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A life divided

Wednesday November 1, 2006

Mary T N Morris

When I was 10 years old I won a full scholarship to Bradford Girls? Grammar School, a fee-paying secondary school twenty-five miles away from my home in Yorkshire. It began my gradual drift away from the home that raised me and from the culture that first shaped me. I would remain at the school for the next seven years, travelling to and fro between two worlds, morning and night, on buses, on foot. With no way of knowing how to reconcile the different demands of family background and educational establishment, I learned early how to live a divided life.

Although school educated me well both academically and physically, it gave me little guidance on ways of living my life. Maybe I sensed instinctively that I was on my own and had to work things out. My school friends inhabited a different world, one in which I would begin to participate more and more, while growing more distant from my family home. I think I sensed the danger, for I remember my extreme disappointment when I learned that my only sibling, my younger sister, Barbara, would not be a student there; I yearned for a collaborator, for some bridge between my two worlds.

Experimenting with roles

Once I had left the somewhat cushioned environments of Birmingham and Bristol Universities where at least I had many peers around me, drifting into things became a way of life. Several long-term relationships had come to nothing, and I suddenly felt very much alone. I had taken up an English teaching position at a grammar school in a London suburb, and as a fledgling teacher I knew little of how to do the job well. Its headmaster was an old Oxford Blue, steeped in tradition. At the daily morning assembly, when he removed his mortarboard, the whole student body had to stand up. I was oblivious to protocol and now realise, in retrospect, that I forgot some things because I saw little point to them. I was called to his office more than once for the infringement of some rule. Perhaps I was more of a rebel than I realised; perhaps, without my awareness, my working-class roots found a way of countering the disdain I sensed in him.

Out on my own, I really did not know how to incorporate myself into English society. On one hand, I revelled in my autonomy, negotiating the Underground, walking the London streets and stopping at a coffee bar for a cup of frothy coffee. This was the late sixties; this was swinging London, and I did participate, walking down Carnaby Street in my miniskirt and swinging my little Mary Quant handbag, experimenting with roles. But I was still juggling two worlds, and neither of them felt like home. I returned to the north of England when I could but, ironically, felt less and less at home. And back in London I felt more and more isolated. During that second year of living alone in London and teaching at the grammar school, I began to feel I had to get out. Perhaps there was some other place where I could be happy.

A brave move

Finally I made a spectacular move. I read in the Times Educational Supplement that teachers were needed in post-colonial countries. I really hadn?t a clue what I was doing, and it never occurred to me to ask for advice. I can only surmise that I had become used to fending for myself.

In going to Kenya for two years, I took on an experience others thought adventurous, even dangerous. Auntie-Louie-next-door said to Mum: ?Your Mary is so brave, going off to Africa on her own.? This thought had never occurred to me. To my mind, staying in London and sorting out my sense of isolation in my own country would take far more guts.

My posting was at Machakos Girls? School, an African boarding school in Machakos, a small African township and home to the Kamba tribe. It was in an arid area only 40 miles from Nairobi, at the end of a 10-mile, red clay turn-off from the main Nairobi/Mombasa highway.

It was here that I met the young Californian who would, eventually, become my husband. Americans suited me well, more so, it seemed, than most of the British I met in Kenya; perhaps I was still in flight from them. It was here, I believe, in this breathtakingly beautiful but alien land, that I first fully experienced the liberating feeling of belonging, in small communities, African and American, communities that allowed me to be myself: that did not expect of me something I could not give.

Happy to be different

After two years? exile from my homeland I returned to England and attempted to acquire an American visa. Meanwhile, probably just to pass the time but perhaps curious to see what would happen ? what would I do if they offered me a job? ? I applied for a position in Oxford teaching English as a second language. And I probably stood a good chance of getting it. Once inside the interview, however, that whole sense of suffocation I had experienced in my London teaching job returned to overwhelm me. The four elderly male academics sitting behind the table asking me questions seemed to smother me. I felt stifled, as if the room had become suddenly stuffy, and I blurted out: ?I?m thinking of going to America in a couple of months.? Once again, I would flee to the unknown rather than figure out how to deal with my recurring sense of being an outsider in my own country. Far better to be a stranger in an alien land; at least there I had an excuse.

Besides, I was intrigued by America, mostly because of its political upheavals at the time. Perhaps, without realising it, I was searching for a more radical society than the one in which I had grown up, one that would allow me to exploit my ?difference? rather than look down on me for it.

I found the seeds of my American life during my voluntary exile in East Africa. In the US, as a resident alien ? oh the contraries inherent in that phrase! ? I have cultivated my own kind of home. In America?s Pacific Northwest, in the small Oregon town of Corvallis, I spent 17 years building my own family. Next, at Oregon State University, I extended my education and honed my teaching skills in English positions in Corvallis and in the little community of Philomath High School. I loved and felt loved in return.

I have a theory that, as children, the shape of our landscape is imprinted on templates that stay in our brains for the rest of our lives. (In my case, rolling green meadows with the rounded shapes of oak, beech or sycamore, and a dwelling of some sort tucked between hedges or walls.) If we have been absent from those shapes for a while, no matter how satisfying and beautiful a new environment might be, on our return to our original landscapes, there is a click ? I swear it?s almost audible ? as the shapes and templates interlock once again. The person feels home again and whole. I miss the click. I miss other things in England too: the BBC, the stimulation of London life, the theatre, a cricket match, beer in a pub, family, and the land itself.

A postscript

I did return to England this summer, for a two-month visit, and had a sense of reconnecting with something deep inside me. I was renting a house in Stratford-upon-Avon, right across the street from Holy Trinity Church. The Sunday morning church bells were insistent, and ? even though these days I am no churchgoer ? as a Shakespeare scholar, how could I not attend matins at his place of burial? When we began singing the first hymn, tears filled my eyes. I felt self-conscious about my continuing sobbing and also very surprised at my reaction. I had not realised the power of those old hymns with which I had grown up, whose words I still knew by heart. I had not realised how much I missed this Church of England ritual. I felt like I was home.


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