The letter to Philemon was read at our Wednesday morning service. It’s just twenty-five verses long, a personal appeal from Saint Paul for compassionate treatment of the escaped slave Onesimus, a name meaning ‘useful’.
Mrs Puddicombe was fond of the letter to Philemon. Mrs Puddicombe probably wished that she had someone useful sitting at the back left-hand corner of her classroom, instead she had me.
The school was a special one for asthmatics and others with poor health – 80 boys in a remote spot on Dartmoor. There were meant to be seven classes – Class 1, 2 and 3, Class 4B and 4A and Class 5B and 5A, but 4A, 5A and 5B were all in Mrs Puddicombe’s classroom.
Arriving in the autumn of 1974, instead of being put into Class 3, where I should have been by age, I was put into 4A. Arriving after everyone else, I was assigned a desk beside a very quiet boy at the back. At the end of the 4A year, the boy beside me left. I moved into the desk he had occupied and positioned myself against the window, where I remained for two years, until the summer of 1977. Mrs Puddicombe smiled benignly, reasoning, I think, that I was a better option at the back than some of my classmates.
Mrs Puddicombe belonged to a fundamentalist Christian group, but was gracious with it. Mrs Puddicombe was always ‘Mrs Puddicombe’, never gaining a nickname the way teachers often did (her Christian name was ‘Ena’, which never sounded right as a nickname). She taught me English, history, religious education, environmental studies, and probably a few other things besides. If anyone ever deserved a long and peaceful retirement, it was Mrs Puddicombe. Sadly, she died while still young.
I pondered Mrs Puddicombe this morning, I don’t think I ever said ‘thank you’. I never ever went back to talk about school days or to tell her that her lessons had been put to good use. I had never even been ‘useful’ to her. There were people who did things, helped with stuff, I kept my distance. The only thing I ever did was the ‘post’, collecting from the school office letters to the boys and taking them around the classrooms, and that was only to have the chance to intercept certain letters that friends did not want Mrs Puddicombe to see, chiefly those from the parents of my roommate Paul containing £5 notes (our pocket money was limited to 50p a week).
Quietly in my prayers I expressed the hope that one day I would see Mrs Puddicombe again just to say sorry for being ungrateful and to say sorry for not being Onesimus.