Thursday, 14 January 2016

Ida Gaskin, 1919-2016

There will be many tributes paid to Ida Gaskin, and many people who knew her much better than I did and for longer, but this is mine.

I was only at New Plymouth Girls’ High School for two years, but I was lucky enough to have Mrs Gaskin (it took me a long time to stop calling her that) as my English teacher for both of those years. She was one of a remarkable group of teachers, including Harry Brown for music, Doc Allen for Latin and Doc and Mrs Kardos for French and German.

Despite being so shy that I didn’t utter a single word in her class for the whole of that time, except when parts were handed out for play readings or when we had to take part in the speech competition, their impact on my life has been so significant that I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have missed out on them.

There was no “dumbing down” in her classes, and high expectations. She could glower very effectively if people acted up. We studied lots of Shakespeare, of course (Richard III, Macbeth, Henry IV Part 1), read lots of novels - Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, The tale of two cities, Vanity Fair - and also poets like John Donne, Wilfred Owen and T S Eliot. There were no detailed criteria or marking schedules for assignments; one (perhaps on Vanity Fair) simply required ten essays, on Plot, Theme, Setting, Characters and so on. She was a hard marker; at the start of 5th form, she told us that she’d only twice given a mark above 16/20 for an essay. Winning a 17/20 out of her was one of my most prized achievements ever. 

Mrs Gaskin had a collection of sayings that anyone taught by her would remember. “Bother the Bell” was one, uttered in exasperation when the bell went before she had finished the lesson. “It’s good for your immortal souls” was another, in response to any query about what “use” some piece of work or reading was. She was shocked that so few of us took Latin and would call on her “Latin scholars” for help with unfamiliar vocabulary or tricky grammatical points – “those of you who do Latin will know all about this” - but was appalled that none of us could define the word “soporific” (“don’t you know your Beatrix Potter??”) “Look it up!” was a frequent cry, if we didn’t know something, and “In your spare time!” was the answer to any complaints about being too busy.

She has also left me with an avoidable twinge of guilt whenever I catch myself using the word “quote” as a noun; she always insisted the proper term was “quotation”. No-one else seems to know this, and it often sounds a little pedantic, but the guilt remains. (Funnily enough, this came up at the funeral when I heard Maryan Street refer to the "quotation" used in the service, and she said she felt exactly the same.)

The school plays that Ida produced were amazing. In the two years that I was there, she did The Tempest (which I can’t remember so well) and The crucible, which was astonishingly powerful. Afterwards, when flowers were being presented, she said about her cast, "I asked them to do the impossible and they have done it".

I know that, because I kept a diary back then. One entry records how “Mrs Gaskin always asks people 'why?' 'Do you like it  - why?'  Beth didn’t like a poem but couldn't explain why, so finally she said, 'all right, I like it, then!'"

At the end of 6th form  (now Year 12), when I was leaving NPGHS, a friend and I asked Mrs Gaskin for a reading list. There was no Young Adult genre back then, and no clear path to follow in moving from childhood to adult reading; often it involved science fiction, or the classics. Mrs Gaskin came up with her list and I worked though her suggestions over the next few years: Jane Austen (whom she always called “Miss Austen”), Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, George Eliot and many more. It marked the start of my “proper” grown-up reading.

After a long time, I reconnected with Mrs Gaskin (“no really, you must call me Ida now!”) at the annual Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival national finals in Wellington, and again at her 90thbirthday party. It’s hard to sum up what she taught me but it was to do with the importance of words, of reading and of passion, and the value of learning, aiming for excellence and not settling for anything less.

So to her funeral, in New Plymouth on Thursday 14 January. Not surprisingly, Shakespeare and all things Welsh, including music, featured strongly. Ida’s casket was draped with a Welsh flag and topped with a touching miniature replica of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre. A small troupe of children carried Welsh flags, one little girl wearing a Welsh costume made by Ida sixty years ago. Psalm 121 was read out with the first few verses in Welsh, “the language of heaven”. Hymns and readings were all as chosen by Ida, who set out instructions for her service in her usual clear and uncompromising manner. Most of these were followed, although the minister admitted they had to “gently adapt” her request to use the 1662 Anglican liturgy.

The eulogy by Ida’s son David was based on the autobiography she wrote while in the hospice. He talked about her childhood growing up in Wales, her schooling – when she excelled academically but wasn’t at all interested in physical education (“why would you bother running around when you could be reading a book?”), her winning one of only 30 university scholarships in Wales (and topping the exam in English), her degree at Kings College London and teaching for six years through the war (all female graduates had to go teaching because of the lack of male teachers in war time) and how she came to New Zealand and then to New Plymouth.

How much she loved teaching, but how hard she worked, diving into hours of marking each night after the children were in bed. Her Mastermind win of 1983: the organisers had to persuade her to scale back her original proposal (“The Complete Works of Shakespeare”) to “The Plays of Shakespeare”, at which she was still unbeatable, thanks also to her vast general knowledge (although she didn’t know the name of the All Blacks captain). Her many other roles such as PPTA President and WEA lecturer, her standing as a Labour Party candidate, her “undiluted socialism” and firm convictions that everyone should have access to free education and health care.

Andrew Little paid a tribute on behalf of the Labour Party, the Taranaki male choir sang, there was a poignant Robert Louis Stevenson poem, "To S R Crockett", and Maryan Street (NPGHS head girl 1972) read Ida’s chosen excerpt from "Cymbeline". Then the casket was carried out to the Welsh national anthem.

Afterwards a call went out for an Old Girls photo. We lined up for a series of photos on an assortment of phones and camera, and the photographer called “say Shakespeare”. Someone else murmured, "your immortal souls!” and there was a ripple of amused recognition.

Teachers often have no idea how much of an impact they had, or how much they mattered or made a difference. There are many wonderful teachers. But Ida was special and rare. She made a difference in so many ways. For me, she encouraged me to see myself as a writer, to enter writing competitions, to treasure words. She maintained her wit and fierce intelligence to the end. It's very hard to believe she is gone. 

Fear no more the heat o' th' sun
    Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
    Home art gone and ta'en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o' th' great;
    Thou art past the tyrant's stroke.
Care no more to clothe and eat;
    To thee the reed is as the oak.
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning flash,
    Nor th' all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Fear no slander, censure rash;
    Thou hast finished joy and moan.
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee and come to dust.

No exorciser harm thee,
Nor no witchcraft charm thee.
Ghost unlaid forbear thee;
Nothing ill come near thee.
Quiet consummation have,
And renowned be thy grave.
(Cymbeline, Act IV Scene II; written by Shakespeare in 1608 or 1609)

"I am interested in politics because I am interested in people." - Ida Gaskin.
Nic Gibson

Shakespeare Mastermind Ida Gaskin dies, aged 96 (Taranaki daily news, 8 January 2016)

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