Recently the daily prompt at WordPress asked me to write a memorial to part of my childhood that had been destroyed.
It’s not fashionable to admit liking school. Sometimes anti-intellectualism goes too far, and so I am here to tell you that school was happy for some of us, at least some of the time. My secondary school was horrible, but primary – well, I lived in heaven for several years, my dears. I told you about one of my teachers there the other day. The fantastic Mr B.
It wasn’t just Mr B though; it was the school itself. It wasn’t Hogwarts (if Hogwarts ever had a prep school, which it didn’t, but never mind), with Houses and homework and ghosts – although allegedly there was a ghost in our classroom. I think Mr B made him up, but you can’t be too careful about these things. The ghost lived in the roofspace over our classroom; you see that big arched window in the main building? That was our classroom, and Willy Woodthorpe, the ghost, lived above it. At the end of the day, when we were getting giddy, Mr B would sit us down and play his version of Sleeping Lions. We had to sit at our desks and not smile or giggle. Meanwhile he stalked among us, telling us about Willy Woodthorpe and making silly faces and noises until we cracked. The last one to laugh won.
When I say the school was special, I don’t mean the teachers, although most of them were fabulous. Except the one who threw the blackboard wiper at your head if she got cross. She was not fabulous at all. She was the threat we held over annoying kids.
“I’ll tell Miss Scary!”
That wasn’t her real name of course, although it was how we thought of her. I doubt she meant to be scary, but she did get quite angry quite often. She used crutches because she had had polio as a child, and so she was not very mobile. I suspect the throwing was compensation for a clip round the ear, which other teachers might have adopted.
Anyway, not the teachers. The school itself, the bricks and mortar and crumbly, fading glory of it that you could pick out of the cracks with prying fingers when you were bored.
It was typical of many schools of that age – high windows and ceilings, resulting in cold rooms with grumbling, clunky radiators fighting a losing, cantankerous battle, and a polished wooden floor in the main hall where we went to sing hymns and do gym (not at the same time). The stage had library shelves at the back which you were allowed to use once you were good enough at reading. It was brilliant. There were books about astronauts and dinosaurs and volcanoes, although sadly not all in one stupendous volume.
The playground had lots of nooks and crannies, because the building was so fractal on the edges. It was a bit like Slartibartfast’s fjords, lovely and crinkly, providing a baroque feel. By unspoken agreement, different year groups inhabited different areas. Once we were in the final year we took over the space outside our classroom and held manic conker competitions and pretended to be daleks and had fights and long, soul searching discussions on the benches (because it was almost, but not quite, time for puberty).
During playtimes we might see our mums going past on their way back from shopping in town, which meant we had to be reasonably well-behaved otherwise we would be in trouble at home time. There was a rain shelter (you can just see the edge of it on the left hand side of the photo; it’s the square brick wall poking in behind the railings) which only held about half the school complement on days it was wet, so the smaller children tended to steam slightly if they sat near a radiator on a wet afternoon. We always went outside at break, without exception. Blue knees were pretty common because the girls all had short skirts and the boys all had short trousers; the science class on circulation of the blood made complete sense once you had examined your mottled knees and realised your life was being sucked from you by vampire winds. Our mums knitted balaclavas to keep our ears warm, but knees were left to fend for themselves.
I suppose the school was hard to heat, although the kitchens cooked us hot dinners every day so it felt warm in the hall itself. The only way in and around was up and down stairs, which were problematic if you had difficulty walking, like Miss Scary, or like the boy in our year who had cerebral palsy. He took forever to get up to the classroom. At the time we just waited because that was how long he took, although some of the boys called him names when the teachers weren’t around.
The downside to this suburban idyll was the toilets. When I say toilets, don’t be fooled into imaging pristine water closets with working flush mechanisms and gleaming porcelain. This was the 1960s. They were in special blocks the other side of the playground, and they were unspeakably horrible. I suspect most of us, if we learned nothing else, learned top quality bladder control because really anything was preferable to having to use them. It was a wonder we didn’t all catch cholera, although if we had I expect we would still have had to go to school. You needed a cast iron excuse to be off sick, such as death, and even then only if your mum wrote a note.
Most of us were happy there. Most of us learned to read and write and add up enough to get by.
I also saw the first man walk on the moon one summer day, and discovered that not everyone speaks English when a couple of Chinese children arrived (no one actually explained but I suspect they were refugees). I had my first crush on an actual boy, won another boy’s best conker in a fluke attack, and did handstands against the toilet block walls with the other girls. I made a model of an archaeopteryx which hung for the rest of term from the classroom ceiling.
Admittedly I also learned some unsavoury lessons, such as: if I hit the boy who teased me, he got in trouble for teasing a girl, and no one believed I had hit him. He learned the game wasn’t worth the candle and left me and my friends alone afterwards.
Eventually the council got fed up with the crumbly old building and hazardous toilets. They sold it to the Salvation Army and this is what is there now.
But the spirit of Willy Woodthorpe lives on, and, to paraphrase appallingly, you can’t take my school from me. Cue fiddles!
Take my love, take my land
Take me where I cannot stand
I don’t care, I’m still free
You can’t take the sky my school from me.
Take me out to the black
Tell them I ain’t comin’ back
Burn the land and boil the sea
You can’t take the sky my school from me.
Know my school and you know me.