While we might miss out on the wing-stretching of adolescence, I find that most of our former pupils retain a genuine affection for their primary school and most of their teachers. What surprises me is the ease with which many attribute credit to their primary for preparing them for the real education for living that their local communities provide. If you can call it living: many don't, and work hard to escape what they see as a restrictive and potentially unproductive environment.
I came across one such former pupil recently. Andrew at the time was unshipping a skip from its lorry, to the admiration of a crowd of onlookers. He greeted me effusively as it swung on its cradle, and I jigsawed name and face at once. He told me of his army career, his HGV training, his previous employment as a long-distance driver, and his current contentment with his job. He also expressed his affection for his old school and his teachers. I can recall Andrew in P1.
A very wise assistant head I had once gave me an excellent piece of advice. She suggested that when things were stressing out too much that I should repair to P1, and join in the activities going on in the Wendy House. I did so from time to time, and quite apart from fulfilling my monitoring role, the activity was completely therapeutic.
Its then residents took me completely for granted, gravely invited me to join them in their various domestic chores, reprimanded me for the occasional clumsiness, and generally did an excellent job in calming me down. I extended this therapy to the playground, and the results have been personally instructive and insightful. Especially this session.
In the largest intake for many years, a surprising number of children are tiny, some reaching only to the first button on my jacket. Site-specific as circumstances demand, this emphasises their vulnerability to pushing by unheeding juniors whose chases take them too often through the infants' patch. Their diminutiveness, however, seems in inverse proposition to their ability to consume crisps and drink fizz.
Within minutes of release, the play area is carpeted with empty packets, providing an excellent opportunity to start on a seven-year course of litter lifting. And of other necessary skills, like not using north-south or east-west head shakes, and following diligently the instruction given once stentorianly by a former infant mistress: "Use words!" Meanwhile, the more adventurous spirits have started on exploring the nooks and crannies of the playground, exposing themselves to the prospect of assaultive close-ups that regrettably some relish and must be restrained from. An effective admonition is to suggest that their new uniform will get dirty.
This year's couture is baggy trousers that would do justice to a Spahi, being baggy enough to contain a man and his dog. And let us not forget Benjie. A tearaway mutt, he sits on a hillock across from the playground, waiting to prove every day that Pavlov was right. As soon as interval bell rings, with one bound, he is there waiting for Susan who, just as Pavlovianly, escorts him daily to the gate.
A tiny cloud persists. Andrew remains unscathed by a community that over two decades has become a grief pit, where too many people have gradually become enmeshed in a mire of dependency, become inured to the prospect of unemployment and unsure if it will ever end, and have to fight off daily the allurements of the drug culture. Looking over the good-natured melees and all-round cheerfulness that playtime can be, it is hard not to ask: will Darren, Mark, Kaylee and Natasha get the chance, and be able to follow, Andrew's example?