Victorian Schools - by Mary Nicholas
Mary migrated to New Zealand as a child. Using the skills taught by Deborah Shepard at The Michael King Writers Centre, Mary is retracing connections to the past through memoir, to capture the continuum of values and choices across generations and the journeys we have made, told through family stories.
The Victorians built their schools with very high windows, too high for any child to see the world outside. I was going to be five at the end of term, so now I had to go to school.
My father drove me in the brown Jowett Javelin through the narrow Cornish country lanes, leaving the sun-dappled, lime-washed Elizabethan farm house set among banks of primroses and lush, green grass where I played with my sister in the hamlet of Blunts, to the village of Callington. I have no memories of the journey past the hedgerows. He dropped me off at the primary school. He taught at the secondary modern across the way.
Every day I went to school and sat in the stone classroom with the high windows. The only recollection I have of that grey space built from granite moor stone is the square iron windows, frames to a grey sky. In the lunch break I stood close against the walls, keeping off the yard, so that I wouldn’t be knocked over. Even though I tried to blend into the stone work I remember a group of gigantic girls from the secondary modern striding through the tall wrought iron gates. They sought me out, the teacher’s daughter, to lead me to the windowless toilet block where they shut me in a cubicle, standing outside, talking among themselves, intermittently checking on my discomfort, until they were ready to let me out. This happened many times.
When I try to remember those first terms at school nothing emerges. I was in a void. It was completely meaningless. I had no idea what was going on. Then one day I remember looking up at large colourful letters floating high up on the wall, as high as the windows I could not see out of, and following the tip of a long, thin stick pointing to each letter, pausing and moving on. Later I knew this to be the alphabet. I wasn’t yet five. So this is school and it’s where I have to go.
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