My Schooldays

Lorna Sage

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.

One day he lined up his class, and went down the line saying with gloomy satisfaction ‘You’ll be a muck-shoveller, you’ll be a muck-shoveller, you’ll be a muck-shoveller ...’ and so on and on, only missing out the homework trio. As things turned out, he was mistaken – by the time my Hanmer generation grew up there were very few jobs on the land, the old mixed labour-intensive farming had finally collapsed, farmers had gone over to machinery, and the children he’d consigned to near-illiteracy and innumeracy had to re-educate themselves, and move on. Which they did, despite all the school had done to inculcate ignorance. Back there and then in our childhoods, though, in the late Forties, Mr Palmer seemed omniscient. He ruled over a little world where conformity, bafflement, fear and furtive defiance were the orders of the day. Every child’s ambition at Hanmer School was to avoid attracting his attention, or that of Miss Myra or Miss Daisy. We all played dumb, the one lesson everyone learned.

We’d have seemed a lumpen lot: sullen, unresponsive, cowed, shy or giggly in the presence of grown-ups. A bunch of nosepickers and nail-biters, with scabbed knees, warts, chapped skin and unbrushed teeth. We shared a certain family resemblance, in other words. Some of it was absolutely, organically, real: seven or eight huge families accounted between them for nearly half the population of the school. There were brothers, sisters and cousins who slapped, shoved and bossed each other unmercifully, but always stood up for their own flesh and blood (thickened, it was rumoured, by incest) in the end. ‘You leave our Dorcen alone.’ Or else. Having big brothers or (much better) big sisters – since the big boys had their own separate playground and didn’t usually deign to intervene – seemed the first condition for survival in the Infants’ class. In fact, though, these rough, protective clans were already on the way out. There were quite a few parents who’d worked out that one way of escaping poverty was having fewer children, and a subtle eye could have detected amongst the mass of rowdy, runny-nosed urchins a small sub-class of better-dressed, prissier and slightly more respectable children. The girls wore hair-slides and newly-knitted cardigans, the boys were ‘nesh’ (the Hanmer word for anything from clean to feeling-the-cold to cowardly) and were endlessly tormented. Being an only child – as I was, for the time being – was a mixed blessing at best when it came down to the gritty realities of the playground. The ‘nesh’ ones I despised, and it was entirely mutual, since I was dirty, precocious and had never been treated like a child. And the tribes despised me for being sole, pseudoclean and ‘stuck up’.

So the playground was hell: Chinese burns, pinches, slaps and kicks, and horrible games. I can still hear the noise of a thick wet skipping rope slapping the ground. There’d be a big girl each end, and you had to leap through without tripping. Joining in was only marginally less awful than being left out. It’s said (truly) that most women forget the pain of childbirth; I think that we all forget the pain of being a child at school for the first time, the sheer ineptitude, as though you’ll never learn to mark out your own space. It’s doubly shaming – shaming to remember as well, to feel so sorry for your scabby little self back there in small people’s purgatory.

The only writer I know of who has done justice to the experience is a science fiction writer, Ray Bradbury. He has a 1953 story, ‘The Playground’, where a father makes a pact with the powers of evil in order to substitute for his son in the battle. He’s sucked back into memory and finds himself miniaturised and skinless all over again:

there were screams, sharp visions, children dashing, children fighting, pummelling, bleeding, screaming! He saw the tiniest scabs on their faces and knees with amazing clarity ... smelled the cutting odours of iodine, raw adhesive, and pink mercurochrome, so strong it was bitter to the tongue. The wind of iodine moving through the steely wire fence which glinted dully in the grey light of the overcast day. And the rushing children there, it was like hell cut loose in a great pinball machine, a colliding and banging and totalling of hits and pushes and rushes to a grand and as yet unforeseen total of brutalities.

