By my mother’s recollection, I only ever smacked her once. I was four years old, or possibly five, somewhere in the early seventies.
She had taken me to visit a new school. I hated my old one. They didn’t teach me anything. I was ahead of the class in reading and was therefore directed to read in silence by myself. No further instruction necessary. The less work I did, the more bored I got. And the more bored I got, the more trouble I got into. My parents were apparently no longer willing to put up with any more phone calls detailing flying spit wads and the pulling of ponytails. Besides, the uniforms were scratchy, my teachers were spiteful, and the lunch counter served liver and spotted dick.
Visiting a new school represented new hope, a way out. My mother had heard about this school from her friend Snoozy. Not her real name, just the best I could manage when I was first learning to talk. Snoozy’s daughter went there. Her daughter was learning her times tables, Snoozy said, and reading Tolstoy, or something like that, and her calligraphy was up for nomination to the museum for perfect five year olds. This was the school for me, Snoozy said, a place where I could be challenged, and where I could bring my own lunch.
I did not care about my times tables. I was only four, or possibly five. Beautiful letters did not excite me. But I could bring my own lunch. I had had my fill of indestructible bangers and mash and rhubarb crumble. Most importantly I had a massive crush on Bee, Snoozy’s daughter. I was sold.
My mother set up the visit. It was for the following Tuesday. I wore my special brown and orange striped shirt, my cobalt blue shorts, and I got to choose my very own lunch, a Cheddar cheese sandwich on white bread (was there any other?), a bag of Golden Wonder ready salted potato crisps, and an apple. This last one was to make me strong, my mother said. I planned on sharing my potato crisps, and quite possibly even my apple, with Bee. It could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
The school was in a village a few miles away. Its official name was Updown School, but it was known throughout the universe as Mrs. Brown’s school. Mrs. Brown was the head teacher. My mother informed me that Mrs. Brown was completely in charge and I was to be extra especially nice to her. She had been at the school a long time and it was her decision as to whether I would get in or not. The stakes were high.
Snoozy came to pick me up in her cream-colored Morris Marina coupe. I sidled close to Bee in the back seat. No seatbelts when I was four, or possibly five, somewhere in the early seventies. Bee was wearing a plaid dress in a gorgeous mélange of green, blue, yellow and red. She had a red ribbon tied in her golden hair. My palms moistened. There could be no more perfect start to my new life.
We drove to school, Snoozy chattering on about her new formica countertops and the demise of the shilling and half crown. I snuck furtive glances over at Bee, but she was absorbed in Enid Blyton, an author I would learn to hate. We pulled up at a moss-covered flint wall, interrupted by grey stone steps. We alighted. I grabbed my brown paper bag lunch (the much coveted green plastic lunch box adorned by the highly popular Wombles of Wimbledon Common would have to wait until unconditional admission), and climbed the damp stairway. What awaited at the top was a pleasant looking pre-war schoolhouse at the end of a rich English lawn against a backdrop of tall chestnuts. A pathway wound quaintly to the front door.
Mrs. Brown was waiting. I’m not sure what I had been expecting, but a wrinkly stooped reptilian lady in calico was surely not it. She looked like she was a hundred and forty years old. She told me to sit down, far far away from Bee, and next to a boy called Kevin. Kevin told me his dad was a fireman. I had never met a real fireman before. I didn’t even own a T-shirt with a fire engine on it. Kevin had three. My parents didn’t mingle with people who climbed ladders for a living.
Kevin and I were sitting on wooden chairs at a long table, with four other kids next to us. It was one of four similar tables in the room, all one behind the other facing the front. Mine was the third one. The walls were covered in maps, a collection of children’s artwork, some writing (all in perfect penmanship), and a poster that listed the school’s agreements about kindness, safety, respect, and responsibility.
Mrs. Brown conferred with the other teacher, a rather rotund Mrs. Boyd, and then came and sat herself next to me, armed with a small collection of books. She had me read to her from a couple of them and that seemed to satisfy her. She gave me some math problems which I managed to do without terrible trouble, and then it was time for milk.
This was a time in England when the government provided free milk to all school children under the age of eleven. It made our bones strong, even if it didn’t make our teeth straight. It must have been good policy, because a couple of years later when then Secretary of Education Margaret Thatcher eliminated the practice in a cost saving maneuver (thus becoming for a while affectionately known as Maggie Thatcher, Milk Snatcher), the energy crisis hit, the unions rose to power, and the Empire collapsed. It took her a decade of premiership to sort it all out.
The milk was delivered every morning to the school in one-third-of-a-pint-sized bottles. Presumably because Mrs. Brown feared spillage, the oldest students in the school were given the job of piercing the little metal bottle tops with straws and parceling the bottles out to each child. I got my bottle, sucked down the milk, and watched all the children head outside to play.
Mrs. Brown would not let me go. We had work to do, young man. She explained that I wasn’t staying for the whole day, that my mother would be here soon, and she wanted to get a sense of my writing. Oh, the injustice! While Bee and Kevin and a couple of dozen potential new friends were kicking around a football, I was inside being made to write about my summer holiday. And I had just been informed that I would be going home soon. I wouldn’t even get to share my crisps with Bee. This was unfair! How could my mother have packed me a lunch and not known that she would be picking me up before I had a chance to eat it, denying me a chance to enjoy the gastronomic delights of the paper bag, a school lunch not manufactured by the proletariat classes of industrial postwar Britain? I began to sulk.
To the sounds of children playing joyfully outside the window, I begrudgingly refilled my fountain pen at the inkwell (even in the early seventies, this was clearly a practice whose time had come and gone several decades before) and sat down at the wooden table, noticing for the first time generations of etchings in its surface. I harrumphed. I wanted to be outside. I did not want to be sitting here waxing not particularly lyrically about what I had done that summer. Mrs. Brown shuffled by every few minutes, a faint smell of onion emanating from her print frock, and made slightly worrisome clicking noises.
After twenty minutes, the bell rang outside, signaling the re-entry of a playground-load of happy, rosy-cheeked children back into the school. Mrs. Brown bade me write on. I had not finished. At that moment, catching me fully off guard, into the school walked my mother. She had arrived at my moment of maximum frustration. While Kevin and several others were clattering the chairs in an effort sit down, Mrs. Brown summoned me to the door. I threw my chair back, stomped over to pick up my brown paper bag, ignored the friendly “Hello, darling, how was your morning?” from my mum, swung my lunch bag as hard as I could against her legs, and stormed outside. The bag split. The brown paper failed me, catapulting its contents across the room, the apple rolling to a gentle stop up against Mrs. Brown’s feet.
“Well,” I heard Mrs. Brown exclaim as I headed across the lawn, “we certainly don’t tolerate that sort of behavior at Updown School.”
“But…but…” my mother stammered, “he really is a very nice boy…” which is all I heard as I made my way down the steps to the car, sniveling and sad. After all, I was only four, or possibly five.
Mrs. Brown informed my mother that my presence at the school was not welcome. It took a phone call from Snoozy to persuade Mrs. Brown that I really was a very nice boy and would not only benefit from an education at Updown School, but that quite frankly I needed the challenge. Mrs. Brown relented and I was admitted the following week.
Part Two to follow…..