She helped youth blossom

2009-12-11 00:00

ELIZABETH (Betty) Georgiana Firmstone (83), who will be receiving a Presidential Award, The Order of the Baobab, today, following nomination by her past pupils from Little Flower School in Ixopo, has a formidable memory.

When I walked into the St Mary’s Home for the Aged in Scottsville where she lives, she greeted me warmly and said: “You’re from The Witness, you work with one of my boys, Bernard Mathey. He wrote beautiful poetry.”

When I told Mathey, a proofreader at The Witness, he couldn’t believe that his former teacher had kept track of his whereabouts and remembered his poetry.

Conversation with Firmstone is peppered with references to her past pupils. She seems to know where all of them are and what they are doing. If one speaks to her former charges, they will tell you that it is most remarkable how she remembers them. They tell you that although they are older now with altered features, she still recognises them, even on a busy street. She can recall the most uncanny details about them, even their nicknames, and will ask about fellow pupils who were in their class.

Firmstone sees nothing unusual in this. “I was their boarding mistress, teacher and guidance counsellor. We were a family at Little Flower so how can I forget any of my pupils,” she said.

A teacher for 51 years at Little Flower, Firmstone had an unusual beginning to her career. Born a Du Preez, she grew up on a farm near Ixopo and said that from the age of three she was sent periodically to live with the Sisters of the Precious Blood at the convent attached to the school. She became a pupil at Little Flower and her Standard Six report, which she still keeps carefully preserved in a folder, shows that she achieved As for all eight of her subjects. This was an external examination run by the Natal Education Department (NED). While the class average was 65%, she attained a 90% pass and was awarded the first bursary by the NED to the school for her secondary education.

However, these were the war years and many teachers were drafted into the army. Halfway through Standard Seven, in 1941, Firmstone recalls being summoned to the principal’s office. She arrived there barefoot to be greeted by an inspector from the NED. She was told that she would have to assist with teaching and arrangements would be made for her to continue her schooling part-time. This is how she started as a teacher at the tender age of 14.

The rest of her schooling was completed part-time. Firmstone was offered a scholarship to complete matric and to pursue medical studies in the United States or Canada. She declined the offer, opting to remain a teacher. Over the years, she taught subjects such as English, Afrikaans and Zulu to high school pupils up to matric.

This doyenne of teachers gives credit to her late husband Arthur for helping create a home away from home for their pupils. “The bedding boys on the trains to Johannesburg used to harass our young ladies, so the nuns decided that a teacher must accompany them. I was chosen and on the way back I visited my family who had moved to Newcastle. Arthur, who was a farmer, became a regular visitor and when I returned to Ixopo he used to come calling. The boy’s hostel was growing and as Arthur was studying part-time through Unisa and had courses in English and psychology, the Sisters invited him to become a boarding master,” said Firmstone.

She added that she was not expecting this as she was looking forward to living on her husband’s farm in Fawnleas and teaching at a Swedish high school in the area. Instead, they stayed on at Little Flower and became the nucleus around which the lives of thousands of boys and girls revolved over the years.

Firmstone recalls tough times. The war in Europe meant that funding, which the school previously received from Germany, stopped. “We were getting more pupils and we had no beds. I remember we had this wonderful carpenter at the school, Constantine Memela. He and Arthur made all the beds. He did the planks while Arthur made the springs. I look back at those years with gratitude and often wonder how we managed. The boys in the hostel through the years were wonderful. They would do all the work, from washing dishes to wiping the floors and when we all left for school by 7.30 am, the hostel would be spick and span.”

Firmstone said that she met one of her pupils years later; he worked at a meat factory and described how his day started at 3 am. “How do you manage to get up so early?” she asked him, and her former pupil promptly replied: “Why Mrs Firmstone, you taught me.”

She believes that the remarkable co-operation they received from the pupils was due to her husband’s philosophy. “Arthur always said give the pupils enough food and sport and they will learn.”

Her own philosophy, which she believes kept her focused as a teacher, is that every child has a gift. No child has nothing, all you have to do is get to know the child, find out his or her strengths and abilities and guide him or her along that path. If one speaks to her former pupils, it is not unusual to hear such remarks as “I am a teacher today because of Mrs Firmstone”, or “I got into this trade because of Mrs Firmstone”.

The veteran teacher has practised what she preached. At the age of 55 she completed her degree with Unisa with distinction and went to the University of KwaZulu-Natal to register for a post-graduate diploma in teaching. The university did not want to accept her for the course. They felt that with her experience she should register for a Masters or doctoral degree. “I told them that I wanted to do this for my pupils. I had been in the classroom for such a long time, I owed it to them to find out more about modern teaching methods,” she said.

Firmstone ended up getting a 95% pass in her first English grammar test at the university, challenging her lecturer on his interpretation of Macbeth and earning a merit award for practice teaching. Half way through her studies she was invited to become a tutor to assist her fellow students.

She returned to the classroom, only retiring in 1991 after 51 years as a teacher in a rural school.

An octogenarian who has suffered a stroke as well as a heart attack and recovered, Firmstone remains as spritely and alert as ever. She still teaches. Her students today are professionals, mainly doctors and medical personnel to whom she teaches Zulu.

Although both her children live in Germany, she is never lonely and proof of this is the constant ringing of her telephone. “I have an extended family here and sometimes I have to get people to make appointments in order to see me. I stopped driving after my stroke but I am never short of offers of help and I can always ring up one of my former pupils; they never say no,” she said.

Firmstone’s sadness is that her children have left the country. “My daughter was a musician. She completed all her Trinity College exams and was accepted to study at the University of Cape Town. However, back in 1969 the government refused to give her a permit to study at a white university. The nuns at Little Flower arranged for her to study at Cologne University.”

When her son finished school, his sister urged him to go to Germany. She was lonely and wanted family. He went over and studied electrical engineering and stayed. She has visited them both regularly but says now she is too old to travel.

Her daughter flew home to accompany her to the Presidential Awards ceremony. They met at the airport and the President’s office made arrangements for them to stay at the Sheraton Hotel near the Union Building.

Firmstone said that she has got over the initial shock of being the recipient of an award from the president of the country. “I tell myself that this is not for me but for all the people who worked at Little Flower School and helped shape the lives of so many young people. Whenever I get anxious, I blame all this mischief on Winston Middleton.

Middleton, a former pupil of the school, spearheaded the campaign to get Firmstone nominated for her exceptional and distinguished contribution to the field of education.

Read what the pupils have to say here.

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