Where do I start? Perhaps when I was four and a half years old and starting my very first day at the local primary school in Sussex, UK.
My mother and I arrived in front of the large victorian-gothic portal on the south side of the sandstone building which was to be my place of elementary learning from 1950-57. We were early and my apprehension increased rapidly as the big wooden door swung open. Miss M., a short, cheerful woman probably in her mid 50's, greeted us
In short order the other children began to arrive and my mother disappeared. A new chapter in my life had begun.
There were two classrooms made from one large area separated by a long wood and glass partition. The infant's room was on the south side and the "big kid's” room was to the north . Each had a large open coal fire for heating; later these were augmented with cast-iron coke stoves which put out roasting heat when fired up to a cherry-red glow. The walls were brick; painted green on the lower half and cream on the upper. The South Down buses and the Southern Railway shared the same scheme- I guess they had a limited repertoire of paint after the war. There were railway type clocks, with of course roman numerals. In the corner of the infant's room stood the ubiquitous abacus. Actually our very first lesson was a demonstration of this device. I can still hear the clicks as Miss M. threw the coloured beads from one side to the other while we drawled out the required chants of 2, 5, 10, 20 etc. Some of us could not count properly but we all went along with it. In those days most children only started to deal with letters and numbers when they actually arrived at school. Now we have two-year-olds working computers and doing simple arithmetic. My three and a half year old grandchild (now nine since this writing.) was attending a daycare which really resembles a primary classroom but with considerable high tech equipment thrown in.
One special feature of our classroom deserves mention; around the walls on three sides there was a long frieze depicting the letters of the alphabet and the "times tables" from 2 to 12. I had little idea on this first day that I would be, in the not too distant future, regularly stood in front of the class to recite all this material to expected perfection.
In the "Big Kids" room, the decor was predominantly of maps, which were coloured, with lots of red areas. The concept of the "Empire" had not yet fully given way to that of the "Commonwealth" in many of these rural schools. The globe, gathering dust on an upper shelf, was a neglected sepia brown with much of the text faded. If it appeared on the "Antiques Road show", I would have guessed it to be assessed late eighteenth century.
After about 20 mins of arriving we were all ushered in to this other room for "assembly". The head teacher enthusiastically thumped out "All Creatures Great and Small" on the piano The new pupils all made an attempt to mouth the words in an obvious "out of sync " manner. This would happen every morning for the next few years until my brain had the score indelibly imprinted. I recall her classic hair style; she had a tightly arranged bun just above the back of her neck. I had seen pictures of teachers in storybooks; and now here was the real thing. I wondered whether she would be strict and how long it would be before I became a "big kid" to sample her wrath
The first two or three years drudged on. There were sums, letters and crafts. We were occasionally read to...I liked that. The crafts sessions were good too; we would make muddy masterpieces with powder paints, emulating Jackson Pollack Paintings with gluey hues carved and daubed with our fingers and thumbs. There were the paper chains at Christmas; made with painted newspaper strips and stuck together with corn-flour glue. They were actually quite ugly but we always expected to take our designs home to adorn our respective living rooms. Somehow they seemed to be quickly replaced or masked by the bright high tech varieties from Woolworths; especially as ours kept breaking due to the primitive glue we used.
In those grey, post war years, all of us were taught to knit, sew and become experts with dried grass, soaked cane or leftover fabrics. I made trivets, trays, wooly balls, dishcloths, scarves and purses with cross stitch sides. All seemed to be destined for mum's christmas or birthday presents. Anyway I began to appreciate these craft sessions as a welcome relief from "sums" and writing. To graduate to the skills of dividing four pounds nineteen and sixpence into seventeen pounds eleven and nine pence did not really enthuse me. We had a writing book and every day the teacher would write a series of perfectly scripted letters at the top of a page (later it would be a sentence). Our task was to copy this underneath ten to twenty times for a reward of gold or silver stars. This did not make me yearn to be an author. My life long academic love was, then and now, nature study. I took a degree in biology and am now retired after teaching science for 34 years. Each day I could not wait for the time to go fishing, collect bugs or hunt for fossils. Our surrounding countryside abounded with opportunities in this regard.
Punishments were invariably physical. We would be stood in the corner for talking out of turn. This was only deemed effective if you cried or your legs went into cramps. You might pee yourself but the outcome was risky. Slaps on the back of the legs were dished our regularly for disturbing others and mouths were washed out with carbolic green soap for swearing. A cane stroke or two was administered for more serious offences but only later when we had a Headmaster. He once even smashed my head against a brick wall. Mum was not too happy about this but I probably did something to upset him; exactly what, I cannot recall.
