The best days of your life or not?
How often have you heard adults say that your school days are the best days of your life. I am sure that Tom Brown in the novel of the same name would argue against that assumption. Looking back I can honestly say that at times I enjoyed school, and at others I hated it. School for me was just something that you had to go to. There was no choice, it was compulsory or so that is what we believed. Things were very different in the 1970’s. For a start, few parents dropped the kids of at school; there just wasn’t any need to do so; children made their own way, either with brothers and sisters or with friends or both. Parents didn’t group in the playground, cluttering the place up with pushchairs and toddlers, clucking around like broody hens. You were trusted and expected to take yourselves to school, and trusted to get yourself back home again from a very young age. Parents just didn’t have the same fear factor that faces modern parents, well, at least not to the same degree. Parents didn’t have to get that involved with the school apart from making an appearance at Parent’s Evening every now and then. Once you were at school the teachers were in charge of you. That’s how it was. If you did wrong at school, the teachers would punish you as they saw fit; maybe with a smack or a shout or if you were a boy, you could get sent to the Head Teacher for the cane. I can recall taking the register up to the Head Mistress’s office as that was where they went once the register had been called. It was not unusual to see a queue of boys waiting to be given the cane.
My school days began as a rising five at Kelvin Grove Junior School in Kirkdale, South East London. It wasn’t reputed as a particularly good school but it could have been worse and it could certainly have been better. Would have passed an Ofsted inspection these days? Highly unlikely! Maureen, my eldest sister had started her school career at St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Primary School. One lunch time she refused to eat an apple so the Nuns locked her in a cupboard, in the dark. I have never been locked away in a dark cupboard. For a five year old it must have been terrifying. If that was done to a child today it would be considered child abuse. Mummy took her away from St Joseph’s immediately, and found an available place at Kelvin Grove, which is how we all got to go there. Perhaps that early trauma in Maureen’s life left an unseen scar.
We used to walk to school form Hillcrest Road, down through Well’s Park to the other side, where we came out at the top of Taylor’s Lane and then into Well’s Park Road. At the top end of Taylor’s Lane there was a tiny house. In fact I think even now it was the tiniest house I have ever seen. It stood adjacent to the park’s entrance. Rumour had it that a witch lived in the house. Everyone knew it. It was common knowledge; therein lived the Witch of Taylor’s Lane in her witch’s hovel. Many children used to shout out “witch” as they ran past screaming. Everyone was terrified of her in case she cast an evil spell on them or cast them a look with her evil eye. Now, when I heard about the Witch I simply believed what I was told. Why should anyone lie about the presence of a witch? Far be it for me to argue with a fact that had been established as true by those who professed to know more about these things then the likes of me. Why question the fact? She must have been called a witch for some reason or at least that’s what I thought at the time. These days I question everything, and have no time for witch hunts or witch-finder generals of which there are still many, all eager to fill the post
One day when still very young, I was walking by and I actually caught a glimpse of the so-called Witch of Taylor’s Lane. The Witch was very short, tiny in fact with hair like thistledown. It was surprisingly neat and tidy hair for a witch or so I thought at the time. My image of Witches at the time was based very much in Grimm’s Brothers fairytales. Her skin was crepe like and wrinkled as one would expect to see on one so old. It was said that she was a hundred years old, maybe even as much as a hundred and two. She did n’t look as scary as I had expected. Witches were supposed to look scary or so I thought. In fact she did n’t look scary at all. It was n’t until much later that I realised that the Witch was no witch at all. She was just a tiny frail old lady living in a tiny cottage alone, probably lonely, and persecuted. Why someone had decided on some day at some time to call her a witch is unknown to me. Children can be so cruel! The old lady’s life was one of persecution and taunts by so-called innocents. She must have lived in constant fear! Some children would dare others to knock on her door, and then run away. Others would be more brazen and even wait for her to answer the door before calling her names. There were others who would throw eggs at her house. I look back and curse myself for never having stopped what I saw. The old lady cruelly dubbed thew Witch of Taylor’s Lane must have died a long time ago but there are many adults out there who must know that they did a terrible thing. I can only hope they are sorry for what they did. Me, I am sorry for what I did n’t do.We remember things at the strangest of times. Until now I had forgotten about that poor old lady.
