I started at St Ronan’s school in the September before my fifth birthday. It was a small private school about a half-mile away. For the first few days I walked with some ‘big’ girls who lived a few houses down the road. Later, my new best friend Julia and I walked together.
One morning just at the start of my second term at school my father hurried me downstairs to breakfast to find Mr Greening, our twice-a-week gardener, in the kitchen, cutting great doorsteps of bread for our breakfast. When I got back from school at dinnertime, there was a noisy little purplish baby in the breakfast room. My youngest brother Adrian had arrived. I knew he had been growing in Mummy’s tummy, but I really don’t remember being all that curious about how he got in there or how he got out. Those questions came later.
St Ronan’s School was run along very old-fashioned lines with great emphasis on the ‘3 R’s’. On my first day we had to draw an orange. ‘O makes o for orange’. Later I enjoyed reading and spelling. There were only about twelve children in our class and each new term we had to stand in a semi-circle around the teacher’s desk and she would place us in the order from those she perceived to be less able at one end to the brightest at the bottom. Then each day that the child at the top got a spelling wrong, the next child would get a chance. If they were correct, they moved up a place. It was always a challenge to get to the top of the class.
The thing I dreaded most was mental arithmetic. I was fine with the written stuff, but my mind just went completely blank when asked to do the same thing orally. The sad thing was, I could answer everyone else’s questions, but when it came to my turn I lost all powers of brain function and speech.
Corporal punishment was still permissible in those days, and was administered by the head teacher and owner of the school, Mrs Telford. Although I was never quite on the receiving end, I lived in fear. There was no exception made for the gentler sex, and very occasionally a girl was humiliated into holding out her hand for the strap, but it seemed a regular occurrence for some of the boys.
At mid-morning break we each had a small bottle of milk with a straw. I don’t remember any child not having the milk, although there were plenty of complaints. Sometimes there was thick cream on the top, and in winter, if the crates had been left outside, the milk would freeze and swell over the top of the bottle, with the foil cap balanced on top like a tin helmet.
At twelve o’ clock Julia and I walked home for our dinners, but many of the children stayed at school. Dinners were served in the classroom and the afternoon sessions were often accompanied by the smell of cooked cabbage or other stale food.
There was no climbing apparatus so the younger girls used to entertain themselves by creating makeshift brushes out of pine needles and swooshing the loose dirt of the playground into walls that were about two inches high, thus creating our own houses, farms, schools or whatever was the game of the day. Later we would play races or ‘catch-me’ on the field with the boys. I probably reached my athletic peak at about the age of eleven, at which stage I was taller than most of the other children my age.
The route from home to school took us past the County Primary School, and we had to suffer much mockery because of the wide-brimmed felt hats we had to wear. The County Primary children called us snobs. But actually I liked my uniform. Even before I ever heard of Gestalt and his theories I have always felt part of a greater whole when wearing a uniform.
The joy of learning to read opened many doors, one of which was public toilet graffiti. I was amused by the warning to beware of limbo dancers, but various other scrawlings left me very confused, one of which was the instruction to place ST’s in the bin. I wracked my brain for answers to the acronym. I pondered over Soap Tablets, but couldn’t understand why people would take their own soap and throw it away. I must have gone on a bit about the riddle because the following day Mum presented me with a little booklet that explained it all. It was so fascinating I took it to school where other children deemed it to be a dirty book and afforded me some hero status.