Thursday, 31 January 2013

Looking back

Our classroom, when I was nine years old, was quite special.  Our school stood on the top of a steep hill, with two playgrounds that we called Up Top and Down Below.

Up top had the main school, a red-brick Victorian building with high windows and impressive doorways.  At playtime, groups of friends would try to get lucky and bagsie one of the large, wide doorsteps as a base to congregate and chat.  High iron railings (how did these escape being requisitioned for war-time munitions?) set into walls surrounded Up Top.  One side looked down onto the street, and the School Dinner children could look out through the railings for the Home To Dinner children returning, bearing the purchases of lemonade powder and Fruit Salad Chews and Black Jacks they had been importuned to get at the sweet shop, pocket money pennies pressed into their hands by the eager prisoners Up Top.

On another side of Up Top, leading to the doorway into Infants One, the milk crates stood in stacks with the small (a third of a pint I think) regulation bottles of milk provided, one per child, by the government to build healthy bones (Ha! Little did they know!).  The milk tasted shudderously vile in its unrefrigerated state – though interesting when frozen, humping the foil top of the glass bottle upwards – but happily there were a few children who actually liked the stuff and could be persuaded to drink the milk of those who found it unbearable.  At this side of the playground, the view through the railings looked down on the Thursday cattle market, where children watched solemnly as the men crammed the panting sheep with their rolling eyes into metal-railed pens, and the pigs screamed as they were prodded with sticks and dragged about by their ears.

A wall bounded the third side of Up Top, with a way through to a house containing the staff room, the headmaster’s office and the music room.  This was a place of dread.  A child would be sent to stand there in the corridor in shame for misbehaving, under the eyes of passing teachers.  Here I had my violin lessons with Mr Li (he said the second part of his name would be too hard for us to say) until the day when he buried his face in his hands and said “Oh my Christ!  Oh my God! Can’t you play better than that?” And I realised the violin and I were not partners made in heaven.

Then the fourth side of Up Top had high iron railings with no wall, with a view and a way through to Down Below, a big grassy playing field for rounders (like baseball) in the summer, a huge loving oak tree whose ancient spreading roots made steps in the dust for children to sit on, a variety of other trees whose fallen leaves in the autumn could be gathered into floor plans for imaginary houses, an orchard beyond the playing field bounded by the ubiquitous railings and a river. 

The path came down steep from Up Top to Down Below alongside big shrubs that stabilised the earth of the hillside, so steep that on icy days our teacher Mrs Weston had to crouch down with a child holding onto her on either side, to make the descent in her stiletto heels.

Her classroom, built into the hillside underneath the main school building, had a charm of its own – and its own small playground.

Mrs Weston, an artist, wore a wonderful cardigan – mainly black but with two bold rectangles of colour knitted into the front – who knew a cardigan could be a cubist work of art?  She had long black hair – annoyingly, in trying to paint her portrait, having no black powder paint, I could achieve only purple.

In her classroom, we had the old Victorian two-seater desk-benches.  I sat with a boy whose dare-devil exploits I admired – but he couldn’t spell so I, who could reliably spell even MEDITERRANEAN, came in handy.

I’d like to say I was happy at school, but in truth I was not.  I hated its petty injustices, its profound emotional violence.  It did not feel like a safe place to be.  Every day I longed for hometime.  A child had no redress.  I watched boys being caned.  I stood and listened while Mrs Thomas with her olive skin and curly black hair lectured me “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”, and knew full well what she said was not true. 

But of the time I did at school, that year in Mrs Weston’s class was surely the best, in the little classroom tucked away under the hill, coming out at playtime to the trees and grass of Down Below, the scent of leaves and grass, of dust and rain.  Mrs Weston played us classical music, that we listened to with our heads cradled on our arms upon our desks.  She let us paint more than other teachers, she read us stories and told us about the badgers that visited her garden at home.  I don’t remember any other teacher ever speaking about their home, and to hear about the badgers meant a lot to me.

