While sitting at the departure gate in Frankfurt Airport, waiting for my flight home, is occurred to me that I might release another chunk of this year’s NaNoWriMo – an autobiography of sorts. Today’s excerpt takes you through infant and junior school with me. Enjoy!
Apparently my start a infant school didn’t go well. I was pretty determined at 5 years old that I wasn’t going to be going to school, thank you very much, and my Mum would be coming to get me – which she did for the first few days – to take me home for lunch, and then back in again.
Thinking back, it must have been a bit of a nightmare – we lived well over a mile from the school, so no sooner had my Mum got home after dropping me off on a morning, she would have had to turn around, and walk back again. Obviously at some point I realised there was far too much walking back and forth involved, and decided that staying at school would be far easier – mostly for me.
The school I attended was one of four in the town – and perhaps the biggest. After entering through the main gates, you would walk through the junior school playground, and on towards the infant buildings on the far side. Most of the early years classrooms were built in the 1960s along the edge of a tarmac playground lined – which doubled as a netball court – with telegraph pole benches around it’s perimeter. Rather mysteriously, there were climbing frames on the school field alongside that we were never allowed to touch. It was very frustrating.
My first teacher was a bubbly lady by the name of Mrs Hollenberg. I don’t remember her face – just her mass of curly red-brown hair, and the huge flowery dresses she wore. I also remember her cutting letters of the alphabet from pages of broad-sheet newspapers, and pinning them to the walls of the classroom.
A little way through my first year of infant school, it became obvious why Mrs Hollenberg wore the giant flowery dresses – she was rather heavily pregnant. We arrived in class one day to discover she had been replaced by a tall, young, elegant, and looking back, beautiful lady with jet black hair called Mrs Ellis.
Until Mrs Ellis had a car crash.
I remember our teacher changing again – to a Mrs Komenick, who all the parents at the school gate adored, and I can remember Mrs Ellis returning to work some weeks later. We were to be careful of brushing against her legs on account of her injuries. She and another teacher – Mrs Woodcock – had been in the car, and both of them seriously injured. Of course none of this was communicated on to us at the time – we found out years later.
My only real memory of Mrs Ellis is that she was quite strict. This may have had quit a lot to do with my propensity to daydream. I was good at daydreaming – I still am. Where most people have distracting thoughts, I seem to have an entire theatre of the mind going on – playing out scenes that haven’t happened and probably never will happen in their entirety.
I suppose there is one other memory – but I’m not sure if it’s to do with my teacher’s injuries, or a very early sense of “I shouldn’t be doing this”. During story time one day, while a group of us sat on a rug to listen to Mrs Ellis read from a story book in that upside down fashion that teachers are so good at, she needed to get up and fetch something – so strode over the top of us all, picking her way through the gaps between us, her skirt billowing as she did so. Myself and a friend looked up as she passed overhead – on purpose. Here’s the funny thing – I have absolutely no memory of what we saw, but I do remember looking at my friend wide-eyed as we sat cross-legged, and giggling at our own bravery and/or stupidity.
You’ll be glad to know that was my only such brush with such goings on – I didn’t progress to dropping things underneath girls skirts, or playing kiss chase on the field at lunchtimes in the summer.
Each day – after arriving at school, we would gather in the school hall, sitting cross-legged on the herring bone patterned wooden flooring, and listen to the headmaster as he made announcements, and probably picked something witty or interesting to say from a book of witty and interesting things to say for headmasters. He was a frightening man if you were five years old – perhaps sixty-something years old, always in an immaculate suit, slicked back hair, and a tiny moustache. Kind of a more friendly version of Hitler, I suppose. He drove a lumbering Jaguar to school – the kind you sometimes see criminals drive in 1950s movies starring Lesley Phillips and Terry Thomas.
What we didn’t know about W.R.Tull (that was his name) was that he had been a Lancaster bomber navigator during the second world war. We found this out when my brother took a model aircraft he had been building into school, and was accosted by Mr Tull while showing it to his friends. A sea of children gathered around him as he told stories about ditching in the sea, and floating on the waves in inflatable boats until help arrived. He pointed out the panel on the side of the plane where the boat was stored, and we all listened in stunned (and frightened) silence.
