Starting School – 1960 and 2018, by Rosalie Warren

My young granddaughter Daisy started school – proper, full-time school, in reception class – last month and, I’m glad to say, seems to have settled in very well. There’s some reassuring continuity in that one of her former nursery teachers is now her class teacher, and she has a number of friends who were at nursery with her. Apparently she loves school dinners too, and probably eats all kinds of things there that she would never dream of eating at home!

I can’t help thinking back to my own, now very distant, memories of starting school. My first school was an odd one, to say the least. I’d been to a fairly standard nursery school when we lived in Cornwall, but we had now moved up to Yorkshire and I was still getting used to a new home in a new town, and my dad being far away in Singapore. The strange little private school they sent me to was my grandmother’s idea, and I believe she paid the fees. We were not a wealthy family by any means, but she had savings and wanted to give me ‘a good start’. I suppose she saw me as a shy little girl who was already reading by herself, and she wanted me to have the best education possible. The school was tiny – I think there were about twelve of us, aged between just five (me) and twelve (the headmistress’s daughter – I remember her being big and scary). There were three teachers, so the teacher-pupil ratio was exceptionally high. On my first day (needless to say, the classes were mixed age, mixed everything) we learned about someone called Julius Caesar. I was very puzzled over who he was, but I did my best to draw a picture of… a man. 

Not long after that, we had a Bible story read to us about someone called Jeremiah, and our homework was to write a little piece about what happened to him. I was so upset… I couldn’t remember the first thing about Jeremiah, except – did he break a vase or something? Luckily, I somehow managed to remember his name, and Nana looked up the story in the Old Testament and helped me do my summary (i.e. did it for me, pretty much, I expect). I do remember feeling a bit guilty when I got a big red tick and a nine out of ten for it.

I also learned how to write with a pen and how to do fractions. We learned about money, including farthings, even though this was 1960 and farthings weren’t in circulation any more (our books were out of date). Since I could already read, it would have been nice to be given some interesting books to devour, but for some reason they gave me endless Janet and John and similar dull, repetitive stuff. I had to discover the town library to get my fill of good books. 

There was a terrifying morning in assembly when I spotted all three of our teachers at various points in the little hall, well away from the piano, but the piano was being played – I could hear ‘Morning has Broken’ booming out. There was only one explanation – that piano was playing itself!

I don’t know whether I started crying – I do remember finding it terribly frightening, heaven knows why – anyway, one of the teachers asked me what was wrong. Somehow I managed to ask her – was the piano playing itself? She reassured me and took me to see. The player was none other than the headmistress’s daughter. I hadn’t realised that you didn’t need to be a grown-up to play the piano. Phew!

The strange little school (which may well have been good for me in some ways – I really don’t know) closed down after three years and at the age of seven I had to join the ordinary primary school down the road. It wasn’t easy – the children there threw stones at me, some of them, for ‘talking posh’. I was ahead of them in some subjects, which didn’t endear me to anyone, especially not the teacher. That teacher, Mrs B, really was a bully, looking back. She mocked me for writing with a pen (‘Only the teacher uses a pen in this classroom!’), for using joined-up letters and for crossing out mistakes instead of putting a tiny cross at the end. She humiliated me in front of the class for some of my ‘worries’ (I had a lot of worries). And nothing really changed, even after my mother went to see her at the school. I think Mrs B convinced Mum that everything was fine and I was just making a fuss. I learned a lot of lessons very quickly – such as to speak in a broad Yorkshire accent like the rest of my class and to hide away any abilities I might have. The only thing you were allowed to be good at was games – and sadly, I wasn’t, which was a shame as that was the thing that made you popular. I settled in eventually, but it wasn’t easy, and I still have a deep irrational fear, going into a roomful of strangers, that they will surround me in a big ring and start chanting insults at me or even throwing stones.

I know I wasn’t bullied anywhere near as badly as some, but these things do leave their mark. Thankfully, bullying is recognised these days and schools do their best to deal with it. I hope very much for Daisy and all the others just starting school that they will find it a happy and welcoming place, with plenty of challenges and lots of good books, but perhaps not too much Julius Caesar and Jeremiah in their first few days!

Me, starting school, April 1960 (that haircut!!)

Daisy, first day of school, Sept 2018

All the best,

Follow me on Twitter @Ros_Warren


Sandra Horn said…
Oh,this brings back some memories!Not only my own - how incomprehensible some things were at school at first - but my son, well-prepared for his first day, we thought, turning a desperate face to us and asking 'Where do I sleep?'My heart lurches even now when I think how anxious he must have been, and we didn't know until then!
Bill Kirton said…
Yes, lovely memories (and awful ones, too). The differences that have come along in such a relatively short time span are very significant. The seeds of both the loveliness and awfulness are still there, but others have been added. I think it's never easy starting school, but it seems to be getting worse. I hope Daisy rides the storm well.
Umberto Tosi said…
My most bittersweet memories are of taking each of my daughters to kindergarten that first day for each of them respectively. Thank you for a lovely, intimate post about something every parent can relate to, yet experiences distictively.
Enid Richemont said…
Oh how Daisy has grown! I keep seeing her in my imagination as much littler, but she's a real little schoolgirl now, isn't she?

My first day at school, I was told by my mother, was both anarchic and hilarious, with the poor teacher trying vainly to get kids to line up, and me deciding it was all a huge joke, and running round the playground pursued by said teacher who could barely run for laughing (I have no recollection of this, but I've always liked the story.)

I could write a great deal about bullying, both via other children, but also via a couple of horrendous teachers. Teachers were hugely respected when I was growing up, which often meant they could get away with near-murder - after all, who believed what kids said?

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