School Days-not Always the Best Days

For four years, from the age of seven until eleven I lived with my family in a village in a remote part of north Norfolk-the part which is generally known as ‘The Fens’. Here the landscape is, at best minimalist-bearing no hills or trees as far as the horizon-only flat cultivated fields bordered by drainage ditches or ‘dykes’. At that time, the early 1960s, transport links were sketchy. Many village inhabitants had travelled no further than the village boundary and never to the nearest metropolis of Wisbech, six miles away, which was accessible by private car or by the school bus-leaving in the early morning and returning in the late afternoon. I attended the small village school until the ’11 plus’ examination decreed that I should make the daily journey to Wisbech High School, a grammar school for girls housed in an old building along the side of the River Nene. It was a culture shock. My primary school in the remote village had been tiny-only two classes-and now I entered an institution as disturbing as a mausoleum, with winding staircases, austere classrooms and landscaped grounds. We wore scarlet berets as part of our ‘outer wear’ and many of these could be spotted floating along the river each morning as we crossed the bridge from the bus stop, so that we soon learned to clutch our hands to our heads on the way over. I was relieved that my best friend, Gillian Farley had also ‘passed’ the exam and could share an experience which could only be described as a kind of endurance test for small girls. Our form mistress, Miss MacFarlane presided over us in a ferocious manner and with a draconian set of rules and regulations. She was also our mathematics teacher, an unhappy situation for those of us for whom maths was a constant mystery. Gillian was even worse off than I and was sent home one weekend with 2,000 [yes-2,000] lines to write on the subject of x times x = x squared. She’d committed the unforgivable sin of writing x times x = 2x. What a shocking crime! My red shoe-bag, proudly constructed by my mother as a money-saving ploy, was not quite the same ‘red’ as everyone else’s. My gymslip, again a proud home-make, did not appear to be shop bought. These differences led to daily mortification. Small errors, omissions or mishaps were punished by shaming order marks, a collection of three leading to detention. This would mean staying behind after school in the library and copying from books, a huge deterrent to those of us who would then miss the only bus home at the end of the day. When I collected an order mark for forgetting to bring a text book to a class and having to share with someone I spent weeks worrying about getting two more. After we sat end of term exams our desks in the form room were positioned in ‘exam order’ beginning at the back of class, to affirm the superior status of those whose average was top as opposed to those at the front-near Miss MacFarlane’s elevated platform-who had struggled. Poor Gillian was one of these, doomed to spend form time under Miss MacFarlane’s disapproving nose. I had somehow managed to get myself into the anonymous ranks of the middle. Do schools like this still exist? I hope not! I could never reflect that days at Wisbech High School were the happiest of my life. No child should ever be terrified of school!

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