Look back in angst

Lucia Raimbault

Few life events stamp themselves more indelibly on the memory than one's first experience of primary school. The TES asked a selection of survivors to regress to the days of warm milk and raffia.


I joined the Stonefold St John's Church of England school, Rising Bridge, Haslingden in the Rossendale valley in September 1930 when I was five years old.It was a small school in a smallvillage where everybody knew everybody.

My mother took me inside the school and filled in a form and I was then taken into a classroom and mother disappeared. No time was wasted: we were put in our seats and tested in the morning as to our reading. I could already read fluently and was held up as an example to the rest of the class andI then decided that school was a good thing!

Alas, however, I changed my mind in the afternoon since we then moved to sums and I could not do additions and subtractions. This irritated the class teacher so much that she dragged me to the front of the class and hit me until I cried piteously.

That night I never slept, neither did my mother and father. We did sums through the night and by 9 am the following day I could number.

Let me add a postscript. Some years ago I was asked by that school to return and meet the parents and governors since it was under threat of closure. It had been years since I had been back, but the whole of the village turned out and subsequently the school was saved. A pupil's drawing of the school given to me then now hangs on one of my walls.


On January 15th, 1929 - the only date that has survived from my childhood unforgotten - wearing my new, bright red blazer and my bright red, rather loose-fitting peaked cap, with my hair of a length which, if not exactly boyish, was at least no longer girlish, at half past eight in the morning and accompanied by my nurse, I climbed onto a number 11 bus bound for Sloane Square and my first day at Gibbs.

Gibbs was a day school for boys, taking them from the age of about six to the age of 13. C H Gibbs was its headmaster, and I stayed there for five terms before moving on to a boarding school.

At Gibbs I learned many things - the dates of the first three Georges, the shape of North America, amo and mensa - and there was one thing in particular I learned on my first day. I told my father about it in utter amazement, expecting equal amazement from him. "We have to call Mr Gibbs 'Sir'," I said.


For me there were three first days of school. The pain of the earliest has largely blotted it from my memory. But it was 50 years ago almost exactly at Woodhouse Eaves primary school in Leicestershire that I started in a three-classroom Victorian school built into a steep granite outcrop. A cracked bell chimed us in and it was run by a Welshman who lived in the school house opposite. His son was to be my friend - not that I knew it on that first miserable self-pitying post-War day. We all took our own potatoes to be "jacketed" on the school stove, which was regularly fed with Anthracite. And I took my eye drops for the teacher, Mrs Bayliss, who wore a variety of long dresses and always an austere bun. On that first day I can remember her administering the drops to irrigate my blocked tear ducts. There were plenty of tears to help.

The second first day was only five years later in Loughborough at a remorselessly unfriendly boys' grammar school. Third time lucky. All stories should have a happy ending and my schooling did only five weeks later as my family moved to Lowestoft. The school's rising sun emblem seemed to suffuse every aspect of school life. But the school's greatest assets were its teachers, all of whom made every pupil feel good and special. It was a place of joy, of laughter and of learning. When I want to send a shiver down my spine I speculate on what might have been if my father hadn't got another job.


As my mum and I arrived at Hunter's Bar council school in Sheffield, I glanced in awe across the gigantic school yard, at least a mile wide. Inside was an enormous rocking horse. Twenty feet tall at a guess. "It's Edward, isn't it?". Well it was "Teddy" actually, but you don't argue with the head on your first day.

I was pupil number 36 in a reception class of 35. The first thing I noticed was some urchin threading beads on to cotton. If this was school, then could I have some real work please? None of your trendy hand-eye co-ordination crap for this five-year-old, thank you. Worse, I never got a bottle of milk at playtime. There were 35 bottles for 36 pupils. The new boy had to do without. The same happened the following day.

Years later I went back to Hunter's Bar. The playground was tiny. The same rocking horse was still there, but some swine had shrunk it to about three feet. Whenever I get on a bus and the courier counts us all and says, "That's funny, there are 36 of you, but only 35 on my list", I know whose name will be missing. These things leave scars.


After a few practice runs on my new red bike, I set off very scared and very wobbly. We were all lined up in the playground in front of this large strange lady who was Year 1 teacher.

