Feb 042012

Bon Voyage

Meet Barbara Potter – here dancing momentarily,  a few years ago at an Art Deco Cinema in Cremorne, Sydney.  Barbara died peacefully in hospital December 29 2011, after being admitted to Emergency only a week earlier. She was my mother-in-law. She struck me, particularly in the last week listening to her, as someone who really deserves a monument in stone:  I can but offer words that give some sense of the passion and love Barbara must have given to the students she taught in Tasmania. As with other posts I have written here, I have always sought to go ‘digging wonder’ – even within what might be dire situations.

Barbara had been a primary school teacher, working within the State Education system, across Tasmania. Let me start with a one revealing example that a former student of hers recalled: her teaching handwriting in primary school: Cord Cursive Writing.

The Dance of the Pen

You might recall learning how to write with a pen: tedious exercises, tracing outlines, writing between the ruled lines and trying to keep that pen flowing smoothly. Barbara’s method comprised: writing-to-music.  She would play, for instance,  ”Baby Elephant Walk” by Henri Mancini.  The movement of the music gave a rhythm to the writing.  And so, energetic children could be subdued by the beat of the melody and pens could then dance in unison across their ruled pages.  Check out, in the 2 minute video showing the rotating vinyl with this music.  Imagine yourself in the class.

Note the innovations: technology in the classroom, active engagement, fun, and real outcomes.  This was in the late 60s!  What gusto to try this in a class! Students would have had to ‘feel the love’ to give this a go. Some clearly remembered it.  Ironically, some of the same and earlier cohorts of such students did eventually come into University in Hobart where I had arrived (wide eyed from Cambridge University) to teach later.  Like her, I also experimented with teaching innovations, a similar one being teaching data-based writing (ie students writing about some graph they produced but with their computer screen off).

The Teacher Brigade

Barbara developed this pedagogical flair over many years, having started teaching at 19, in a little seaside town of Snug (south of Hobart) with four other female teachers sharing the ‘teachers house’ – all just out of Teachers College.  Even now,  some of these teachers wrote condolences recalling Barbara’s effervescence back then.  We tend to forget now how thousands of young teachers over the decades, went into classrooms, triumphant in the belief that education changed lives – by building up character and deepening the roots of competence, especially through the 3 Rs. And, in those days at least, they were correct.  (In the photo here, Barbara is at the bottom, centre: not much older than the students she taught).  My own mother was also of this ‘teacher brigade’:  having arrived from Italy with me in the 1950s, she also taught in primary school over the same period.  She too was resolute in her commitment to teaching, revealed by her perseverance despite not being made ‘permanent’ until she was 62 (due to School Inspectors persistently detecting ‘poor pronunciation’ of some English words).

Barbara would not privilege ’good form’ over substance. Whoever the student, whether from the farms, or the city and/or  in or out of poverty, (be it George TownKing IslandWinnaleah, Snug etc), they would get the same inclusive pedagogical embrace as anyone else. When, at one school the students were to be marshalled for the Queen’s visit, (remember those?), Barbara refused to take them. Teaching is not about watching a passing parade – let alone the display of monarchical vanities – No!  It’s about doing something for your destiny at your desk!

Teaching: Ongoing Vocation

After moving to Sydney in 2005 where her much loved daughter worked, Barbara became far more energetic – walking a lot, talking to many.  She particularly liked pampered seaside promenades (here shown at the Botanical Gardens with her personal parasol carrier, me).  She also bought new clothes and continued using her sewing machine to make more clothes.

She also rekindled her interest in teaching. Having long retired from the profession, she privately taught primary school mathematics to the boy next door.  She would go off into the Sydney CBD bookstores to find books with interesting approaches to teaching mathematics.  This interest in teaching mathematics was not some quirky personal hobby – she was part of a long tradition going all the way back to ancient Greece: You see the same passion in Plato’s Meno where Socrates draws a square in the sand and gets a little boy to work out how to draw another square that has twice the area of the initial square Socrates had drawn.  When Barbara met my oldest son - who had recently received his PhD from Princeton – she was quick to explore what problems he had teaching graduate student mathematics. It is worth mentioning that he and his younger brother (a software engineer) also came through the state education system of Tasmania.

Tasmania, a natural state of wonder?

