HELLO, MR CHIPS!
Until the fourth year of Junior School, I was proud to say that I had never been summoned to the headmaster’s study. My quiet, obedient ways and observance of school rules would have made it inconceivable that I should ever have to enter that sacred place. That was reserved for those who erred in their ways and merited more than a well-aimed board duster or carefully applied ruler and who would then more than meet their match with the esteemed Head and the trusty cane.
So it was with no little trepidation that one morning at school assembly, it was announced that all those fourth years who lived in a certain area of the borough were to report to the headmaster’s study immediately after prayers. My fears were not alleviated by the appearance of one boy leaving the study ruefully rubbing his behind. School was strict but surely, I reasoned, they would not punish us all purely on geographical grounds.
It was true that in the past I had suffered from collective punishments doled out to the whole class. Despite my general shyness and tongue-tiedness, if the class were found to be talking, then we would all be sentenced to the standard discipline of 100 lines “I must not talk in class” which dutifully I was bound to do despite whispering between clenched teeth “But I never do, Miss”.
On the day that found me queued up to await my fate at the headmaster’s office, I thought about how different Junior School was from my beloved Infants school. There I was truly helped and encouraged in a very caring way. My earnest little compositions would receive red stars and on the one occasion when I was summoned to the headmistress’s office, it was to be given a very special gold star for one of my stories and a liquorice allsort.
“Are you going to be an authoress when you grow up?”, queried the kindly looking, grey-haired headmistress.
“What’s one of those?” I queried in wonder.
“A lady who writes stories”. That sounded wonderful.
“Oh yes, please, that’s just what I’d like to be.”
But childlike ambitions of necessity had to give way to the more authoritarian discipline of the junior school. We had to struggle with masses of homework, no more toys to play with, and the constant reminders of the need to study hard and better ourselves.
Although I still relished the chance of English lessons and the chance to write the inevitably more serious essays, my worse dread was the daily maths lesson. Not only was it hard enough trying to disentangle the intricacies of fractions, probability and algebra, but the gargantuan size of the text book which had to be conveyed home every night for the evening’s homework was surely meant to tax my aching back as well as my struggling brain. Also it was most distressing to find that the boys who used to be my playmates at Infants had now become obsessed with playing football, were mean to the girls and were, frankly, quite horrid.
My reveries were finally interrupted when I discovered to my relief that the queue I had joined was actually being diverted into the office of the school secretary. And it came as even more of a relief to find that the reason for our summons was not punishment but rather an opportunity for those who wished to compete in the following term’s entrance exams for grammar schools to fill out the appropriate forms.
This prospect, daunting in itself, had to be faced in an effort to improve our prospects and avoid being sent to the local comprehensive and the thought of being squashed in with the boys for another five years. The grammar school would at least be girls-only and I would be spared the bad language and cussing of the boys. I had a choice between two girls’ schools and my excitement on learning that if I made it to the sixth form of one of them that I would be able to study Chinese and learn ice-skating made my choice a very straightforward one.
But in order to do that, it meant having to accept a very daunting invitation. Dr Arnold, the head of our school, was a much respected, revered and feared man. An ex-Cambridge scholar, his knowledge and cleverness were renowned through the borough as was his unstinting call for discipline and not infrequent use of the cane.
Tall, stout, with black curls pressed to his head in very tidy fashion, he would mainly stay in his study, and only for school assemblies and by the errant students who were required to see him, would his full black-gowned figure be glimpsed.
With the advent of the coming entrance exam the following term, Dr Arnold decreed that all prospective applicants should assemble in his study on alternate days for extra tuition, the days to be attended to be determined by gender. And thus was the start for me of the dreaded lunchtime “Girls’ Group”. The days where it was “Boys Group” were met with great relief and skipping.
The headmaster’s study, once penetrated, revealed itself, to be small, dusty and lined with learned volumes on all aspects of English literature, the classics, religion and philosophy. In pride of place, in military fashion assembled the combined 12 troops of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, ready to be called in at any moment when the complexity of the English language decreed more clarification. What those fine yellow foot soldiers made of the sight of the twenty or so ungainly girls clutching chairs and trying as best as they could to fit into the small area was never revealed. Those of us who were last in the queue inevitably spent the lesson in the corridor, straining to hear the day’s lesson and fearful of missing anything and the resulting consequences meted out to those who were not alert.
My days in the corridor, however, were numbered. During one session, Dr Arnold determined that we should all take turns in reading from a selected text – in this case the popular novel Jane Eyre. I deeply dreaded my turn, being fearful of making errors, and indeed my voice was rarely ever heard in a class unless a direct question was put to me. Somehow or other on that day I managed to trip along my allotted share without too much cause for concern.
It was then a great surprise to hear my respected teacher intoning “From now on, Julie, I want you do all the reading aloud for the girl’s group.” This appointment of myself as the regular narrator came as a great shock. It also meant that I always had to have a position seated by the right side of my mentor with all the necessary pushing and shoving amongst the other girls that that represented and would have to be under the constant watch of my tutor. Not an honour I would ever have chosen for myself.
And so it was that in the confines of that dark study in rainy and sunny lunchtimes alike, I led the class through Jane Eyre from the horrors of the Red Room and into the eventual welcoming arms of Mr Rochester. But safety for me was, alas, not forthcoming. “From now on,” boomed my professor, “You will read for the boys’ group too.”