Getting back to the school hall, if you had achieved anything of note during the school day, you would be invited to stand at the front and receive the congratulations of the rest of the school – every day names were read out, and certificates handed out by the headmaster, one at a time, to thunderous applause. He read out the names from a lectern at the side of the stage area.
I got to stand on the stage perhaps four or five times during my time at junior school – for various smimming certificates, and to act out a parable from the bible with the rest of my class.
Our school had a swimming pool! How could I forget that! For such a small school (there were perhaps three hundred pupils across years one to six) to have a swimming pool was unusual to say the least – it had been paid for by fundraising by parents over several years, and the school was very, very proud of it.
The pool was in an unheated out-building, on the edge of the school field. It was ten metres long, by five metres wide, and about as deep as an adult’s hips (not very deep at all). The walls were painted white, with a mural running all the way around with under-sea scenes – octopi, fish, coral reefs, and even Poseidon, if memory serves. The boys and girls changing rooms were communal (we were only five, remember) – although there was a half-height dividing wall between the benches where the girls and boys would get changed. If we stood on the benches to look over at the girls getting changed, the instant screams would alert teachers, and we would find ourselves in all sorts of trouble.
It’s funny how punishments form such a big part of your memory of your early school years – even if you rarely found yourself in trouble. At my school if you did anything ridiculous at break-time or lunchtime, you would find yourself “in the middle”. This referred to a small circle painted in the centre of the playground, that was kind of the real-world equivalent of the phantom zone that General Zod got confined to in Superman. You had to stand in the circle for the rest of playtime, and a teacher would deal with you afterwards. Nobody was allowed to talk to anybody standing “in the middle”, and if you were “in the middle”, you were not allowed to talk to anybody else. To be honest, it was incredibly rare that anybody ended up standing in the imaginary purgatory – I only did once, as far as I can remember – for squirting a dinner-lady with a fake flower ring filled with water. I thought I was tremendously funny until I saw her reaction. I can’t imagine how the teacher kept a straight face while telling me how disappointed she was in my behaviour.
Perhaps the most humorous “in the middle” episode happened a couple of years later – when I was in the juniors. At the end of playtime, all of the children would form into class lines at the edges of the playground, ready to be walked back into class by our teachers. This of course left anybody standing in the middle doing exactly that – standing in the middle – waiting for a member of staff to approach, question, and express their disappointment. There was this one time though, when the boy standing in the middle decided he had had enough of it all – and rather than listen to the aerated teacher rant at him (he was a well known lunatic of a child), he turned and ran. I can still see the teacher racing off after him across the playground, and catching him after a few strides – lifting him with huge hands around his upper arms, and his legs still running in midair as he was marched – still running – towards the head-master’s office. Shocked and stunned whispers murmured all around the playground for quite some time before we all began filing in for afternoon lessons.
That same little boy died in a car crash years later. He passed his driving test, and days later killed himself, and very nearly killed his friends while driving like a lunatic. I’ve often wondered if he might have been an example of nature versus nurture. His parents were lovely, and his brother was lovely – he became one of my best friends – but his little brother was an absolute lunatic, and everybody knew it.
Another memory of infant school was the school tuck-shop. At the beginning of break-time each day, you were allowed to venture to the adjoining junior-school playground, and visit their tuck-shop, that sold packets of crisps (invariably the cheapest crisps available from whichever retailer), and foil-wrapped cookies called “Mojo"s. Each item only cost a few pence, and the shop was run by students, who took turns to be shop-keeper for the day – I’ll get back to this later. I can still remember the day – at about six years old – when Sarah Bates arrived back in our classroom during a wet playtime, in floods of tears. The crisps had gone up in price by 1 pence, meaning she didn’t have enough money to buy any. It took her quite some time to calm down enough to tell the teacher what had happened.
The junior school that you walked through to reach the infant school was built in the post war years, and very much resembled a collection of military buildings – long, thin sheds subdivided into classrooms, with high windows – preventing children from seeing out to the playground. The buildings bordered the playground on adjacent sides, and were later partnered by a hall, and further classrooms in the 1960s.
