The Legend of the Doctor
Part the Second
Big School: Grade 1
My third and final year of Kindergarten was associated with a new feeling of excitement and anticipation: the coming of Big School, real school, a place where they did real work, and one could cease all this mind-numbing nonsense of colouring pictures and learning tins of words. A place where they would give you books in which to write, and real books to read, not silly 'Readers', with inane stories of Roy and Carol and their non-entity of a dog, who all had been hit on the head and were thus unable to do anything, except stare blankly out at you from the page.
The excitement grew as the year progressed, and was heightened during the long summer holidays by a trip with Mother-dear to the department store to purchase a new school uniform.
That auspicious first day of Big School, Grade 1, arrived at last, and I was dropped off at the school gate by David. I liked David - he was a friendly man, who wore an almost permanent smile. David was employed to drive, transporting mainly staff and supplies for Mother-dear's building firm, but delivered also family members to where they needed to be. Naturally, to us children in the house he was known as 'David the Driver'.
The white gleam of David the Driver's smiling teeth glinted back at me as I waved goodbye and ran off through the school gates, my new brown leather satchel bumpingup and down on my back. Looking around, I was surprised to see large numbers of mothers in the school grounds, accompanying their sons to school. This was a school for boys – why were all these women allowed in here?
There were large numbers of boys, all in new school uniforms. In my opinion this was a pleasant uniform: blue short-sleeved shirt and trousers, navy blue socks held up with garters, and shiny black leather shoes with toe caps and laces, and the brown leather satchel. It was bliss to be free of those irritating sandals, which had cursed my feet through those kindergarten years, and to have graduated from the silly blue cardboard suitcase.
Surprisingly, a large number of the boys seemed unhappy. Some were even crying. Quite a number of the tearful new arrivals were clutching at their departing mothers, many of whom were also crying. This was incongruous. Why were they all so upset?
I felt elated: Big School at last. I found my way to the grade 1 classroom in company with the crying boys and their mothers. Once there, I stood in line to be introduced to the teacher. Miss McDonald was a short dark-haired woman with a big smile, coupled with a firm expression, and a formal manner. She appeared mildly surprised that I had no mother with me, but didn't seem to mind too much.
Once the last of the mothers had left, and we had each been allocated a place in the classroom, Miss McDonald looked around at her new seated inmates, tapped her desk with a largish stick, and told us all to quieten down.
"First", she said, with a smile, as though about to unleash a secret pleasure, "we are going to play with plasticine”.
She handed us each a wooden box containing balls of plasticine, accompanied by a square wooden board. When new the plastcine had clearly once been made upe of a collection of separate colours, but the colours were now now well mingled and the splodgy lumps of modeling clay were all a brownish, faecal looking colour.
"Now", said Miss McDonald, "please roll some sausages, and make some people and animals."
As a child weaned on politeness, I was forced to oblige, despite my immense surprise at this odd turn of events. Where was the real work? I wondered: we hadn’t come here to play; I could play with plasticine at home.
Once the modeling clay game was over, it was time for tea break. All the figures got mashed up and put back into the boxes.
Well, I thought, ‘that was a waste of time; but, they must know what they are doing - after all this is Big School.
Out in the playground, I was surprised to see most of the other children running around like a herd of demons. They were playing ‘catches’ (our name for tag), and ‘cops and robbers’; energetic work, especially considering the prevailing sub-tropical summer heat and humidity.
I took my lunch box into the shade provided by a large tree, beneath which large fallen tree trunk provided an excellent seat. I sat down and began to eat, mildly entertained by the spectacle of my colleagues running back and forth, and sweating. Mad, I thought...first they cry, and then they run around. I hated running. My spastic, asthmatic lungs had left me with an intense dislike of any physical exertion, especially in the heat.
A young, shy looking, blonde-haired bespectacled lad wondered up, and asked if he could join me on my tree trunk.
"Yes, certainly", I said, pleased to have some possibly like-minded company.
Dean was small and frail looking and also wasn't comfortable running around in the heat. The two of us enjoyed an earnest conversation about our more energetic peers, the oddness of school, and the weird morning which had thus far been inflicted on us. We met up almost every lunch break after that, and continued to exchange ideas, seated on our tree trunk, munching on sandwiches, while the other boys continued their habitual exuberant and energetic games.
