In this week’s instalment of Roger’s nostalgia diaries, he writes wistfully about his early childhood experiences of school – right from primary up until sitting the dreaded 11+…
I can remember my early school days quite well. My younger brother and I started on the same day in nursery school. September ’53 I was 4 years 3 months and he was 2 years and 9 months old. Poor lad, this meant he had to spend three years in Mrs Dickens’ class. I just did the one. Mrs Dickens was the fiercest lady who ever walked this earth – we were terrified of her. Twice a day we had to have compulsory nap time. Multi-coloured raffia mats were brought out, laid in lines and we had to lie down on them and go to sleep. On command, our eyes were closed and we lay there in silence as Miss stomped up and down the line looking for any open eyes. One morning I thought I would buy her favour by helping out. “Miss,” I blurted out “Philip’s got his eyes open”. She looked at me with a little, pitiful smile on her face. “Roger, how do you know he has his eyes open if you are asleep?”
Mid-morning, it was time for the compulsory calcium, to build up our little bones. This was delivered in the form of a 1/3 pint glass bottle of milk. Remember this was very much Post-War thinking that after rationing the children needed “building up.” Two of us would go and bring in a metal crate. In the Winter, when the milk froze it would push the silver foil tops off and expand up out of the bottle. You would have to warm it up and melt it before drinking it. In the Summer, you hoped you got one of the fresh bottles and not one from yesterday as it went off very quickly. Sometimes we also got little bottles of orange juice, which were much nicer. (This continued well into the late 70’s when Mrs Thatcher snatched our milk away.)
As we progressed up through the Infants and into the Junior School each group had its own unofficial area of the playground. We played football all the year round in the school yard until the snow and ice came, then it was time to make a slide. The older experts (nine-ten year olds) would study the slopes on the play ground, then carefully trample down the snow to turn it into compacted ice, anything up to 20 meters long. Then came the polishing, shuffling up and down the slide. We would study the
finished product till it was declared ready. Then you took a run up and jumped onto the slide with a sideways stance and flew down it at incredible speed. If you reached the end still on your feet you could swagger back to the start. If you fell, well never mind you bounced back on to your feet and went again. The advantage of the ice was you didn’t get too bad a scraped knee. In the ’50s all lads had permanently scabbed knees. It was compulsory. There weren’t too many broken bones – probably because of all that milk we drank.
The second scariest person at my primary school was a peripatetic Drama Teacher, with ideas above her station. In the 1950’s my home town ran a prestigious, week-long theatre festival for local Am Dram groups. It was held at the regional theatre in town. Instead of producing a play for the doting parents to come and watch in the school dining room/hall, she entered us into this festival. When the organisers found out that the average age of our actors was nine, they ruled us out of the main event but agreed that we could still perform on stage in front of the main audience.
Our teacher wrote a play. I was cast in one of the main roles as the King. We rehearsed in the dining room, with a constantly evolving script. Then, the week before the event, she added in a moment where the King would kiss one of the leading ladies. I was nine and a boy in a single sex school. The girls in the cast were from the girls’ school. This was the single most horrifying thing I had ever been asked to do. I suspect the young lady in question was not too amused either. The rehearsals became difficult. Then the big night arrived and we were taken to real dressing rooms in a real theatre and had make up applied by professionals. There were hundreds of people in the audience, including all our families.
The atmosphere back stage was electric. Then we were on stage and our play started. The moment arrived for “The Kiss”. I looked deep into her eyes, she looked up at me, and the rest of the cast held their breath, and like the real trooper that I was I calmly shook her hand. We finished the play to tumultuous applause.
Our school had two separate sections for The Girls and The Boys and never the Twain would meet (except for drama). But both schools had the same caretaker, who had a large house on-site, which had a very large garden in which he grew vegetables. Every Spring he delivered a large delivery of cow manure. We knew when it had arrive by the smell. This indicated that it was time for his special Gardening Lessons. A group of boys would be given the afternoon off and taken to the garden where we were “taught” how to dig straight trenches 6-8 inches deep – a spades-width wide. In the bottom of the trench went a layer of the manure. Then we placed the seed potatoes every 10” and filled in the trench.
It might have been cheap labour but I know how to plant potatoes to this day. The school toilets were outside, across the playground from the main building, a long slate lined urinal was against one wall and a row of stalls behind it. There were no doors on the stalls but they were flushable with the water tank above the toilet and the ubiquitous chain hanging down. Of course in the Winter the whole system froze solid. You learned to avoid any yellow ice. In lessons, if you needed to go you put your hand in the air, “do you need paper?” you would be asked. If you did, it was two sheets only, handed out. You had to be brave or desperate to use these facilities. To this day my wife is amazed at how long I can “hold on for”.
Somewhere along the way in school we did learn stuff. Maths was really fun in those days, when there were four farthings in a penny, twelve pennies in a shilling and twenty shillings in a pound. A typical “sum” would be divide £3 11s 6d by 13 (answer 5s 6d or 5/6) A guinea was 21s a crown was 5s, so half a crown was 2/6. And who can forget the lovely silver thrupenny bit. Weight was 16 ounces to the pound, 14 pounds to the stone and 8 st or 112lbs to the cwt (hundredweight) and 20cwt to the imperial ton. Volume and length were also nightmares. I am glad that we changed to the decimal system well before I started teaching maths in the new century.
English lessons were useful, except that they involved writing essays using a pen and ink. I really mean it. A pen with a nib and an ink pot with liquid ink in it, which I managed to get everywhere. I would arrive home with blue/black fingers and mother would comment “Oh, I see you had English today.”
From the day you started Junior School till the day you left you were aiming towards just one thing. The 11+. You were either going to Grammar School or you would “fail” and head off into the comprehensive secondary school system. The teachers for my final two years were not going to waste their time on the no-hopers and concentrated on those who were going to pass. I was a dreamer in Primary School. My concentration was spent entirely in my own little world. I read endless science fiction books and lived in the worlds of John Wyndham, while Horacio Hornblower taught me about 17th century naval tactics, but this did not impress either Neville Jones (Fourth Form) or Tom Jones (Fifth Form), so it was no surprise to them when I failed the 11+. However in my new secondary school I was placed into the top set, where I was expected to do well. I did. I resat the 11+ and passed. Grammar School here I come…
The next instalment of Roger’s nostalgia trip, wherein he will regale us from tales from his Grammar School, will be up on the blog next Tuesday!