The classrooms were warm in the summer, and cold in winter – heated by post war plumbing that rarely worked – huge cast-iron radiators lined the walls, and would break your kneecaps if you caught them while walking past.
Between the classrooms, long tiled corridors led out to the playground, and to the boys and girls bathrooms. The corridors were lined with benches, and coat hooks – usually festooned with hundreds of coats, scarves, gloves, and hats. We were supposed to have an assigned peg in the hallway, but one or two children would entirely disregard that plan.
My first teacher in junior school was called Mr Hannant. He was charming, funny, and a favourite with all the mums at the school gates. He was fairly short, stocky, sported an impressive moustache, and neat mop of black hair. He decorated his classroom with various shapes made from cut and folded paper – octohedrons, decahedrons, dodecahedrons, and so on. Looking back, it must have taken him hours to make them all.
Mr Hannant would sit on his desk to tell stories for the last half-hour of each day – swinging his legs as he read. I remember him reading 101 Dalmations one term, and use all becoming swept up in the story – breathlessly telling our parents about each day’s adventure after the bell rang.
At the end of each day, the teachers would walk their class out to the school gates, where parents waited for their arrival. For many of the parents, those few minutes were their only chance of social interaction during the week – and boy did they take advantage of it. Every afternoon you would find endless children hanging from their Mum or Dad’s sleeve, asking if they were going home yet.
Mr Hannant inspired all sorts of wonder in us at 7 years old. In the school hall there were a number of pieces of gymnastics apparatus that could be wheeled along tracks in the ceiling for PE lessons – I can still remember watching him climb a rope hand-over-hand – that single act lifted him up alongside Superman.
‘Outside of school, Mr Hannant also presented the early morning show on the local radio station. One of our school trips took us to visit the station, and meet the various presenters. A new presenter that had just started at the station gave us all a photo of him jumping off the roof – his name was Timmy Mallet, and he would go on to become a stalwart of children’s television years later. He now lives about ten miles from me – it’s funny how life works out.
The only time we spent apart from our teacher at Junior school was to go and sing in the school choir. You had two choices with regard to the school choir – you either went to choir, or you went to choir. Not really much of a choice then. Looking back, your time with the music teacher was a chance for the other teachers to go and get a coffee, and a break from their class for a few minutes – except Mr Hannant invariably joined us in the hall to sing along with us all.
The Music Teacher was a stalwart of music hall theatre called Mrs Coates. It seemed she had starred on the stage at some point earlier in her career, and was somehow bitter about now teaching music to children who either could not, or would not sing to a level she was happy with. She had long dark hair, and enormous breasts. Even at 7 years old I knew she had enormous breasts, and it’s not something I typically notice. She would bark at us all to “Sit up straight, smile, and sound your esses!”, while playing the upright piano in the corner of the hall like a demented machine gunner.
Along with Mrs Coates, and Mr Hannant, we learned to sing all manner of songs that generations of school children before us had also learned – standards, ballads, and unfortunately a number of church prescribed songs trumpeting God’s might, and how our soldiers would go to war and defeat everybody who questioned him – all in the name of God. Those songs were eventually banned.
I followed my brother through the junior school – he was three years ahead of me, meaning that we crossed paths for one year. I still remember the day I had forgotten my PE kit, so had to visit his classroom and ask if I might borrow his. I arrived at his teacher’s desk – an imposing tyrant called Mr Lock – and only then noticed that not only my trousers on inside out, they were also on backwards. Thankfully Mr Lock said nothing.
As far as I recall, we did PE in our underwear if indoors – which would probably get schools shut down these days. The hall would be transformed into a gymnasium, with ropes, rings, a trapese, a vaulting horse, and all manner of crash mats. I remember being envious of the children that could climb the ropes up to the ceiling – I was hopeless at it.
The hall was also used for “Country Dancing” – a regular activity where guided dances were dictated from a tape player on a trolley – calling out rote moves over and over again. Although we all said we hated it, we secretly enjoyed it, and always put in as much effort as possible. I can still remember a sequence of steps called a “do-se-do” to this day.