After tea break, Miss McDonald handed each of us a little reading book.
Oh no, I thought, these are the same books we had in kindergarten. No, please, not Roy and Carol, again. These weren't real books. They were rubbish. I had thought these books useless at kindergarten. My Granny, Ma, had taught me to read years before, using these same books. When I was young, sitting next to Ma on the sofa, sounding out the words, the books had seemed okay, for a short while. Reading them again at preschool had been frustrating, but forgivable. However, seeing these silly little books again now was a serious blow, shattering the glowing image of Big School, an image now fast fading from my mind.
The reading lesson progressed slowly, and painfully. Each boy was given a chance to read a line from the book. I was astonished to find that many of my new class mates could not read. In fact only I, Dean, and one other child were able to read. So the three of us sat there, getting bored, while the others struggled with 'My name is Roy', 'My name is Carol', and 'This is our dog, Rover'.
This place is definitely odd, I thought.
After lunch break, Miss McDonald devoted the last lesson of the day to arithmetic.
Yay, I thought, with relief, at last, some real work.
We were taught about sets, and how numbers of a set share common characteristics. In order to illustrate what she seemed to regard as a complex concept, Miss McDonald wrote on the board a list of numbers from 1 to 10, adjacent to which she drew two impossibly neat interlocking circles.
"Now", she said, "let us say that our first set is a set of all the numbers less than eight. Our second set is the numbers more than five. Then we place each number in its correct set.”
Inside one of the circles she wrote the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, and in the second circle went the numbers 8, 9, 10. The 6 and the 7 were trapped in the middle, surrounded by the overlapping part of the two circles.
“As you can see”, she said, “there are some numbers that appear in both sets,” and she pointed out the overlapping bit which contained the numbers 6 and 7. “Now, for Homework”, she said, “here are some sets for you all to complete.”
She handed out a worksheet to each of us, and a small soft covered exercise book to write in.
Yes! I thought, rapturously, at last, real work.
I couldn’t wait to get home to start on the Homework. After school, I was met by David the Driver, who was waiting in the car at the school gates, to one side of a large crowd of mothers, some seemingly still tearful as they were joyfully reunited with their long-lost sons. Once in the car, I babbled happily to David the Driver about sets and overlapping numbers. David may not have had the slightest idea what I was talking about, but, as always, he humoured me happily, smiling broadly and nodding his head seriously at the appropriate moments during my discourse.
At home I sat at the dining room table and went through the homework questions, drawing little overlapping circles and filling them with numbers as required by the worksheet. When it was finished I felt strangely let down, and mildly dejected: the whole process had turned out less delicious than I had thought it would be.
Maybe, I thought, it would be exciting if I did it all again. So I found an eraser and started to rub out my work. To my horror, the thin jotter paper of the exercise book started to fragment under my vigorous rubbing, and when I tried to do all the sets again, my pencil went repeatedly through the page. This frustrated me and resulted in an outburst of tears.
My Responsible Adults arrived home from work to find me in a state of distress. When they discovered what I had done, they seemed amused. Using the sharp edge of a ruler, Father-dear expertly tore what remained of the perforated page out of my exercise book. I was then able to complete a second set of sets on the newly exposed clean page.
The work was even less fun the second time around. By the time I got to the end I felt fiercely frustrated.
“Why?” I complained. “Why did they make us do this? It didn’t teach us anything. It’s stupid."
Father-dear nodded his head sadly and sagely
"That is something you’re going to come across quite a lot, before you are very much older,” he said.
This catastrophic comment provided was no balm to my low mood, especially as it turned out to be true.
I hated homework after that, and rapidly grew to hate school. I came to realize I had been conned. Big School, wasn’t real at all. Big School was just as stupid, and just as much a waste of time as kindergarten.
Grade 2 & 3
Learning to write
The school which I attended was a Roman Catholic Boys School. This was ironic, as both my parents, and in fact our entire extended family, were fiercely Protestant, with a strongly Calvinist flavour: the whole lot of them believing that Roman Catholicism bordered on the Satanic. As succinctly stated by an admirable author: ‘They never allowed their ignorance to stand in the way of their own intolerance’.
