As the footsteps come closer, the chatter of 350 girls fades into silence until there is the audible click of rosary beads…
Alfie (as I nickname her) demands high standards and is not someone to annoy. I had been warned. I watch her walk to the front of the hall and politely ask everyone to sit on the floor – which we all do as quiet as church mice.
As the assembly begins, welcoming everyone to the start of the new academic year, I find myself thinking of all the descriptions I have been given of Sister Alphonsus and realise that I am filled with a mixture of fascination and terror as she is to be my new Form Teacher.
I study her as she speaks with a firm, clear cut voice, her beady bespectacled eyes registering every small detail. Alphonsus joined the Dominican order as a teenager at a time when life for a young novice was extremely strict. Her head was still regularly shaved and her cream-coloured habit still swept the floor unlike some of the other sisters who opted for a trendier shorter version revealing their ankles and shoes. Where footwear was concerned, Alfie wore flat, practical and highly polished men’s lace up shoes, which again marked her apart from the other nuns.
Our new classroom is situated in the old part of the convent in a magnificent room on the ground floor with marble floors, fireplace and huge windows. We each sit at a desk. Sister Alphonsus walks in, welcomes us and outlines what she expects from her class. As well as being our form teacher she is our geography teacher.
During that first lesson I hung on Alfie’s every word, terrified I would miss a point that would prove crucial for my homework. I thought I would find her lessons dull but realised that she was keen to keep everyone involved and liked her statements to be challenged. She delivered lessons with authority and, amazingly, without using any notes.
As an 11 year old extrovert, I explain to my pals, one lunch time, that she obviously eats textbooks for dinner!
The year with her as form teacher was memorable. I recall she couldn’t contain a smile as she pointed out that, according to my interpretation of the OS map, the river would be flowing uphill!
The days rolled into weeks, the weeks into years. I always looked forward to Alfie’s lessons. She encouraged everyone to do their best and said that she didn’t mind genuine mistakes and misinterpretations but she did not like carelessly rushed homework… and as for forgotten homework, well…. it was best to volunteer to go to the chapel and say ten ‘Hail Marys’ for forgiveness.
Alfie made even the most boring topics more bearable and her thoughts on population dispersal and footfall were forward thinking for the 1970s.
To this day, if I look at a new panoramic view I can hear such words as ‘glaciation’, ‘ox bow lake’ and ‘wave cut platform’ ring knowledgably in my ears. Her marking was strict as she felt it would encourage us to do even better, which as examinations loomed, made sense.
When Alfie marked a piece with an ‘A’ it made you feel as though you threatened Alan Whicker’s knowledge.