Saturday, 18 February 2012

My education begins -a disastrous introduction to life at school

Volume 1 – chapter 11 – Part 1
imageThis picture of my father was taken about the time the war broke out - it may have been taken in 1939 or possibly 1938, but I cannot be sure.
Being an army man he never had much time for his family but that was the way life was for someone in his situation. It did not mean he had no feelings for us, but it certainly was not a way of life that made a man demonstrative and willing to show his emotions on his sleeve. It was never easy to see what my father was really like but it says something about him when he did something that revealed his inner feelings.
When we moved from Derby to our home town of Fenton in Stoke-on-Trent, my father managed a short leave during which time he gave me his pocket bible which was issued to every commissioned officer. He may have wondered whether he would ever return from the dangers of war, so imagined that if he did not I would have something to remember him by. I was not to see him again until his return at the end of the war.
This was the pocket size bible my father gave to me which I kept realising it was an important memento of him; though I never read it as he might have wanted me to do. At the time it was considered to be a wonderful example of the art of printing being a complete bible encompassed in a small book that could be carried in the pocket of a man’s uniform. The paper it was printed on was tissue thin but strong and capable of clear and easy to read print. As a boy I never appreciated its worth but eventually came to realise the value of it.
Now that I was anchored in one place, so to speak, it was inevitable that sooner or later, I would have to go to school, and though my mother went out of her way to save me from this fate, the time eventually came when it could be put off no longer. My mother’s attitude to all things unpleasant was one of avoidance she would do everything possible to keep such things at a distance. Even with this general attitude in mind, it is still difficult to understand why she had an almost pathological dislike for schools and learning. Obviously, her intention was to protect me from what she knew would be at the very least an unpleasant experience. I don’t know why she felt that way, but if I had to hazard a guess, I would say that she had been unhappy at school herself, and hated the thought that I would suffer as she had done.
My first experience of school I would estimate came when I was close to my birthday in April 1941, which meant I was eight years old. Around this date, I presented myself at Market Street School, the nearest place of learning; though I use the phrase ‘place of learning’ in the loosest sense. This school and, I regret to say, most of the other Council Schools in the city were unfit to claim this noble designation. It was only three to four hundred yards to the school from where I lived, but in just about every respect it might as well have been light years away or maybe in another dimension. To me the other children appeared to be savages with no vestige of kindness or good manners. I suppose because they lived in a world where, the devil took the hindmost, they had developed to an extreme degree the attitude that is, as they say, ‘every man for himself.’ I soon discovered that the general approach was to avoid trouble at all costs, and if some unfortunate found themselves in difficulties, it did not pay to sympathize. Like chickens in a hen run, it seemed instinctive to attack an injured bird, or one that was alone or in trouble.
I was different, and that made me a candidate for attack, I was better dressed than most, and it must be said, cleaner. My speech was different, and even my behaviour was not consistent with the usual pattern. From the moment I appeared I was a target for hostility, an easily identified subject for their hostility and spleen. In addition there was another trigger that ensured that I would be victimized, and that was my inoffensive demeanour. It took me quite some time to discover that the only way I could discourage aggression was to appear belligerent. In retrospect I can now see that my father had tried to instil in me this very characteristic, but the realization that it was a necessary evil only hit home once I was under attack.
For some week’s I endured this unpleasant introduction to school life, but it could not be tolerated forever, that would be too much to ask of any child. The end of my short sojourn at Market Street came abruptly and painfully. How it came about I shall never clearly understand, and I can only describe events as I remember them. On my last day I was making the short journey to the place of torture and as I drew closer found myself among a stream of other children, all hurrying along not wanting to be late. The usual attempts were made to jostle me, trip me, push me, to make life difficult for the stranger in their midst. For my part I did my best to defend myself, to show some defiance and to give the impression that I did not fear them. In the midst of this noisy jostling throng another boy had his cap knocked off his head, and not being able to find it, reported his loss to the teacher on entering the class room. The next thing I knew I was accused of being responsible, and in spite of my protestations of innocence, dragged from my desk and stood in front of the class.