Being delivered by David the Driver each day into the very citadel of the enemy could have been a mite confusing, if I had been old or savvy enough to even realize that this was a potential conflict of interest. As it was, my greatest concern of that era was the incredible inanity of what we were offered at school - mind-numbing dullness, interspersed with swimming lessons.
Swimming lessons for me were twice weekly near-death experiences in the school swimming pool, which seemed the size of an ocean. After several days spluttering soggily around in the water, much to the alarm of our well-dressed and coiffured grade 2 teacher, who would stand at the poolside, issuing instructions, I was issued with some sensible buoyancy equipment – inflatable arm bands, a polystyrene kick-board, and even, embarrassingly, a colourful inflatable swimming ring. This last device I spurned, as I quickly realized I could survive without it, and that it was nothing short of demeaning in a class of boys, most of whom were already swimming lengths of the ocean-sized pool with ease. Anyway, with my arm bands and polystyrene kick board, I was safe as houses, and could happily motor back and forth across the pool with no further fear of suddenly plumbing the depths, and being unable to return to the surface.
Half-way through Grade 2, my Responsible Adults had a difference of opinion with the school’s management. The altercation was of serious enough to see us dramatically removed from the school half-way through the academic year, and placed in the local government primary school.
This was an interesting new environment. Especially noteworthy was the enormous, gilt-framed oil painting of Queen Elizabeth 2 in the school hall, which adorned the wall behind the dais on which the headmaster stood during school assemblies. There were also some substantial differences in the academic approach at Penzance Primary School, compared with what we had been offered at St Henry’s Marist Brothers’ Catholic School.
I was particularly surprised to find that training in cursive writing was far advanced among the Grade 2 inmates at Penzance. At my previous school, we had been still printing the letters of the alphabet, and hadn’t yet made a start on the nuances of ‘real' (cursive) writing. My previous school-mates would still be only training for cursive script by copying various patterns of continuous lines across the pages of their exercise books. By contrast, at Penzance Primary School, my new peers were already adept at forming all lower-case letters in cursive script and had already started on upper-case letters (or as we used to call them: CAPITAL LETTERS). By the time I joined them, they were already working on the cursive capital letter E. I clearly had a lot of catching up to do, and had to race through the formation of lower-case cursive letters, while simultaneously learning to construct cursive upper-case letters, all under the stern eye of my new Grade 2 teacher, Mrs Hedgecock.
Mrs Hedgecock was a grumpy old woman, who had, been nicknamed, somewhat appropriately, ‘The Hedgehog’. The Hedgehog had little sympathy for my struggling script and scolded me regularly for my poorly formed letters, both upper- and lower-case. I still ascribe my dysgraphia to this pressurised, anxiety-ridden time.
The following year, in Grade 3 now, I inherited a calm and accepting new teacher, whose name was, somewhat inappropriately, ‘Miss Moody’. Miss Moody did what she could to help me improve my illegible scrawl, gently directing me on how to form my letters a little better.
Unfortunately, her kindness and encouragement failed to improve my poor script to any meaningful degree, and thus, as the end of grade 3 approached, the poor quality of my writing became a serious problem. After the end of year exams, I was summoned to the office of The Deputy Headmaster.
“We find ourselves in a difficult position, sonny”, grey-haired Mr Hayes informed me, his eyes sad, but his voice gentle. “You have come first in your class this year,” he continued, somewhat incongruously it seemed. “However you managed only an F for Writing. This is a fail and will preclude you from progressing to Standard Two.” (Standard 2 was the old name for Grade 4.)
I looked at him blankly. I had no idea what he was talking about. It seemed that I had achieved a modicum of success, academically, but the school, understandably I suppose, really did not care for my ugly cursive script.
“I have thought of a plan though,” The Deputy Headmaster continued. He brandished a book at me. It was a writing copy-book, he explained, as he handed over what looked like a school exercise book. Inside, however, were not the normal blank lined pages, but rather there were rows and rows of widely spaced lines, and, at the beginning of each line was printed a perfectly formed cursive letter. Each of the twnety-six letters of the alphabet was represented, in upper- and lower-case.
