The things that shape you…apart from donuts

‘Success comes not to extraordinary people but to ordinary people who achieve extraordinary things’

It had been thirty-odd years since those words penned in pale blue biro had seen the light of day, and now that they had, they prompted both a smile and the return of memories from a very different era. The death of my mother had necessitated the exploration of boxes containing paperwork an exercise now fatally interrupted with the emergence of the autograph book of my childhood. As I turned the pages edged in gilt that had dulled over time I was not surprised by a large number of pages that were devoid of signatures

I was not a popular child at school because I was considered to be bookish with no desire to join the kids who thought it was cool to smoke behind the bikesheds and brag about sexual experiences they were unlikely to understand until much later in their lives.  As a result, the pages of my autograph book contained none of the witticisms, artistic doodles or minor celebrity signatures of my contemporaries.

That is not to say, however, that I did not have one major success in getting the signature of a top drawer celebrity to my credit. The actress Pat Phoenix, who brought the vibrant character of Elsie Tanner to life in the popular gritty northern drama Coronation Street had been tasked with opening the local dry cleaners in Whitefield where I lived about five miles outside of Manchester.

As I passed the shopping precinct on the way back from my routine Saturday Sojourn to spend my two shillings and sixpence pocket money I was intrigued by an unusually large gathering on the shopping precinct. I watched open-mouthed as I saw ‘our Elsie’ slice through a pink ribbon bow and declare the dry cleaners now officially open. I watched in awe as the flame-haired and familiar face posed for a photographer from the ‘Prestwich & Whitefield Guide’ looking every inch the consummate film star before joining the back of a queue of hopeful autograph hunters.

My heart sunk like a stone when it was my turn to present Pat Phoenix with something for her to sign. Carried away by the excitement of the moment it was only then that I remembered the only thing in my possession was a copy of Enid Blyton’s book of fairies that I had just purchased with my spending money. I was mortified not to have offered up my autograph book or at least a copy of ‘Jackie’ magazine or the ‘Melody Maker’ but if the TV star considered my choice of reading material at odds with those of my generation her acting skills were sufficient to hide this. I gazed at that signature many times over the years but my A list celebrity autograph remained a secret largely because of its location.

I was, however, particularly proud of the contribution from my class teacher Michael Rowe who had penned the words above which have guided much of what I have done since he wrote them. The fact that my sadly empty autograph book did little for my kudos was only a minor source of irritation, after all not everyone’s contained a signature from the redoubtable Mr Rowe.

He was my teacher in the final year of primary school, an eccentric figure with a shock of black hair flecked here and there with grey which matched the colour of his steely eyes that peered at you from above a thick dark beard. He always carried a walking stick so that he could ‘hook’ errant pupils that sought to evade his attention rather than for any issues concerning his mobility. He seemed to me to be the epitome of everyone’s favourite granddad. I realise now that this was an analogy I had drawn in childhood that sought perfection from her own grandfather where there was none to be found, and whose secrets she would carry locked in her heart for over thirty years.

In Michael Rowe, I recognised an appreciation of my sense of humour which even at ten years old I knew was something that was going to be important in my life. Sometimes it felt as though there was only the two of us in the class but that was perhaps his speciality as a teacher and all his pupils felt the way that I did. Or maybe, it was just because I had learned to feel secretly special and applied this logic to other situations in my life, either way, Michael Rowe was a huge influence as I grew up. He encouraged my love of storytelling and always demanded further exploration of my better ideas whilst never baulking from the task of pulling me up short whenever I offered less than my best no matter how plausible the excuse.

Not even Mr Rowe could rescue me from the birthday ritual at school though. Tradition dictated that anyone celebrating a birthday was singled out for congratulations during school assembly. Not only did I dread this because my name being ‘Ashworth’ prompted chants of ‘Dust, dust and ashes roll over in your grave’ the moment it was announced. This seems innocuous enough now that I am a fifty-year-old woman, but at the time I was entirely convinced that absolutely no one else had a name from which such mortifying lyrics could be fashioned.

Despite insisting that I was adopted and didn’t know when my actual birthday was, there was to be no escape from the humiliating ritual. So I reluctantly mounted a rickety old stool in full view of the school where I was offered a wooden musical box whose lid when opened would play ‘Happy Birthday.’ This then prompted a cacophony of sound only ever heard in school assemblies or Christmas plays. I hated all of it with a passion but there was one chink of light at the end of this very dark tunnel in that there was always a tube of fruit gums lying in the bottom of the music box. I would have preferred Rowntree’s fruit pastilles but the gums were a consolation of sorts.

Once when I reached out to retrieve the fruit gums the unsteady stool began to jiggle precariously and falling was inevitable as I have always had the balance of a pianist and not a ballerina. Given that I had done all that I could to avoid this farcical situation in the first place I elected to avoid falling off the stool at whatever cost. So I grabbed the ample bosom of the headmistress standing by my side and the string of pearls that adorned them. This caused them to cascade onto the wooden floor beneath sending them scattering in many different directions with several disappearing down cracks in the floorboards.

Probably, as the result of the sudden sharp pain in her breast and my fervent attempts at clinging on to the tube of fruit gums which had suddenly assumed an even greater level of importance than before, the headmistress pushed me away. This caused my hand to jerk violently upwards and subsequently, the fruit gums were momentarily lodged into the nasal cavity of the stunned teacher at my side. I have no doubt litigation would have occurred in today’s culture of and health and safety who would have been obliged to conduct a thorough investigation.

As I returned from the often miserable memories of my own formative years the boxes in front of me yielded further evidence of how they had affected me. My daughter’s school books reminded me how I learned early on that square pegs will never fit into round holes no matter how much you try to force them. My daughter was both bright and funny but the education system recognised only her difficulties which we later discovered were caused by her severe dyslexia. Frustrated by the fact that the likes of Michael Rowe no longer existed in the schools she was offered I decided to educate her myself. To this day she maintains that the things that we learned together during those times are the only lessons she has any memories of.

The world needs inspirational characters like Michael Rowe. He stood firm in his stance against a culture that demands instant gratification and the way in which healthy competition has given way to apathy. My life so far may have been quite ordinary but even now I aspire to do more and be less ordinary even in the smallest of ways because Michael Rowe taught me that this is what becomes truly extraordinary. Thank you.

I wrote the above some fifteen years ago not long after the death of my mother and some years before I lost Kenny. It was only when I was re-organising my lovely new office that I came across files and files of stuff written years before I was to find myself publishing ‘The Funny Thing About Being a Widow?’ I am grateful for the opportunity to revisit the lessons of the past for they will help shape my future