My school life started in 1940, when I was just five years old. It was a very long time ago, of course, and memories tend to fade somewhat over the years, but what I do have is a series of snap-shots, moments in time, which pop up every now and then, to either remind me of how much better things are now, or to remind me of how much worse things are now! It all depends on my frame of mind, or what the memory is about and it’s naturally shaded considerably by the many moments that have happened since then.
I do have some blurred images from when I was three or four years old, but clarity didn’t start to lock itself into my head until that first day at school, the first time I was separated from Mum, the first time I spent a whole day in a strange, high-ceilinged room and the first day I met so many other children, all at the same time.
I do remember being both excited and rather frightened as we arrived outside Filton Avenue Primary School in Bristol, England, with me holding on tightly to Mum’s hand and her trying to be calm; but even at that age I could detect a little nervousness in the way she was acting, most likely because she was wondering how I was going to handle the situation.
The first thing she did was to march up to a teacher who was standing to one side of the playground and had some sort of roll-scroll in her hand and was talking to other mothers, delivering their little darlings into her care. I was too busy to take a lot of notice of what she was doing — I was much more interested in both the other children and the very obvious play gear that was dotted about the yard, an indication to me that this school lark might be a bit of fun after all.
The next thing I knew, Mum had given me a quick kiss on my cheek and disappeared out through the gate, which was now being closed, and I, like most of the other children I would guess, suffered a pang of apprehension. I didn’t get a lot of time to worry, because the teacher with us now got us to all stand in line, before marching us into the building and the very first room on the right — our classroom. She then read out all our names and asked us to respond with a, “Here!”, before she continued, with some of the responses punctuated with something that sounded very much like a sob.
That first day went on, all of us being issued with pens, pencils and rulers, with strong warnings about not losing any of them; given small bottles of milk to drink, half way through the morning; being taken in groups to where the toilets were and instructed on how to hide under our desks if the air-raid siren started wailing. (Don’t forget there was a war on in 1940, so this sort of precaution was mandatory, though we were never actually called on to act it out in earnest, thank goodness!)
I seem to recall that first day was all a bit of a jumble really, with none of the actual school work Mum had told me about taking place at all, and I thought this is going to be easy – and fun. TBut the next day, (which was another surprise for me, until then I had thought one day a week would be all I’d have to do), we got down to the serious business of learning, all very simple of course, like the alphabet, which Mum had already taught me anyway, and two-times tables, a whole weird new world of mathematics as far as I was concerned, a feeling I’ve never really cured myself of.
Of course, it didn’t take too long for the newness and strangeness to wear off and we all thought we were ‘old hands’ at this school lark; it wasn’t until much later that the real seriousness of learning was introduced to us. Until then we basked in the false security of two times two, “a, b, c, …” , small bottles of milk, having a sleep in the afternoon and going home early, but it’s a time I have never regretted — and, it has stirred a few more ‘snap-shots’ up to the surface of my blurry old mind as well.