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From caterpillar to headteacher - episode 2 where I continue my primary education and begin to not like school

This is my second post in which I explore my journey from childhood to headship.

At the end of my last post I had begun my early primary education at the Jubilee Infants school, Wallsend, but had few strong memories from the experience. Mind you it was some fifty odd years ago and so I could be excused for not recalling too much. As ever though, the memories I have, and continue to have, about all my schooling, are very much based on emotional ones, rather than cognitive. They are all times when I was very happy, or unhappy, or excited, or interested, or disinterested or bored, and often when I must have been a right pain for those trying to 'educate' me. Most, I suppose, are also connected to people rather than events. School friends, enemies, teachers, good and bad, my parents and my family.

I was a contradiction as a young child, robust and independent in many ways, but also subject to some illness and particularly fitting. No-one actually linked the fits I used to suffer from to the trauma of almost blowing my mother and our house up, but I did, especially as I got older, and they had disappeared by the time I was in secondary school. I remember frequent visits to The Royal Victoria hospital in Newcastle for lots of different tests as doctors and my parents tried to get to the bottom of my condition. These were almost a background sub-plot as my childhood and first educational experiences continued. The biggest change at this time was when my parents announced we were moving house and would be leaving the place I had always known as home in Ashfield Gardens. I never understood the reasons for the move, but it would seem we were going to be swapping houses with someone my dad knew from his work. Our new house was to be nearer the town centre of Wallsend and was on a street called Jubilee Street. This was one of four terraced streets of colliery houses, each with a yard behind it, including the outside toilet, or 'netty'. Each also had a tiny front garden with a path that ran between the gardens of houses on one side of the street and the other. When we first moved in, there was no hot water and I had no bedroom, my bed being on the landing at the top of the stairs. This house was definitely not as good as the one we left, and I suspect the main reason for our move was financial, but of course we were protected from such issues. At either end of the street there was a gas lamppost and all four streets were identical. Most were filled by families that owed their living to the pit, which was now a lot further away. Dad continued to work in the pit, but I suspect he was already looking for a way out. He was always active in the trade union movement and was branch secretary at one time. He was also  secretary of the local mine-workers working men's social club. The pit was actually called The Rising Sun and never has a mine been so inappropriately named. 

Our new home was just round the corner from the Rising Sun Working Men's Club, so perhaps there was a connection there too for why we had moved. I hated the new house and little did I realise that I was going to spend all my formative years there, until I left Wallsend and headed to college and university. Anyway, that's too far ahead. A change of house also meant a change of school and it was pretty soon that I was taken, with my sister, by my mam to meet the headmistress at Western Infants School. To me, this was just another school, where I was to meet new friends and have new opportunities to push the boundaries, something I quite enjoyed doing and which seemed to come naturally. This school must have been built early in the twentieth century and was attached to Western Boys Secondary Modern School, and Western Girls Secondary Modern School. I never thought too much about that connection, though we did see some of the senior pupils peering out of the very high windows which all the classrooms had, or crossing playgrounds at various times. I think we were more of a curiosity to them than vice versa.

At Western Infants I met Bob Waters (name changed) someone who I was to be friends with throughout my school career. We were not a good combination together, and many were the teachers that tried to keep us apart. He was even more of a loose cannon than me, but the two of us together were something else. It would seem we were a bit of a nightmare for our schools and teachers, especially the ones who expected everyone to conform. Bob and I were frequent visitors, singly or together, to the headmistresse's office whilst at the Western. On one occasion we had been pretending to be dive bombers in the playground at lunchtime. We were flying around the playground, in and out of everyone else playing, and making 'boom' noises as we dropped our imaginary bombs. This was fun for a while, but then I suggested we could improve it if we had something real to drop as bombs. My suggestion was that we should lift the covers on the drains in the playground and get handfuls of the gunk in the bottom, and use this to bomb other people. Chaos ensued and we soon found ourselves in front of the head. She really tried to frighten us and suggested we should call the police and report ourselves. Bob had the phone in is hand very quickly and started to dial. I think everybody in the school heard her scream at us, and parents were summoned. This was a time when teachers were respected and believed in everything they said, and so we knew not to expect any support from our parents. Now we were in real trouble. I think I was hauled all the way home by my ear and sent to bed for dad to deal with when het got in. The fear of this was actually worse than the telling off I usually got. This was only one episode but was fairly reflective of the scrapes we got in whilst at school.