The reaction of the teacher is something I shall never understand, but was probably common at the time; the teacher was a middle aged woman who behaved in the most vicious manner imaginable. Taking a heavy cane, she proceeded to lash the back of my calves with as much strength as she could muster. There were no enquiries into the circumstances of the accusation; it was never even made clear to me what my offence had been. She just seemed to boil over, becoming completely out of control, and thrashing my legs until they were raw and bloody. Looking back it is my impression that she wanted to hurt me and make me cry, a reaction which would have provided some satisfaction for her. Maybe this extreme punishment was intended as a warning to the other children who sat silently watching the savagery of the assault. What this teacher did not know was that I would never give her the satisfaction she was looking for. I do not know whether it was pride, stubbornness, or some other inner feelings, but I could not demean myself by crying. I suppose it was pride and an extreme desire not to look foolish and weak in front of the other children, but I simply could not cry. The beating went on and on, and I suffered in silence. It is difficult to understand such bestial behaviour by an adult in a position of authority. Why was she so angry? It was indescribable the way she behaved towards a child, who at worst was guilty of a minor misdemeanour, and who at best, was completely innocent? I suppose it could be said that she had a large class of unruly and difficult children, and at the time, harsh physical punishment was the usual way to impose control and discipline. She might have been emotionally unstable, or having a bad day? Whatever the reason, it is certain that her behaviour even for those days was completely unacceptable.
My memory of what happened afterwards is hazy, only the beating remains forever branded in my mind. I can recall that until my mother opened the front door of our house, I had remained dry eyed, but when the door opened and I saw her before me, I burst into tears. When she saw my legs and witnessed my distress, she must have felt some conviction that her dislike of schools was more than justified. The only other details I can recall are that my mother took me to the doctor, where my injuries were confirmed and recorded. My mother and I never returned to the school, but Aunty Jin went on our behalf armed with the doctor‘s report, and knowing my aunt’s belligerent character I have no doubt that a considerable scene would have resulted.
After only a few weeks, the ill-fated commencement of my education once again ground to a halt. For a further period of some weeks, I remained at home nursing my injured and bruised legs, not to mention my pride and damaged confidence. Finally another school was found where I could try again, this time it was Manor Street School which was a little further away, but not more than six or seven hundred yards from where we lived.
This time my experiences were not so dramatic or traumatic, and I spent some uneventful months quite happily at this school. I was kindly treated by the lady teaching my class, and it is possible that I was given special attention and consideration due to my unfortunate experiences. One thing did become clear after a while, and that was it was not intended that I should remain at this school for very long. I was never told why this was, but the result was that I never really became totally absorbed into the class, and for most of the lessons I was more an observer than a participant. By this time I had become aware that the other children had a degree of understanding that I lacked. They understood and were familiar with the lessons being taught, whereas I could make little sense of them. It is likely that by now my teachers had begun to consider my backwardness an indication that I lacked intelligence. Without knowledge of my background it was understandable that they would conclude that I was incapable of learning.
If I understand it correctly the school system was basically quite a simple one, I refer to the so called free schools provided for the man in the street. Infants and juniors went to schools provided for that age group, these places of learning were run by local authorities such as the council, or by religious bodies such as the Protestant and Catholic churches. There were of course private schools, but they were a rare commodity in localities such as Fenton and the other suburbs of industrial towns such as Stoke-on-Trent. At the age of nine or ten years, children moved on to senior schools, where they sat an examination in their 11th year. This test was known as the eleven plus, and it was intended to assess a child’s suitability to enter higher levels of education. If accepted they were offered a place at a public school, or possibly a grammar school, but if they failed to qualify, they remained at the council school later to be called ‘Secondary Modern Schools.’ - This change of title came into being about 1946/7 a year or so before I left school. - From this outline it can be seen just how important it would have been to reach an acceptable standard of learning by the age of eleven years. A child’s whole future was decided by the 11 plus examination, without success at this point children were condemned to a sub-standard education. Add to this the effects of the war, and my complete ignorance and the picture becomes clear indeed. I of course new nothing of this, and if I had known I doubt that it would have been of much interest to me; the educational system was not a desirable place to be as far as I was concerned.

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