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Miss Alexander

French and Philosophy

Janet (de Cramer) Rider 1961 - 68

I was was fortunate enough to meet with Alex many years after I'd left Lewes and she told me something about her life and ideas on teaching. Anita thought it would be nice to share this with other Old Girls as a memoir and tribute to Alex.

Alex was born in 1912. She never knew her father, although she understood he had been a journalist (perhaps she inherited some of her own linguistic talent from him). She was an only child, brought up by her mother who earned her living as a dressmaker. An unmarried aunt who worked in the Civil Service also helped out. Both these independent ladies "drummed it into her" that she must one day earn her own living.


She attended Godolphin & Latymer School where she was strongly impressed by the Headmistress (whom she described as "strong," "inspiring" and "formidable"). The Head had an ethos of "free discipline", expecting the girls to behave as a matter of honour and loyalty to the school - a policy which Alex considered had been effective amongst her peers. However, she did remember the girls hitching up their school skirts in order to be fashionable, thinking that their long black stockings made them "decent." (Sexually, she said, they were very innocent.)


Alex was a bright girl who particularly enjoyed French and, encouraged by her aunt, she went on to Oxford University to read Modern Languages. Amongst her generation, this was, of course, exceptional, especially for girls. Even at her school, most girls took up non-graduate work, such as secretarial, nursing or the Civil Service. There was, she said, "very little choice for women." She herself chose teaching because she had admired many of her own teachers and wanted to emulate them. She had wondered briefly about marriage and thought it might be "quite fun" but she was very focused on her career, wanted to achieve a lot professionally and, at that time, marriage would have meant leaving.


Alex taught in a variety of schools - private, grammar and, finally, comprehensive. In essence, though, the kind of teaching she preferred was the kind she herself had enjoyed so much. She liked teaching academically oriented pupils and thought a single sex environment was more effective because less distracting - although she didn't think a totally female environment was good for one and valued male friends and family. She believed strongly in discipline (because you couldn't teach without it) but her aim was to encourage self-discipline, as her own Headteacher had done. She did not, however, think highly academic courses were a majority game - most pupils, she believed, would be better served by good technical education.

Preparation for life

Alex believed in giving her pupils a good foundation of knowledge. However, she aimed beyond that. She wanted to give them what she described as "an approach to life - how to deal with people, how to make good use of one's surroundings, how to respect one's surroundings." I remember in one of our French A level classes her lamenting that we were all "little cabbages" and then devising a programme of French philosophy to broaden our minds. She almost certainly intended to provoke some kind of response and I was, at the time, rather upset at being described as "a cabbage" !

To make matters worse, the books she recommended were difficult (especially in French - most of us cheated and bought English translations)! But they did indeed deal with "approaches to life" which, at 16, I was feeling a need for (often expressed as some curious and cringeworthy opinions!). Despite the difficulties, though, the sense that I could mentally "time travel" with people from other times and places who could offer new ways of looking at life and fresh pointers was hugely exciting. I have forgotten many of the specifics of the A level course, but the excitement has stayed with me - a legacy which I have greatly appreciated.
Thank you, Alex.