She was frightening, of course, as teachers always are, and her wisdom felt approximate and her justice expedient to my nine-year-old self.  Looking back I know that in our home, where our mother was the final arbiter of all things, I was favoured always (and often unfairly, though our mother always did her very best; I was quite a wily child) above my older sister.  The more impartial judgement of a schoolteacher probably felt shockingly unaccustomed. Nonetheless I adored her frankly.  I thought she was wonderful.

I remember the morning we arrived in the classroom to see her sitting up in the teacher’s desk without speaking.  This puzzled us until one by one we eventually noticed the sign she had written on the blackboard in her perfect handwriting: “Mrs Weston has lost her voice”.

She taught us all (well – she tried) to write in italic hand.  We had special work books, their page lines subdivided for calligraphy.  I know now, which I didn’t then, that it’s a darn sight easier to write in italics with an italic nib in your pen.

At Christmas time, she gave each of us a card she had made by hand.  I remember mine – I kept it for years, right into adult life.  Tall, thin, rectangular, uneven artist’s card, the front bearing a wax resist image, the simplest outline of the Virgin cradling the baby Jesus, the wax design revealed by the wash of red/brown/purple watercolour.  Inside her greeting, penned in her beautiful italic hand.  I thought it so beautiful.  In my mind’s eye I can still see it now.  A treasure.  I took it home to show my mother at the end of the day, delighted.

Well anyway, about ten years ago I met Mrs Weston again in Cambridge.  She went on from teaching to become a potter, and had a stall in the little market in the garden off Jesus Lane.  Her husband, whose love for her was tender and apparent, sold volumes of his (excellent) poetry there too.  After this meeting, she sent me photographs of our class the year we were her class too, the playground of the classroom in Down Below.  The big building of the cattle market is visible behind the long shed that forms the backdrop to the group of children.  I am the half-head between the tall fair child and the short dark child.  So long ago, but I remember these children, their personalities.

The child on the right, just next to Mrs Weston, was a lovely girl.  She would stand firm for others against bullies and, a doctor's daughter, she surprised me by being completely unembarrassed about taking her clothes off when we shared a changing room at the swimming baths - wooden cubicles along the concrete edge of a blue-painted unheated pool.

Then just last week, Mrs Weston found her way to me along the snaky paths of the internet, with the help of a canny daughter, to say that having moved, she had some remnants of school work to pass on.  She sent me photocopies of a prayer I had written in my own round hand, and a short composition in attempted italic hand.

For the prayer, we had evidently been given free choice.  There’s the prayer of another student (whose face instantly came clearly to mind) on the same photo-copied page, and hers is nothing like mine for subject matter.  For the composition, we had been set the task of imagining ourselves in fifteen years’ time – a stretch of the imagination indeed for nine-year-olds!

This was my prayer:
“O Lord it is our duty to help others so let us fill in that duty.  Let us remember not to treat animals as slaves but be kind to them.  Let us help people everywhere and let us be kind to all things. Amen” 

My name (then), Penelope Stephenson, is written at the end.  Evidently a budding Christo-Buddhist even then!

And the composition, in a seriously bad italic hand, went like this:
“In fifteen years time . . .  Penelope Stephenson

I will be twenty-four in fifteen years and still living with my parents.  I don’t know yet what my job will be or even if I shall have one.  I shall get married when I am twenty-six.  I will buy a King Charles Spaniel.  I’ll get a motorbike and paint it black with blue handlebars.  I may write books but only as a pastime.  I would have a bookcase full of the books I had written, but not one of them published.  I would not wear a mini skirt and frilly underwear!  I do not know much about grown up life but what I do know is that at first it will be a bit confusing.”

Well, I never did get the spaniel, and once I reached adult life motorbikes just looked really dangerous and to be avoided at all costs.  I wrote the books, but all of them were published.  But now I know about grown up life I can confirm that it is, at first and always forever, extremely confusing.

Looking back on it now, on my childhood and the childhood of my children, above all I feel a sadness for the things we did not get right - my mother with her children, me with my children - and the consequences that had.  We did our best with what we knew no doubt; but it strikes me now that the areas we failed were precisely the moments we felt most sure of ourselves, where arrogance supplanted wisdom.  If there is one virtue a parent needs, it is humility - to listen, to accept, to understand.


