March column: Reasons I never wrote to Joan

1. Joan Ashworth had a disdain for cliché. She loathed sentimentality and neat, happy endings. She rolled her eyes at lazy formulae and self-satisfaction and things that make you feel good but aren’t true.

2. A few years ago I decided to write to Joan Ashworth. I had no address for her, so I wrote to the school where she worked but they told me she didn’t teach there any more. They weren’t sure where she was now. They thought she might have gone overseas. England, they thought. They gave me the address of someone, a former colleague, who might know more. I wrote to her former colleague and asked if she knew how I could get hold of Joan Ashworth. She wrote back. Joan died, she said.

3. Joan Ashworth was my English teacher for the four most important years of high school. She was short and had orange-red hair. She had a gap in her front teeth and drove a yellow VW Beetle and lived alone except for a dog, a Labrador, I think, that had fur a similar colour to her hair and sat in the front passenger seat when she drove to the shops. George Thorne saw her once and told me about it, and I remember her in the car with the dog beside her almost better than I remember her, even though I never saw it myself. Joan Ashworth couldn’t say her Rs properly; she called me “Bwistow-Bovey”. She did not give the impression, even to teenage boys, who are not Geiger counters of emotional sensitivity, of being very happy. She and I didn’t get along very well.

4. Joan Ashworth once threw me out of her class. Someone had done something – for once it wasn’t me – and she felt upset and disrespected and demanded that everyone in the class apologise, one by one. Everyone else apologised, but I didn’t. Why should I? I didn’t do it. So she told me that I was unkind and cruel for not apologising even though I could see she was upset, and that I couldn’t return until I apologised. I sat in the school library for the rest of that class, and the next English class, and the one after that. I hope that if I were there now, I would recognise that her upset went deeper than whatever had happened, and so did the feeling of disrespect. I hope I would have apologised, not because I had done something wrong, but because it would have been kind.

5. In standard nine I wrote a play for the school talent show that I performed with two classmates and it did very well. Everyone thought I was very clever for writing it. Joan Ashworth did too. In matric I wrote another play and Joan Ashworth said, “It’s disappointing. It’s lazy and derivative. Come to think of it, last year’s play was derivative too.” I haven’t fully forgiven her for that, because she was right.

6. I was furious at myself for not writing to Joan Ashworth while she was still alive. I didn’t know what I wanted to say, but she had been important to me. I would give anything to be able to tell her that, tell her that whatever her very odd methods, she had given me many gifts that I still treasured. I should have written, and now it was too late. Then one day someone wrote to me and said, “Oh, by the way, I sometimes speak to Joan Ashworth. She’s still living in Durban.”

7. Once in class Joan Ashworth mused aloud about a boy who attended another school but had done well in the English Olympiad, or some speech competition she’d been judging, or something. He was, she said, “Bwilliant. Just bwilliant.” His name was Imraan Coovadia, she said. What a mind he had. What talent. What a joy he must be to teach. She looked at me sidelong and lingered till I noticed. “I need an Imraan Coovadia in my life,” she said. I haven’t fully forgiven her for that.

8. Joan Ashworth took the class to Withnail and I in the cinema – or as many of the class as wanted to go. It was just me, and Daryl Lee, and George Thorne and maybe one or two others I don’t remember now. Afterwards she told us that it wasn’t a comedy, it was actually devastatingly bleak and sad. I rolled my eyes at that, but of course she was right.

9. When I was a teenager the world felt like a threat, so I found a way of being in the world that enabled me to get through. It involved being brilliant, and – in case I wasn’t actually so brilliant – being arrogant enough to persuade people I was brilliant. I always hoped – expected, maybe – that Joan Ashworth would see that I was scared, not arrogant. Maybe she did, but she was no better with people than I was. One day she said, “You never look anyone in the eye, Bwistow-Bovey. What are you afraid of? Look me in the eye! Can you? You can’t.” It was true – I couldn’t look anyone in the eye. I haven’t fully forgiven her for that.

10. After I learnt she was still alive, I had “Write to Joan Ashworth” on my to-do list for four or five years, but that was a far more manageable prospect when I thought it was too late than when I realised it wasn’t. What would I say? “Thank you for making me who I am?” That’s what ex-pupils in Facebook posts write, but who I am is somewhat damaged. I was damaged before I reached her, and it wasn’t her job to un-damage me, but she wasn’t a life-raft in my adolescence: she drove me to sharpen and bring forth whatever I have, but her method of doing it drove the damage a little deeper. What would I say?

