The others thought she was a silly old fool but I found her fascinating. From the day our new drama teacher arrived at our convent school, escorted by her Personal Secretary I was gripped. She was the welcome distraction I needed, an elderly theatrical complete with the most unnatural bright red wig topped by a gaudy mauve mohair hat which she never removed. She flung her arms around wildly as she expressed herself using her richly trained voice. No other teacher had held my attention in this way before.
Her round gold-framed glasses sat on the end of her nose so that her bright blue eyes could stare over the top at us girls. It was when her eyes made contact with mine I felt something was different. We had connected. Miss Compton’s presence was a sharp contrast to the dinginess of our ailing convent school and the maids in black who taught us. Our lay teachers were all old ‘has-beens’. The art teacher was titled; the sports teacher had once run in the Olympics many moons ago. The background of these teachers certainly impressed prospective parents and of course they came cheap. The truth being that our convent was struggling to survive financially.
We girls kept up the charade of prosperity as we traveled to and from school in our frightfully posh uniforms. We were the elite to all appearances. Once inside the convent walls we existed uninspired, using pre-war text books with pages missing, helping the aged ‘has-beens’ to find things they had mislaid and of course much of the time was spent in Prayer, Mass and Benediction.
I was fourteen with so much bursting inside me and without anyone to inspire me. I needed a Mentor and here she was in the form of Miss Viola Compton, complete with her Personal Secretary. I liked that touch. I found myself hanging around after lessons, risking the threat of excommunication by skipping prayers. Although on reflection maybe the prayers might have served me better than letting Miss Compton fill my impressionable head with ideas of becoming an actress, maybe, even a famous one at that.
She told me that her brother was Sir Compton Mackenzie and her sister the film star Fay Compton. I, of course, had never heard of either of them at the time. But, the fact that her brother was a ‘Sir’ and her sister a famous movie star was far more glamorous to me than learning about The Pope! As soon as I learned that Miss Compton had voiced coached Alec Guinness who I had heard of, I knew that this teacher was an answer to a prayer!
When it came to a performance for parent’s day to be held in the School grounds, Miss Compton selected a piece from Longfellow’s “Hiawatha”. I was to be Gitche Manito, the Indian God, and the rest of the class was told it could be the Indian Nation. This wonderful old lady, who the other girls played up on the grounds that she was batty, was going to make me a star. Well, on parent’s day anyway. She told me that I, the Indian God, would appear before the Indian Nation through a cloud of smoke high up in the big fir tree by the School lily pond. As we talked about my ‘Big Day’ the Private Secretary scribbled down Miss Compton’s instructions furiously which, naturally, made me feel terribly important.
I did question as to how I would get up into the tree, after all the tree towered well above the School roof. She said I wasn’t to worry about that, she would have a platform built and there would, of course, be a ladder. (Health and Safety hadn’t been invented then!)
The burning desire to appear as Gitche Manito before the India Nation was so great; I knew I would have to overcome my fear of heights. Also I could not let this wonderful magical person down. I would pray for help to overcome my fear, that’s what I would do; after all praying was one thing we had learned at the convent. At this point Miss Compton had brought about a sudden realization in me; desire and faith went hand in hand. Well it was going to from then on.
I asked my Mentor what I should wear on the big day. She thrust her wrinkled hand towards her Private Secretary saying that Miss Thingamajig would arrange it all. I have to say I did notice that Miss Thingamajig was beginning to look extremely anxious, especially when Miss Compton announced that I Gitche Manito would be wearing a fine buckskin outfit and a magnificent white-feathered chieftain’s headdress. The thought of it, me!
Come the great day I wasn’t to worry about a thing. I didn’t. After all, Miss Viola Compton sister of Sir Compton Mackenzie and Fay Compton movie star. Voice coach to Alec Guinness was the magic ingredient in all this and, of course, there was Miss Thingamejig. I did think it strange that Miss Compton could never remember her own Private Secretary’s name. There was no platform in the huge fir tree. There was no magnificent chieftain’s headdress.
On the great day Miss Compton arrived very late and was ushered to a lectern whereby the Indian Nation hurriedly formed in front of her. The parent’s had waited patiently. She tapped a baton held in a white-gloved hand against the lectern. (Something we had never experienced before.) The Indian Nation began to chant “By the shores of Gitche Gumee……….”
The others were right. Miss Compton was batty. I didn’t feel anger but pity. The poor old girl was quite batty. She was another of the convent’s ‘has-beens.’
I still had time; I had to save face for both her and for me. I rushed up to the attic in the old School House to the costume baskets. Gitche Manito appeared to the Indian Nation breathless from behind a holly bush wearing a pair of candy striped pajamas and a pigeon feather hastily poked in his hair! For both our sake I gave everything to my performance ignoring the giggles coming from my classmates. For one brief moment I became Gitche Manito God to the Indian Nation. I was the bravest warrior of all, I had to be.
Some did say that the applause from the parents could be heard over in the tennis courts, where others were enjoying a display of formation marching I looked across at the sad old theatrical now leaning on the lectern with the sheer exhaustion of it all. The ever loyal Miss Thingamajig fussing over her.
From under the bright red wig, topped by the bright mauve mohair hat I thought I saw the glint of a grateful twinkle in that dear lady’s eye. Viola Compton had indeed been my Mentor!
Ann Sutherland 2005