Going back to the subject of school, we would walk along Well’s Park Road until we got to the school gates on the Well’s Park side. I have many memories of playing in Well’s Park with my sisters and friends, and over the years it doesn’t seemed to have changed that much, not to look at anyway. We were never worried about walking through the Park, never concerned that there might be some danger lurking behind the bushes in dark spaces; either because there wasn’t any danger or because we didn’t think about things like that which is more likely. Of course we were always told not to talk to strangers, and to go straight to school or straight home and not to dawdle; we were always told there was safety in numbers. Evidently, parents had similar fears to those felt by parents today, and yet, they still gave us room to grow and be independent. I have often asked myself why I have been so over-protective of my own children. Have times really changed so much that we dare not let our children out of our sight for fear that something terrible should befall them. Where and when did we learn to be so fearful?
My first teacher was Mrs Redgrave who appeared to me to be tall but then I was only four and a half so I expect all grown ups looked tall to me back then. Mrs Redgrave had silver shiny wavy hair that was neat and tidy, which she wore close to the nape of her neck. Mrs Redgrave had small piercing blue eyes that seemed to see right through you and know what you were thinking. She was a teacher who demanded respect even from such young children. One of my earliest memories of starting school was sitting down in my classroom and wetting myself. It was possibly my first day at school. The boy next to me who I remember only too well for all manner of reasons raised his hand to seek attention from the teacher, “Please Miss, she’s wet herself” pointing at me. There were laughter and giggles all around. I can hear it now echoing down through the corridors of time. I don’t think I was told off as I believe that Mrs Redgrave quite liked me but I was escorted to the staff room and given some dry knickers to change into. I am not sure if I cried or not? There was a good chance that I did as I was able to turn on the tears if the need arose even though I was only four. If I did cry, I have erased it from my memory. Either that or I didn’t cry. It was in this class that I made friends with Angela Ham. Angela was a pretty girl with big soft brown eyes and long black curled lashes. Angela Ham became my first best friend at school. It wasn’t until I was a lot older that I discovered Angela was black or maybe mixed race but then so was I mixed race being Anglo-Indian on my dad’s side, something I did not really know until much later in life. The same was true of my friends Angela and Charmaine. Angela’s roots lay in Jamaica and Charmaine’s in the West Indies. Of course they had always been the same colour, nothing had changed but what did change was that when I was a fair bit older my attention was drawn to it: not by anything they had done or that I had done but by politicians, people who should have known better. When I was growing up our friends were neither black, white or mixed race or anything else, they were just our friends. It didn’t matter the colour of our skin back then, and as small children we didn’t notice that there was any difference.
The only other incident that sticks in my mind is when after PE we were all changing back into our own clothes and Debbie who was to be another of my best friends was putting on her pink crocheted cardigan. While stretching up and out her arm into the sleeve, she knocked over a vase that was standing on the window sill. It fell and smashed in pieces on the floor. It was an accident but she still got smacked by the teacher for being careless. I think it was that incident in those first few days in school that encouraged me to be a good girl, at least for most of the time. Today my husband and daughter refer to me as a goody two shoes when I mention that I was well behaved at school. However, there were times later on when my halo slipped, and I became a survivor in a jungle, that jungle being school.