All the older children knew the routine we followed. As the lines moved in they sang "John Brown's body lies a mouldering in the grave" to the tune of the battle hymn of the Republic. To this day it strikes fear and misery into my heart. Not the most joyful of songs for rising fives, the thought of this poor man lying in a grave all mouldy. The imagination ran wild. Worse was to come. Miss Smith of Year 1 did not accept that any child was left-handed. Unfortunately for me I was. "Start as you mean to go on," was Miss Smith's motto. Mine too.

I am not sure how long it took, but after a few tears from me and exasperation from Miss Smith I decided to take action. Thinking they would send me home, I stuck my fingers down my throat until I was sick, ruining my pink gingham dress. Instead I was sent to class 2 and the lovely Miss Jackson who allowed left-handed children to be just that, and as far as I remember the same thing occurred every time they sent me back to Miss Smith.

Poor Miss Smith. I am sure I was not an easy child, but she succeeded in turning me off school forever. I don't remember ever enjoying one day of my school life. I suspect if any of my teachers are around and remember me they did not enjoy me very much either.


My first day at school was terrible. The school, a local church foundation, was run by nuns who in those far off days wore long black habits. They were kind but I was terrified. I sat, all day long, in my coat - I wouldn't give it up - spoke to no one and thought my mother had deserted me. I was just four-years-old. I didn't go back.

Six months later I went to school again - a different school in a different town. A big school full of boys who pulled the girls' hair and played five stones and marbles in the playground. When the bell rang we lined up outside the reception class - a hut on stilts - and then climbed the stairs to an Aladdin's cave of books, toys, poster paints and clay. I made a seal with a ball on its nose! I also remember making a sampler which was really grubby by the time it was finished; drinking warm milk every break; and heads on desks for a rest at 2 pm. I loved it all - except the warm milk of course!


It wasn't fun. I was four and mine was a residential school for the blind in Sheffield. It's too young, but it was compulsory at the time, 1951. Then, it was residential school or nothing. So my first day was really traumatic. It was acclimatising to a large Victorian building in its own grounds and coping with the trauma of being away from home at the same time. The first day was literally finding my way around, discovering that there were other youngsters equally bewildered and homesick, discovering there was something called Braille and I had to learn to read and write it, having to wave goodbye to my Mum and Dad and having to break their hearts as well. We had to wear the school clothing, so I had to leave my own behind. We had to learn to make our own beds, clean our own shoes and generally look after ourselves, at the age of four.

It was a grind. It was a sort of rude awakening which would probably not happen today, and which accounts for my stoic attitude to hard work and intolerance for slackers and shirkers.

DAVID HART GENERAL SECRETARY, NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF HEAD TEACHERS My most vivid memory of my first day at boarding school - Wisborough Lodge, Sussex - was being deposited by my mother and feeling utterly bewildered by a strange world, with routines which were foreign and beyond comprehension. Indeed the whole of that day was spent getting to know the rules and regulations, most of which seemed daft. It was a post-war boarding situation.

I can remember three such rules. We were only allowed to wash our hair once a fortnight. Every Sunday we had to have our shoes immaculately shined, and our nails clipped. The school was more interested in these things than whether you got any spiritual benefit out of your attendance at church. There was no talking at meals until after the head said Grace. I never understood why.

The situation was saved by games and sport, which featured strongly, and by the fact that many of my fellow pupils were as confused as me by their first contact with school.

The head of the school always appeared to me to be more interested in farming than school. So I was not in the least surprised when the head packed it all in after a few years and went off pig farming; an altogether more lucrative venture!


Come the dread day, I sat under the kitchen table surrounded by my favourite Dinky toys and hoped the world would pass me by. It didn't. A quick calculation followed in which loss of face was balanced against terror, death and worse. Fear of ignominy triumphed (as it always does) and I stomped off with superficial resolution, relinquished Mum's hand with a dry if sickly smile, and tried to blend anonymously into my surroundings. The day passed in a state of dazed incredulity: why me? But, then, the essential does not change does it?

Forty-four years on and it is the same old emotions, the same old demons to be vanquished.


I didn't know where to put my lunch box. I held on to it for a long time. Then a girl called Harriet showed me where - in a box outside the classroom door. I only knew one girl in the class. That was Sophie and I played with her before I started school. It was her first day too. But at lunchtime she had school dinners and I had sandwiches so I was quite scared because everyone with packed lunches went upstairs to a big room. There were lots of older children and I didn't know anyone.

