The moving finger writes

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This class picture was taken in the playground of Lasswade Primary School. I am on the top row in the middle. It is 1959 and I am nine years old, the tallest, youngest and with thick blond hair.Too easily identifiable in the school and the neighbourhood for my own good.

My early school years were plagued by persistent hearing problems and by the time I was 9 years old I was almost completely deaf. My father once told me that when I was playing on the living room floor he would speak to me from behind his Scotsman newspaper without getting any response. I was probably suffering from ‘glue ear’ and nowadays would have grommets fitted. But in 1959 the cure seems to have been removal of the adenoids and so in the November of that year I had the operation.

imageMy classmates were given the task, by Miss Neilson, of composing letters to be sent to me in hospital. I still have these letters today. Careful copperplate script pencilled onto lined yellowing paper tell of the goings on at the school in my absence. Clearly, Miss Neilson didn’t censor the letters which speak, not just of school events, but of the occasional breakdown of discipline.

Brenda Ewing,  Sandra  and Moira in their letters tell me that new sums were being taught and that we were to be allowed to do our homework in ink. Brenda ominously stated that “the teacher said that if we had a mistake in our mental we would get the belt.” Hearing this could have caused a relapse in my recovery. Mental arithmetic, or indeed any sort of arithmetic, was my worst subject. This may have been due to my hearing problem or simply that I was thick. Morag, daughter of the Polish emigre known locally as ‘Joe the Pole’ twisted the knife of anxiety by revealing that the new sums involved multiplying by pound, shillings and pence. This revelation would have had me ringing for the nurse. In those pre-decimalisation days you could be set the task of calculating how much it would cost to buy 15 yards, 2 feet and 4 inches of curtain material when the price was one pound two and three pence a yard; extreme numerical torture. She continues, ” Mr Clelland (the Headmaster) showed us some writing from quarter to three till ten past three.” This was followed by “gym with Mrs Mackinnon’s class till four o’clock.” No going home early in the 1960s then.

Michael Blair, whose mother, if I remember correctly, was Swedish, and Elizabeth tells me that my team, The Rabbits,  were very proud of me. “You have earned thirty four points for your team by yourself alone,” wrote Michael. Maybe not  so thick then. Elizabeth had signed off with 14 kisses. David, informes me that he is now my team leader, confirmed that I was second in this mysterious test by scoring 34 out of 38 points and that we were “still on tapestries at Handwork.” I still have this piece of tapestry to this day.

More praise from William (probably Billy Watt or Watty)  for my test score “I must say ‘well done'” he says, then worryingly signs off with three kisses. Norma Goodall reveals that discipline is breaking down “every day someone is being put outside the door” then, teasingly will not tell me what my score was in the test, oblivious that everyone else has told me. She ends her letter with eleven kisses. I doubt at the time I appreciated all this attraction from the opposite sex. Margaret Stewart engages in a bit of oneupmanship. “I had to get my adenoids out and my tonsils,” and “was in the hospital for four days.” Ha, well I can’t remember writing to you! Neil Woodcock, the son of the paper mill manager is pleased the spat between Robert and Gordon has been resolved; “I am glad to say they became friends again.”

John Steel, “David’s letter has a surprise.” Obviously my stunning mystery test score. Catherine Frizzell tells me that “in History we are doing Margaret Tudor and James IV,” then confirms that teacher is in a bad mood but, worryingly adds, “she is very angry with you.” Betty Gillies, in her letter, breathlessly elaborates on the collapse of law and order in the classroom. “Robert and Gordon started a fight and Gordon was put in corner and Robert was put outside the door,” then she reports more trouble “a minute ago Jennifer’s desk was pulled out to the front and she was made to face the class.” In her long missive Betty describes Remembrance Day the previous Sunday. “It was cold standing at the monument. The Brownies, Guides, Cubs and Scouts were there.” I would have been upset to have missed the ceremony. The name of my maternal grandfather Clem Walter is on the monument in the park. It must have been cold as Catherine Wimbles, the class weather woman, in her letter predicts, “It is going to snow soon.”

Was Michael Bannerman in a different classroom? In his letter he contradicts his fellow pupils “the teacher has been in a good mood so far and we have had a good time and teacher has done some of your Handwork.” In the following Summer Michael would die, falling from a tree, and be buried in the graveyard across the lane from the school, the Cubs forming a Guard of Honour. My first funeral.

Robert, the son of another Polish emigre, had learning difficulties, and sang a lot and could be disruptive. But he was accepted as one of us. His letter, although neat, rambles. “I hope you got one operation and not two or three or four or five of them.” Yes, Robert I was pleased it was only one.

Catherine Swan with a small hint of envy says that Margaret Duncan’s writing is best. And there is some truth in this. Margaret Duncan, a tall girl, in her best writing reports that “the classroom is so quiet without you.” Then, as though I would be interested, “Elizabeth has brought her doll Vicky to school and it has a pair of long pants and a hat and a jumper which are red.” Yes, right. Despite complaining that I am always pulling her hair I am awarded ten kisses. Jennifer, the naughty girl facing the class, announces in faint spidery writing that “the tea tickets for the sale are out and cost one shilling.” Vital information for a 9 year old lying in a hospital bed. Sympathetically Gordon states the obvious when he writes “I don’t think you would like an operation,” and Corinne asked me “How do you like being in hospital.” Probably liking it more than doing mental arithmetic, getting it wrong and getting the belt.

Kenneth, an avid collector of wild bird’s eggs, mysteriously asks “I hope you are not forgetting our motto ‘Shoo’?” Then describes how “Fatty was sitting on the wall and I just about pushed him over. I wish I was you.” Meaning, I suppose, being in hospital instead of being in a classroom with a bad tempered teacher. Finally, happily, Barbara makes me feel tons better by telling me “We miss your fun!”

Most of my class mates omitted their surnames, a few, more formally signed off with their full name. Oddly, I remember the sound of the Polish surnames but I wouldn’t like to attempt to spell them. Morag Mal-eka-die and Robert Tris-cal-ski.

We would all too soon disperse to different schools. Some to the Edinburgh private schools, but most of us would end up at Lasswade Secondary School with it’s functional, soviet style buildings. I badly missed the village school with its easier pace of life and friendly architecture. My mother and her mother before her had been taught in the same, virtually unchanged, building. I felt at home.

 

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