First School

Those Early School Days!

No child ever wanted to start school more than I did.  Perhaps it was having two older brothers who both set off each morning to Coopers Company School in London and came home each evening to regale us with doubtless exaggerated tales of school life. Perhaps it was the lure, in those days of post-war rationing when books (for the reading of) and paper (for the drawing on) were so scarce, of an unlimited supply of both basic commodities.


My father used to tell me a story about a little girl called Jacqueline who was very lonely during the day “as all the other boys and girls had gone to school” at which point in the story, apparently, I would always chime in: “cos they were FIVE!” It was my favourite story at the time and he could never tell it often enough.


So, yes, in 1952 you had to be a full five years before you could be admitted to Infants School.  Young Sam, at just four, made the same leap into the next stage of childhood a whole year before I was allowed to enter the gates of Rush Green Infants School.


My initial impression of Infants School on that very first day was sheer puzzlement that all around me my classmates appeared to be crying and holding onto their mothers in dismal desperation.  Such a waste of precious school time, I remember thinking, settling down contentedly with the plasticine.  My second experience was rather more unsettling.  Just before leaving me in the classroom, my mother gave me a small Cadbury’s chocolate bar for my mid-morning break. They don’t sell them anymore, those tiny bars – today’s children would laugh to see them – but to me, who had never, ever, had a whole chocolate bar all to myself in my short life, it was chocolate treasure.  Imagine, therefore, my upset when the teacher came round with a cane waste paper basket to collect up everyone’s lunch.  Now I realise that it was simply to have all the treats in safe keeping until playtime but at the time I was convinced that I was being required to give up forever the only whole chocolate bar I had ever been given. 


My own children, told this story over the years (you never forget a trauma like that when you are five years old!) have always asked if the teacher restored the chocolate bar to my rightful possession. I can’t honestly remember but I suspect not, or why has the memory stayed with me all this time? So why did I give it up so easily, I wonder? I was, indeed, a biddable child and this was school, the place I had wanted to be for so long.  I can only imagine I was prepared to forgive such eccentricities as consigning chocolate to the rubbish bin as part of the rich pattern of this new life on which I was so keen to make my childish mark.


My first teacher was Miss Chisnall, a tall, bony woman with mousy hair tied back in a bun. On her well defined chin she sported a large mole from which two long hairs sprouted quite spectacularly. It was actually very hard to ignore this unfortunate blemish; every time she bent over me to help me with my reading or writing, my eyes would glaze over and I would stare, mesmerised, at the rampant black hairs, each of which appeared to have a mind of its own.


I could already read very well by the time I started school.  I presume my mother must have taught me but I cannot recall the actual process of learning to read.  I simply can’t remember a time when I could not read. As it turned out, this precociousness proved to have disadvantages as well as advantages.  Because of it, I was not to stay very long in the cosy Reception Class with its plasticine, fully equipped play kitchen and the company of my five year old classmates.  Instead I was moved up a class to one where the pupils had already mastered the rudimentaries of the ABC.  Unfortunately while I could more than hold my own on the reading front, I was all at sea when it came to arithmetic, that other major component of the all-important “Three Rs”, as Reading, Writing and Arithmetic were named (with a singular disregard for the niceties of accurate spelling.)  Not for me a gentle introduction to the world of figures in the comfortable environment of the Reception Class.  My new classmates already had the basics well under their belts; I floundered in a sea of numbers. Unlike letters which so miraculously turned themselves into words on a page even as I looked at them, numbers made as much sense to me as Egyptian hieroglyphics.  It took me years to overcome the feeling that I could never excel at this subject – even when later I managed an A Grade in O Level Mathematics, it somehow seemed an improbable success.


