The importance of school; Lessons from teachers The importance of school

Was school really that important at the time?

[jp] The British take their schooling very seriously and wear it like a badge of membership their whole life, because schooling is completely intertwined with social station in British society. For example, in "The Daily Mail Yearbook for 1954" [note: One of the books I am using for background info. jp], pp. 196-7 lists "Leading Headmasters," the headmasters of the 'leading' Public (i.e. private) Schools. There they are, for all to see, to learn about and to know. Note that The Daily Mail Yearbook would not have been bought by people attending those schools. The publication was designed for consumption by the masses. (This focus on the cultural importance of school hasn't changed much; recently [Jul. '95] there was a press report which made it all the way to San Francisco papers informing the world that one of the Prince and Princess of Wales' sons had been admitted to Eton, a first occurrence for the House of Windsor. jp)

The traditions in Christchurch, New Zealand were rooted in the same English sensibilities, especially with regard to the value of education and its social significance. Indeed, many of the power-elite in Christchurch in 1954 were English or were of English stock, and were easily identified whenever they opened their mouths to speak (see

Social traditions in New Zealand were changing in the 50s, and the similarities and differences between New Zealand and Britain and the different social trends make for fascinating study. Regardless, it is worth taking a close look at schooling in "Heavenly Creatures."

How important was school in Pauline and Juliet's lives?

[jp] At the girls' age in 1952, their whole day-to-day life would have revolved around school, and there is plenty of evidence in "Heavenly Creatures" to support this. In fact, the time line of real-life events shows an uncanny correlation between critical events and the school calendar (see 7.3).

The girls are shown wearing their school uniforms throughout much of the film, and school uniforms are used symbolically in many ways in "Heavenly Creatures." See below and

Despite the fact that they rebelled against it, school was very much the defining experience for the girls at that time in their lives. It concentrated within its four walls everything about the society in which they lived, and especially all of the values and yardsticks used to define the worth of people in that society. And it was a competitive environment.

To Pauline, especially, school had been the only outlet for her intellect and for her creativity, until Juliet arrived. The importance of the school events in the first half of this story probably can't be overestimated. Lessons from teachers

What do we learn about Miss Stewart?

[jp,ap,mc] The Headmistress, or "Old Stew," as Pauline referred to her, was a formidable woman and a traditional disciplinarian. We see her standing at the school entrance checking the arrival of each pupil in the opening credits; enforcing attendance was one of her important duties [mc] and one she took seriously.

In the assembly, she commands the students to "Sit-tuh!" and does so again when she intrudes into Miss Waller's French class. We get the impression Miss Stewart liked to run a tight ship. Later, Honora Rieper received a letter from Miss Stewart voicing concern over Pauline's performance at school, so Miss Stewart also took a personal interest in the progress of her pupils.

Although she was feared and respected by her students [note: Confirmed. ap,mc], Miss Stewart would have also been an important role model of sorts for the girls. She was obviously a spinster, and the school was obviously her whole life. The girls would have learned from Miss Stewart that it was possible for a woman to be a successful and highly-regarded professional and that a woman's fulfillment and happiness in life wasn't necessarily tied to finding a man and producing babies. Very progressive and subversive... I have no idea if Miss Stewart would have approved of the message, but there you go. Given the emphasis at CGHS on academics, I rather suspect she would have approved. [jp]

What do we learn from Miss Waller's comments?

[jp] "I will not have girls talking out of turn in my class!"

"It is customary for a student to stand when addressing a teacher."

Discipline and a traditional code of values and conduct were valued highly.

What do we learn from Mrs Collins' comments?

[jp] "That's very clever, Juliet. But when I set you a topic, I expect you to follow it. Throw that away and start again."

Even the Arts required discipline.

What do we learn from Mrs Stevens' comments?

[jp,lfr,sb] Mrs Stevens shouted at Juliet: "I suppose you think it witty and clever to mock the Royal Family, to poke fun at the Queen of the Empire with this rubbish!...A girl like you should be setting an example!"

This community took things like the Royal Family very seriously indeed.

There is an additional dynamic, however. This incident took place on May 11, 1953, according to "Heavenly Creatures." King George VI had died on February 6, 1952 and, since that time, the Coronation ceremonies of his successor, Elizabeth II, had been in the planning. The Coronation itself was a huge spectacle and it was followed by ceremonies and celebrations all over the world and especially all around the British Commonwealth (or, what used to be "The Empire")--basically, this was to be a bash people would talk about for decades to come. The Coronation was scheduled for June 2, scant weeks away, so Royal-mania would have been at an absolute fever pitch in the British-mad Commonwealth community of Christchurch.

And, in real life, there was a Royal Tour of Australasia which passed through Christchurch (be still my heart!) around Christmas, 1953. Royal-mania was to become Royal-frenzy in late 1953, although the Royal Tour was not featured in the North American release of the film. [jp]

What do we learn from the gym teacher?

[jp] And her regimental calisthenics? Hmmm...

Were the teachers really that strict in real life?

[maw] In spite of the CGHS teachers being pretty strict, dishing out lots of detentions etc, they could still be quite human and caring if there was a real reason. Help was given to families where there was an illness. Allowances were made or provisions made for girls from really poor families.
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