When I started school, at Filton Avenue Primary in Bristol, United Kingdom, it was 1940 and things were a little different from today! Right from the word ‘go’ there was the teacher who came out to the playground with a large hand-held bell, which she rang vigorously, to tell us to get back into the classroom and work. (Nowadays, schools use some form of electric siren to do the job.) Once inside, we sat at rows of two-seater desks neatly laid out in lines from side to side and back to front in the room — and woe-betide anyone who had the temerity to move any of them, very different to today’s much more free-form class layouts, using tables instead of those funny little desks, and comfortable chairs.
The teacher’s first action was to read out from the register the names of all the pupils who were supposed to be there, to which we had to call out, loudly and clearly, “Yes Miss!” Say anything else, just for a change, and you were in a spot of bother — it was part of what was called ‘discipline’, something we don’t seem to find a lot of these days!
The next daily chore was for the ‘ink monitor’ to go round the room, filling all the little wells, situated at the top right of each double desk with black ink. There were no biros or roller-ball pens in those days. Who remembers being issued with a pen shaped something like an artist’s brush, with a nib on the end that could be changed, should a nib break? As we wrote we had to frequently dip our pens into the ink-wells, about twice a minute, to keep the nibs working. As well as for writing, some of the boys would use their pens as a weapon, with which they would flick ink at other kids around them, no doubt ruining some quite expensive shirts, trousers and skirts, at a time when all that stuff was on the ration! If caught, this was a ‘to-the-headmaster’ offence, which could often result in coming into contact with his cane, sometimes on the buttocks and sometimes on the palm of the hand, depending on the severity. (A bit more of that ‘discipline’ I’ve mentioned already.) These days of course, pupils seem to use either hi-tech ball pens or, on occasion type the information into their computers and laptops, they can only flick wet paper about the place now!
Half way through the morning, a crate of milk was brought in, containing small bottles holding a third of a pint each, (0.19 of a litre), and we all stopped work to drink it, something we all enjoyed in the summer, but in winter the teacher insisted on putting them of the heating pipes for half an hour, to remove the chill. It then tasted ghastly for some reason, (I think it needed a bit of sugar or something), and we’d all try to avoid having it. The teacher always kept a sharp eye out for dodgers though, so we usually had to put up with it.
In the ’40s and ’50s, we all wrote our lessons in standard notebooks, supplied by the local council, printed with a map of the area around Bristol on the outside of the back cover. There were two types of book, both identical to look at, but one type was filled with ruled paper, for English, math and other purely written lessons, while the other contained plain paper, to use for lessons requiring some graphics, like geography, art, and history. These arrived, new and crisp at the beginning of each term, but soon became ragged looking, as well as tending to contain more writing on the covers than there was inside!
One of the first things we learned at school, was the art of ‘joined-up’ writing, as we called it, as opposed to block-capitals, a skill that made the taking down of information much quicker. I don’t know if it’s a fact, but I have been told that kids today aren’t given instruction in this type of communication, in fact many children today are incapable of reading this type of writing at all – it’s all like trying to read another language. I think that is very sad, and a backward step when it comes to literacy and general education.
I can’t help wondering which was the most efficient and which period has turned out the better citizens. I guess it remains for future generations to look at this question and come to a decision!