The smells are particularly evocative of a whole universe of hurt. One of the things that makes the tale so effective is the fact that the playground doesn’t even have a school attached, so that you’re in a world made of children, with no exit to the future. All schools, however hopeless, have some line about growing up (‘And you’ll be a muck-shoveller’) and teachers do – for their own purposes – make kids separate themselves out and sit still. Whereas during playtime they’re sentenced to collide, as Bradbury so exactly puts it, because they haven’t yet learned where their bodies’ boundaries are.

He assumed that this nightmare only applies to boys, who are learning how to be manly, i.e. violent. It’s a very ‘post-war’ piece, and he expects his readers to think of the front line, I imagine. For all that, it fits my girlish memories very well. My first days at school were punctuated by fierce contests in the yard, duels almost, complete with spectators, with the one girl who might have been expected to be my friend. In fact she did become my very best friend, years later, when we went round holding hands painfully fast and giggling together hysterically, but for now she was my sworn enemy. Gail (she even had a funny name, like me) had hair in ringlets, greenhazel eyes and pale, clear, slightly olive skin stretched tight and shiny over her muscles, and she was nearly a year older than I was. She’d have won our war in any case, though, since she was so physically confident, in charge of her body even when she was five. Was she already going to dancing lessons? I don’t remember. In adult life she became a teacher of physical education and modern dance herself, and even in the days of our adolescent intimacy she would sometimes win an argument by twisting my wrist. I was convinced at the stan, anyway, that she was simply better at inhabiting her body than I was – not only better at face-pulling, hair-pulling, pinching, scratching and every sort of violence, but wiry and graceful, so that she made me feel like an unstrung puppet. Once she’d thoroughly trounced me in public, Gail ignored me, and held court in her own corner every playtime. She remained something of a loner however. Other little girls might admire the ringlets, and the dresses with smocking on the yokes, and the white socks that stayed up, but she was not allowed out to play in the square after school, and everyone knew that she had to sit for hours every night while her grandmother twisted her hair in rags. What really set her apart though – even more effectively than the vicarage set me apart – was the fact that her mother was divorced.

Given that quite a few kids in Hanmer didn’t know who their father was – or at least knew that he wasn’t the one he was supposed to be – it may seem odd that divorce stood out as a social sin. But its novelty was against it. It was untraditional, new-fangled and (worst of all) above Gail’s mother’s station. Lady Kenyon (the Kenyons were the other local grandees, a lot richer and more dashing than the Hanmers) might be divorced, and that was fittingly aristocratic; for the local garageowner’s daughter to do it was very different. Who did she think she was? People saw her as some new brand of fallen woman.

She was disapproved of in the vicarage, too, but mostly for reasons of envy. There was a history behind this: Gail’s mother and my mother had been friends before the war. They had starred together in the pantomimes my grandfather had put on in the village hall in the days before he had been overtaken by booze and bitterness. My mother, whose name was Valma – another of grandfather’s romantic choices, though I’ve never known where he got it – and Gail’s mother, whose name was Ivy, had played Prince Charming and Cinderella respectively. They stood there in a surviving photograph, two slim young women with their arms clasped around each other’s waists in the middle of the assembled cast, their big, hopeful, lip-sticked smiles looking black and glamorous. Gail’s mother, being divorced, looked pretty much like this still, except that she was even skinnier. She also had a job driving the local taxi. Whereas my mother, thanks to a combination of marriage, poverty and her parents’ crazy demands, lived in (comparative) purdah. This was what made grandma furious. She said that Ivy looked like Olive Oyl in the Popeye cartoons, or like a stick of liquorice. And that she was common. But it was all sour grapes. Secretly grandma must have thought divorce a good idea – her notion of marriage after all was that a man signed you up to have his wicked way with you, and should spend the rest of his life paying through the nose. But her expressed opinion coincided with village wisdom.