While coming to Sydney had benefits, Barbara would still wax lyrical about Tasmania, although she would admit to the sociability of Sydney, its parks, and the comparative ease of  getting out and about.  Tasmania still held an enduring fascination.  Barbara wrote letters and cards, always in  exquisite  handwriting. On the occasion of the death of the father of a dear friend of hers, she wrote to him recalling aspects of the Jordan Valley (near Hobart).  Although she is describing someone else, her writing is as much about her and her sensibilities (then in her 60s):

To be able to hunt grasshoppers on the hill behind the house; to go fishing in the Jordan River in the days before the river was pumped; He [the father] even allowed his sons to keep ferrets!

While children played, a world of work whirred furiously away,  where even one man could do mighty things with gentle strength and a reliable truck:

He …grew Flax with its beautiful blue flowers.  Your father’s care of the green lorry that carted the flax to [town]: and he was very adept at the construction of circular hay stacks. [He also] drove the school bus … and rode the motor bike home. And how exciting it all was when the machine cutters visited to turn oats into chaff….
I was very impressed with his method for turning cream into butter.  And the fowl didn’t know in those days that they were “free range” and privileged chooks.

And while it might seem that such idyllic and ludic settings refer to an insular culture, it was also an accepting culture of mass migrations from far away places:

In the late 1940s there were a large number of immigrant workers on the South Eastern Water Scheme.  He made friends with them all: Latvians, Hungarians, Italians, Poles. Most could not speak English and he took time to supply their food needs. He was a “multi-culturist” well before the word was used extensively.

Such openness and inclusiveness came from cultivating the mind:

Both your parents valued education: books to read, encyclopaedias to browse through, old school magazines to read in the room upstairs…. Their role models extended beyond their own immediate family. I know I profited from sharing in their family life.

Even though these words come from a time before Barbara came to Sydney, they capture how she continued to talk about Tasmania. Some of its locales and locals remained dear to her heart. Having worked there in academia myself for nearly two decades, I too was in the thrall of Tasmania’s allure – even on one occasion writing an upbeat article about the wonders of Hobart and its people, in one of those in flight magazines that do features on  ’cities’.

Finding Peace

Over the last two years Barbara had become forgetful and on occasion disoriented (eg catching a wrong bus or thinking she might go ‘back to work to teach’), though she did usually manage to re-orient herself. In the evenings, occasionally, she could also get anxious – at times imagining that something of hers had been stolen.  It is ironic that when children falter over a forgetfulness or find themselves inexplicably anxious, we naturally help them to get their bearings. Barbara had excelled at this.  With older folk with the same behaviours, our care can become more circumscribed. For Barbara, it was becoming distressing that conversations that could dance and dart amidst ambiguities could now be left dangling – due to a lost word. Or worse, in their eagerness to help, people might ask questions – and questions were much harder for her to interpret than reacting to a clear statement.

After a happy and sociable day out on a sunny Tuesday (22 Dec, ’11), she had a particularly intense turn of imagining that her wallet was stolen.  This time, she could not be calmed and was admitted to Emergency which only agitated her further.  By the time I got there, she had regained her wits and wanted to leave. Unfortunately,  the intensity of the episode meant the ‘admission’ was well underway and not something that could be readily reversed.  The next day she was transferred to a secure ward for dementia.

Over two days, she realised her predicament – inevitable institutionalisation.  She reduced her eating, slept less, but  became very focused on talking about her life in retrospect,  as she had focused on students’ lives in prospect. Though her body strength faded fast, her spirit steadied to a calmer disposition. In the process she would talk or chatter and would tell me her age, increasing it each day (in her last conversation with me she said she was 99).   She was particularly impressed by the fact that the span of my hand could reach across her forehead and massage both her temples at the same time.  After such massages, a door would open to the past, out of which memories would emerge  - with the eagerness of children running out of class at lunch time.

By the week’s end, while on her own, she stopped breathing but was revived though remained unconscious. A priest was summoned on the same day to give her the Last Rites, by which time her husband, daughter and myself were there. As the priest blessed her forehead and said his last ‘Amen’ she responded, seemingly on cue, with a final breath. The End.  It left us all dumbstruck. Was this the hand of God looking to ‘give a sign’ through its timing?  Or, did it reveal the finesse of a woman who really knew that the rhythm of life finally demands – a well placed full stop?

Her leaving our world was so sudden, I have to wonder –  Did death claim her or did she claim it? Here was a woman unafraid to peer into the darkness of doubts, recall regrets, savour past joys, or share the thrill of witnessing her daughter thrive.  A twinkle in the eye communicated her resolve simply to let nature take its course.  She would let herself glide along that course,  allowing the buoyancy of her own words to take her to her final destination.

A final sign?

