We want to welcome you all to Matilda Week, and nobody is more welcoming than Miss Jennifer Honey. As children we adored this kind-hearted teacher who recognized each child as a full, complex and important person. As adults, we are even more touched by Miss Honey as a survivor of a traumatic childhood who keeps her soft heart after years of abuse. She is a lesson in tenacity, warmth and loveliness. Miss Honey is wonderful.
Miss Honey Is Kind And Soft
Fact: I adored my third grade teacher Ms. Cuthbert so much that when she invited her students to go to her wedding ceremony, I actually showed up. I sat near the back of the church with my parents and saw my teacher become Mrs. Hibbard. I watched in awe as one of my favorite teachers walked down the aisle in a gorgeous, puffy, 1993 gown, and wasn’t embarrassed at all to be there. Mrs. Hibbard was delightful, fun, and kind, but strict when she needed to be, and that’s exactly what you want in a teacher, and a teacher who will impact your life forever.
That’s what Miss Honey is. She truly cares about her kids as if they were her own, when she definitely doesn’t have to, especially given the environment of Crunchem Hall. She is so invested in her students and makes sure they are actually learning not only what was in their textbooks but about life itself. And she does it in a way that makes you feel like she’s more of an older sister, rather than an authoritative figure, making you more prone to listen and heed her instructions. She’s the kind of person that gave so much of herself to her class that she, too, would invite you to her wedding, and would give you a wink as she passed you while walking down the aisle.
One day this summer I woke up from a dead sleep, thought “Miss Honey is my summer style inspiration,” wrote it down and went back to bed. I was right to think that. Miss Honey wears classic pastel dresses, understated makeup and has a non-dated hairstyle. Miss Honey is the teacher who keeps a tissue under her watch and that is so wonderfully specific. At one point in the movie she wears the best tortoiseshell glasses, although Book Miss Honey wears them all the time. Dahl never gets detailed about Miss Honey’s wardrobe, but I think the movie nailed it: she’s the kind of person who looks lovely first because it makes her happy to look nice, and second so that the children see that coming to school and teaching them matters to her. Miss Honey has a “lovely pale oval madonna face with blue eyes and her hair was light brown.” It’s not so much important that she’s objectively pretty, but that the kids think she is — don’t you remember being 5 or 6 and thinking your favorite teacher was just the prettiest person in the world?
During the blog meeting where we discussed Matilda Week, we watched a clip of toddler Matilda making her own breakfast and pouring a glass of juice. Then they got to the moment when Matilda places a tiny flower in a vase and I think a scientist could have pinpointed the exact moment when both of our hearts broke (that’s what scientists do, right?). There was something so poignant about this little forgotten child not just surviving without help, but also making space for the little things that make life beautiful. I feel the same way when you learn about Miss Honey’s cottage: she has less than she deserves, but the lengths she goes to to make it neat and pleasant tell you a lot about her character.
Miss Honey’s house is “like an illustration in Grimm or Hans Anderson.” It is incredibly tiny and the water comes from a well outside. There are overturned boxes for chairs and a little camping stove to cook on. I used to imagine it would be like living in a child’s play fort. The cottage is less bleak in the movie, but both versions show that Miss Honey knows how important it is to find bits of loveliness in an ugly world. She also decorates her classroom with students’ artwork and bright colors, even though she has to hide it when the Trunchbull comes into the room – it’s that important for her class to be surrounded by loveliness.
When I was 8 years old, I read Matilda and wanted to be the main character. Not so much levitating objects, I just felt positive that I was special and there was simply no Miss Honey to notice it. I devoured adult classics like Matilda did, but in hindsight I was, admittedly, ordinary. Except, of course, no child, no person, is ordinary. Miss Honey knew that intuitively and it influenced the way she treated every child in her classroom. If you look back and think of your very best teachers as a child (or your favorite babysitter or aunt or librarian), that is probably a quality they had: they looked you in the eye and saw a light that might not have been brighter or more beautiful than anybody else’s, but it was yours. Miss Honey notices that Matilda is unusually intelligent almost instantly. But she isn’t that teacher who only cares about the smartest or the most challenging pupils. Miss Honey writes easy words on the board for the more “average” kids and warns the whole class about the upcoming weekly test with Trunchbull. As they say in the movie, she “appreciates each child for who he or she is.” Miss Honey recognizes Matilda’s strengths not just as supernatural abilities, but as character traits that will help her throughout life: “It’s wonderful you feel so powerful. Many people don’t feel powerful at all.”
Miss Honey Is Stronger Than Her Past
Miss Honey is a survivor of trauma and lifelong abuse, and against the odds, she is much bigger than the worst things that have happened to her. After the deaths of her parents, Miss Honey lives under the control of her cruel aunt – the Trunchbull. It’s chilling how perfectly Dahl describes the invisible chains of an abusive relationship: “I became so scared of her I used to start shaking when she came into the room.” “Over the years I became so cowed and dominated by this monster of an aunt that when she gave an order, no matter what it was, I obeyed it instantly.” “I was by then so dominated by my aunt to such an extent that I wouldn’t have dared [leave.]. You can’t imagine what it’s like to be completely controlled like that by a very strong personality.”
Here’s where I get amazed. Miss Honey wanted to go to university and was only allowed to go on the condition that she come home early every day to work for her aunt. When she graduated, Trunchbill docked her pay because Miss Honey “owed” her for the expenses of her childhood. Miss Honey finds a house and rents it on 10p a week and leaves, while still working in her aunt’s school because she loves to teach. Her past makes Miss Honey’s smaller moments of bravery, like confronting Trunchbull about Matilda’s grade level or approaching Matilda’s parents, nothing less than astonishing. It frames all of her qualities – kindness, appreciation of beauty, empathy for her students – not as traits, but as CHOICES that she has made and worked for and cultivated. Most of us aren’t born with extraordinary gifts like Matilda, but the idea that anybody can live a life of kindness and beauty after surviving such darkness — that is the real magic in Matilda.