Starting school

Here is Gwen in her Queen's Road Primary School official uniform. (Picture courtesy of Gwen Irving)

I took the colour photos when I was passing the school in 2008. The buildings were still the same!

(This was the entrance for the infants. Mrs Williams classroom was the one nearest to us with the sign on that you can just see. Walk down the path, turn right through the cloakrooms and there it was at the end of the corridor, tucked in the corner)

The door to Mrs Williams’s classroom opened, we said goodbye to our mothers and in we went. We had started school. Apparently, I turned to my mother and said ‘It’s alright Mummy, you can go now.’ There was nobody I knew in my new class. All the other children from the flats had either already started school or were too young. My other friend, Denise Wynn, wouldn't be five until the end of summer so she would start next September. I had been counting the days since my fifth birthday in June and today I was very excited and extremely happy. I was a schoolgirl. Because we lived on Cheadle Road, it had only been a short walk down Victoria Avenue and along Queens Road until my mother and I reached the green gloss painted railings of Queens Road Primary School. Suddenly I became part of an entirely new world.

The first day of school was a steep learning curve. We had to memorise which of the gates allowed us entry to school; in which cloakroom we were supposed to hang our coats and how to identify our own peg (each peg had a picture beside it to help); which toilets, in the school’s strict hierarchy of bathroom facilities, we could use and which was the permitted playground for us at break time and in the lunch hour. Mrs Williams was the source of all this wisdom. She was our teacher and her classroom and everything that went on there was now the most important thing in our lives. Mrs Williams looked a great deal older than my mother. Her skirts were very long, some of her hair was grey and I don’t recall her smiling a lot. The days in her class were very ordered from first thing in the morning when she would take the register to sitting on the carpet for storytime just before we went home. Everything had a time and a place and the word ‘allowed’ controlled both.

I can’t remember a time when I was unable to read for myself. An adult was seldom available to read to me and I was desperate for access to the magical world hidden in books. That was what drove me and somehow I learned. Reading was a joy. As I read, my surroundings would dissolve; I would slide slowly into whichever ethereal kingdom my book revealed and stay hidden there until forcibly removed.

I waited my turn with the other twenty or so children to read to Mrs Williams from the ‘Old Lob’ series of reading books with their blue and cream chequered covers. Mrs Williams designated me ‘independent reader’ which entitled me to choose my own storybooks from our class library. Like the rest of the school, our class received a regular change of reading books from the central library. It was a termly headache for Mrs Williams as she would have to check off the list of books and report any that were missing or damaged. There were always books on the floor because the county’s reading provision was displayed on a two-sided hinged bookcase which folded flat with the books facing each other. It was held shut by a tiny hook and eye arrangement. The only thing that kept the books upright on each shelf was a length of plastic covered wire which stretched across the shelf. Books were always sliding out on to the floor as children reached for the story they wanted and dislodged others.

When I arrived in my new class I had been writing my own stories for some time. Writing wasn’t difficult, I just wasn’t at all neat or careful. Everything I wrote was a story and once I was firmly in its grip, the narrative would gather speed scattering punctuation in all directions whilst my letters were buckled and contorted by the force of the forward momentum. Mrs Williams did not appreciate this lack of discipline, so I was seldom rewarded with a star in my writing book. Instead, I often found a random sticky shape, like a green oval or a purple crescent, at the foot of my page.

Numbers were even worse. I had seldom met numbers before. Numbers required real precision. They had to be correctly written and placed alongside or beneath other numbers to be acceptable. Then they had to be manipulated so that their value was greater or smaller according to whether I had added, subtracted, multiplied or divided them. I knew my times tables up to the required twelve but not what to do with them. I was not a natural mathematician. My heart would sink when I saw Mrs Williams hand out our small dark blue workbooks with their squared paper pages for maths work. Our Individual tasks were laid out on numbered pieces of card which we would take from folders hanging on the noticeboard. Progress to the next level of work was not possible until our last set of marks showed that we had clearly mastered the previous skillset. Once our attempt at a task was completed we lined up at our teacher’s desk for acceptance or rejection. The pages of my blue workbook were covered with red crosses and I would be instructed each time to go back and do my corrections. I don’t think it ever occurred to Mrs Williams that I was unclear as to why my reckonings were so faulty. For my part, I just assumed there was some magic or luck attached to the process and that there was something wrong with me. Reading and writing had somehow been so easy and pleasurable. It was a mystery.