Julie B. said...

What a deeply touching and beautiful post, Ember. I have vivid school time memories too - some sad and some fine. It's strange how those colors, sounds, feelings, impressions when we were young are so sharp, and when we are in our fifties, we can't remember what was said or done two days ago. And the photos! So wonderful to see these. Thank you... xxoo

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) Hi ho Julie B - waving! xxx

DaisyAnon said...

What a lovely photo of you Ember. I can see why you have a yen for the English Lady look, it really suits you.

Gosh, we used to make playhouses out of pine needles under the pine trees in the playground. I've never heard of anyone else doing this before.

Unknown said...

Love the photos. I am always astonished how little we really change after a certain point. The now you & the long~ago you seem not so very different. I know I am always surprised to find me in this body because the inside me has nothing to do with it at all. Thank you for sharing this.

Sandra Ann said...

Beautiful, pic of you dear friend. I loved reading your reminiscing especially samples of your written work.

Your parting comment is a very sobering thought. Words DO hurt and sometimes when I'm stretched paper thin with exhaustion, sickness and stress, I say things I regret later.

I'm working real hard on the simple living and your book is now on its second read! My sewing room in the loft has had a good clearout and all the baby paraphernalia is packed in the car ready to give to our daughter K who is in the final trimester of her pregnancy. I've got just over ten weeks to wrap my head around being a birth partner, I'll be begging prayers nearer the time if that's OK?!!

Love to you

San xxx

AbiSomeone said...

Such precious memories, Ember!

I am grateful to have the works of you and .wayne Jacobsen come into my life before I ran out of time to benefit my three precious sons ... barely. Much better late than never....

As I have gained a better understanding of Father these past four years, I have become a better, more patient, definitely more humble parent. Children who are not secure on the love of their parents and Father in heaven have a much more difficult row to hoe, indeed.

I am grateful beyond words....

Pen Wilcock said...

Daisy - do I look like an English Lady? Fortnum and Mason afternoon tea? O good!! xx

Ganeida - yes, it always fascinates me how you can't see the adult in the baby but you can surely see the baby in the adult. I look at my twins, who will be thirty this year, and I can still see the two little eighteen-month-olds trotting purposefully about the place, and I think 'You haven't changed one bit! You're just the same!' :0)

San - yes I have come to value so very much the travelling companions I've found online. It's not hard to to, but necessary to have our inspiration repeatedly refuelled. I think you'd alos like my book The Road of Blessing but sadly I don't have a copy to send you and am too skint to buy you one!

Abi - :0) I like having you as a friend! xx

Anonymous said...

Your post evoked memories for me,too. I also attended an old Victorian infants school. I particularly remember the outside toilets - all in a row and right across the other side of the playground. Our playground was divided by a big wall into boys only and girls only areas.
Your comment about the way our mothers were with us and the way we were with our children gave me some comfort. I often berate myself for having been a 'bad' mother (although I'm glad to say my children tell me otherwise). But, as you say, we all get it wrong at times and parents always have and will continue to do so.
Thankyou Ember.

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) x

Rebecca said...

I think the exercise in writing about one's expectations of adulthood is a brilliant one...How wonderful to have your own in hand!

And the last paragraph could have been my own (probably MANY of ours)....I think I will copy it and send it to both of my daughters.

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) x

Sandra Ann said...

Just to let you know I've bought The road of Blessing! How could I not when your words are such a comfort to read. I nearly bought the kindle version for my phone but Dave reminded me that, if I ever lost the phone or the card became defunkt that would be bad news, but most importantly with a good old paper copy, i could pass the book onto someone else to either give or share ... so a win - win situation!


Pen Wilcock said...

Ah - bless you, San! I was about to get in touch to ask you for your address again, because I think I deleted the email with it in. One of my daughters read our correspondence here, and called in with her copy to send on to you. She'll be glad to have it back. Thank you. :0)