Even playground games, in the intervals of thumps and pushes, were all about the changeless order of things. ‘The farmer wants a wife,’ we’d chant, joining hands in a ring – ‘Heigh ho, heigh ho, the farmer wants a wife.’ And when the snotty little boy in the middle had chosen his bride. ‘The wife wants a child ... The child wants a dog. Heigh ho, heigh ho’ – which sounded like ‘eee-oh!’, this farmer was related to Old Macdonald – ‘The child wants a dog.’ This doggy extension of the nuclear family seemed to join human arrangements onto the whole wealth of species, top to bottom, patriarch to pup. And then the climax – ‘The dog wants a bone.’ The bone, by tradition a tiny, would be vigorously bounced, thrown into the air and caught on the way down, by the farmer, wife, child and dog, while we all shouted triumphantly. ‘The bone – won’t – stand! The bone – won’t – stand! Eee oh! Eee oh! The bone – won’t STAND!’ Being chosen as the bone was a mixed delight, scary and painful as well as thrilling, so I wasn’t sorry that my turn seldom came round. This game, all the games, were a bit like those horrible group therapy exercises where you’re meant to let yourself fall in order to learn to trust the rest, who catch you. Mutual dependence – farmer, wile, child, dog, bone, representing the great chain of being. And you couldn’t be outside of it. Gail and I and the Other milder misfits curried favour with the pack in our separate ways.

My great advantage was the churchyard. Mr Downward the sexton would turn a blind eye to all but the most boisterous grave-hopping games if I was involved in them. He seemed to regard the churchyard as an extension of the vicarage garden, and indeed the wall between them was so tumbledown in one place that the boundary was only a pile of long-fallen bricks in a nettle-patch. As the vicarage child I was a licensed trespasser, and I shared out my immunity amongst the ‘dirty’ children I could persuade to play with me after school, or on Saturdays. I was especially popular when there had been a Saturday morning wedding: we all collected confetti, but its dolly-mixture colours didn’t last long in that rainy region, you had to pick up the little pink bells and white bows and silver horseshoes quickly or they dissolved away. We especially treasured the silvered sort, and scorned the cheap variety stamped out of waste paper, often mere dots with cryptic fragments of print on them. Once there were drifts of silky, paper rose-petals on the path, each shaded from cream to crimson, and these we saved up reverently.

Funeral wreaths were even better, though only for looking at until they were thrown onto the rubbish-heap in the corner, when if you were lucky you could salvage a carnation or lily or chrysanthemum still blooming – luxury flowers a cut above the sweet Williams, wallflowers and Michaelmas daisies of village borders. We marvelled too at the glass and porcelain immortelles under their glass globes, and the graves that had shrubs growing on them and shorn grass looked impressively tidy, but it was the bunches of flowers people brought to lay on the graves that gave us our chance to really join in the grown-ups’ mourning games. There’s nothing small children enjoy more than parcelling things out according to some system of just desserts, and it was obvious that many of the dead were being short-changed. This a gang of us – mostly girls – set about putting right, redistributing the flowers in jamjars and empty vases filled at the sexton’s pump so that everybody had some. We weren’t strictly egalitarian, however. Certain graves, particularly one with a soulful baby angel in white marble belonging to a child who’d died in the Thirties, always ended up with the best bunches.

It’s tempting now, looking back, to see in our pious and partial efforts a dim reflection of post-war social policies. Certainly Hanmer churchyard was a pretty good microcosm of inequality. None of those children who puddled around so busily at the pump, and solemnly divided up the daffs and pinks, had any graves of their own, as it were. Their families must have been buried there, but the graves were unmarked, they had no more property in the churchyard than anywhere else. My family had none there either, of course, but that was because they had recently moved to Hanmer. Nowadays my mother lies there under her stone, alongside my grandparents’ grave. I wonder if any of my generation of upwardly socially mobile Duckets or Williamses or Tinsleys have invested in graveyard real estate? Back in the late Forties, at any rate, their families inhabited anonymous, untended tussocks after they died. I think we kids took it for granted that life after death was a class matter. I know we spent many fruitless hours searching for the entrances to the Hanmer and Kenyon vaults, in the expectation of meeting real ghosts: it was clear to us that the only reason they needed those underground apartments was because they were somehow undead. Or perhaps this was a theory I suggested, Away from the playground, on church territory, I set up as an expert on such spooky topics, and managed – on some blissful days – to feel accepted, a member of the child world of Hanmer.