Our classroom wasn't dull or bare. We had a wendy house with all kinds of toys in and a carpeted area where we would sit at the end of the day for our story. Our walls had cork noticeboards which Mrs Williams filled with posters. Some of these arrived folded up and stapled inside a magazine. I watched her use a special tool that looked like a small pair of incisor teeth to prise open the staples so that the pictures weren’t torn. The posters she put up showed familiar places like the seaside or a Post Office. The pictures were filled with incredibly bright and happy people who were all smiling; even the amazingly handsome postman collecting an enormous bag of parcels grinned cheerfully. The train station shown on one poster was light, airy and brightly coloured. It bore no resemblance to the soot-covered, dingy platforms I was used to when we travelled.

One of our classroom’s most important features lived on the cupboard by the teacher’s desk - the star chart. Every child's name was listed on the left-hand side and each time we did a piece of good work or something else praiseworthy a coloured star-shaped sticker was added next to our name. A gold star marked some special form of excellence. It was as awful as you can imagine. Some children’s stars stretched from one side of the A2 sized sugar paper to the other. Pat Williams (no relation to my teacher) was obviously destined for greatness. Others, like me, had a middling amount. It was a constant reminder that I might be able to spell and to write good stories (for which I sometimes actually had a gold star added next to the work in my writing book) but I was neither neat nor accurate – and in maths, I was an abject failure.

The top half of the walls in our classroom were painted with light blue emulsion and the bottom half with darker blue gloss paint, the same colour as the huge metal radiators which kept our room warmer than our own homes in winter. Heating, paintwork and the rest of the maintenance was the responsibility of our caretaker who was a strange-looking but much-loved character in the life of our school. Mr Clarke never raised his voice, even when he had to chase the boys away from playing on the coke pile at the back of the canteen. He was very tall and thin and had hair that looked like grey curly wire wool. Every year Mr Clarke would put on the school’s shabby old Santa outfit, balance the red pointy hat on his woolly head and silently hand out gifts of dolly mixtures wrapped in crepe paper at our Christmas party. He was always smiling when he spoke with us but his eyes looked sad. I wonder now what might have happened to him in those six long years of fighting. So many people of my parent’s generation went through unspeakable experiences, but in those days it was not done to talk about such things.

Like most of the other classrooms, ours had one table covered with sheets of coloured sugar paper and filled with items carefully labelled in big lower-case letters on folded pieces of cardboard. This was the nature table. In September it was covered by jam jars filled with pale purple Michaelmas daisies and the shells that children had collected when they were on holiday. Later there would be ash keys, pine cones and conkers, although the better specimens of the latter were hoarded, baked hard and threaded on a string for seasonal conker contests. Some of the boys who were expert ‘bird nesters’ would scale local trees, steal and blow the eggs they stole and, in some cases, would even take the nest itself which they would proudly label with the correct species name.

We did do some artwork, usually in the afternoon, probably to give Mrs Williams time to mix the powder paint and cover the tables with newspaper over the dinner hour. Modelling was done with plasticine. Plasticine was tough to work with because it took a long time to soften ready to be shaped, so most of our modelling time was spent pummeling and kneading it ready for use. If the room was cold the plasticine was even harder to manipulate and if the plasticine was old, it tended to crumble. Plasticine was at its best when it was newly unpacked. It arrived in its individually coloured blocks packaged in long square-shaped cardboard tubes. Small slabs were cut off and handed out to each cluster of tables whilst we sat and waited. We worked the plasticine on small wooden boards which were handed out to us to stop the tables from being marked and collected afterwards. At the end of the session all the plasticine was lumped together into multi-coloured blobs and put away for later use. The only thing I can ever remember modelling was an Easter nest with eggs.

As time passed I became familiar with the layout of the whole school. The word ‘allowed’, of course, controlled my access, but occasionally I enjoyed the thrill of responsibility when I would be asked to take a message or to return something. Mrs Williams classroom was safely tucked in a corner behind a covered corridor. On the same side of the school, a little further up our corridor was our headteacher's office. This was a strangely shaped room that seemed to have been stuck in as an afterthought when the school hall was built. The whole school was built on a slope. The hall could only be reached from our classroom by a series of concrete steps and our headteacher’s office resided halfway up the incline. This meant that in order to get to her desk and filing cabinet our headteacher had to climb a series of steps inside her own office leaving her furniture crammed into a very small space at the top, rather like a shelf.