What else do I remember about my time at Junior school? Oh yes – the desks! The desks were wooden, and half of the surface folded, to expose a storage drawer underneath. The drawer under my desk typically contained a few books, my handwriting pen (which had to be earned), and a star wars figure. Most children had a toy car, or some other small thing. The desks all had an ink-well in the far corner too – a throwback from an earlier time. Thankfully by the time I went to school, pencils and rollerball pens had become the norm. It’s worth noting that we were not allowed to use biros – only school issued “handwriting pens”.
My Mum kept many of my school exercise books, and gave them to me when I moved away from home. They are pretty entertaining. One book is titled “Weekend News”, with room on each page for a picture, and a sentence of writing. Almost every weekend is filled with a total and utter work of fiction – telling stories of things that almost certainly never happened. One page in particular is telling though – a very detailed account of watching a Godzilla movie on TV, with a spectacular scene drawn above. The school project work books didn’t always translate facts accurately either – according to me, the Lancaster Bomber had a range of about five miles. That’s going to be quite limiting, isn’t it – only being able to bomb the enemy when they get within eye poking distance…
My memories of Junior school are almost all positive. I moved from Mr Hannant to Miss Hughes, Mr Lock, and then Miss Edge before leaving for secondary school. I remember some days with particular affection – like the day Miss Hughes wheeled the school television into the classroom for us all to watch the first launch of the Space Shuttle – or the day Mrs Ellis returned to teach us for one day – or the times Miss Edge read us fantastical stories while perched on the benches at the end of her classroom.
Miss Edge was a newly qualified student teacher, who taught me during my final year of junior school. She drove a Citroen 2CV, which she parked at the end of the school playground. She had a shock of red frizzy hair, was slender in build, and typically wore flowing dresses covered in Laura Ashley flower patterns. She may as well have been called “Mrs Lovely”. A favourite memory is of her inventing math questions involving numbers of kangaroo burgers, or other such made-up foods.
Only recently I discovered that Mr Lock and Miss Edge eventually got married. This kind of stunned me, because you couldn’t imagine two people more different than each other. Mr Lock was a tall, imposing, frightening teacher. He terrified my brother, and caused a visit by my parents to visit the headmaster about his teaching methods (fear, intimidation, and cruelty, if my brother was to be believed). Here’s the thing though – my brother is the only person I’ve ever heard tell such stories about him.
I met Mr Lock years later, driving the bus to college. He smiled, but didn’t say anything. I often wonder why he left teaching, and became a bus driver – was my brother right? Or had he finally had enough of pulling crayons from children’s noses ?
Throughout junior school my best friends were Jamie Blackwell, and Claire Goodman. Both Jamie and Claire were the children of local police officers – it may surprise you to learn that this only just occurred to me. Claire lived across the road from me, and had a little sister called Anna. She insisted her real name was “Fred”, but her own family all called her “Sid”. I’ve never actually questioned why, or even thought to question why – I guess when you’re young you just take information on-board without really questioning it.
At the end of junior school, Claire went to a different secondary school than me, so we almost became strangers overnight – it’s funny how that happens. Where we had spent countless evenings and summers in each other’s company, suddenly we were reduced to occasional waves if we left the house at the same time as each other. Our favourite dinner lady on the school playground called us “you lovebirds” on more than one occasion – causing burning red faces, and more than a few awkward moments.
Dinner ladies. Who remembers the ladies that watched over the playground at lunchtime? In the world I grew up in, dinner ladies came out of some kind of “dinner lady mold” – complete with a large wool coat, sheep skin lined boots, and a small upset child attached to at least one hand as they wandered through the sea of children like a first world war battleship. They always seemed to be sturdy, yet softly spoken women of a certain age – sometimes sporting the type of battleship hairdo I had only previously seen at the bingo hall. My favourite dinner lady was called “Mrs Daily” (or Daley – I’m not sure of the spelling). She always had a kind word, and would seemingly spot trouble entire minutes before it actually occurred. Her hair was always pulled up into a bun, with a long fringe swept neatly to one side with hair-grips. She always wore a quilted three-quarter length coat, and huge mittens – at least in my memory.
I don’t really remember my last day at junior school – or infant school for that matter. I’m not really sure why. All I do remember is the tremendous excitement felt throughout the class when the summer holidays approached. I also remember my year six teacher crying on the last day as she said goodbye to us all.