Catherine Mercer pictured above aged 11 in Belesta, France in 1947.
Catherine Mercer may be completely unknown to most of you who read this, yet she was a woman who touched many lives in her 81 years. It’s never a good time to hear news of someone passing, so when I opened the card from her niece, Kathryn, informing me of the details of her aunt’s funeral today, I was sad. However, I want to celebrate her life rather than mourn her death, since she may never have realised how many lives she touched in a positive way.
My first contact with Catherine was hearing her voice on my telephone at 7am one morning in early 1988. I had nearly broken my neck getting down the stairs to answer what I thought must be an emergency call, only to hear someone asking me if I could attend an interview for a job in Dubai that weekend. I began to believe I was still asleep when the voice told me that the interview would actually be IN Dubai and that DHL would deliver my return ticket the next day. Such things don’t happen to people like me, I thought as I drove in a daze to work at my Milton Keynes school. But soon realised that it was no dream when my ticket arrived as promised and I found myself at a desert oasis in a most beautiful building, meeting Catherine in person.
In my three and a half years on her team at the Latifa School For Girls, I learned so much from Catherine, the Headmistress. She will never know how much she helped me in the rest of my life. There was so much to learn about living and working in such a different culture from that of Britain. Catherine knew that single females in such an environment needed a lot of guidance even if they were mature women and experienced teachers. I didn’t always understand the reasons for her modus operandi, but accepted her rules and strict guidance as I wanted to succeed in my new job as head of humanities. There were many minor challenges faced by us all, but Catherine was universally admired for the personal lengths she went to when any of us was ill or had personal problems. She would even cook a nutritious soup and bring it round to our apartment if we called in to say we were sick. She realised that if we were in a foreign country away from our family support network, we might not be looking after ourselves properly or have anyone to confide in.
There was a horrific car accident involving four members of staff on their way into school one morning. Catherine handled the shock and fall-out of the crisis it caused among staff and pupils with a calm competence that in retrospect was admirable. The staff who were hospitalised needed someone familiar continuously at their bedside to comfort them and to this end she organised a 24-hour rota of all the other teachers to do bedside visits for a couple of hours at a time. Examples of such leadership would stick in my mind when I later found myself looking after volunteer teachers and students on work experience when I was headmistress of my own school in South America.
I learned even more of her leadership when the First Gulf War broke out in 1991 and saw how fragile an expat community becomes when there is even a threat of hostilities. It can’t have been easy for her trying to run an academic institution of high repute when suddenly a large number of staff did not present themselves for work at the start of the new academic year in September 1990. The more so when some did not even contact her to hand in their resignation, but just left her wondering whether they would turn up in a few weeks or months while those of us who had stayed in Dubai over the summer covered for the absent ones. She for her part learned who she could really trust in such a crisis.
Catherine retired from the headship the same day that I left Dubai to begin my married life in Guyana. She encouraged me and gave me good advice about what I should do before I left and enabled me to take a huge amount of school book donations in my container of furniture and personal effects. She had wanted to encourage me in my aim of founding an educational charity in my new homeland. We kept in touch by letter as I updated Catherine with how her book donations were put to good use. As Sapodilla Learning Centre evolved into a full time secondary charity school over the next two decades, I found myself increasingly understanding some of the problems Catherine had to deal with when mentoring English teachers in a foreign environment and an unfamiliar culture. I drew on the example I watched her set when I had been one of her team in Dubai. It stood me in good stead and helped me to survive and succeed. Without knowing it, she indirectly helped many children in Guyana to gain a better education and life chance than they otherwise would have had.
On the day she left Dubai, Catherine had declared her intention to write a book in her retirement, so I was eager to read her novel once I knew she had published it. “Revenge and Regret”, a story set in the Languedoc in southern France is a tragedy rooted in the wartime resistance against German occupation. It is definitely worth reading if you have any interest in such historical-themed fiction. I have to thank Catherine finally for her encouragement and helpful advice to me in my own writing and publishing. She always bought my books and gave me helpful feedback. So Catherine Mercer, you have now an epitaph that will last for posterity as long as the internet lasts. Your legacy lives on!