I remember little of any learning at this school. It was the difficulties I got into, and my confusion with all the rules and expectations, that I remember most. I had lots of laughs, but I knew I was beginning to dislike school. Everything was so controlling and our world was ruled by very stern and scary teachers, timetables and bells. I wanted to be freer than the school environment would allow. The best times were breaks and lunchtimes when we could be wild and free with our friends and our imaginations could take us anywhere we wanted to go. As soon as the handbell was rung in the playground all that ended, and my frustrations grew. I deliberately plotted ways to escape. 

One day one of my classmates had a toilet accident, as a result her mother was called and she went home for the day. I remember deliberately thinking 'I'll do the same and get to go home.' Unfortunately, that's not what happened to me. I spent the rest of the day in wet pants and my legs were red and chaffed by the time I went home. On another occasion a classmate was sick and was duly sent home. So I tried that. I wasn't really sick, but this was a time when we were all forced to drink warm milk  and were given a digestive biscuit with it each morning. I decided to fill my mouth with well chewed digestive and warm milk, then pretended to be sick under my desk, depositing the contents of my mouth on the classroom floor. The result was I had to clean the floor and spent most of the rest of the day outside the head's office. I think they had sussed my intentions!

Whilst at the Western, dad moved from the pit and started working at Swan-Hunters shipyard at the bottom of the town on the banks of the Tyne. He had given up the union work but remained as secretary of the working men's club. Dad was a writer. He didn't write books or articles, but everyone visited our house when they wanted letters written for official purposes. Dad could write great letters and many of our neighbours appreciated his help with appeals, tribunals, and court appearances. He began working in the shipyard as a labourer, but his health was pretty poor now and he was looked after by his workmates so that he was protected from some of the heavier and dirtier work they had to do. Mam was also able to work longer hours now and she became manager of the grocery shop she still worked in. The other significant change was that our houses now got upgraded. We had new electrics installed, hot water and the landing, where my bed was, was converted into a bathroom and another bedroom. No more Friday night baths in a tin tub in front of the coal fire in the living room, and I had my own bedroom. Progress indeed. All this work happened around us as we continued living in the house.  Whenever I smell bitumen now it always reminds me of this time as that was what the new floors downstairs were made of.

The next significant event was the arrival of our first TV, rented from Redifusion. The TV cabinet was massive, but the actual screen was tiny, and the picture quality was poor. There was only one channel, BBC, and the picture disappeared into a white dot, after the national anthem, each night. My first memory of children's programmes were Andy Pandy, complete with strings, and Rag Tag and Bobtail, all of which kept me entranced and entertained for short periods. I remember that everyone on the telly talked really posh and I had never met anyone in my life who talked anything like that, not even teachers. Most of the time though we were outside making bogies, playing football, annoying neighbours with 'knock door run' and having various adventures of our own making in the surrounding streets and wasteland. There was an old deserted air-raid shelter that we used to play in, even though it stank, was filled with water and was probably home to an army of rats. This was very much still a time when it was relatively safe for children to play out unsupervised and the only dangers they faced were ones created by themselves. Straight after school we'd have tea, watch a little telly, then were outside with our friends till it started to get dark. We'd come back filthy and ready for bed, and with our imaginations stimulated and overloaded with adventures and risk taking. We hadn't a worry in the world, but I suspect mam, dad and our teachers had a few. But, we all survived, we were healthy and happy, as long as we could just be allowed to be the children we were. When people tried to get us to be something else, that's when the problems began. I was beginning to store memories that would have impacts for my future career choice and how I thought education should be structured, though I was not aware of that at the time.

In the next episode I move to another Primary School and encounter the injustice and unfairness of the Eleven Plus exam and educational segregation.


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