A life dedicated to our community.
Words: Annie Littlewood
Images: From a collection from Westfield School
Last month, the community was rocked by the the tragic death of Paula Kingdon. Incredibly, Mrs Kingdon's work at Westfield Infant School spanned her entire forty-year career, from graduation to retirement, and over that time her impact is without measure. The toll the news has taken can be seen on the faces of her colleagues and friends, the families she embraced, and the children she taught and nurtured, whatever their age.
Anyone whose life she touched knows what a special woman Paula was. A unique mixture of strength and empathy, vigour and humour, resilience and compassion, she had the ability to put anyone at ease. Able to manage a vast workload, while never too busy to give everyone the time they needed. Relentlessly driven, and yet with such care and attention to detail that, on her retirement, when the students from Brookfield flooded the playground to wish her well, she remembered every single one of them. A force of nature who treated everyone as an individual and, regardless of age, as an equal.
After starting at Westfield straight from college in September 1976, Miss Sharples, as she was then known, quickly became an integral part of the school. She credited her teaching assistant, Elaine Graham, with providing the support she needed to settle into her new role, and the two worked together until Mrs Graham retired two years before her in 2014. They remained firm friends, and continued to meet weekly for countryside walks in retirement, along with Mrs Trickett, Mrs O'Sullivan, Miss Harrison, Mrs Fretwell and Mrs Soar, in a group Paula affectionately called 'The Old Bags'.
Over the twenty years Paula spent in the classroom, her kindness and charisma made her everyone's favourite teacher. I still remember listening in delight as she shared her love of Liverpool FC and Bruce Springsteen ('Bruciebaby'), and was one of many children entertained by her reading of Flat Stanley. Without needing to implement strict discipline, Paula commanded respect and admiration from her pupils.
Paula took the role as head in 1996, and her influence on the running of the school was able to flourish. Her commitment to the school library embodied her belief that every child should have access to books and an opportunity to enjoy them. Working with staff, she established Westfield as an Eco School, and was careful to allocate funds from the school budget to improving the grounds and growing vegetables. This project encapsulated some of her core values - the importance of children being outside, and developing practical skills as part of a holistic education.
Yet alongside her vision and precise management style, Paula's super power was her huge, seemingly-bottomless heart. Hugs were never in short supply for anyone who walked into her classroom or office, and she engrained in the school an ethos of compassion. Every year at Christmas, she collected money for the local women's refuge, determined to ensure that every child would have presents at Christmas. While donations were being made, the children would sing her favourite carol, Away in a Manger, and Paula could never make it to the end of the song without crying.
Maybe it was because of the warmth she emitted that she managed to say the most direct things without causing offence. Never one to mince her words, she had a no-nonsense eloquence and timeless wisdom which she deployed without warning. And when she did, you felt like a six-year-old being picked up by your dungaree straps, dusted briskly down, and planted back on your feet.
Paula's commitment to her staff, old and new, continued after her retirement in 2016. Still a huge support mechanism for the remaining teachers, her legacy stretched beyond employment. She remained an integral part of the school until her death and, without a doubt, will continue to influence the Westfield Way for many years to come.
There is no way of describing the sense of individual and communal loss being experienced at this time. I know to many of us the grief feels more like that of a family member. The combined emotion of the thousands of lives that she not just touched, but significantly impacted, is unprecedented in our community. But when I see the groups huddled at the school gates, tears flowing, arms of comfort wrapped around, I know she continues to bring us together. And one thing is for sure, if Paula could see us now, she would tell us all to stop faffing and get on with it.