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From caterpillar to Headteacher: where I share my earliest memories in education and life


This post is hopefully the first of a series, and they aim to ask and answer the question of, How did I become the Headteacher I am today?

As I believe we are all a product of our experiences, good and bad, and to consider where I am now, I think we need to go right back in time to where it all began. Wallsend. Not perhaps the most suitably named starting point for any journey, but this is where my life journey began. Wallsend is on Tyneside, and was in Northumberland when I was a child, now I think it's in North Tyneside, though I know it hasn't moved. As it name indicates, Wallsend is at the end of a wall, Hadrian's wall to be precise, and it's Roman name was Segedunum. 

I was born into a working class family, where my father worked in the local coal mine, my mother worked part time for a local grocery chain in their shop on Wallsen High Street and I was the youngest of two children, my sister being two years older than me. We were both born in the early 1950s and suppose we were both 'baby boomers' and the outcome of my parent's marriage following dad's return from service during the Second World War. My earliest memories are of us living in the High Farm area of Wallsend. We lived on an estate that was probably built before the war and which had fields and farmland above it, to one side, and the coal mine not far away on the other side. Most housing was council housing or colliery housing, provided by dad's employers the National Coal Board (NCB). There were still some estates of prefabs built in the immediate aftermath of the war to replace housing that had been destroyed, and to honour the government's commitment to ensure homes for all ex-service men and their families. Ours was a council house, two up two down, with a small garden in front and behind.

Most of my memories are happy ones from our time in Ashfield Gardens. As it does when you're young, time went very slowly and I filled my time with usual boy mischiefs. One of these did include turning on all the gas taps on our oven, which almost led to the destruction of our home and my mother! However, we all survived, though I am sure this had impacts on me during the rest of my life, despite me being too young to have any actual recollection. I do have memories of playing with friends in the gardens to our house and those next door. I was fascinated by everything, used to love taking things apart, if not watched closely, and I liked collecting things. I once collected lots of caterpillars from our garden and left these in an empty jam jar in the bathroom, without telling anyone. It was my mam's screams as she entered the bathroom to see walls festooned with climbing caterpillars, that alerted everyone else to the fact that Georgie may have struck again. On a similar vein, I had a spell where I liked to collect bumble bees in jam jars, I know, but we had to make our own amusements then. Anyway, I got really good at catching them off plants and flowers, and can't remember being stung, though I am sure it happened. I thought bees were really powerful and clever as I left them outside, still in the jam jars, each night, but when I got up the next day, they had got the lids off and flown away! In future years, I began to suspect that they may have had outside agencies working for them. Another time I was playing a Robin Hood game with a neighbour's son and we made bows and arrows out of bamboo garden canes. What could go wrong? Anyway, it turns out I must have been better at bow making than my friend, because he was the one who ended up with a bamboo arrow hanging out of his forehead as he ran round the garden screaming for his mother. He, and I survived, just. I can remember getting my first little three-wheeler bike, it was purple, and riding this up and down the pavement outside our house.

 I remember being taken by mam to meet my dad as he came off shifts at the mine, or 'the pit' as everyone called it. It was always dark, whenever you went. There was smoke, steam and smells that just seemed to overwhelm your senses. It was noisy and hot, and there were all sorts of lorries, vehicles and steam trains moving about the site. There were flames as the pit also had its own brickworks and as you passed you could see the flames and feel the heat. We would wait in the canteen for dad to come out of the showers. I remember when the men came out of the showers, they were all still black. They had black coal-rings round their eyes and their skin was still pitted with coal dust. I didn't think it at the time, but I have since, that if we could see all this on the outside, what must their insides and their lungs have been like? I remember getting to ride in some of the empty coal wagons as they returned automatically to parts of the mine, before they went underground again. I saw miners going into the cages to be wound down into the mine below, and saw them as they came back up again. Black, with just the whites of their eyes showing. To my young eyes, it all looked exciting and fascinating, but to the miners I am sure it felt completely different. Many of them were ill and the wracking coughs from them all, was another sound I remember, including my dad's. His lungs were already so bad, he could no longer go underground. They all smoked, usually Capstain or Woodbine cigarettes, and I am sure a lot believed this helped them clear their lungs as they came back above ground and into relatively fresh air. Given their horrendous working conditions, they were remarkably happy and had a lot of time for any young children like us waiting to meet their dads. They would chat and make jokes, and buy us sweets as we waited. Given that most of them had survived the war, perhaps this was not too surprising. They had probably experienced a lots worse than the pit could throw at them, and they were alive.

These are all some of my earliest memories from before I started school, and I can understand how happy my mother must have been when I eventually did start school. Looking back, I probably would have been labelled ADHD now, but that hadn't been invented yet. I have a few memories of my first school, Jubilee Infants School, though I wasn't there too long as we were to move house. I remember Jubilee Day, when we all lined up in the playground in our classes and saluted the Union Jack on its flag pole. I think this turned in to Commonwealth Day. The sun always seemed to shine for this event, though I was never really sure what was going on. Another memory was that we had a Maypole in the playground and we would all come out on St George's Day as older pupils danced round this. I remember being in the hall at Christmas time and hearing Santa's footsteps on the hall roof, and the bells from his reindeer, before he appeared in the hall. I think we all got a small present, which was most likely sponsored by the NCB as the biggest employer in that area of town. Assemblies happened every morning and they always smelt of sick and sawdust. They were very religious and no one dared mess about in them, ADHD or not. I remember my sister getting called out in an assembly to be presented with a paper badge that had 'Happy Birthday' written on it, when it was her birthday in January. I thought it would be fabulous when I would get my own in April, though I had to wait a couple of years as we were on holiday most years for my birthday. When it did happen, I was so excited I thought I might faint. I also remember my sister trying not to have too much to do with me at school, as I always seemed to be getting into trouble, though she did take enough notice to be able to give a full report to mam when we got home.  I don't remember too much about learning that happened in my first school, just the odd wooden toys and building blocks that we got to play with. I certainly can't remember my first headteacher or class teachers at this stage, but I have vague memories of parents being almost as scared of them as we were.

But my journey in education had begun. In my next post I will write about moving house, dad changing jobs and my move to my first primary school, for a short time, then my next one, as well as my role as school comedian. Well, it made me laugh!

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