The headteacher of Queens Road Primary School was a lovely lady called Miss Edna Wyneken. She was very round and used to wobble to school on a bicycle, pulling down her skirts over her chubby knees as she pedalled. Our school grounds included a single parking space marked with the word ‘HEAD’, but I never saw her drive a car. I was always overawed by my headteacher, even though she spoke very kindly to me on the few occasions when we exchanged words. I remember her explaining that the postcard on her desk of a little boy holding a dove was originally a painting by an artist called Picasso.

Miss Wyneken wasn't often angry, but when she heard reports of very bad behaviour, like rudeness to the dinner-ladies, she would lose her temper. Her cheeks would become very pink and her curls and her chins would bounce and she would shout, which was really scary. I am certain that she never hit any of the children in her care, but the same could not be said for other teachers. I often had my hand smacked for talking during needlework class. I can't remember who was teaching us lazy daisy stitch on open weave table mats in the smelly canteen, but conversation really was the only way to break the tedium. I probably should have learned to be better at whispering.

Break time meant time for fun, but we were only allowed into the infants' playground down the steps near Mrs Williams classroom. Our tarmac play area lay between the junior school and our canteen and contained a wooden building split into two classrooms (Mrs Bowring's and Mrs Lupton's). Between the classrooms, there were cloakrooms for hanging coats as well as the dinner ladies medicine chest, but there were no toilets. The facilities for these two classes lived in another small wooden building on the opposite side of the tarmac. With all of these buildings available, as well as a little shed for PE equipment, our playground was a perfect place for hide and seek. Even better, if you wanted to get completely filthy and into lots of trouble, then venturing a little further and playing around the pile of coke at the back of the canteen was the answer.

Break time was also the chance to buy chocolate wafers from the prefects wearing their official yellow shield-shaped enamel badges - if you had any money. Once I helped Miss Nevitt to sharpen pencils at break-time and she gave me a biscuit. (Miss Nevitt looked even older than Mrs. Williams and she was a bit scary when I saw her for the first time. Her thin grey hair was gathered into a plait that went all the way around her head and her thin teeth were very brown. Somebody said that she had been engaged and that her fiancé had been killed in the first world war, but I don’t know if that was true.) Some children brought in home-made goodies for break time. Christine Kershaw always brought in flapjack or biscuits wrapped in a brown paper bag. I would have loved anything to take away the taste of the regulation milk.

Below are pictures of a much younger Miss Nevitt. During the occupation of Guernsey Miss Nevitt and a few of her colleagues taught some of their children who had been evacuated to Cheadle Hulme. They are all pictured together here with a description of their time in Cheshire. (Photos by kind permission of David Fawcett)

Miss Nevitt is standing alone at the back

I really enjoyed the deliciously sweet ‘clinic’ orange cordial and rosehip syrup which were our free doses of vitamin C. I didn’t care what vitamins they had - they just tasted lovely! Unfortunately, I didn't have the same appreciation at all for my free daily milk. I hated the taste and would try hard to swap mine for an empty bottle from one of the boys. They downed theirs as fast as they could, wiping their milk moustaches on the backs of their hands. They couldn't even be bothered using the paper straws we were given. Milk was at its least offensive in the winter. The little bottles (one-third of a pint each) were delivered in crates and left outside on the playground. On bitter days the liquid froze, expanded and each bottle wore its silver paper top like a tiny lopsided hat. The milk was so cold that it barely tasted of anything, which helped a lot.

Mrs Bowring's classroom - taken from the road.

September brought promotion for my classmates and me. Our movement from Mrs Williams’s classroom was a big change. Suddenly we weren’t in a cosy corner of the main school, ours was one of the wooden-floored classrooms in the infant’s playground. The room seemed to echo every time we moved and we were often in trouble for scraping our chairs noisily. There was no more Wendy house to play in, no more carpet to loll on at the end of the day for storytime and we sat at wooden tables arranged in strict groups. Our teacher now was Mrs Bowring, a small lady with glasses. Mrs Bowring was fierce and regularly slapped boys across the shoulders for minor offences. I kept a respectful distance from her but mostly escaped her wrath because she thought I wrote lovely stories.

Our new class meant that some of us were given jobs and became monitors. Two of the boys were milk monitors and their job was to carry in the crates of little bottles from the playground. My friend Gwen became a board duster monitor. She had to make sure that teachers had a clean cloth to wipe the chalk from their blackboards. She told me that she gave the holey old cloths to the teachers she didn’t like.

School dinners were truly terrible and you can read about them in my posting 'Food'.