Afterwards I went out to the playground. Sophie was there and we played witches. But when the bell rang Sophie wanted to go home.

But we didn't go home. We went into a hall and a teacher played the piano and we had to pretend to be animals running up and down. I liked that. I was a mouse and a lion. My teacher was called Jan. She had yellow hair. Then my Daddy came to pick me up JAN MARK NOVELIST

By the time we settled in Ashford, Kent, and I finally went to school, I was knocking on eight.

Up until then my mother had taught me at home, wherever that happened to be. Hollington School was a converted house of what I considered to be massive proportions, and a teacher directed me into an enormous room where herds of children roared and rampaged.

I went and sat under a desk to dissociate myself from the mayhem and probable retribution. In retrospect, I suppose there could have been no more than 12 or 14 of us in a room about 15 feet square, but I was unaccustomed to children in large numbers.

There was no class registers: roll-call was held at assembly. People seemed to be saying "absent" when their names were called, which was patently untrue. "I'm here," I said, pedantically, when it came to my name. "We say adsum, " the teacher explained. "Now you know some Latin."

So I did, but no one told me where the lavatory was.


I want to be like that boy Jimmy.

I want to wear a man's jacket and have trousers with pockets that I could put my hands in so that when I put my hands in my pockets, like Jimmy does, the bottom of my jacket (if I had a jacket) would crumple up just like his.

I want to be like that boy Jimmy who climbs up the tower in the middle of the climbing frame and says: I'm at the top of the chimbley pock I'm at the top of the chimbley pock.

But the hairy blanket at afternoon sleep time. . .

and the big girls at the minders, where you leave me at the beginning of the day...

those big girls who kept saying "fainites" just as I was about to say they were "on". . .

. . . all that, I don't like.


The first momentous impact on me aged five of Miss Todd's dame school, situated in an Edwardian semi-detached house in West Kirby, was the tiled path leading up to a glass-panelled front door.

Then the awful sinking feeling of arriving at the row of shoebags which lined the narrow hall.

Miss Todd was terrifying. She had advanced views about education and wore hand-embroidered smocks. I remember her springy bobbed hair, black snapping eyes and loud commanding voice; but the main perspective then was of strap-over buttoned shoes and muscled legs in shiny brown lisle stockings.

The kindergarten was in what would have been the front bedroom, where Miss Hale, the only other teacher, with a golden plait wound around her head, was a sunlit Constable landscape compared with Miss Todd's Turneresque thunderbolts.

I quite enjoyed threading coloured wooden beads and joining a singing game, walking round and round in a circle on the polished linoleum: "I am small I know, but where e'er I go, the fields grow greener still . . .!" At break we had an Italian wafer biscuit. But something was indefinably wrong with the tepid milk drink masquerading as Bournvita. Mercifully we didn't have to stay for dinner.

DR KANWALJIT KAUR-SINGH LEA inspector and chair of the British Sikh Education Council

I still vividly remember my first day at Guru Nanak Dev girls' school in India when I was four and a half years old. I left my mother's hand trying hard to swallow my tears, and followed the teacher to my desk (no toys or games, only a board and a chalk). The teacher asked me if I could write my name and gave me some other tasks. Having filled every inch of my board, completely exhausted, I sat there waiting. The teacher came, looked at my work, and said, "You know everything, who has been teaching you?" I gave a coy smile and answered, "Mummy".

On the way home, when my mother asked me what I did in school, I told her that the teacher said that "I know everything." After a pause of a few seconds, I told my mother that "I think that I should leave school as I know everything. " Ever since that first day when I knew everything, I have spent my life learning how little I know.


My mother was in rural Ireland during the worst period of the Blitz. The school was run by nuns. I must have been four. A classroom fall gave me my first lesson in politics. Consolingly, a nun said that I was a brave little English soldier - so guaranteeing me a playground thumping.

Back in England I had a whole succession of first days at school as my parents, homeless, moved about the country. There was the school in Manchester where I thought the day had ended at morning break, and so I unwittingly absconded. There was a small private school in Harrow which reeked of elderly sprout water, where the only memorable activity was making shopping baskets out of waxed card, milktops and raffia.

Then there was the Catholic school (St Mary's in Brockley. south-east London) where where I was wrongly diagnosed as deaf. Here I learnt the catechism, to hate football, to play the trumpet and to read - in pretty much that order.

Research by Lucia Raimbault

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