Chris Owen meets a woman who defied her father and was determined to forge her own career - 2,000 miles from home
The eight-year-old girl at the back of the class stuck her hand in the air nervously.
She was worried about answering her teacher’s question, but from somewhere deep inside her, she plucked up the courage.
‘I would like to be like you. I would like to be a teacher,’ she said in answer to the question about what she would like to be when she left school.
‘I thought the other children would laugh at me. I mean, I came from a farm. I didn’t have rows of books at home and no new toys. I thought they would think I was silly.’
She thought the children from the nearby village represented the height of streetwise sophistication.
If they did think the farm girl from the sticks was a joke, she has had the last laugh.
Today, that tremulous eight-year-old has risen to become the service director and senior conductor/teacher at The Rainbow Centre at Fareham. She works with children with cerebral palsy and adults with a stroke, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease and their families. She has fulfilled not only that primary school ambition, but also one she had later at the age of 16.
Magdi Kovacs is now 44 and living in Fareham. Her story is inspirational.
She is now 2,000 miles from that childhood home on her parents’ farm in the Hungarian countryside, 50 miles from Budapest.
With the freedom to travel after the Berlin wall came down in 1989 and the drawing open of the Iron Curtain, she took a job in Britain, learned English and then, with her husband and two-year-old son squeezed into a tiny car, upped sticks, drove across Europe and moved here to live and work.
Magdi said: ‘I always remember that teacher telling me that if I worked hard I could become that teacher. She said I could do anything if I really wanted to and put in the work.’
And then two things happened, events which would eventually change the course of her life.
Firstly her cousin was born with cerebral palsy and was later taken to the ground-breaking Peto Institute in Budapest.
And then she met a conductor from the institute who just happened to have a holiday home next to her grandparents’ farm.
‘These two events gradually made me realise that what I wanted to do with my life was teach children with disabilities,’ said Magdi. ‘Not just teaching them to read and write, but to sit and stand.’
But to achieve her ambition she needed to get some qualifications and convince her father she would need to move to the nearest town to study for the equivalent of A-levels.
‘My father was strongly against me leaving home. It’s fair to say he hated the idea. He wanted me to stay and work on the family farm, but I hated farm work, looking after the animals and crops.
‘They say you reap what you sow, but that’s not always true because you are so dependent on the weather and the market.
‘It’s a really hard way of life and, as far as I was concerned, I did not want to make the commitment.
‘It wasn’t surprising that he was so protective about the farm. He had managed to hang on to it after the 1956 uprising when so many others were being turned into co-operatives and being run by the state. My grandparents kept ownership of their farm, which was next to my father’s, too.
‘Because of what he did life was not easy for him or the family. I am sure that there was a teacher at my school who picked on me because of what he had done.’
But Magdi, aged 14, was determined to break the mould and break away.
So, in a bold move against her father she moved to town and started studying in subjects such as geography, biology and history. She also discovered she had a way with languages, Russian, of course and German too. But there was no English. Yet.
Then, when she was 16, her aunt who had been caring for Magdi’s disabled cousin, killed herself.
‘Looking back, yes, perhaps that gave me the incentive to follow the career I now have.
‘It also made me appreciate and gave me a passion for families and providing help for those in need.’
Two years later she became an employee and student at the Peto Institute in Budapest. She did five hours paid work as part of her course and then studied conductive education through observation and practice.
‘I loved living in Budapest. After life on the farm and in the village, it was so exciting.’
At 22 Magdi graduated. The year was 1988 and there were the beginnings of stirrings in the old eastern bloc countries which would culminate in changing the face of the continent. Forever.
She then married the lad, Jozsef a car mechanic, she had been dating since she was 18 [he now works as a mechanic at Lucketts Coaches at Fareham]. She moved back to the town near her home and worked as a conductor for two years before having her first child, a boy.
‘He was born in May and I went back to work in the August. That was very unusual then, but what was even more unusual was that my wonderful husband became a house husband.
‘He just encouraged me to do everything I wanted to further my career and said he would always support me. He always has.’
In 1991, two years after the Berlin wall came down, a friend from the institute arranged for Magdi to come to England and work in Gloucester for a month in the summer.
‘England was just like we had been learned at school – foggy but so very green. Gloucestershire was beautiful and I loved the English way of life.
She started learning English at evening classes back in Hungary and returned to the UK for another two weeks the following April.
‘Then a job came up in Birmingham at a centre which was recruiting conductors just like the institute in Budapest. The interviews were in Hungary. I got the job and came to Birmingham not having a clue what it was like and I’d only been learning English for about two months.
‘My parents hated the idea. My mum wanted her grandson to stay with her. My dad just thought it was wrong.
‘But I was determined to do it, so Jozsef and I put our two-year-old son and everything we owned into a tiny car and drove across Europe to start our new life.
‘I loved it – the opportunities and freedom here were wonderful.’
A second son was born in Birmingham in 1994 and four years later she got the job at The Rainbow Centre. In 2001 the couple had their child, a daughter.
‘My parents, who had never had passports, did eventually come over to visit.
‘I am so happy that my father, before he died, admitted that I had done the right thing. Once he’d seen English life and culture he gave me his whole support.’
Her entire family has dual British and Hungarian nationality. Hungarian is spoken at home. They text each other in Hungarian.
‘We will never forget our roots. We go back to Hungary regularly for family events, but our home is here now and we love it.’