Waiting For The School Bell
How desperately I wanted to go there. How sidelined I felt at being barred. The domestic sphere – playing at home all day with my mother and the babies – struck me as a poor substitute for the life I longed to inhabit.
As a schoolgirl.
In hindsight, it doesn’t sound much. School is not an exclusive club. Every child goes sooner or later, whether willingly or not. But I counted the days until I could strap a leather satchel to my back and answer the summons of the school bell.
Perhaps I was influenced by location. Loreto Convent Primary School was a stone’s throw from our house. Every weekday morning I would press my face to the kitchen window and watch those big girls of five or six walking along by the Covent wall, past our front garden and up McCusker’s Hill, disappearing round the bend towards the school gates.
In those gentler times, it was older brothers or sisters who accompanied P1s and P2s to school, rather than parents. Generally, any grownups hurrying by were teachers, nipping in ahead of the heavy wood and brass bell which I could hear clanging in the school yard.
As for me, I was stuck in Do Not Pass Go territory. I gnashed my milk teeth, the injustice of being too young for school weighing heavily.
My older brothers were buttoned into coats, schoolbags checked for exercise books, while I fretted about being expected to stay at home. Sometimes we’d stand on the front step and wave to them, an additional twist of the dagger.
Holding the pegs while my mother pegged out the washing wasn’t much of a consolation. Even the promise of Watch With Mother on the television later failed to mollify me. Children know instinctively when they are being palmed off.
“You’ll go soon,” my mother would say. Waiting, waiting. Already I was aware that an adult’s idea of ‘soon’ did not tally with a child’s.
And then one day, when I was four and hope had almost faded, it was time to enrol me. I was called in from digging for worms in the garden, and told to change into my Sunday best because I was having “my name put down” as enrolment was called.
For once, I didn’t complain about being stripped of my favourite red and white cowboy wellies (rather thrillingly, they had a sheriff’s star on each boot) and pinched into the despised dress. It was white nylon, patterned with rosebuds, and although photographs now show me that it had much to recommend it, this dress and I never saw eye to eye. Its tight, prickly collar hurt my neck, and the nuisance value of that froth of petticoats cannot be overstated.
Still, I suffered it for the sake of seeing inside the grey stone building into which big girls disappeared, the clamour of their voices at playtime floating out at intervals.
Trussed up in nylon, I breathed on the windowpane, drawing shapes on the glass, while my mother slipped into high heels and slicked on her lipstick. Finally, we set off to join a queue of other mums holding the hands of smaller versions of themselves – some anxious, some gaping at the hurly burly around them. In time, I came to count these unfamiliar faces among my friends.
Mother Oliver presided over the enrolment session, her floor-length black habit rustling as she walked. I was agog at a tiny glimpse of grey hair which appeared at her temple when the veil slipped, and even more amazed to see her fumble blind and pin it back into place with rigorous precision.
While the mums took care of business, we were allowed to play with an Aladdin’s Kingdom of toys. There were crayons, jigsaws, dolls and teddies, but best of all was the enormous wooden rocking horse, straight out of a Victorian child’s nursery. It was so popular that riding time had to be rationed.
Long-awaited treats seldom live up to expectations, but this one did not disappoint. I had to be dragged away from that magical place smelling of chalk, furniture polish and starch from the nuns’ habits. Still, there was always tomorrow.
Except imagine my surprise, on the following day, when I bounced downstairs, ready for school, only to hear September was still a long way off. Enrolment day, it turned out, was just another stage in the holding exercise. Drat those adults and their delaying tactics.
All summer long I checked off the days. September came round at last, and I was kitted out in a navy uniform, hand-me-down brown leather satchel, and soft bag with drawstring mouth containing my regulation black slip-ons for indoor wear.
And so began my new life at Loreto Convent Primary School. First off, I was allocated a coat hook outside the ground floor classroom, followed by a seat at a shared wooden desk with lift-up lid. (“Stop opening those desks, children!”)