From Mrs Redgrave’s class I found myself being taught by Mrs Riley who although she had an Irish name was not Irish. She too had silver hair but tinged with blue which she wore short. Mrs Riley had a rich mellow voice with an accent which was neither English nor Indian but which I am now certain to have been a mixture of the two. I feel fairly sure that she was Anglo-Indian which is where my own heritage lies on my paternal side. Of course I will never find out if I am right unless someone who remembers or someone who knew her is able to tell me if I am. Mrs Riley also seemed to quite like me, and never said a cross word to me. My time in her class passed without incident or at least without any that sticks in my mind, although one other thing has suddenly sprung to mind. The infants finished at a quarter past three while the juniors finished a little later. For those of us who had older siblings in the school we had to wait in the infant school hall until we were collected by our older brothers and sisters. During that time we would be read a story which was quite enjoyable as we were at an age where being read to was still very much a pleasure. On this particular occasion the teacher reading was Miss Marion. Miss Marion was I felt very pretty and fair. She wore long suade boots and short skirts as was the trend at that time. One afternoon my sisters were late collecting me from the hall. They got into so much trouble and were told off by Miss Marion in no uncertain terms. They were never late fetching me again. They were only little girls themselves but back then if you were older you were expected to take responsibility for your younger brothers and sisters.
Those were my years spent in the infants, next came the juniors.
In class two I was still best friends with Debbie who had superceded Angela Ham in that role. I had been devastated for a short while when Angela left the school but soon replaced her with Debbie who proved to be a great best friend. Children can be quite fickle. Debbie was a brilliant swimmer if my memory serves me right, and had beautiful long nails which I envied, as even at that young age I was a nail biter of the highest degree, and could bite my nails right down to the quick. Debbie also had pierced ears, something else I wished I had but did n’t. Although to be fair I don’t ever remember making that wish known to my parents. It was while in class two that we moved out of Hillcrest Road and into Kent House Lane in Beckenham. We were no longer the Howatsons of Hillcrest. We were now the Kids of Kent House.
It was in class two that I met another but equally lovely Angela and beautiful Charmaine who were to become good friends throughout my school years. The class teacher was Miss Marcham who made a tremendous impact on me as a young girl. Miss Marcham was an attractive woman with short wavy bordering on curly reddish brown hair most likely auburn. Her voice was clear and crisp as fresh morning air in Spring. She had a nice figure, wore nice clothes and was engaged to Mr Shelbrook who was Maureen’s teacher, I think the first one that she had a crush on. Mrs Shelbrook like most teachers seemed to have favourites ,and we, all us girls in the class vied for that position. I don’t think girls are any different today at that age. It’s just so unfair on those children that don’t ever feel that they are among the favoured few. Me, I was one of the lucky ones and often felt I was up there with the best of them. Miss Marcham, later to be Mrs Shelbrook was one of my favourite teachers of all time, and yet I can’t actually remember why this was so. Although later on in the school she was relegated to position of most unfavourite teacher, explanation to follow later.
It was also while in class two that I went down with tortecollis for a few weeks. At the time tortecollis sounded to my ears like a tortoise in the stomach which is what I told my horror stricken friends who believed every word as did I, and sympathised accordingly with oohs and ahhs. I had to stay off school for a few weeks to recover as it was very painful, and almost impossible for me to move my neck. I had a wonderful time staying at home being pampered, and nursed better by mummy. I eventually recovered from the tortoise in my stomach and returned to the jungle that was Kelvin Grove Primary School.
The junior years were as far as I was aware not unlike the junior years of anyone else but they were my junior years, and this is how I saw them looking back now as an adult. Class four followed class two and was taught by Mr Anderson. Mr Anderson was my first male teacher. He was middle aged I think, and bald on top with grey wispy hair to the sides. He wore casually smart trousers and corduroy jackets in dark greens and browns with checked shirts and a tie. He wore a hearing aid and dentures. The hearing aid was visible but the dentures were not and were only noticed when they fell from his mouth one time as he was shouting at the class. The class naturally laughed at the teacher’s expense and probable humiliation. That would teach him for shouting at us. He seemed to be always shouting and had little control over the class and yet he wasn’t a mean teacher at all. He was just a man doing the best job that he could to the best of his ability. We were a noisy class after all, that needed someone who could control us better or more correctly someone who could handle the boys more effectively for it would be true to say that the girls were pretty well behaved most of the time, and the boys or at least a few of them were as badly behaved as they came. I am sure a few would be the fodder for her majesty’s prison system later on. And so, I continued to move from one class to another, from one year to the next.
© Liola Lee 2010