These days Hanmer School is tranquil and thriving, just the kind of country school people campaign to keep open because it’s gentler than the bigger urban versions, and the kids get more individual attention. Astonishing, to me, to go back and eavesdrop on these well-behaved children who wear uniforms, talk trustingly with their teachers, and have even produced a booklet which tells me that the school was first built in 1676, and that the Charity Commissioners reported in 1847 that it was damp and dirty, with rotting furniture. This 1847 school is more recognisable to me than the present one: all this cleanliness is unnatural. And what are they doing being literate, for God’s sake? This isn’t the school I knew. Perhaps I really did grow up, as I sometimes suspect, in a time-warp, an enclave of the 19th century? Because here are the memories jostling their way in, scenes from an overpopulated rural slum.
First there was dinner money, then the register. Then Miss Myra would hang up a cracked oilcloth scroll with the Lord’s Prayer printed on it in large curly letters. She prompted, we mumbled our way through, getting out of sync during the trespasses, and catching up with each other to arrive in unison at ‘For ever and ever. Amen.’ Next we’d be set to copy it out with chalk on jagged slices of slate. If you got to the end you simply started from the beginning again and went on until it was time to stop. You spat on your slate and rubbed it with your finger when you made mistakes, so sooner or later the letters all got lost in a grey blur. Not many in the babies’ class learned to read or write by this method. That didn’t matter too much, though. Hanmer Church of England School was less concerned with teaching its pupils reading, writing or arithmetic, than with obedience and knowing things by heart. Soon you’d be able to recite ‘Our Father’ and the multiplication tables with sing-song confidence, hitting the ritual emphasis right: ‘And twelve twelves are a hundred and forty-four. Amen.’
After a couple of years in Miss Myra’s room, you moved to her sister Miss Daisy’s, and after that to the biggest class, belonging to the headmaster Mr Palmer. He was a figure of fear, a kind of absentee deity. Offenders from the lower classes were sent to him for the stick, and were known to wet themselves on the way. His own class, too, regarded him with dread. He liked to preside over them invisibly from his house next door, emerging when the noise reached a level deafening enough to disturb him, to hand out summary punishment.
The further up the school you went, the less you were formally taught or expected to learn. There was a good deal of knitting, sewing and weaving for older girls, who would sit out winter playtimes gossiping round the stove, and getting their legs marbled with parboiled red veins from the heat. The big boys did woodwork, I think, and were also kept busy taking out the ashes, filling coke buckets and digging the garden. None of the more substantial farmers sent their children to Hanmer School. It had been designed to produce domestic servants and farm labourers, and functional illiteracy was still part of the expectation, almost part of the curriculum. Not long alter I started there, this time-honoured parochial system was shaken up when some of the older children were removed to a secondary modern school over the nearest border, in Shropshire. This thinned out the population and damped down the racket in Mr Palmer’s room, though quite a few restive overgrown kids still stayed on until they were 14 and the law allowed them to leave. Passing the 11-plus (‘the scholarship’) was unheard of; and anyway harder than it might have been, since grammar schools in neighbouring counties had quotas for children from the real sticks, i.e. the Maelor district. When my time came, Mr Palmer graciously cheated me through. Strolling past my desk on his invigilation rounds, he trailed a plump finger down my page of sums, pointed significantly at several, then crossed two fingers behind his back as he walked away. So I did those again.
Perhaps the record of failure was starting to look fishy. The world was changing, education was changing, and the notion that school should reflect your ready-made place in the scheme of things, and put you firmly back where you came from, was going out of fashion even in Hanmer. It was against the grain to acknowledge this, though. The cause of hierarchy and immobility was served by singling out the few children whose families didn’t fit and setting them homework. Mr Palmer drew the line at marking it, however. The three of us were given sums to do, then told to compare the results in a corner next morning. If all three, or two of us, arrived at the same answer, then that was the correct one. If – as often happened – all three of us produced different answers, then that particular long division or fraction retreated into the realm of undecidability. Most of our answers were at best odds-on favourites. I for one developed a dauntingly Platonic conception of arithmetical truths. The real answer must exist, but in some far-removed misty empyrean. Praying (‘... and forty-four. Amen.’) seemed often as good a route as any to getting it right.
Sums were my cross. Numeracy was not one of grandfather’s gifts; we never played with numbers, which were a subdivision of dilapidations and no fun at all. I went to school armed against the spit-and-chalk routine – words went on working – but with sums I struggled like the rest, since it was never part of Mr Palmer’s plan (the school’s plan) to reveal that the necessary skills were learnable. If you passed the scholarship, that was because you were somebody who should never have been at Hanmer School in the first place, was his theory.