11. Joan loved the English language, especially in its most concentrated and elemental form. She felt the rhythm of poetry, the oceanic swells and rolls. She thrummed with the cadences and martial iambs of Shakespeare (“You blocks!” she declaimed, in our very first English class in standard seven. “You stones! You worse than senseless things!”) When she read Gerard Manley Hopkins the words were like sunlight dappling on birch leaves, like water on mountain stones, like fat raindrops on a window pane. She understood poetry in her bones, and in the parts of the body deeper and older than bones; she knew the mystery of it, the darkness and light and height and depth of it. She spoke the poetry she loved and her high, rhotic, neurotic voice diminished its effect not an iota. Just the opposite. To this day I feel rhythms and echoes in my head and my hand and don’t know where they come from, conjunctions of sounds and syllables that emerge as shadows beneath what I’m writing, and which I’ll later recognise as lines from Yeats or Cummings or Marvell or Donne that I heard in Miss Ashworth’s class on the second floor of Glenwood High School on a hot forgotten Durban afternoon when I didn’t think I was really listening.

12. Her sensitivity to language made me realise the degree to which I am too. She gave me irreplaceable gifts. She gave me the sentences and stanzas and the sensibility that underlie the architecture of my inner world. We were two of a kind, but in a world of boys and men I didn’t want to be two of a kind with her, so I closed her out.

13. Why do pupils write to their old teachers? To thank them and acknowledge them, yes, but also to receive praise: “I’m so proud of you.” “I knew you were special.” They do it as an act of largesse: “See, in my glory, how I share my success with you!” They do it because they are not feeling successful, and want to be told by a childhood authority figure that they are. Perhaps there are other reasons, I don’t know.

14. Joan Ashworth thought that beneath my arrogance I was afraid of failure and only did things that came easily to me. That was true, but she thought that the way to address that was to needle and expose me. It occurs to me now that maybe she didn’t think that was the best way to do it; maybe that was just the only way she knew.

15. They made fun of her, the boys at school. The so-called men did as well, the Maths teachers and Afrikaans teachers, even fellow English teachers. I can’t remember doing it myself but that is self-protection: I have no doubt I did. I think Joan Ashworth was lonely, and I think she was brave, and I wish she had had an Imraan Coovadia in her life.

16. Joan Ashworth sometimes – often – wore a white short-sleeved cotton dress like a smock. It had lacework around the edges of the sleeves and the hem. It was a little like a nightgown. It felt somehow bridal, something to be taken from a trousseau on a wedding night. She taught us Wuthering Heights. She loved the elemental parts of it – the moors, the storms, the cruelty. She understood the attractiveness of Heathcliff. She hated Thrushcross Grange and Cathy’s marriage to the milksop Edgar Linton. “Thrushcross Grange!” she said with disdain. “Edgar Linton.” The words conveyed the meaning: finicky, pernickety, cloistered. She sneered as she said them, they were sticky in her mouth. She wanted Cathy to throw open the windows to the wild night and let the black wet wind blow in a Demon Lover.

17. I did finally write to Joan Ashworth. It was last year, during lockdown, when people finally did some of the things they knew they should do, because they weren’t able to do other things. My letter was circumspect and hedged but I tried to avoid saying anything untrue. I tried to avoid cliché. I was guarded and contingent, and I was more formal than I usually am in writing personal letters.

18. Joan Ashworth replied. She was formal too. “Thank you,” she opened, “for acknowledging me.” She wrote that she once asked her mother why her mother didn’t write to her more. Her mother had replied that she knew Joan would correct her spelling and grammar. “So sad,” said Joan. “All I wanted was her love.”

19. I am not proud of who I was as a teenager. I am not fond of that boy, although I have learnt to feel sympathy for him. Not many of the people who met him liked him, and I can’t blame them for that. The thing that makes me saddest is that of all the people who had the misfortune of knowing him, the ones who liked him and wanted to help him suffered most by the acquaintance.

20. In her reply, Joan Ashworth concluded with these words: “Just in case I was too nice and you were thinking about throwing up, let me tell you that you were difficult, arrogant, hard-headed, unfriendly, unyielding.”

21. I have been meaning to reply to Joan Ashworth’s letter. At first it felt like a closed door, and I rolled my eyes, the way I did when I was a teenager. Sometimes, when we go back to childhood figures, hoping to impress them with our adulthood, we only learn what children we still are. Reading it now, perhaps she would have liked a reply. But what would I have said? Last week, in her nursing home in Durban, she died.