It was quite a long walk from home, 69 Birkbeck Road, to the gates of Rush Green Infants School. Straight to the end of the road (unless you felt brave enough to take a short cut through the scrap yard – though those adventures were saved for Junior School days), turn right, past the shops, then up to the traffic lights opposite Greens the green-grocer – young Philip Green was in my class. Then straight along, past a small parade of shops, including a sweet shop where, if you were lucky enough to have the wherewithal, you could buy the farthing chews I loved which went by the name of Black Jacks and Fruit Salad.  There were four farthings to a penny (in today’s money, there would be about ten farthings to a penny – imagine that!) so a penny went a long way in those days. Farthings were my favourite coin, carrying on the reverse as they did a picture of a wren (Britain’s smallest bird as befits Britain’s smallest coin.) Farthings ceased to be legal tender on 31st December 1960. And so to the gates of Rush Green Primary School, split onto two sites, one for the Infant School and the other for the Junior School. 


There was a long covered walkway leading to the doors of the Infant School and a small playground made of that kind of knobbly concrete which grazed the knees so easily – and so painfully - if you were unfortunate enough to trip and fall. Playground games like tag meant that such trips and falls were all too common.  The boundary of the Infants School playground was not marked by any fence or hedge. The concrete simply gave way to a grass field which was Junior School territory. No Infant was allowed to step over onto the grass, no Junior to venture onto the Infants playground.  Later when my sister Margaret (Maggie) started school, we used to meet up every playtime, she on the concrete, me on the grass.  We just needed to see each other to make sure all was well with the other one. It was infuriating not to be able to play together as we would have done at home.


Daily life in the Infants School was very well-ordered.  We lined up before school and after breaks(“playtime”) in our class lines on the summoning of the school bell.  We sat, row on row, at double desks facing the wall-hanging blackboard and, at the end of each day, had to lift our chairs up onto the desks to help the cleaners.  Every day at the mid-morning break, we were given a bottle of milk, courtesy of the Government, to keep our bones strong and our teeth white.   Mostly I loved my daily milk – but during the cold winter days, the milk would be heated up for us beforehand and by the time we picked up our bottles, thick skin had invariably formed on the top of the milk.  Ugh!


In class we were frequently exhorted to sit up straight with arms folded; we had to stand up to attention when a teacher entered the room.  If we were noisy or naughty we were ordered to sit with our hands on our heads, the better our teacher to keep tabs on any mischief going on.  Every day, mid-afternoon, we all folded our arms on our desks, rested our heads on our arms and shut our eyes for a brief time of total relaxation. 


The teacher in my final year of Infants School was Miss Muriel Thearle who was one of the major influences on my early childhood.  As well as a much-loved and inspirational teacher, she was the Brown Owl of the 14th St Augustine’s Brownie Pack, which I joined at the age of seven, and also led the Guide Company to which I progressed at eleven.   I always felt she loved me – and I suspect that was her secret, that all her small charges felt similarly special to her.  She was unmarried and suffered from diabetes – I did not know what diabetes was but my mother explained that, because of this mysterious affliction, she was unable to eat any sweets or chocolates.  That seemed very unfair to me, particularly when, as a grown-up, she presumably could otherwise have lived on sweets and by-passed anything boring like vegetables.


Miss Thearle made sure I had plenty of opportunities to indulge my love of reading and, while others in the class were struggling over their elementary readers, I was allowed the run of a cupboard simply packed , shelf on shelf, full of books.  My absolute favourite was a book with a rainbow on the cover which told the story of a girl who was confined to bed because she had broken her leg.  (This, of course, induced in me a mild paranoia connected with the potential breaking of limbs which probably resulted in extreme risk aversion to any dangerous activity.  (Indeed, to date, I have only ever broken one bone in my body – a toe – which was the result of nothing more hazardous than stubbing my toe on some step-ladders on a trip to the bathroom one night.)  The girl in the story book managed to overcome the boredom of being bed-ridden, through the pages of her own story-book, developing a much-envied ability to think herself into the pictures therein, each of which depicted  a different season.  I remember it as engagingly told and beautifully illustrated and every time I visit an antique book shop I cannot stop myself looking in the section on old children’s books, just on the slim chance of finding it.  Perhaps it is as well I have never found it; I would hate to be disappointed by it when I read it again.


