When I started school in September 1945 the headmaster at St Botolph’s was Mr Tilley and I have no memory of him whatsoever. Once I recovered from the initial trauma of being abandoned without explanation, which was the normal practice for those embarking upon their education in those days I quite enjoyed school, finding the teachers, the buildings, playgrounds, the church and adjacent churchyard a welcome change from the confines of York Road where my mother’s word was Law. At school there was a range of other adults who had power and influence that I soon realised in many ways superseded my mother’s. She had a love-hate relationship with both School and Church, had been treated badly by the zealous Sisters of Crayford because of constant absenteeism and it was undoubtedly these memories that led to me being enrolled in an Anglican school, an act that was to greatly perturb my rather more devout father.
I recall my first teachers well and with a certain amount of affection – Miss Honour, Mrs Johnson, Mrs Allen and Miss Biggs. Then came Mr Clark whose pupils without exception loved him dearly. The boys were particularly intrigued that he had been a fighter pilot during the war and was shot down and became a POW. This information did not emotionally move the girls nearly as much of course.
It was whilst I was in Mr Clark’s class, Year Five, that I first became aware of the new headmaster, the tyrannical Mr Cook who, towards the end of the year and quite out of the blue began to teach us Arithmetic on Friday afternoons. Academically I was in no way outstanding, although this was a fact my ever hopeful father found difficult to process, and Arithmetic was definitely my weakest subject. It was bad enough trying to master fractions and long division under the kindly guidance of Mr Clark and all but impossible beneath the direction of the terrifying Mr Cook. Friday afternoons had formerly been a serene and peaceful time devoted to ideas and to books. Mr Clark discussed with us all manner of interesting ideas such as the rights and wrongs of cannibalism and whether or not children would ever be allowed to vote and some of us were bored and were allowed to doodle or fall asleep. It was a time when we were introduced to poetry – The Lady of Shallot, Daffodils, The Destruction of Sennacherib and were urged to read the Myths of Ancient Greece and Rome. For these reasons I have never forgotten Mr Clark.
I have never forgotten Mr Cook either but for quite different reasons because his maths classes were most alarming, particularly for the boys and it was they who were the main focus of his sadism. Most of the time we girls were left to be horrified observers as he pulled students from behind desks by their ears, closed desk lids onto fingers with his feet, all the time screaming at the unfortunates in the front row, his face turning puce and the veins in his neck bulging. Largely these brutal episodes were heralded simply by an unlucky ten year old failing to understand some aspect of multiplication. Simply witnessing these Friday afternoon rages firmed up my dislike of Mathematics in all its forms and turned it into a fully-fledged phobia. My York Road neighbour, Pearl Banfield was so terrified that on two occasions she fainted at the beginning of the class and henceforth her mother invariably collected her on Friday lunchtimes and she simply disappeared for the afternoon. I thought this was a splendid idea but my own mother was not as kindly and understanding as Pearl’s and just advised I should Keep My Head Down.
Mr Cook had clearly arrived at St Botolph’s intending to Make A Difference. This turned out not to be simply limited to mathematical outcomes which in retrospect I assume had something to do with the eleven plus examination we were to take the following year, but spread into other areas also. One of his initial ideas, which had to be abandoned because of lack of interest, was implementing Saturday Evening Socials. These took place on a monthly basis and the entire staff was required to attend, Mr Clark having the job of amusing those children who because of baby-sitting problems were forced to accompany their parents. The huge and rumbling partition in the Infants’ Department was rolled back for the occasion and parents were served cups of tea and sponge cake that Mrs. Johnson and Mrs Allen had been ordered to provide. The socials were glacial occasions where those families gutsy enough to attend showed deference to Mr Cook and complimented him on the Huge Difference he was making to our learning.
I found the unfamiliar intimacy between home and school exciting and I remember utilising the only occasion on which my parents attended to steal a poetry book from our classroom bookshelf, stuffing it down my knickers and spending the rest of the evening and the walk home in great discomfort. I then worried for weeks that it might have been missed.
Another one of Mr Cook’s brilliant ideas was celebrating May Day with Maypole dancing and May Dolls. We were informed of this at the conclusion of one of the disturbing Maths classes whilst Billy Elliot having drawn attention to himself by not knowing immediately what the required answer to One Fifth Of One Hundred was, nursed his injured fingers beneath his armpit and tried hard to stifle his tears. Mothers of the girls, we were told as the cold and darkly snake like eyes of the Headmaster examined each of our respectfully bent female heads, were to each make a May Doll by the end of the month. Jacqueline Haskell, whose mother was a shorthand typist and occasionally helped out in the school office ventured to enquire in a very small voice indeed what a May Doll actually was. The rest of us exchanged glances, astonished at her daring. A short explanation was given but I was so absorbed in watching the pulse in the Headmaster’s neck that the details escaped me.
I walked home with Pearl who was crying quietly and saying that her mother would not have time to make a May Doll by the end of the month. I comforted her with the fact that it was more likely than not that my mother would find herself in the same position. Now, each afternoon, we were taken to the park by the station, to practice Maypole dancing under the direction of Mr Clark with help from Mrs Haskell and one other mother keen to become involved. We were told that for the event itself we would wear brightly coloured sashes which was relief because there had been a rumour that it would involve compulsory white dresses for the girls.
By the end of April, despite a great deal of negative advice from my grandmother that made me sick with terror because it included suggestions for Going Round That Bleeding School and Cleaning That Silly Bugger Headmaster Rotten, I had a May Doll made from an old sock with button eyes and yellow woollen plaited hair. Pearl’s doll was dressed in a skirt of parachute silk with a matching bonnet and so beautiful it was carried to and from school in a shoe box. Only poor little Maureen Dunstan who had seven siblings and wore clothes that my mother said were Shameful, was without a doll and she sobbed quietly whilst the rest of us looked disapprovingly in her direction. Jacqueline even asked whether she would be allowed to dance at all in her doll-less state.
We were advised that all mothers and grandparents were expected to attend the Maypole Dancing. This was extremely perturbing as my greatest area of shame was having the kind of grandmother who had never been known to bake a birthday cake or in fact show the slightest bit of love and affection to her grandchildren and who, to add insult to injury, was inclined towards the most unacceptable turn of phrase.
On 30th April when Mr Cook demanded confirmation of the family members who would be attending the ceremony I heard Jennifer Berryman say that her grandmother had said sorry, she would have loved to but she was too ill with The Dropsy. Wendy Selves said her grandmother lived too far away in Margate. Feeling more confident now I raised my hand and said my grandmother was also too ill with The Dropsy, almost dead with it in fact.
There were fewer spectators than expected at the May Day Event which did not please Mr Cook but I was relieved that my mother was present and wearing the new hat my father had given her at Christmastime. Pearl’s mother was wearing a smart blue two piece costume and a velvet hat shaped like a shell with a piece of net across the front. Both her grandmothers were there! My mother sniffed and said that was because the Banfields were Smarmy but she said it quietly and nobody else heard her. I knew that had she been present Old Nan would have said much worse and it was a very good thing she had such a bad case of The Dropsy.