Of all the countless the people you meet during the course of your lifetime, if you are fortunate, there will be at least one you’ll never ever forget because of the positive influence they had on your life. For me that very special person was the late Mrs Margaret Alexander my former English teacher at Earnock Secondary School.
Earnock opened on the 26th August, 1957 and I was among the first intake of pupils. The teaching staff were excellent but human nature being what it is we all have favourites and Mrs Alexander and science teacher Jimmy Maxwell were both right at the top of my best teachers list. However, you can’t put an old head on young shoulders and being headstrong my only ambition was to leave school and get a job. I certainly put little thought into what I would do and how it would affect my life.
At fifteen I was off as soon as I could and went straight into the into the world of a Glasgow basement typing pool and what a culture shock that was. The two unhappy looking female owners looked and dressed like something from the turn of the century. They wore grey cardigans and long black ankle length dresses and their faces suggested that a substantial meal would do them both the world of good. The working conditions were like something out of a Dickens novel. I stuck it for four months then moved on to a Glasgow construction company and you couldn’t have made up the scenario in this office if you tried. It was whispered that the managing director had a penchant for the “ladies” and and he used the building to entertain them in the evening when his staff had gone. There was also a beautifully dressed, very distinguished looking but homeless chartered accountant sleeping in one of the offices. He was not long out of jail for embezzlement.
Office jobs were plentiful and I moved on to a company supplying motor car spares to garages. My weekly wage was £2 10/- (£2 50p) for working nine to six Monday to Friday and a half day Saturday. With train fares and deductions there was not a lot left. I enjoyed working there but moved on after about eighteen months and followed the “big money” straight through the gates of Philips factory and into the lamp section. We sat at a capping wheel making stop and tail lamps for cars and when I got my first wage I felt like a millionaire. In less than a year I was earning £7 10/- a week if I worked a Saturday shift and my widowed mother finally had a decent money coming into the house. She gave me 10/- (50 pence) pocket money and bought my clothes. We even went on holiday to Belgium and she just loved it.
I was married when I was twenty and left Philips after the birth of the eldest of my four children. Money was really scarce and as soon as they were all off to school I started cleaning shops and offices. Some years later the free weekly paper The Lanarkshire World came on the scene and with my youngest daughter delivered 1,400 papers every week for the magnificent sum of one penny a paper which gave us £14. The money went a long way and so did our feet; from Swiscott to Hamilton Central and we delivered them for quite a substantial number of years. I was also cleaning an office at the Peacock Cross starting at 5 am and when I was finished there I would run down to Marks and Spencers where the conditions were quite good and I enjoyed it as much as I could ever enjoy a cleaning job, for I will put my hands up and plead guilty to never ever being over fond of housework.
The turning point for me came right out of the blue when I met Mrs Alexander in Duke Street, Hamilton and twenty three years after I had left school she gave me the third degree as to where my life was going. She was anything but amused with what I told her and went straight into lecture mode. “You wasted a good brain, get to night school and sit your O Grades and Highers.” I thought she was winding me up but she was deadly serious and gave me food for thought and a lot of good advice. When I was seventeen I had seriously considered nursing, but at that time you had to live in the nurses home and that was out of the question with my father not a year dead and my mother really struggling to come to terms with his loss. Taking Mrs Alexander’s advice, I paid a visit to Brandon Street Job Centre to find out what qualifications I would require to be accepted as a student nurse and the answer left me reeling. Five O Grades and two Highers! Not a chance! The only writing I had done in the previous sixteen years was to sign my family allowance book.
Deep down I knew that it was now or never and so at the age of thirty eight I enrolled for night school classes at Hamilton’s Bell College and opted for O Grade English starting in September. Eight months later I was sitting in a large assembly hall filled with students and we were listening to the adjudicator giving out instructions for the exam. I was was scared out of my wits and when it was over I swore I would never put myself through that amount of stress again.
On the day the results were due out I was pacing the floor at the crack of dawn and popping outside every five minutes to look for the postman. When I finally spotted him, I was up the street like a shot to get my results. He must have thought I was barking mad and at that particular moment I would have fully agreed with him, however he handed over my envelope. By this time my hands were shaking so much I could barely open it and when I succeeded I found to my absolute disbelief I had obtained a B grade. That was when the penny finally dropped and with it came the realisation that I had taken what for me was a gigantic first step and it had paid off. There was no way I was giving up a second chance to have a good education, a career and freedom.
