Media vita in morte sumus.
As I get older I also get more and more familiar with death. That is inevitable. But there are still shocks. Sometimes one learns of a death which bowls one over. That happened to me today.
I must make it clear that I can’t claim to have been her bosom pal. I didn’t know her at all well. But, over several years, I gradually grasped the fact that she was an outstandingly kind and intelligent woman. She would probably have been surprised to learn this, but she made a great, and beneficial, difference to my life.
Her name was Paula Chandler.
What was she?
Well, there you ask a rather difficult question. I will tell you what I have worked out. She was on the staff of the school, London Oratory School, which my sons went to. She was very important in the CCF (to my sons she was always known as “Ma’am”). She used to come on all the choir tours. She was always there at every school concert and play. Whenever, which was often, I was called in to be blamed for the latest misdemeanour of one or other of my sons (the school is one of those which assumes that the parents are always to blame – something she did not go along with), I tended to see her in the school reception area. But I would be lying if I claimed to have any clearer idea of her role in the school.
My first real recollection of her comes from a party for parents of boys in the Schola (a rather grand choir of which I have written often). It was in the days when the school encouraged parents to join in (it later changed its mind about that, thinking parental involvement was dangerous). Anyway, there we were, being royally entertained to drinks and supper in the masters’ common room (Clare Dawson – an astoundingly good voice teacher – sang hilarious songs at the piano). But the time came, as it always does, when I wanted to smoke my pipe. I must have had a fair amount to drink, because I plucked up the courage to ask a member of staff, Paula Chandler, whether I would have to leave the school premises to indulge in my vice. “God, no,” she exclaimed, “come with me”. And we went through the french windows to a small garden and lit up. My guess was that we were breaking a modern rule (if there was a boy left on the premises his life might be ruined by seeing adults smoking). But I felt safe in “Ma’am’s” company.
The years went by. Paula (I’m sure the school would have disapproved of my use of her Christian name), seemed at times to be the only sane member of staff. No, that is horribly unfair. Although many of the teachers were petrified of being seen to be nice to parents, and lots of them really were convinced that bad behaviour by boys was bound, in every case, to be caused by bad parenting (they tended not to have children of their own), there were many who were thoroughly decent and sensible (I will never forget the kindness Paul Flanagan, Lee Ward and David Terry showed to our sons and to us – and there were lots more in the same ilk). But what really marked Paula out was her unstated belief that we parents were just as much members of the human race as were her colleagues.
I am probably not explaining this very well. Let me try again. Paula understood clearly the slight distance there has to be between parent and teacher. She never let the school down. Not a word of criticism of the powers that be (of which there could have been many) ever passed her lips in conversation with me or other parents. But, when times were tough, and they often were, she was always a reassuring presence. She had ways of letting it be known that she was on your side.
Her death today has come as a horrid shock to me, and must have left an enormous hole in the lives of those who knew her better than I did. I can certainly speak for my sons, both now old Oratorians, in saying that they are distraught.
Requiescat in pace.