And so it was that, all thoughts of seeing anything of the school playground at lunchtime, even to hold the end of the skipping rope all the time, came to an abrupt end. Looks of amazement by passing scholars greeted the appearance of a small, bespectacled girl with long dishevelled brown hair in the queue of unruly boys waiting for their turn to discover Treasure Island.
“There’s a girl in boy’s group”, was the frequent response aimed at my direction. Whether they expected me to look round, realise my error, drop my chair and retreat sharply I do not know. All that I do know is that my presence and voice were requested daily except for days on which extra maths was being taught and then I earned a short but merciful reprieve from the room with its temporarily restrained, watchful boys. Even they had to suspend their usual indolence, each being gripped in the knowledge that a mistaken or careless answer could result in great wrath or scorn being heaped on them in front of their peers and always the ever-present cane was an encouragement, in the study at least, for seemly behaviour.
All through the term, I struggled on with both groups. Not only was I the voice for the great classic stories, but also a tome of poetry entitled The Poet’s Sphere, but secretly named by me The Poet’s Fear, brought fresh terrors as I struggled to enunciate the verse of Keats, Tennyson and Robert Browning. Such was the wide range of knowledge and familiarity with all aspects of cultivated learning that our Head would often diversify enormously with wide-ranging treatises on a selected verse.
I remember one whole lesson being devoted to a phrase from Browning’s “Oh to be in England.” “That’s the wise thrush”, I recited, “He sings each song twice over least you thought he never could recapture that first fine careless rapture.” We were invited to marvel at the extraordinary ability thus displayed by the cited bird and follow the leaps of content which Dr Arnold introduced on the living and mating habits of the thrush, its geographical location, appearance in literary forms and, when all possible source material had expired, reference was usefully made yet again to the combined knowledge of the Shorter OED.
These necessary lessons continued unabated throughout the second term as the dates for the exam grew ever closer. Each day’s lesson represented a veritable obstacle to be carefully negotiated and could be made more or less bearable by the mood of Dr Arnold – mercurial at best – as he tried to encapsulate the breadth of his learning into the minds of pupils who would frankly rather by out playing football or jumping elastic but who knew what fine futures were expected of them by the school and by the parents.
Many factors influenced Dr Arnold’s mood; the behaviour of the pupils that day, their ability to respond correctly to a carefully sharpened question or the temperature of the office. But there was one other variable over which we pupils had no control and which could alter the course of the lesson more than anything else.
This was the appearance of a white-overalled hair-netted dinner lady who humbly offered our Head the customary tea and digestive biscuit half-way through the lesson, while we looked on in hunger as our own lunch was delayed to give way to the nourishment of our minds and souls.
Often this good lady’s entry into the office was not commented on, absorbed as our tutor was with expounding the intricacies of the oxymoron, onomatopoeia or the difference between homonyms and synonyms.
However, at other times, a question of prime importance was aimed in her direction.
“And what’s for lunch today?” he’d boom, as we all quivered in anticipation whilst he awaited a befitting coherent and rational answer. Two of the myriad possibilities held the power of release or despair over the assembled gathering.
If the alliterative phrase “Sardine Salad” was the response to that vital question, then we knew immediately that we were doomed. “Sardine salad!” would come the dejected response from our esteemed pedagogue and his mood would immediately bleaken. Not even the promise of the additionally alliterative “Fruit Flan” for dessert would relieve the sudden gloom as our teacher subsequently displayed all the coldness of the particular fish in question to those of us present. My reading voice would in turn quiver with the suddenly ill-humoured session which would inevitably lead to extra homework, chilling questions and displays of vexation towards any hapless pupil who dared unwittingly to err either in attention or in correctness of answer.
At other times however, two precious words could elevate the lunchtime session into a haven of merriment and jollity. All the white uniformed attendant would need to do was to intone the daily offering and then add the magic phrase “…and chips” on the end. We never took much account of what the rest of the meal was as an exquisite chortle of glee would escape the lips of our famed professor. “It’s chips – oh it’s chips”, he would cry out. Our load would then become as light as that of a mule unexpectedly being given the day off from its heavy packload by an enlightened owner. Chips meant mirth, good humour, less homework and the chance to finish the lesson early.
The year I took the second part of my entrance exam to my eventual High School was, Dr Arnold said, “The luckiest year ever.” In previous years, hopefuls had been given a mock class based around a Latin or a Maths lesson. Mercifully for me, that year, they chose English as the sample lesson. Normally, I believe I wouldn’t have stood a chance at passing the stiff requirements of that excellent school but, fortified by double helpings of English tuition, I was able to meet that challenge and succeed in passing the entrance exam. How could I have known that once at the girl’s school I would find that I really missed the company of boys or that by the time I reached the sixth form, they would have abolished Chinese lessons and the ice skating?
Never mind, that was still in front of me. For now, I had won my scholarship. That year at Prize Giving Day on my last day in the Junior School, I received a special merit prize from the headmaster – partly for my reading aloud to the group and partly for passing that all important exam. I could never have done it though without the dedicated hours spent in the headmaster’s study under the expert, painstaking guidance of my tutor – thank you, Mr Chips!
(One of the joys of being a vegan is knowing that I will never have to face the terrors of Sardine Salad again and, at least, I know that I can always have chips with everything!)