“If you can copy each of these letters successfully across the page,” Mr Hayes explained, “we will let you go on to Standard 2. If not, you will, regrettably, have to repeat Standard 1”
He left me sitting at his desk, and departed, indicating he was going to tea.
“When you have completed this task, bring the book to me. I will be in the staff room,” he instructed.
I sat at his desk with the copy book, wondering what to do next. I couldn’t write satisfactorily at the desk in his office as it was too tall, so I wandered off with the book in hand, back to my own classroom.
Once in familiar territory, I showed Miss Moody the new copy book, and described the request from Mr Hayes to fill the book with good-looking letters. She looked thoughtful for a bit, and then seemed to make up her mind about something.
“Right, come with me everyone,” Mrs Moody announced to the class. We were in a post-exam phase, so no-one was applying themselves to anything in particular. “We’re all going to do something outside.” To me she continued: “You sit here, at your own desk, and fill those pages as best as you can.”
The other thirty-nine children followed her out into the sunshine flooding the playing field.
I sat at my desk in the deserted classroom, and painstakingly copied the first letter, a lower case ‘a’. I could fill the line with about six letters if I drew them at a good size, and left biggish spaces between them. There were two lines for each letter
That’s twelve copies of each letter, I thought to myself. And there's twenty-six letters, and then capital letters too. What a lot of writing this is going to be. I hate writing.
By the time I had copied twelve almost-perfect copies of the letter ‘a’ (or so they appeared to me), my hand was aching and I had cramp in my fingers. I flexed and extended my finger joints for a bit to relieve the cramp, and then, made a start on the letter ‘b’.
Several letters later, around about the letter ‘h’ or so, I turned back a few pages, and was gratified to see more or less uniform lines of letters marching across the page, like soldiers. Thus inspired, I marched forth myself, to do battle with the rest of them. By the time the class returned, an hour later, just before lunch break, I was completing the last capital Y. My classmates had obviously been warned not disturb me, as they gathered up their lunch boxes quietly, and slipped out of the classroom to enjoy their lunches in the playground.
I looked up again once the last capital ‘Z’ was completed, to find the classroom deserted except for Mrs Moody. She took my book from me and looked through it carefully, while I waited, with, it must be admitted, more than a touch of anxiety. Then she smiled from ear to ear and gave me a pat on the head. “Beautiful,” she enthused softly, “off you go. Show your work to Mr Hayes.”
My arm and hand were aching quite a bit, and I rubbed them as I retraced my steps along the school corridor, to the staff room. As it was now lunch break, the staff room was full of teachers, sitting in their chairs along the wall, drinking tea. I put my head around the door (pupils were not allowed in the staff room, on pain of death), and waited for someone to notice me. A teacher saw my bobbing head and came and asked gruffly what I wanted. I asked for Mr Hayes, who duly arrived. He took my book from me and flipped through it briefly, glancing at the pages. Then he handed it back to me. “That will do fine,” he said. I didn’t know what to do next, so I stood looking at him. “Run along then”, he said flicking the back of his hand in my direction. “Off you go, and have your lunch.”
I ambled forlornly back to the classroom to get my lunch box. He hadn’t even examined all the pages, I thought. What a waste of time. In the classroom, Mrs Moody was still sitting at her desk. She enquired of me what The Deputy Headmaster had said.
“‘That will do’,” I replied, my shoulders a little slumped. Mrs Moody looked at me enquiringly. “That’s all he said,” I explained, looking at the floor. “He didn’t even mark my work.”
“Give me your book,” she requested. I handed over the useless object. “Now off you go. Lunch break is nearly over. If you don’t go out now, you’ll miss the chance to eat your lunch.”
When we returned from lunch break, my copy book was lying on my desk. I opened it and was somewhat gratified to see that, written in red pen on the inside of the front cover, was: “A+, well done, good work.”
Although this was only a consolation prize, an ‘A+’, for my writing, was enough to lift my spirits.
I smiled and looked up. Mrs Moody was looking me. She gave me a friendly wink.
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