Do you remember your first day at school? I do, or at least I think I do.
Here is what I think I remember:
I am sitting at a desk in a room with a lot of other kids, many of whom are crying, and I am wondering why they are upset. The room has a blackboard at the front and the walls are decorated with brightly coloured pictures. Out of the windows I see a field, with houses in the distance. On each desk is a slate, in a wooden frame, with a kind of pencil made of stone or something. Some kids seem to know what these are for, and are using the strange pencils to scribble on the slates.
A nice lady stands at the front and is talking to us and showing us how to draw on the slates. Pretty soon I notice that one boy is hiding his slate as he scratches away, occasionally looking round to see if we are watching him. Then he stops and holds up his slate, saying something like “See, I can do real writing. If you can’t do real writing you’d better learn fast or you’ll get the cane.” I am not convinced. After all, I have seen the real thing, and he’s an idiot anyway who I recognise from the prefab estate.
That’s what I genuinely do remember, but the only other event that day is something I definitely do not remember, a tale often told me by my mum, even years later. According to her, when we were let out of school that day she asked me, not unreasonably, well, how did it go. I apparently said is was OK, and by the way, what were we going to do tomorrow? This anecdote seemed to amuse other adults, but to me my response still seems entirely reasonable as nobody had told me I was in for at least sixteen years of schooling.
This composite of real memories and a received story from 1948 came in very handy almost half a century later when I was running training courses for TV journalists at Yorkshire Television and other ITV companies. One of the objectives of the courses was to help print or radio trained journos to think about telling stories with pictures, so I usually kicked off with an ice-breaker which challenged them to tell the story of their first day at school and then come up with a series of images they might use if they were telling that story visually. I chose the topic on the grounds that everyone in the room would have that experience in common, but they would all be different.
To be honest my memories of Fryent Primary are few until I went up from the infant school into the Juniors. I have no clear recollection of being taken to the school by my mum, but there must have come a time when a small group of prefab kids were allowed to walk there and back on our own, probably when we went into the Junior school, when we were seven or eight, some time around 1950 I guess. To get from our prefab estate to the school we had to cross several busy suburban roads, so we must have been road safety savvy from the start, having had it drilled into us beforehand I suppose.
I know this is going to sound a bit grumpy-old-mannish, but I can’t help comparing this experience to present day practice. We now live exactly opposite a primary school in a rural English village, and many of the kids seem to arrive in the air-conditioned luxury of various posh cars. The aim seems to be to get as near to the front door as possible without actually coming into contact with the environment. I once remarked to the head teacher that their ideal would be a drive-through arrangement, like MacDonalds. Fortunately he thought it was funny.
I mention this not only because we live opposite a primary school, but also because it reminds me that when we walked home from Fryent, we passed by the home of a man who used to invite us into his garden and talk to us about his life. He claimed in particular that he had spent many years in the jungle, and that he was the real Tarzan. The reason he was living in suburban obscurity was that he had been ripped off by Edgar Rice- Burroughs. (Burroughs first published his Tarzan comics and books between 1912 and 1914, and the films were box office hits in the thirties, so the story is just about credible.)
Whether or not we had made friends with the real Tarzan, we were not abducted or harmed in any way in three years of unaccompanied walking to school in all kinds of weather. I like to think we were healthier than some of the kids I see getting out of Chelsea tractors at the school gate these days, and probably more streetwise.
Perhaps the worst thing that happened to me in the junior school was that at the age of eight, my eyesight collapsed as a result of an infection. The first I knew about it was when my mum was called in to the school because I was disrupting classes. It turned out that this was because I could not read the blackboard, and my teacher suspected something was wrong with my eyesight because I was asking other kids what was on the board.
I also remember waking up in the morning unable to open my eyes because they were gummed up with yellow glue. The upshot was that I was taken off to the NHS optician, who held a clinic in Stag Lane, NW9. I am eternally in his debt, as he diagnosed the problem, prescribed some evil-smelling ointment, and when the infection subsided, tested my eyesight regularly over a long period and prescribed a series of spectacles which gradually allowed the muscles in my eyes to rebuild themselves. I wore glasses until I was eighteen. Thank you sir, whoever you were. And thank you NHS, only 3 years old at the time.
I learned later that this man, like many others in medicine at the time, was ex-services, and I clearly remember him ordering me to sit up properly in the chair, and my mum being embarrassed because I was slouching. I remember also the moment when I put on my first pair of NHS glasses and tried to walk along Church Lane. I had got used to having drops put into my eyes to dilate the pupils and seeing the world like an overexposed film, but the shock of being able to see my surroundings in sharp focus again is something I’ll never forget. The only snag was that I couldn’t walk properly because I could no longer judge where the ground was. All I could manage was a kind of goose-step. I think my mum thought I was mucking about again.
All this took time of course, and I missed months of schooling. When I did go back, I was put into a class a year below my former classmates, and I was far from happy, mainly because I had missed out on being with the best liked teacher in the school, Mr. Vallum, who was really cool and played the guitar. Instead I was in Mrs. Ryan’s class, and I thought she was soppy. This probably spurred me on to make great efforts to catch up, which I did by half way through the year, when I was upgraded and put back into my proper year group.
But then I had other health problems. My teeth were apparently not conforming to the generally accepted norms of dental propriety, largely I now suspect because of the cavalier way in which some of them were yanked out at the slightest provocation by the NHS dentist from hell, whose clinic was also in Stag Lane, evidently the local NHS answer to Harley Street. She was a short stout red-faced woman with Scottish accent and a habit of repeatedly ordering “Open Big”, which even I knew was ungrammatical. Things went from bad to worse until the day when she said “bite” before she had removed her finger from my ravaged mouth. So I did. Honestly it was not deliberate, but it did feel quite satisfying. Now I was in real trouble.
By then my remaining teeth were sprouting out in all directions, apparently, so I was measured up for a “plate”, designed to bring them to order. It became the bane of my young life. I eventually got barred from the NHS clinic after throwing the tantrum to end all tantrums and refusing treatment, so I was registered with a suitably stern male private dentist. My main problem with him was that when I turned up with a damaged plate, he suggested I had broken it playing football. I was offended not by being accused of carelessness, but because of the football reference, a sport which he really ought to have known I hated. Poor research, obviously.
Despite these regrettable setbacks, not to mention the daily torture sessions laughingly known as school dinners (all the stereotypes are true), I managed somehow to get into the top class in time for the eleven plus.
This class was the exclusive domain of possibly the weirdest teacher ever to strut the stage of a primary school assembly hall, and probably one of the best intentioned, I gather. Mr Denny’s pedagogy was built on the three pillars of swot, physical training (PT) and corporal punishment. Deluded, but according to my mum, a man who meant well.
I did my best! I really did, but however hard I tried, I was always in trouble. The idea that being assaulted by an adult with a cane could enhance learning or understanding in a child remains incomprehensible and repugnant to me, but I think Mr Denny really believed in it. He caned me over twenty times that year, until even my mum found the courage to blow the whistle on him after she noticed my bruises.
Anyway, I managed to sneak through the eleven plus, I gather because marks were added for younger children, and so I was bound for grammar school, where I was never to be caned again. It is ironic that years later my abhorrence of corporal punishment was to be my undoing, when I was hounded out of the New Zealand teaching profession, which allowed corporal punishment in schools, for refusing to cane boys. But more of that anon.