Day one demanded some adjustments to expectations, the main one being that our time was not devoted to lengthy bouts on the rocking horse, interspersed with artwork as someone else had a turn. Instead, a blackboard was moved into place, a box of long white chalks opened, and Mother Oliver began the business of teaching us our ABCs.
I still remember the shock. So you didn’t go to school to play? I hadn’t realised there was an academic as well as a social side to school. Quickly, however, I became engrossed by the lessons, and forgot to feel cheated about the rocking horse being out of bounds.
A break for milk followed, from child-sized bottles parked in a crate outside the classroom, after which readers were distributed. These featured a brother and sister called Dick and Dora, who had pets – Nip the dog and Fluff the cat – and friends by the name of Jack and May. The children were much given to running, hopping and skipping, Dora in a yellow cardigan and Dick in a red pullover.
We studied the pictures, and came to be on close terms with their pastimes, although I never particularly warmed to them as fellow children. They never seemed real. I suppose they were dated – it was all terribly Home Counties – but we learned to read. Mission accomplished.
There was only aspect to that first year in school which I disliked: when we were told, occasionally, to put our heads on our arms and go to sleep. Sleep was for night-time, and the instruction was mystifying. Plus, you’d have to be very tired to regard a wooden desk as a comfortable pillow.
What I liked best abut those early years was Story Time, when teachers would read aloud to us. I remember the enchantment of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, and rushing to the town library to borrow it because the teacher was drip-feeding it to us in instalments and I couldn’t wait to discover what happened.
Which brings me to my favourite memory from those seven years at Loreto Convent Primary School: the school library. It was there I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series, and Rosemary Sutcliffe’s historical adventures. Perhaps it was during those lunch breaks and after-school sessions, when I burrowed into books, that the germ of an idea was planted. Could I write stories, too?
Or maybe I’m imposing adult aspirations on a child. It may be that I simply grasped how reading was the ultimate act of escapism, because books were a ticket to ride to destinations across town, tribe and time.
It was Sister Mary, our energetic, new head teacher, who set up the school library. She also taught us Christmas carols in Spanish (“Dime nino – Tell me child”) and bought dozens of recorders so that we might all learn to play a musical instrument. I dropped my recorder, glued it back together, and hoped nobody would notice how it never sounded the same again. This cunning plan was torpedoed by my father, who sent me off to Sister Mary confess.
She can’t have held it against me, because one day she handed me a badge, saying I was the first librarian of the new school library. It was a treasure trove of children’s literature, and I was allowed to unpack the boxes and arrange their contents on the shelves. If anticipation has a smell, it’s that of a new book. Whenever I inhale it today, I’m transported back to Loreto Convent.
The library had the Ballet Shoes series, Little Women, Black Beauty, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, among others. It was there I read Clement C. Moore’s ’Twas The Night Before Christmas for the first time, introducing me to the names of Santa’s eight reindeer: “Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet! On, Cupid! on, on Donner and Blitzen!”
I took my duties seriously as librarian, forever trying to push the Anne of Green Gables series on classmates – even those who preferred the Enid Blyton boarding school stories, Malory Towers and St Clare’s, which relied heavily on midnight feasts and practical jokes for their plot lines.
At that time, a certain amount of ambivalence was emerging about Blyton’s work among adults (the author always insisted that she wasn’t interested in what critics over the age of 12 had to say about her books) but we didn’t know we ought to be offended by her sniffiness about ‘oiks’ and ‘the lower orders’. I suppose we enjoyed her stories because she wrote from a child’s perspective and grownups were peripheral.
Leaving Loreto Convent Primary School wasn’t such a wrench because it was all kept in the family, so to speak: I simply swapped my navy uniform for brown and walked a short distance in the opposite direction, to Loreto Convent Grammar School. As for schooldays being the happiest of your life – that’s a bit of an exaggeration, because the late teens to early twenties take some beating. But they were good times, undoubtedly.
Carefree, but structured, they taught us how there was a time to play and a time to learn. I can’t hear the peal of an old-fashioned hand bell without smiling at the memory, pungent as chalk dust, of the stories I heard there, the books I read.