I remember most of them to this day: sweet and gentle Ruth, who was Jewish and whose parents had been in a concentration camp; Sophy, whose father worked with the Embassy, and whose packed lunches came with crustless sandwiches cut into neat triangles and oranges with their skins pre-scored for easy peeling; impish Genevieve, who had two tight little Pippi Longstocking plaits and with whom I made a pact to dress like twins; Meggy from Denmark, the artist who always used orange crayon for skin color; open-faced Daphne from Canada; Gwynneth, the only person I’ve seen up close with truly white platinum blonde hair. The boys were decidedly in the minority but good sports about it: my buddy Gurel from Turkey; freckle-faced Alastair, who gave me a wide berth after I gave him a love note with the words to Neil Sedaka’s Oh Carol (I am but a fool/Darling I love you, though you treat me cruel), but with every “Carol” replaced with an “Alastair”; and Ben, the first friend to invite me home whose family ate with chopsticks. Most of us had some family connection to Britain or the Commonwealth, though in the early Sixties we never talked about such things.
The curriculum was 100% British, from the songs we sang in Music (Oh! No John, The Vicar of Bray, Sweet Polly Oliver) to the kings and queens whose reigns we slogged through in History. If my parents hadn’t had Greek friends and I the good fortune of having the neighborhood children as my playmates, I might never have learnt any Greek at all: French was the only second language we were allowed at that time. (Things are quite different now, according to the school’s website: students are prepared to be citizens of the world, and Greek language and culture are a prominent part of the curriculum.)
Our school’s namesake, Saint Catherine, had come to a gruesome end: she was martyred by being impaled on a large wheel with sharp metal spikes on its spokes. The school’s emblem, embroidered on all our blazers, was a Catherine wheel (hence the firework with the same name). Despite officially being Church of England like every British School, our education there was almost entirely secular, the only exception I remember being every first of November, All Saints’ Day, when we would sing For All the Saints, in honor of our own.
I remember the classroom teachers I had in each of my three years at St. Catherine’s: Mrs. May, who taught us how to gather, press, and identify wildflowers, Miss Tselentis, who read to us for a long period at the end of every schoolday, and, in my last year, Miss Tutte. Christine Warren Tutte was my idol, a person whom I admired deeply and sought to emulate, whom I held long in my mind and to whom I wrote years later, from school in India.
Miss Tutte and I understood each other, I felt sure. I always sat in the front row, eager and alert, taking in everything she taught us, but also everything about the way that she taught it. When Miss Tutte hesitated for a split second mid-sentence, the very word she was seeking would spring to my lips, and, a moment later, issue forth from hers. Did she see my lips move as I murmured her word, or were our minds in perfect synchrony?
One week Miss Tutte was waging a campaign to improve our vocabulary—not that she would ever have put it in those pedestrian terms. She drew a square box on the blackboard with vertical bars on the front of it, and inside, languishing, she put the word “nice.” Every time we used that word, she explained, we would get a demerit. It was still early in the week and we were collectively racking up the demerits at an alarming rate. The class was in danger of getting demoralized, and I watched Miss Tutte, wondering how she was going to handle this. Then she made a brilliant move: she used the forbidden word herself! A chorus of voices cried out triumphantly, “Miss! Miss! Demerit for you, Miss, you used the forbidden word!” And as she did a masterful job of feigning startled surprise at having been caught, I fancy that Miss Tutte gave me an almost imperceptible wink, as if she knew that I had guessed her little secret, and could trust me to keep it for her.
Five years later, at boarding school in Darjeeling, I decided to write a letter to Miss Tutte, asking after her and sending her my news. I had thought of her so often that I felt compelled to reach out and let her know. Weeks went by, and then a month, and then many months, until one day, nearly a year later, my letter came back to me, much the worse for wear and clearly having been forwarded several times, marked Return to Sender. I opened it and read it to myself, my words sounding hollow and pathetic as they echoed back at me after their return trip halfway round the world.
A few weeks ago I tried Googling Miss Tutte, not for the first time. My earlier attempts had been in vain, but this time I found two mentions of her name. The first was in a new Facebook page for alumni of St. Catherine’s. There I learned that, far from fading away into obscurity after I left the school, Miss Tutte had risen to become Headmistress, served with distinction for many years, and was still remembered with respect and awe. The second took me to the website of a Greek online bookstore, announcing a memoir, Spiked Wheels and Little Owls, published just four years ago and written by none other than Christine Warren Tutte. I rushed off an inquiry about the book, struggling to resurrect my rusty childhood Greek in order to follow the instructions, but to date, no word; my message seems to have been lost in the electronic ether.
I don’t remember an owl in the school logo back in my day, and I must say that it doesn’t seem in the best of taste to impale an owlet on a Catherine wheel. But as a teacher myself now, if I am a willing martyr to Education, it is in large part thanks to Christine Warren Tutte.
July 5th, 2012: I have just received the sad news from the PA to the headmaster of St. Catherine’s that Christine Warren Tutte passed away on July 3rd. I mourn the loss of a great teacher and human being. I offer my sincere sympathy to her family and to all who knew and loved her. At last I will be making contact with her through her book, since St. Catherine’s has kindly offered to send me a copy. There are some photographs of her on the school’s web site (http://www.stcatherines.gr/contents/index/1), from the last time she visited Athens, in May 2011, to attend the opening ceremony for a new building in her name. The page also bears a characteristic quote:
“I want you to realise that buildings, however wonderful and however well-equipped do not make a school. A school, housed in a shabby, old warehouse, could well be streets ahead of a glittering palace of a place offering every possible luxury and facility. It is the people inside the place that make it either a great school or just a very ordinary one……….nothing else.” Miss Christine Warren Tutte
July 30th, 2012: Today I received Miss Tutte’s book in the mail. Imagine my emotions when I opened it to find a photograph of my class, with a beaming eight year old me in the front row, bearing the caption: “the first class I taught when I arrived in 1962.”
Here are some other stories set in Greece or referring to the time my family lived there:
96. Learning to Swim
107. Kalo Paska
59. Childhood Scars
42. The Times Tables