Our new Central School for forms seven and eight was an exciting big school. The smell of a thousand lunches lingered in the corridors and the desks were heavily carved with the initials of a thousand generations of previous students.
It was red brick and two storey with the Headmaster’s office in the centre on the ground floor at the front of the building.
Our school uniform now included black stockings. These were compulsory wear and we felt very grownup. The superior feeling didn’t last long. The black stockings were hot and itchy in the summer and not as warm as socks on our feet in the winter, and always uncomfortable.
We discovered boys, enemies of all girls. Instead of being segregated to one side of the class as they were in primary school, they were scattered through the class. My plaits were not long enough for the tormentors to tie around the desk backs like the other girls, but they were long enough to be dunked into the inkwells of the desks behind us. By the end of each day the ends of my white hair were the same navy blue as my ribbons.
Celeste looked thoughtful when I complained and nudged me away from our usual desk and into a desk behind our tormentors. The Arithmetic teacher always started off the lesson as good-humored, but nearing the end of the class usually reverted to his irritable bad-tempered self.
Celeste produced her ruler. She slid it across the top of the desk like an arrow to the desk in front. I copied. The teacher was prowling the class like a demented tiger, throwing questions that no one was silly enough to answer. Celeste gave a sudden nudge of her ruler through the back of the desk in front.
The boy on the desk jumped. This attracted to him all the focussed frustrated attention of the teacher.
I waited until the next lot of questions were being thrown at the class and shoved my ruler through as well. The boy I prodded jumped.
“Well?” roared the teacher.
“Please, may I leave the room?”
“If you have to. You can catch up by doing those last ten sums for your homework tonight.”
I sneaked an admiring look at my clever best friend. I was never going to have to face my mother washing the ends of my plaits every night again. Thereafter our tormentors treated us with respect and made sure that we weren’t behind them when claiming a desk.
Our Headmaster had been a Colonel during the First World War and retained his fearsome ginger moustaches waxed to dangerous spikes each side of his face. Every classroom had framed oil paintings of fighting scenes of the First World War. We were disgusted to discover that this was so the teachers could use the glass of the pictures as mirrors to watch the class behind them
The Colonel ran the school along the lines of a military academy and discipline was absolute. He taught French and Music. At music lessons he climbed up on four stools pushed together and conducted several classes together. Sometimes, requests were put in for someone’s favourite songs to be taught.
“Modern rubbish,” he grumbled as someone put in a request for “I’ll walk beside you.”
“Not much difference between that and his favourite, “All through the night I hear a little brown bird singing,” Celeste whispered.
I found our singing lessons unnerving, much as I enjoyed singing. Once we started singing, his eyes were drawn to me and stayed on me right through the lesson.
“Why does he watch me all the time?” I grumbled.
“It’s me he’s watching,” Celeste whispered. “He glares at me because I can’t help swinging my leg in time to the music.”
“I can’t help it.”
Each week, Celeste and I pushed further towards the back of the class. His eyes still swung to us as we sang, the waxed spikes of his ginger moustache quivering as he conducted, his head tilted to one side listening. There were a few weeks of solid misery at music lessons.
“Forty years on and afar and asunder,
Parted are those who are singing today.
As we look back and regretfully wonder,”
I belted out with the rest of the class. It was one song that we all sang with gusto and enjoyment.
“It’s because you sing flat,” Celeste said in a penetrating whisper.
“He couldn’t hear me through everyone else singing?”
“You sing very flat and he does.” Celeste sounded like an expert.
“He couldn’t,” I said, but I wasn’t convinced. What if he could?
I ended up mouthing the words of the songs at future singing sessions. The suspicious perplexed glare vanished from his eyes and after that he taught the singing classes with smug contentment.
We both believed wholeheartedly in his omnipotence. We opted for Latin rather than French which he taught. Not many of the classes were interested in doing French anyway.
The Headmaster was disappointed. He made a speech, assuring the class that a knowledge of the French language would be of much more use than Latin in our future lives. We were unconvinced. We had never heard of anyone who spoke in another language.
“I mean, how could they understand each other if they didn’t speak English?”
Latin was a great disappointment. We were expected to memorize declensions. What did that have to do with talking or reading Latin in the original? For a while, we had an understanding Latin teacher who would obligingly translate some of the more interesting stories in our Latin book but he left.
The new teacher was pompous, long-winded and unhelpful. He expected us to struggle through our own translations and worst of all he expected us to have declensions memorized by every lesson. We lost interest and tuned out of Latin.
Most days I rode my bike to school and locked it in the bike shed with the other bikes. One day I was caught riding my bike in the schoolyard. This was against rules. I had forgotten and actually only remembered when the Colonel materialized in front of me, the spikes of his moustache quivering with rage.
The next morning I was hauled out to the front of Assembly to have an example made of me. The Colonel made a long impassioned speech. I wasn’t sure whether he was disappointed because I was riding in the schoolyard, or only disappointed that I stopped when I spotted him. Owing to my short-sightedness I had nearly ridden him down before I realized who he was and then got off my bike immediately.
I puzzled over what would have happened if I had ridden past him or into him. Celeste was comforting and said he made a very inspiring speech about cowards who break school rules. She said I slouched before him looking bored and unimpressed. Anyway, no one was game to ride their bikes in the schoolyard for weeks afterward.
Some time later, I decided that perhaps the most important rule anywhere was not to break the eleventh commandment: Thou shalt not get caught.
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