The following year I sat Higher English and Mrs Alexander was in Marks and Spencers on the day the results came in. She spotted me, grabbed my arm and said “how did you get on?” When I told her that I got another B grade she danced me around the racks of blouses and skirts saying “I knew you could do it” and I knew that I could never have done it without her encouragement and told her so. Two down and five to go. The next year I passed my O grade Biology.
With my confidence increasing and having almost half the required qualifications, my legs were then kicked from below me when Bell College discontinued the night school classes. I was devastated! Two years later I heard that adults could now attend day school with the children and so I found myself sharing classrooms with fifteen year old pupils at Holy Cross High School. Originally I intended to go to Hamilton Grammar because it was nearer to both my home and Marks and Spencers. However, my children were not at all amused about the idea of their mother joining their classes and on hindsight I don’t blame them so I was off to Holy Cross and it was a really good move. I would finish work, run like a greyhound down to Muir Street and arrive just in time for the bell ringing. In the two years I spent there I was the only adult in the four classes I attended and both children and staff were excellent. I still occasionally bump into one of the girls who was in my Higher Biology class and we have a wee blether. She is now in her early forties; how fast time flies away! It only seems like a few years ago since we sat in class together. I met her recently and she told me that she had just got a provisional acceptance for university and I am absolutely delighted for her. She is planning on becoming a teacher and I have no doubts that she will succeed.
I obtained the required 5 O Grades and 2 Highers and at the age of forty four I applied to train as a Registered General Nurse at Hairmyres Hospital. My interview was held in the Lanarkshire College of Nursing and Midwifery at Monklands Hospital and I was a nervous wreck. After countless probing questions from the three senior nurses interviewing me, the Sister Tutor looked me up and down and speaking slowly and deliberately said, “I cannot possibly give you an answer today as to whither or not you will be accepted as a student nurse, you will be notified by post in due course”. I felt my stomach hitting the floor! My O Grade and Higher certificates were lying on her desk and with both hands she slowly spread them out like a fan, looked directly at me, smiled and said, “what I can tell you is that you ought to be proud of yourself. I would suggest that you buy a pair of white lacing shoes” and I knew that I had been accepted.
My three years as a student nurse were divided between the Lanarkshire College of Nursing and Midwifery for theory and the practical experience was mostly at Hairmyres Hospital but with placements at Bellshill Maternity Hospital, Hartwood Hospital and the district nursing services. I enjoyed it immensely and graduated as a Registered General Nurse. At that time there were no permanent nursing posts available and for almost a year I got a lot of first class experience working as a bank nurse mostly in the Intensive Care Unit where I had already spent three months as part of my student nurse training. The patients in this unit needed one to one care and I vividly remember one particular night when my patient was a critically ill ventilated man in acute renal failure and on haemofiltration. He was connected to so many infusion pumps and other types of equipment it reminded me of a scene from the Starship Enterprise. Looking around the unit I could scarcely believe how my life had changed and all because of a chance meeting in Duke Street. Some weeks later, a permanent post finally came up in the Acute Medical Receiving Unit and I was offered it and enjoyed every minute I worked there.
I thank God for Mrs Alexander’s faith in me and for giving me the confidence to change my life completely. Without her input I would never have had the courage to do it. My children were also really supportive and encouraged me every step of the way. My only regret was I had waited until it was almost too late. I loved nursing and would have worked for nothing. It was the best eighteen years of my life.
The reason for this very personal narrative is to pay tribute to Mrs Margaret Alexander, a first class caring teacher whose influence on my life was incalculable. She convinced me that no matter how difficult your circumstances may be, nothing is impossible.
Life is not a dress rehearsal, it is the only one you are going to have and there are no second chances. Before you know it, the years have vanished and you are old and you don’t know when it happened. If you want something badly enough, seize the moment, give it everything you have and watch the miracle unfold. So go for it; it might just change your life and be the best move you ever made. It was for me…… thanks to Mrs Alexander.
Wilma Bolton. 10th August 2016.