Tomorrow, our school is shut. In an education version of a state funeral, Castle Lower has come to a rare standstill. No smells of hot dinners cooking swirling across the playground, no tag, no playing on the tyres, no assembly, and no nursery. Tomorrow is the funeral of Mrs Kumar, and no one is going to school.
Mrs Kumar was, for 26 years, the heart of the school, which sounds like a saccharine, clichéd kind of thing to say, except that it is completely true. Mrs Kumar was usually the first person you met when you came to sign your tiny, wriggly three year old up for nursery – often their first step into the big wide world of school. She was kind, and gentle and warm – it was all ‘my darlings! look at YOU! ‘ This is exactly what any parent facing the prospect of handing their little bundle of joy and snot over to school wants – resentfully or joyfully – if you’re going to hand them over, then what could be better than to put them in the hands of a lady who was, clearly, the world’s best mum.
But the thing about Mrs Kumar was that she was FUN. She was forever laughing, a proper, wicked laugh that made you think of secrets and funny stories shared over a bottle of wine at the pub. She smiled, she hugged the kids all the time, and she was genuinely excited about all of the moments of tiny ecstasy that go along with children that age. ‘You zipped your coat up all by YOURSELF! Isn’t that BRILLIANT!’ And it was just genuine, she wasn’t playing along. Who would, with 60 odd kids trooping through the nursery over a day? If you’re not enthralled by the tiny victories of three and four year olds, you wouldn’t work with them day in, day out for 26 years. It would be like an awful punishment.
Mrs Kumar was no Miss Honey from Matilda – she was kind and soft and endlessly patient, but she had none of that insipid niceness or patronising tone that you might associate with lovely nursery school teachers. Mrs Kumar was crazy about the kids she looked after – and she always seemed as if she was having a total blast at work. The nursery staff were frequently roaring with laughter; the kids giggling along. I remember seeing her at the school quiz night, in absolute hysterics most of the evening. She didn’t so much light up the room as set fire to the whole bloody place.
One of my favourite memories of Mrs Kumar is of Polly’s sports day at nursery, when Mrs Kumar and her great friend and colleague Mrs Fensome had decided to get in on the fun. None of this ‘it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part’ thing, they had t-shirts (pink, obviously – Mrs Fensome loves chocolate, and Mrs Kumar loves pink, that’s what the children tell me, like it’s the absolute truth) made with TEAM FENSOME and TEAM KUMAR on. They cheered their teams of enthusiastic prechoolers on whilst bellowing at each other that there was cheating on the opposite side, and getting the kids and parents to yell their teams on to victory. Not in a scary, competitive way, just so you knew that they were having a brilliant time, and that this was not just another sports day; this was important.
Mrs Kumar was lovely to each of my children, all of whom joined her nursery class – one bright as a button and keen, one too terrified to speak to her for two terms, and one diva who asked Mrs Kumar to show her how to do a side ponytail. She was lovely to all three of them, sensing that they each needed a different side of her and giving them that plus a broad smile or a quick cuddle as they turned up each day in various states of urchin-ness. I know she did this for so many children – my friends’ children, and also for my sister, who was one of the first years of nursery at Castle, and who remembers Mrs Kumar as a young nursery teacher, lovely as ever. Everyone has a story of how Mrs Kumar made the nursery years special, or fun, or just how she told them not to worry – she’d seen a million worse tantrums/leg bruises/children incapable of speaking at three. It’s just totally normal, she’d say. Nothing to worry about. God how we all need to hear that sometimes.
She always made the effort to get to know kids – for her, it wasn’t about the progress, the school, or the parents, it was always about the child. Your child. Every child. In the cut-throat world of modern education, where stats and SATS scores are so often confused with the point, teachers like Mrs Kumar are a rare and precious reminder of the actual point of primary education: to nurture and inspire children, to make them feel like they belong.
A day off school midweek is an often-dreamt-of treat, but not tomorrow. Tomorrow we’ll all feel like we’ve lost a little something, that school will go on, but never quite be the same.
The last time I saw Mrs Kumar was almost exactly a year ago at the Riverside Grill, out to a birthday tea with her family to celebrate her son’s birthday. She came over to say hi, and to tell the children that they were all getting so tall, and that they looked as happy as ever. She looked well, and told us how she couldn’t believe that her children were getting so grown up too. We laughed about how children you once carried about all day grew to be taller than you ‘and better at computers’ – she added. We were talking in that way that parents do, all the time, being both fascinated and horrified; watching life pass in your childrens’ growing up. She grinned and she waved and she was gone – back to have her dinner with her kids and her husband. We waved and we didn’t know that would be the last time. I guess I would have said thank you, if I had known.
Thank you for being Mrs Kumar. Wise and kind and vivacious: the best fun you ever had in nursery school.