There was one pupil I remember who was always a very naughty boy.  He was quite fat and always seemed to be covered in rather disgusting looking bandages.  One morning, when the school was all assembled in the main hall, the headmistress, Miss Howard, gently broke the news to us that he had died.  He was, she told us, now an angel in heaven.  I was aghast. Not so much at his death, as I had only the haziest of notions what this meant, but at the mere idea that he might be dressed in white, sitting on a cloud, playing a harp.  He would, I knew for certain, absolutely HATE that!


Three major events stay in my memory from my days in the Infants School.  One was an end of term party set in Fairy Land.  No, you are right, I am not sure today’s six-rising-seven year old boys would think too much of that.  The classroom was to be festooned with fairy decorations, there would be fairy cakes and other gentle delicacies to eat.  We were all paired up, boy and girl, and asked to write a letter of invitation to each other.  My partner was John Hall – or “Fairy John” as I was encouraged to write! Then I was given the major honour of writing the official letter of invitation to Miss Howard, the headmistress.  I still have the reply she sent me:


Dear Fairy Jacqueline

Thank you for your lovely invitation to the class party.  I shall fly down the corridors at 2 p.m. and meet you at the beautiful gates of Fairy Land.


Fairy Howard


There was much chortling from my brothers when I brought this letter home but I treasured it then – and now.


The second major event was the School Nativity Play where I was delighted to be cast as Mary.  (Strange, and rather special, that all three of my darling grand-daughters, one after the other, followed me into this plum role.)  Philip Green, the green-grocer’s son, he of the bright ginger hair and freckles, was Joseph; beautiful Audrey with her neat cap of white-gold hair was the Angel Gabriel; Georgina and Ruth were her slightly tubby, dark-haired angel cohorts.  John Hall was a king, as was Richard and his twin brother whose name I forget.  This was, of course, the 1950s so schools did not go in for today’s careful inclusivity, where every child in the class is given a role as sheep, lamb, donkey or (even) more exotic animals.  It was just those of us chosen for the main parts in the age-old story who were to take to the stage, which had been decorated, as every year at Christmas, with a large star, lit up from within by an electric light bulb.  The star was suspended between the two portraits which always graced the stage, one of Queen Elizabeth II in splendid gown and sparkling tiara, and the other the Duke of Edinburgh (he was not to be given the title of Prince Philip until 1957) in naval uniform.


I had one speech to make, in response to the Angel Gabriel’s visitation.  There was, of course, no dumbing-down of the Biblical language in the interests of a six year old’s understanding;  the words I had to learn and deliver (remembered to this very day) were:


“Behold, the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy word.”


I practised and practised till I was not only word perfect but also (with much help from my mother) able to deliver these strange words with the correct intonation so that they should make sense, at least to the adult audience.  I was proud of myself when it came to the final rehearsal but it seemed Miss Thearle was less than pleased with my delivery.  I needed to do something, she said somewhat sharply, about my “squeaky voice.”  For the first time in my life (and, alas, very much not the last) I felt the sting of criticism bring sharp, unbidden tears to my eyes. In short, I cried.  A lot.  Nobody used words like “diva” or “drama queen” in those days but if they had I suspect poor, sainted Miss Thearle would have been muttering them both under her breath.


My squeaky voice did not bring the whole performance to a halt, nor was there need to bring in an under-study with a more softly modulated voice.  I do not remember a single thing about the actual performance, though I have the black and white photograph to prove it happened.  Rather I remember that traumatic dress rehearsal where I learnt that practice does not necessarily make perfect when you have a squeaky voice.


I am sure my over-reaction must have been viewed with some disappointment by my teachers – but not so much as the histrionics which ensued when I discovered a splinter in my finger.  I remember Miss Howard entreating me to be the brave girl she knew me to be (a view based on absolutely no evidence as far as I can tell) as she wielded the tweezers in her office where I had been taken sobbing, more out of fear of the impending treatment than pain from the offending splinter.