Well, the bugs thought so, I had the school doctor’s word for that. I was sent home with a note, like most people (but not everyone: that line about lice preferring clean hair is just a propaganda ploy to get the middle classes to own up) and predictably grandma said – one, that I’d caught them from those dirty children; and two, that there was no point in applying the magic bug-killing mixture recommended because it would mean boiling too many kettles, and anyway I’d only get reinfected. And anyway we couldn’t be seen buying that stuff in local towns, we’d have to do it in a strange place where no one knew us. So I spent the rest of my time at junior school blithely passing on head lice. The first year at grammar school, too, to my utter chagrin – but that comes later. For the moment, I sort of belonged. The high point of my career as a dirty child was also, coincidentally, inspired by the school doctor. Medical examinations were a complete novelty to most Hanmer families, and for us kids the beginnings of the NHS-licensed elaborate games of doctors and nurses, which took place in the bushes at the bottom of the vicarage garden. Nowhere else was private enough (no one else’s family was so oblivious) and so I became while the craze lasted everybody’s friend.

We queued up, I recall, behind a hazel tree, knickers round our knees, clutching leaves for ‘papers’, and shuffled along to have our bottoms examined by Kenny or Bill or Derek, who, after having a good look and making dubious predictions, always prescribed the same thing: another leaf, which might, excitingly, be a nettle, but never was. This one was stuck on with spit if you were a girl, and threaded over your willie if you were a boy, and you were supposed to keep it on like a poultice as long as you could. For most of one summer this illicit clinic was convened once or twice a week, until we got bored, or the weather turned. Never again was there quite such a good occasion for kidnapping other kids onto my territory. In fact, when I think back to that time, it’s not such heady, forbidden games that really represent its feel, but other much more routine memories – like lining up with the others outside on raw winter days, all wearing damp, knitted pixie hats, and rubbing our chilblains while we waited to be marched over to the parish hall for our regulation school dinner of whale-meat stew. Thinking of that produces a mingled brew of fear and longing that seems the very essence of school.

Bit by bit the fear came to predominate. I became a timid, clumsy, speechless child – agonisingly shy, in a word. In my last year at school Mr Palmer would promise me sixpence for every time he spoke to me and I didn’t cry. I think I earned a shilling. More and more I lived in books, they were my comfort, refuge, addiction, compensation for the humiliations that attended contact with the world outside. But books were nothing really to do with school, of course, not this school. I was a real dunce at the things I was supposed to learn – how to be neat, tidy, dexterous, obedient, punctual. My sewing turned to a grubby rag, it had been unpicked so many times. My knitting was laddered with dropped stitches. I couldn’t write a line without making a blot. So I was mystified when I passed ‘the scholarship’ at ten, and felt sure it was a mistake, and someone was going to find me out.

They didn’t, and still haven’t, I suppose. Hanmer School left its mark on my mental life though. For instance: one day in a grammar school maths lesson I got into a crying jag over the notion of minus numbers. Minus one threw out my universe, it couldn’t exist, I couldn’t understand it. This, I realised tearfully, under coaxing from an amused (and mildly amazed) teacher, was because I thought numbers were things. In fact, cabbages. We’d been taught in Miss Myra’s class to do addition and subtraction by imagining more cabbages and fewer cabbages. Every time I did mental arithmetic I was juggling ghostly vegetables in my head. And when I tried to think of minus one, I was trying to imagine an anti-cabbage, an antimatter cabbage, which was as hard as conceiving of an alternative universe.