Carolyn Miller’s new memoir of her time as a young woman in England and Africa, and the author now.
In a recent ArtsWatch interview, Oregon writer Caroline Miller spoke about her latest book, Getting Lost to Find Home. Miller, who has published four novels, twelve short stories and a Christmas radio play, has written an engaging memoir of her life as an educator in England and Africa.
Miller was a prominent politician in metropolitan Portland, elected to two terms on the Multnomah County Commission in the 1980s, and serving on the regional Metro council. A longtime high-school English teacher, she was also active in the labor movement, at one point leading the Portland Federation of Teachers.
But as a young graduate of Reed College in Portland, Miller followed her heart and went to England to marry Martin Brooks, an exchange student at Reed, and begin a new life together. Things did not work out exactly as planned, and Miller details her experiences in her memoir.
When Miller arrived in England in the late 1950s the country was still recovering from the destruction and deprivation of World War II. Her first teaching assignment was at the Secondary Modern School for Girls, a vocational school in Leek, England, an industrial town in Staffordshire, in the British Midlands. (Miller called it “Bleak Leek.”) Many of her students were Polish children who were refugees sent to England during World War II.
With Martin’s help, she found a flat to live in that was spartan, but functional. So began her teaching career, and her relationships with her students and colleagues. She soon learned that her degree in philosophy had not prepared her to teach math, biology, and British history. Her lack of teaching experience set Miller up for a challenging school year. As Miller writes in Getting Lost To Find Home:
“I found the two groups, English and Polish, equally unruly, but even as a stranger, I sensed a hostility between them. In truth, both sides had much in common. Life in the Midlands was hard, like tilling a clay field with a tuning fork. A mill town, Leek seemed to be dying, its way of life untouched since the Victorian days.”
Miller understood her students’ privations, she writes, due to her own past as a survivor of child abuse by her father. Eventually, she was able to transform her students’ behavior from unruly and disruptive to being respectful. Miller eloquently explains how she changed as a teacher at the school:
“A troubled child invites rejection, preferring not to wait for it. No teacher should accept that Invitation but has, instead, a duty to extend another.”
Miller decided to leave the school in Leek and take another teaching position after Martin completed his studies. When Martin earned a second award rather than a first one from his university his efforts to obtain suitable employment (e.g., running for Parliament) were diminished, causing his confidence to plummet, which significantly impacted their relationship: They did not marry.
Miller’s second teaching assignment was at the coeducational Coggeshall Secondary Modern School, in the town of Much Hadham. Miller found the town to be a mix of timbered stucco shops and cottages comprised of either thatch or cedar, and more rural than industrial Leek. As she writes:
“So quaint was the setting that had Shakespeare exited the green-grocer’s shop and tipped his cap to us, I wouldn’t have blinked.”
As a young teacher Miller was severely tested by the boys in her classes and their endless array of pranks. It was at Coggeshall that Miller met Noreen Jump, who played an important role in the next chapter of her life. Noreen’s parents had been missionaries in Nigeria. One day Noreen suggested to Miller that they apply for teaching positions in Africa. Both women were accepted, and off they went to a new adventure teaching in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
They settled in a town called Gatooma (now Kadoma) at a coeducational boarding school called Jameson. Miller provides a wonderful description of the town in Southern Rhodesia where she lived:
“By the 1960s, Gatooma boasted a population of twenty thousand people. … My first impression of the town was of a narrow line of shops, one or two stories high, a mix of stucco or wooden structures. They were anchored at one end by the town hall and tapered off into the distance at the other.”
Miller’s time in Southern Rhodesia was marked by various trips that she took to various surrounding countries. One trip that she and Noreen made was to the bay of Fish Hoek, about an hour by rail outside Cape Town, South Africa. It was on the train ride there that Miller witnessed first-hand apartheid.
Two Asian women were seated on two railway benches. One bench read “whites only”; the other read “non-white.” As Miller found out, one of the women had made a mistake and was sitting on the wrong bench. South Africa had signed a trade agreement with Japan that said Japanese were to be treated as white in South Africa and Chinese were to be treated as non-white (because China at the time had not signed a trade agreement with South Africa). The other girl on the bench was Chinese. As Miller states:
“I sat for a moment feeling incredulous. Wasn’t my friend [Noreen] struck by the absurdity of the new arrangement? Or the injustice of it? Two Asian women are seated on different railway benches. One woman is white because of a trade agreement. The other remains Asian. What’s wrong with this world?” [Italics added by the author.]
Miller’s strong narrative is evident throughout her memoir, and she is quite eloquent in expressing her belief that we are lost and all of us are trying to find home. She believes that if we do not periodically experience discomfort in our lives, we are not living. “If we are not observing,” she says, “then we are the ‘walking dead.’”
Miller’s memoir gave her an opportunity to reflect on her life and the choices she made. Several near-death experiences in Africa showed her the importance of life and changed her perspective in many ways. The reader will be the beneficiary of her wisdom.
Regrettably, Miller’s memoir is missing important information regarding the independence movement in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). She could have enhanced the book by sharing her first-hand knowledge of the African independence movement that was occurring while she was living there. It is rare to be able to experience a political movement in the history of a country. Instead, Miller gives the reader only a cursory mention of the independence movement.
In addition, Miller’s memoir would have been stronger had she extended its length beyond the four-year period she lived in England and Africa, and included her memories as a public official, educator, and union president — or perhaps that’s material for a second memoir.
Caroline Miller’s memoir “Getting Lost To Find Home” is due to be published Nov. 1, 2023, by Rutherford Classics. It will be available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and can be ordered from local bookstores.