Eventually the great day arrived when some of us would be deemed fit to move to the "Big Kids" room. There would be tears from those that didn't make it, and a mixture of smugness and suppressed terror from those who did. Buddies would be sadly separated; and the familiar-smelling, uniquely marked desks would be left forever. The head-lowered shuffle began as we moved through the door in the partition into unknown territory. We were thoroughly scrutinized by all the residents as we meekly took our seats in the bottom standard of the class. The desks were double and looked very old. Eons of ink stains decorated each folding top. Each had its own inkwell filled with a liquid made of dark blue powder and water. Soon we would become experts in its manufacture. Our writing implements were crudely nibbed pens with stained wooden dowel shaped bodies, They had to be carefully dipped into the wells and tapped to remove excess ink. This was a skill to avoid any smudging that could have very unfortunate consequences. These pens were great darts for target practice; both on inanimate objects or ones enemy of the day. The supply of new nibs was erratic so this activity was to be done on special occasions. We all soon learned the routine. There would be "Ink Monitors", "Lunch Monitors" and "Milk Monitors". The latter would be the best, because this meant time off at the end of the arithmetic session before break. Also, there were no special skills required for this position; except to be as slow at it as possible without arousing suspicion. There was another room off the west side of this classroom which was used for reading periods and dentist's visits. The periodic arrival of the school dentist put fear into all of us in the early '50's. There were no high-speed water-cooled drills and an infected tooth, with caries beyond a pinprick, seemed to be destined for extraction under the influence of "Laughing Gas". Instruments were sterilized with hot alcohol that gave us all an olfactorial confirmation of the events proceeding in the next room. The drill was positively primitive; it was run by a treadle, turning the bit incredibly slowly. As it performed its tedious task, one could smell the friction-heated dentine that must have been smoldering in the cavity. The trick was to squeal prematurely so that the operator's nervous system would have time to stop the treadle to save serous damage. I do not exaggerate; I hated these treatments. It is only my grateful recent experience of wonderful technologic advances which has allowed me to mildly enjoy my dental maintenance sessions today.
School lunches ('Dinners") were memorable. They were subsidized; parents paid a nominal fee and the rest was paid for by the local education authority. The result of this was that there were no frills. From a diet point of view, they were adequate but that is as far as it went. I recall specifically: Fatty, cubed tough beef, Belgian horsemeat, undercooked mashed potatoes, suet pudding with syrup, tapioca and bowls of semolina. I knew some of the cooks and their skills and understand their frustration in having to cope with often-inadequate supplies and preparation time. I hope the situation is much better now.
We did not have a spectacular playground. In my first few years it was leveled sand which measured about a quarter of an acre; this is not vast. Our toilets were outside but flushing. Vigilance in the winter was necessary to avoid freezing. A brick wall enclosed the stalls and there was a divider to separate the girl's from the boy's section. I remember that we used try to pee over the wall into the girl's area. The successful candidate was rewarded by hysterical screams. I have to say that this activity did not occur very often as the ensuing investigation was naturally exhaustive and usually came up with a culprit. There was no such thing as a " code of silence" amongst us little people. I do, with shame, recall telling on some poor boy for supposedly tampering with some building materials. He got the cane in front of us all but was actually quite innocent of the charge. I just did not like him. I have to say that I suffered several similar injustices, throughout my time at the school, and so claim some degree of forgiveness.
Even at an early age at this school, there were "love matches": Most of the time it was expressed by sending notes and verbal messages followed by a few days of holding hands. There might have been a walk home through the "common" after school.
As time went on in this "senior" room studies became more and more serious as we neared the impending "Eleven Plus Examination". However there was a twist. Close to the time of the examinations we were given a number of "Dry Runs". I had contracted measles in the middle of this and, on my return, I was given an examination that I thought was another dry run. I was wrong; it was the real thing! My headmaster nearly had a seizure when I told him that I didn't feel like doing the last two questions, exclaiming, "it wasn't the real exam anyway!" Frantic letters were written to various people higher up in the system and the result was that I did get into grammar school. Fortunately I was able to prove my worth later.
I have to say that I owe much to the diligence and continuing patience of the headmaster for believing in my abilities, modest though they are, and helping me further my studies. Perhaps he did really knock some sense into me against that green classroom wall.
Of course, as a teacher myself, I am fully aware that any kind of corporal punishment is not tolerated today in schools. Times were different then and I guess we just went with the flow. The headmaster did so many good things for the school. The dip-pens were banished. Attendance was increased to over 95% average, crossing attendants were instigated and the general academic standards were improved tremendously. In short he took the school out of the dark ages and laid the foundations of what this school apparently is today.