AT SCHOOL IN ENGLAND
by Cynthia Costain
When I was a little girl I lived in a city in the north of England called Newcastle-on-Tyne. The castle had been new when it was built by William the Conqueror in 1066, and the Tyne is a river. My mother and father and I lived in a brick house in a street of other houses much the same. Every house had gardens in back and in front, and in the front garden was an apple tree; the street was called Appletree Gardens.
This was a new part of the city and a pleasant quiet place to live, but it was near an old industrialised area where the schools were big, old buildings with crowded classrooms. My father decided that this would not be a good place for me to start school, so 1 first went to a nearby private school. Then when I was 7 years old, I was sent to a school called St. Margaret’s School for Girls. I was bought a new school uniform which was very exciting: a navy blue gym tunic with a pale blue blouse, black stockings and black shoes, a thick navy blue winter coat and a black felt hat with a navy and pale blue ribbon around it, and a navy blue blazer with the school badge on it. I felt very smart.
The school was in quite a different part of the city and of course there were no school buses in those days. Every morning I left home before 8 o’clock and walked down my street and along another to the main road where the streetcars ran. I walked down the road until I came to a corner where I waited for a rather old green streetcar which turned onto a track which ran straight across the fields. I was often the only person on that streetcar except the driver and the conductor who took my fare of tuppence (two pence) for the ride. It took about half an hour to cross the fields and small straggly woods and reach streets with houses and shops again and it was a long lonely time. At last I got off at the Catholic Church, walked to the corner, crossed the main street, then turned into a road with big stone houses, two of which had been turned into the school.
I think my father or mother must have taken me on that journey a few times before I began school but I don’t remember that. What I DO remember is the first day. I was very scared. I didn’t know any of the girls, and some were very big girls. I didn’t know any of the teachers and the Principal was a very tall, terrifying, grey-haired lady. Not only that, but I was to stay at school all day and not get back home until 5 o’clock. At that time most families had their main meal in the middle of the day, so school was from 9 o’clock until 12 o’clock, and then a break of 2 hours for the girls to go home for dinner, starting again at 2 and going on until 4 o’clock. Our parents paid for those of us who lived too far away to go home, to have a hot cooked meal at school. Those school dinners were a great trial to me as there were many things I didn’t like, and at each end of the long table sat a teacher who frowned if you did not eat everything on your plate.
Afterward we went into a classroom for a while and could read or do homework and then were sent out into the playground and played with balls or skipped, rushed around and chased each other or played tag until school began again.
I can still remember how long that first day seemed. I had never been away from home before without my mother or father or someone I knew and the more I thought about it, the more dreadful things I imagined could be happening while I was away. At last the teacher noticed the big tears rolling down my cheeks. She came over and asked, “What is the matter, Cynthia?”
Choking back my sobs, I said, “It’s so long since I left home this morning perhaps our house has burnt down and there is nothing left.”
She persuaded me that she was sure that everything was all right and eventually the long day ended. I put on my coat and hat, walked back to the old green streetcar, drove across the fields, walked home, and there was the house, quite safe with my mother and father waiting to hear how I had liked my first day at school.
About a year later other parents began sending their daughters to the same school with me and we had quite a good time on our rides, chatting and trying to finish homework each morning. In the afternoon we would rush to the little corner store to spend our pocket money on long liquorice strips or packets of sherbet and snowballs. Big hard round candies called gob-stoppers were a favourite as they lasted so long and changed colour as we sucked, taking them out frequently to check each new colour.
There were holidays to look forward to: a month at Christmas; another month at Easter; and then six weeks in the summer. Both my parents were far from their homes so I grew up without any extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, but we had friends in the neighbourhood and I enjoyed visiting and playing with them.
There were treats to look forward to: the comic my father brought home for me on Tuesday evening; the Pantomime at Christmas; having my parents’ friends to tea on Sunday afternoons, with a visits to the patisserie the day before to help choose a selection of small fancy cakes. I always kept a close watch on the chocolate eclair as the plate was passed round. Going out to other grown-up tea parties where I sat quietly while the adults talked was not very interesting, but I soon found out that many of them had lovely story books, like the Pollyanna books and Tales from Japan which kept me happily occupied.
My parents enjoyed the theatre and if there was no baby sitter available I was taken along. Plays, concerts and even operas were sometimes exciting and sometimes dull, but they were all fun. One thing I was never taken to and that was a MOVIE. They were not considered suitable for children. No movies! No TV! What we had was wireless- radio to you- and if I got home early enough, I could listen to the Children’s Hour on the BBC.