Life

As September 1 rolls around, I'm back in the starched pinafore and bottle-green blouse

I sailed through my school days, unaware that life has harder lessons to teach and all the exams in the world can't prepare you for some of them... And when the good times roll, I remember the gifts of a good education – the beauty of words that serve us all down the years

Children everywhere have started back to school this week

IT'S the smell of a crisp fresh jotter that sends me down avenues of memory to a red-headed child clutching her big sister's hand as we walk through the blue door and up the steep avenue to school.

There was a wild cat in the woods, an older girl warned us. So I clutched my sister's hand ever tighter as we walked up the hill. Perhaps a panther would pounce silently into our path; perhaps we would never make it to the small school at the top of the hill.

In nightmares, the panther stalks and the school is forever a mad dash out of reach.

Those were just seven years at primary school. But as September 1 rolls around, I'm back in the starched wine pinafore and the bottle-green blouse, struggling to knot up the tie.

“You're a clootie,” my dad would tease.

Life as a left hander had its challenges. The days when the teacher tied your left hand behind your back and forced you to write with the other, had passed but reading and writing and knitting were always a conundrum. I was Ginger to everyone else's Fred... doing it backwards, if not in high heels.

And in the 1960s, there was always a double ruler sellotaped together to drive home the point across the knuckles.

Were those school days the happiest?

They are a haze punctuated with laughter and tears.

There was the dark day when the girls who skipped school for a day in the park were caned in front of the whole school. Each had to kneel down and say an individual public act of contrition. They coughed out sobs of humiliation. We hung our heads uneasily.

There were golden days – when the teacher took a break from the machine-gun rattle of mental arithmetic – 5 x 8; 7x7 and 4x4 – and read us a story.

The day when the canon visited, it was very hot outside: Why don't you buy the girls an ice cream, asked a kind nun... and he sent up a cone for everyone from the local ice cream shop.

There were inspirational teachers who gave us the gift of poetry and reading and a yen to travel the globe.

They rarely used even the sharp end of their tongues – and when we put our heads down on our desks, the sun laid a warm hand on our shoulders through the high windows.

There were moments too that I'd rather forget – they stick in my gullet like the prune stone that lodged there at a long ago canteen dinner.

My mother can recite whole pages of Dickens from her own primary school of nearly 80 years ago. She still loves the magic of Nicholas Nickleby – lying in bed as the sunlight danced on the wall.

She owes her knowledge to a woman who was a wonderful teacher but who battered her pupils into submission.

And my mother still remembers the country girl who had no mother and who was once chased around the classroom and beaten hard as she sobbed.

She took her schoolmate home to her own mother who sized up the situation. My granny didn't ask questions. She set out a special tea for the two of them with sandwiches and biscuits. And when it was time for the child to get her bus home, my granny told my mother: “Now you go with her to the top of the street and see that she gets on the bus safely.”

And nearly 80 years later, my mother remembers it still.

My own school days were happy ones.

September was a new pair of black shoes that pinched my heels, a fresh pencil and a silver sharpener, and jotters that begged for a neat heading, a date and a straight red line.

I'm still a fool for a good fountain pen.

I sailed through, unaware that life has harder lessons to teach and all the exams in the world can't prepare you for some of them.

But when times are tough, I close my eyes and I can feel the warmth of my big sister's hand back in the dark wood.

And I think of the gentle compassion of my grandmother to a motherless child.

And when the good times roll, I remember the gifts of a good education – the beauty of words that serve us all down the years.

“Happiness is a gift,” wrote Dickens, “and the trick is not to expect it, but to delight in it when it comes.”

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