The third major event was of national and international significance but to me, embraced in the cosy world of the Infant School, it merely ranked alongside the Fairy Land Party and the School Nativity.  This was, of course, the Queen’s Coronation in June 1953.  I really wish I had the kind of memories of this major event which others have written so eloquently about.  Mine are of the more mundane and, I have to admit, self-centred, variety.  I remember, very vaguely, the death of King George VI the previous year, but once again my recollection is from a very self-centred viewpoint, perhaps forgivable in a five year old.  All the radio programmes were cancelled and solemn music played all day over the air-waves.  No “Listen with Mother” and no Children’s Hour.  There was no better way, I seem to remember thinking, to ensure we all had a thoroughly miserable day.


However, come the next year and celebration was in the air. We didn’t own a TV set, nor know of anyone else who did, so I don’t have memories drawn, as others have, from grainy television pictures of this historic occasion, played out on a miniscule TV screen, often bought specifically for the occasion. What I do remember is that we had the most beautiful model Coronation procession set out all along one of our classroom window sills. Here was the magnificent golden State Coach, bearing the new Queen; here the noble horses proudly prancing and tossing (in my imagination) their head plumes; here the scarlet-clad footmen; here the bearskin hatted soldiers with their shiny musical instruments, all on magnificent parade along the narrow window shelf.  It’s the picture of the Coronation I carry in my head and the one thing which brought the whole occasion alive for me.


That and the day the Chairman of the School Governors, Mr Bellamy, came to school to tell us that, because of the Coronation we all had the next day off school.  I remember thinking how kind he was to tell the Queen that this had to be so.  Mr Bellamy was a short, round man, a country gentleman who generally wore a brown, tweedy suit with a waistcoast to match and a decorative watch and chain across his ample stomach.  His addresses to the school always started the same way. He would plant himself on the school stage, legs apart, arms akimbo and roar: “Good Afternoon, Children!”  To which we would all fervently reply: “Good Aft-er-noon, Mis-ter Bell-a-meeee!”


“Are you all being good boys and girls for your teachers?” he would then enquire and we, sitting up straight, legs and arms neatly crossed would roar: “Yes, Mis-ter Bell-a-meeee!”  It was our best chance, we knew, of being granted an extra half-day off – something no modern day Chair of School Governors would be able to bestow,  in these days of working mothers when a sudden change to school timetable would completely disrupt family life.   On the occasion of the Coronation, Mr Bellamy had further largesse to dispense in the form of a celebratory publication called “Royalty in Essex.” It was a singularly boring book, I thought, with a distinct lack of interesting photographs. There were, of course, photographs of various members of the Royal Family but they were mostly pictured shaking hands with pin-stripingly boring, but doubtless very important, County dignitaries.


Shortly before I transferred to Junior School, we all had to take a reading test.  I imagine it was to test out our reading age; certainly Miss Thearle and Miss Howard seemed majorly interested in how I performed.  We had to read out to the teacher a long list of words, increasing in difficulty as we reached the end of the list.  Just one word stumped me – “colonel”.  So desperate were my teachers that I should make 100% that I was even allowed to take the test again, this time in Miss Howard’s study, but the correct pronunciation still eluded me. 


In September 1954 I made the transfer from the much-loved and familiar environment of the Infants School across to Rush Green Juniors, where the big boys made scary slides stretching the whole length of the playground on icy winter days and the talk was all of exams and something looming in the future called “The Scholarship.”


So what life-long lessons did I learn from my first school-days?  I learnt that there is no point wasting time weeping over what you cannot change especially if it gets in the way of doing really important things (like playing with plasticine.)  I learnt that I have a squeaky voice, am a bit of a coward and cannot easily take criticism.  Over the years I have modified the voice somewhat and struggled to overcome unwarranted fears, but my eyes will still sting with the unfairness of it all when someone criticises something I have said or done in good faith. 


Most of all, thanks to Miss Thearle, Miss Howard and Miss Chisnall, I learnt to love learning for learning’s sake – which has to be the very best education for life.


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Latest comments

23.04 | 19:15

lovely and heartwarming - an inspiration to us all x

09.03 | 12:07

Love this story told as ever beautifully.x

10.11 | 21:31

What a super account of a special event. I loved meeting you last night and seeing your creation come together. I’m so pleased you got so much from the activity

07.09 | 12:17

I have broad shoulders x