The funeral a week later gave Barbara a chance to conjure a final fling of fancy.  After the incense-filled Requiem Mass, the hearse moved slowly to her final resting place. As we followed in our GoGet  ’people mover’ (carrying her daughter, sisters and brother-in-law), I turned on the radio to find it playing:  ”It’s only a paper moon” – written by Harold Arlenin in the year she was born (1933) and rendered as a New Orleans jazz song played at funerals in that city she had so enjoyed visiting in 1981. (The specific version on the radio was by Ken Coyler’s All Star Jazz band).  The carefree song dispelled the pall of solemnity that hung over the passengers:  relief and joy burst into the car as the song’s tune reverberated through the trees outside.

But the words of the song were also compelling: about how enchantment only works if you  believe in the one who is trying to make the change.  How fitting! How is a teacher to teach effectively if she is not believed in?  How can an old woman complete a sentence graciously if we don’t believe that a valuable thought is actually trying to find expression? How is anyone , who is starting to feel like a burden, going to reveal their incredible lightness of Being, if we dwell on their maladies and not their majesty?  Listen to this rendition (with lyrics) from Ella Fitzgerald and remind yourself of Barbara – if you knew her.  If you did not know her,  let the song convey to you a passion for life and learning that so marked Barbara’s life even in her final poignant predicament.

At the moment when I realised that the song contained this line: “Without your love, it’s a Honky Tonk Parade“,  then I knew I had to write this post for Barbara.


Barbara Potter (nee Goldsmith) is survived by her husband Rennell and her daughter Karen. Barbara is buried at the “St John of God”  section of the Rockwood Cemetry, Sydney.

  12 Responses to “Dance of an Angel – Song of a Teacher”

  1. A beautifully positive evocation of a life. Although I didn’t know Barbara, this was a joy to read. Karen, it’s such a fitting tribute that seems to capture the essence of your mum.

    Richard, you’ve demonstrated beautifully how to celebrate a richly lived, yet modest life without resorting to sentimentality or mawkishness.

  2. Dear Karen and Richard, Thank you for sharing this. It is a remarkable tribute to a very remarkable life.

  3. What a well written and special tribute to a special lady.

    Barbara’s kindness and caring nature is something that stands out in the story.

    Thank you for sharing her journey Richard!!

  4. It gives me great joy to be able to send out the link to this blog to family and friends. My Mum was a light, graceful and dignified woman who was proud to have had such a meaningful life. I am very proud of her, and am joyous that her sense of colour, light and texture is such a huge part of my life. Richard’s blog encapsulates her very essence, and I am so glad that my husband and Mum loved one another’s company.

  5. Karen

    What a woman and what an evocative appreciation! I see your Mother in you on so many levels (and I never knew her).

    Richard has captured Barbara’s essence so pefectly and with such poetry; ‘As the priest blessed her forehead and said his last ‘Amen’ she responded, seemingly on cue, with a final breath….did it reveal the finesse of a woman who really knew that the rhythm of life finally demands – a well placed full stop?’

    Thank you for sharing this with me. If I didn’t know Barbara before, I feel I know her now!

  6. Never met her but now I know her.
    Commitment to goodness and decency and equity is only delivered by those who activate and strive to achieve such fairness.

    Well done, Richard.

  7. Karen,

    What a wonderful memento you now have of your Mother’s inprint on life. What a caring woman she was. Richard did a wonderful job. Thinking of you.

  8. I heard of a poem recently called ‘The Dash’ and it talks about how our lives should not be measure in two dates – the beginning and the end – but instead we should measure ‘the dash’ in between those dates – (1933 – 2011). Karen, your mum sounds like she had a great ‘dash’ which has been captured beautifully in both your writings.

    Here’s to a life lived!

  9. From – Benjamin (a recent acquaintance in Sydney):
    I have been touched by her gentle and compassionate soul. I could easily imagine her as the fine educator she was. Here was somebody with the patience and understanding to reach out to her students; both those in need of encouragement and reassurance, but also those more troublesome or difficult. That task of establishing a person in good stead for a meaningful and productive life is where the education process is instrumental. Although I may never be great teacher, I sensed in Barbara a certain camaraderie of spirit, somebody else who would not impose or force themselves on others.

  10. What a thoughtful last word for Barbara, a lady who left her quiet loving mark in more ways than one.
    And thanks to Richard’s skill with words, Barbara’s ‘full stop’ is now truly embellished with a loving touch.
    This amazing monument dispels the nonsense that the ‘chatter’ of the elderly has no value – or meaning. All it takes is patience and the will to listen with care and the listener is enriched by sharing the joys and vicissitudes of a life well lived.

  11. What a great story about my Mum!

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