There’s a fine line between ‘delightfully whimsical’ and ‘crazy cat lady.’ I am trying not to overstep this line, although it’s hard when I have a cat that goes on regular expeditions to bring me pilgrim offerings of dead frangipani leaves. I don’t know where she gets these leaves from or why she thinks they’re the very thing for me, but it’s an endearing habit nonetheless and I work hard not to get too gushy about it with others.
When I started my most recent teaching job back in January, all of the new staff were asked to get up, introduce themselves and say what they enjoyed most about teaching. There seemed to be an assumption operating that I wasn’t sure applied to me. Did I enjoy anything about teaching? I certainly enjoyed the holidays, but sensed this was probably not the type of answer they were looking for.
There were a lot of new teachers, maybe twelve or thirteen, and most of them spoke before I did. Some had been teaching for decades, others were recent graduates; some had always taught in the private system while others had been toughing it out at public schools or had really earned their stripes in London. They all beamed like Southern preachers. And they all said essentially the same thing: they loved their subject and were champing at the bit to get into the classroom and engage in some exciting new pedagogy and – darnnit – just really get to know the kids (this was a Catholic school so you didn’t swear.) They seemed really committed (a pity the asylums weren’t able to keep them all.)
I wasn’t quite sure what to say when it came my turn. I loved English of course, which was my main teaching subject, but I didn’t love Catholic Studies, which I was also expected to teach (God knows why. I wasn’t a Catholic and the last time I taught this subject, half of the class failed their assessments after nominating Islam as the official religion of Israel. This was after we’d spent one term studying ‘Life in the Homeland of Jesus.’) I couldn’t honestly say that I was eager to get back into the classroom and be surrounded by students either – had you offered me a choice between that and sipping white wine on a beach in the Bahamas I’d probably have chosen the latter. If you offered me a choice between that and teaching needlework to inmates in a maximum-security men’s prison, I’d still probably choose the latter.
What I ended up saying was my name and the school I’d taught at most recently. Then, trying to drum up the necessary evangelical fervour, I said that I’d read some really terrific books over the summer and was looking forward to sharing them with the students (I actually doubted most of them would be able to read.) I also said – and this turned out to be a masterstroke – that I was a bit preoccupied as I’d got a cat, Seraphina Nightingale, a few days ago and she hadn’t yet come out from behind the couch. I wrinkled my forehead and twisted my mouth into a concerned moue to suggest an endearing devotion to my little animal companion. Everyone laughed warmly and cooed at her pretty, tinkly little name and I was immediately established as the delightfully kooky, cat loving new-teacher whom the girls were bound to adore. Nobody queried the fact that I hadn’t professed any actual enthusiasm for teaching.
For the rest of the term, people greeted me by asking about the cat and whether she’d yet come out from behind the couch (they were asking this even in weeks 9 and 10, by which stage it would have been a bit of a concern if she hadn’t.) They asked me how old she was. What she ate. Whether she enjoyed chasing small plastic balls with bells inside them. They remained undeterred by my single syllable responses. Other teachers came up to me at my desk at lunch and showed me framed photographs of their beloved kitties. When I sought refuge at a table at the lunchroom, the interesting, adult-sounding conversation about last night’s episode of ‘Master Chef’ or the latest church scandal would cease and talk would turn to cats instead. At faculty meetings I attended, the Hail Mary and school prayer was invariably followed by formal enquiries about Seraphina Nightingale. Even the canteen lady remembered her name but frequently forgot mine. I discovered that my new role as resident cat enthusiast was quite draining. There’s only so much you can say about a cat. I felt a fraud, like I was there under false pretences. I’m actually more of a dog person.
I resigned after a term, although my reasons were not particularly feline-related or whimsical. The girls didn’t adore me, contrary to what everyone had predicted. They in fact hated me almost instantly. And, although it goes against all recommended teacher-to-student interactions, I swiftly came to hate them back. I brought in a class plant in the second week, an alocasia with two blue-green, shield-shaped leaves and a noble sort of bearing. We named it together, FiFi (their suggestion), and everyone wrote their name on her pot and promised to water her on their rostered day. The next day I found Fifi’s leaves scarred with small black-rimmed holes that looked like they’d been made with cigarettes. I lasted eight weeks after that, but was miserable for all of them. Perhaps things would have gone differently if I’d told them anecdotes about my cat on the first day.
Anyway, I write all this now because I started a new job on Monday. I’m in an office, spending most of the day sitting in front of a computer. I haven’t worked in an office for years. On the first day I was introduced to nearly everyone in the company – probably around 60 people in all – and I was very careful not to mention to any of them that I had a cat. I did not put a picture of Seraphina on my desk nor did I alter my screensaver to show her image. I did not plaster my walls with postcard reproductions of ‘Le Chat Noir’ and cat-related cartoons. I did, however, bring in an alocasia in a turquoise pot. Fingers crossed for this time.