Helen Dunmore was a British novelist, poet and short story writer who died in 2017, aged 64. ‘My Polish Teacher’s Tie’ was first published in 2001 in the short story collection Ice Cream.
Carla Carter works as a part-time caterer at a school. One day, the headteacher announces that there are teachers in Poland looking for penfriends. Carla, who is half-Polish, is intrigued by this and offers to do it. She writes to Stefan (who calls himself Steve) but doesn’t reveal that she works in catering rather than as a teacher.
They quickly build up a friendly correspondence. Carla tells Steve about the Polish songs her mother sang to her when she was young. In return, Steve sends Carla poems he has written, including one inspired by her.
The headteacher announces that Stefan will attend the school as part of a teacher exchange. He will be staying with Valerie Kenwood, a teacher at the school. However, Carla dreads that Steve will find out she isn’t a teacher.
When he arrives, Valerie complains that she can’t understand Steve because of his accent. She also mocks the ties that he wears. Seeing him in the staff room, Carla introduces herself. To her surprise, Steve sings a Polish song. She recognises it from her childhood and the two sing together.
Carla works as a part-time catering staff, which she enjoys. She is keen to explore the Polish side of her identity, which prompts her to write to Steve. Through their friendship, she discovers a love of poetry. When Steve visits, Carla becomes self-conscious about her job role, but finds the bravery to speak to him after hearing how rude Valerie has been about him.
Steve bursts with enthusiasm. He loves creativity, as shown through his poetry, and is enthusiastic to learn about other people and cultures. Contrary to her fears, Steve does not look down on Carla when he finds out she is a caterer. He displays a lack of self-consciousness, evidenced by his extravagant tie and his willingness to sing in the staff room. This infectious attitude encourages Carla to disregard the opinions of others.
He appears somewhat pompous. Although he is polite to Carla, he does talk down to her and struggles to remember her name. We see this when he says, “I didn’t realise you were Polish, Mrs… er…”.
Valerie is small-minded and ignorant. Unlike Carla, she perceives Steve’s love of poetry as a defect in his character. She is also critical that he speaks with a Polish accent and his dress sense. It is her discriminating attitude that emboldens Carla to talk to Steve.
Carla feels prejudiced against in her work environment because of her job role. She is ignored or talked down to by the teachers. Valerie asks her, “Isn’t that tea made, yet?” with an impatience and rudeness that she would not use to a teacher. Because of such attitudes, Carla feels some shame about her position. She worries that Steve will think less of her because of her “blue overalls and white caps” and her wage of “£3.89 an hour.”
Prejudice is also shown against Steve by Valerie. She is xenophobic when mocking his Polish accent, complaining, “you can’t tell what he’s on about.” She is even prejudiced about his dress sense, particularly the large and colourful ties he wears. Ties are often associated with professionalism and are a symbol of high-powered jobs; therefore, Valerie’s mocking of Steve’s tie is a way of diminishing his status.
In contrast to such attitudes, Carla and Steve accept each other for who they are. Dunmore shows this first when Steve is delighted to meet her, even though she isn’t a teacher. Then, Carla’s appreciation for Steve’s tie shows her celebrating his unique nature.
Carla’s attention to the headteacher’s announcement is caught by his using the word “Poland.” The country holds a tremendous personal connection for her, and she is keen to explore her half-Polish side further. She had known a little of the Polish language as a young girl but then forgot it all as she became ingrained in British culture. Steve’s poem reflects her feelings that this is a sense of loss for Carla. He jokingly writes, “Call the police”, as if that part of her identity has been stolen from her, and it is very much something that she wants back.
Through her friendship with Steve, she can rediscover the Polish side of her identity. Dunmore demonstrates this at the end when she and Steve sing a Polish song. She finds “words in my mouth” that she had forgotten.