I never went to nursery school, and I’m pretty sure “reception” didn’t exist when I was young – you started school (by law) at 5 years old, and became one of the “infants”. It wasn’t called “Year 1” back then, either.
I attended Carterton County Primary School, in the centre of town – about a mile from where we lived. I don’t have to tell you how far that walk seemed to take on little legs. It also didn’t help that during my first days at school I really didn’t want to be there, and my Mum walked back to the school at lunchtime to walk me home for lunch, and then back again. I’ve done similar things for my own children in recent years from time to time, so finally have some perspective and appreciation for the lunacy I put my Mum through.
After a few days I must have settled in, because I remember eating school lunches from plastic trays delivered from the canteen. Favourites were always the winter puddings – I’ve still never seen jam roly poly again, nearly 40 years later. I imagine my memory of it is far more spectacular than reality, so it might be a shame to search it out now.
The school was built in the late 1920s, and it showed. The junior school classrooms were made from prefabricated concrete, with massive cast iron radiators lining their walls. The infant school classrooms were built in the following decades, and seemed to be dotted around the site quite randomly (reading history books about the area, it would seem there had indeed been little or no plan – the school expanded each year as demand dictated). By the time I started there in the 1978 there were about 450 pupils, as far as I can tell.
Each day began with an assembly in the school hall for the entire school. Each class sat together in a regimented grid across the floor, cross legged, while the teachers sat on plastic chairs around the outside. The headmaster – “W. R. Tull” would stand at a lectern with a microphone (I had forgotten the microphone until just now), and scare us all stiff. He was a stern looking man in his mid 60s, who always wore a suit, always bryl creemed his hair, and always looked immaculate. He wore horn rimmed spectacules, had a small moustache, and drove a cream coloured Jaguar car that was always parked opposite the portacabin that served as the town library for many years.
I suppose we don’t really know why we were so scared of him – because on the two occasions I ever had to talk to him during my years at the school, he was perhaps the kindest person in authority I had ever met. The first time I was in the junior school playground with my brother – who had taken an Airfix model kit of a Lancaster bomber in that he had built the previous weekend. Mr Tull made his way through the circle of children surrounding my brother to find out what was going on – and spotted the Lancaster.
“During the War, I flew Lancaster Bombers!”
There was a sudden hushed silence as mouths fell open all around. For the next few minutes the sea of children hung on his every word.
“You see that red rectangle there – that was the dingy – we once had to ditch our aircraft in the sea, and spent several hours bobbing around in the waves waiting to be picked up”.
The second time I met him, myself and my very good friend Jamie had dreamed up the idea of making a school newspaper. We thought we might get paper from the supply cupboard in the corner of our classroom, and write stories about what was going on the school. Our teacher sent us to talk the idea through with Mr Tull.
“And how are you going to finance this operation?”
Neither of us knew what the word finance meant. After a little explanation, he tried to make us understand that paper wasn’t actually free, and neither would the photo copier be (photo copiers were a very new thing – and Xerox was busily ripping everybody off, charging for each piece of paper printed, no matter how awful the pages often ended up looking). It won’t surprise you that our idea for a school newspaper went no further.
My first teacher in the infants was called “Mrs Hollenberg” – a warm, friendly lady with a mass of long curly hair. I struggle to remember her face now, which seems odd, but remember her being very kind, and always wearing long flowing skirts. I imagine all infant school teachers do that to avoid little boys peering up them. I only know this because my next teacher was involved in a car crash, and as she stepped over us one morning, we tried to get a look at the scars on her legs, and probably saw pretty much everything – not that we understood anything at that age, but we still knew we shouldn’t have looked.
My main memories of those first years of infant school are of the exercises the teachers took us through to learn to read and write. During the first year, I had a drawer to keep everything in with a painted robin on it. In the days before stickers and transfers, the robin was hand painted – in the manner of a 1950s book illustration, as were all the other drawers. I don’t remember what was in the drawer – just the front of it.
The teacher would cut out the silhouette of huge ladies from piece of paper, vaguely resembling a capital B, or the number 8. We would also draw snakes, and make hissing noises, not realising how clever the teachers were at all.
Of course it wasn’t all about work. Playtime emptied the children from the classrooms onto a tarmac playground marked out with a netball court, surrounded with seats made from logs. I remember sitting on the logs at playtime with my best friend Kim-Li, and basically being the biggest dork in the world – showing off to make her giggle. There was a tuck-shop in the corner of the Junior school playground which we were allowed to visit to buy crisps and foil-wrapped cookies. I can still remember Sarah Bates returning to the classroom in floods of tears one day when the prices had gone up, and she was 2 pence short for a bag of crisps. Oh, she did cry…
Every school day ended in the infants with story time, where our teacher would either sit on the shelves at the end of the classroom, or in a rocking chair on the edge of a rug in the corner, and we would listen in silence to a few more pages of whatever story she was reading that week. It’s only in later years that I have discovered how good teachers are at reading picture books upside down – while facing the pages towards the children.
Once the bell went to signal home time, we would be marched with our teacher out to the main gates, to meet the gaggle of parents that had formed in the half an hour or so beforehand. For many of the Mums, this was a rare chance to socialise, and they took it with both hands. I suppose it goes without saying that the Mums had favourite teachers – one would go on to become my first junior school teacher, but that’s another story for another day.