Friday, 21 June 2013

Early School Days

   My early memories of school are scant.  I can remember the first day of school.  But I'm not sure if it was my first day, and I'm sure I could colour-in the scant memory with later details from more recent memories.

   Ridley Grove primary school in north-western Adelaide, a light-green weatherboard row of classrooms in the "infant" part of the schoolyard (the main buildings being red-brick), the long enclosed porch with external doors, louvre windows and steps, thick wire hooks on the walls inside holding bags and coats, white-painted wooden hopper windows and an internal door to each classroom.

   Standing in the doorway of the end room, with the teacher and my mother exchanging a few polite words, the release of hands and then whisked away into the room and Mum gone.

   Such a minute scrap of memory which could easily be wrong!  Because I remember so little else, I suspect that I could easily be translating this memory from the day Peter began school, or Lester, or Alan; it could easily be that I was an external witness to this moment, being with my Mum and younger brother before going off to my own classroom, when I was seven or older.  If one of the boys had a hard time on their first day, I might have been empathetic, and the memory imprinted.  Or, one could argue that I remember the scrap because of my personal first-day trauma, but if this is the case, I have no recollection of the trauma!

    All I can truly say is that I remember the doorway inside the porch, Mum being there, and the transfer of child from Mum to teacher.

(click on photos to enlarge)
   This is the main entrance to Ridley Grove Primary School.

   I do have solid memories of school from Grade Two, or when I was about seven.  I remember the classroom had a concertina wall which could be opened and the adjoining classes combined.  I suspect I remember this because it meant fun.  Whenever it happened, and the two classes came together, routine was discarded; a piano might be involved and sometimes hand puppets or figures on felt boards - at any rate, we were entertained, and if required to participate, participation involved singing or jumping around.

I believe this was taken in about 1952 when I was seven.
   Independently of the concertina wall, for a while we had two teachers.  I think now that one was probably a student teacher with us for a few weeks;  my memory has the two teachers generating a lot of fun and lively goings-on, so they must have worked well together.  It could just be that when one teacher flagged, the other took over, so that we were kept on our toes!

School and I got on well together.  I never stood out from the class except for good reasons, for example, getting things "right".  But about this time I did have a traumatic experience that's never left me.  When I was about seven, I became sick and spent time away from school, possibly a week but it couldn't have been much more, with mumps or chicken pox.  When I returned to school I had overwhelming feelings that everyone had moved on to new things; while I was away the class might have learnt a foreign language for all I knew what was happening.  My memory is of asking to go to the toilet, standing in the concrete block facing the grey wall of the urinal, and then bursting into tears.  It's likely that someone had to come and get me to resolve the situation but I'm reasonably sure I was OK again in 24 hours!  Fancy being seven!

   There's a gap between then and the next things I can be sure of.  In Grade Four, aged about nine, during a history lesson with Mr Howell I was appointed "monitor".  This meant that I stood out in front of the class, who all had history books open to the same page of an heroic tale involving the British Empire.  My job was to direct a student to read aloud a paragraph of the story, at the end of which they would sit and I would choose someone else to stand and read the next paragraph. (Mr Howell, seated at his desk, was probably marking spelling tests or something similar).  At a certain point, when I may have called on a slow reader, I became completely engrossed in the story, reading several paragraphs ahead and forgetting my job.  The class soon began to realise the situation, their catcalls and jeers attracted the attention of Mr Howell and I was dismissed as "monitor", presumably with a red face!

   Something I've never seen since leaving Ridley Grove is the scale of the dustbowl in the playground that was the "alley ring".  Marbles or "allies" required a few square metres in the dirt with a circle and a baulk line, a bit like hopscotch in area, but there could be literally dozens of games happening simultaneously.  Beside the green of the oval, used at recess time for french cricket (summer) and footy end-to-end (winter), was a vast expanse of bare ground, scraped clean by use of the playground equipment (there was no soft-fall) and the alley ring as big as a tennis court.  At recess time, kids raced out to get the best places and then shuffled around avoiding eye contact with the bullies while the pecking order was re-established, deciding who could play where.  I can remember the scene more than the detail of playing so I was obviously not an expert.  An expert could fire his marble from the baulk line into the ring, hit an opponent and go on to "skin" the ring.  Playing against an expert was like gambling - start with a bag of marbles and try to hold on as long as possible before losing the last one. 

    A landmark which took place in Grade Four was the conversion from writing with pencil to writing with pen and ink.  Many old blokes of similar vintage have written about the pens and nibs, the inkwells in desks and the ink monitors who mixed up the ink powder and distributed it daily to the inkwells.  But I don't recall anyone writing about being left-handed.   I could get away with being left-handed while using a pencil but not with pen and ink.

   Our writing system is designed for a right-handed person.  A right-handed person writes with the pencil point or pen nib pointing roughly towards the top left-hand corner of the page, and with the slope of the letters, drags or pulls the tip to the right and from bottom left to upper right.  With my left hand hooked around like a claw and the pen facing the bottom right corner of the page, I could move from bottom left to upper right and emulate the correct slope of the letters, but I was pushing the pen to the right and unavoidably digging holes in the paper as the ink softened it, and then using my hand to smudge what I had just written before it had any hope of drying!

   When you consider that we had writing lessons daily for several years during primary school, you'll understand that the progression from pencil to pen and ink was a serious matter; I had no hope of satisfactorily mastering the transition.  Over time I learnt not to dig into the paper, and to keep my hand and arm off the fresh lettering.  If my memory is good, ballpoint pens, or biros, were introduced into the school not long before I was ready to leave, and either biros or leaving solved the whole problem.

   Generally speaking, I liked school, fitted in and had little trouble with the the work, which got easier as I got older.

1 comment:

  1. What an excellent memory you have Rob. Your rich word pictures have brought back some of my memories of primary school. Thank you. Big brother John