One day in 1874 Laura walked 3 miles from the banks of Plum Creek to start school for the first time. “On the teacher’s desk there was a ruler. Laura did not know until later that the ruler was to punish anyone who fidgeted or whispered in school. Anyone who was so naughty had to walk up to Teacher’s desk and hold out her hand while Teacher slapped it many times, hard, with the ruler.”
Life for a child, as we all sadly know, isn’t always “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, cream colored ponies and crisp apple strudels” – sometimes the “dog bites and the bee stings”. I am sharing some of the “bites and stings”. It wasn’t all bad, of course, but the dog bite stands out in your mind more than the warmth of the sunshine, right?
I was in an all girls primary school for my first 7 years, starting at the tender age of 6, and our school was run by a “machine of discipline”. (I mentioned her before. The head mistress. Remember the left right left right and spittle?) I did enjoy the music on a Monday morning when we marched into hall. The music teacher played John Phillip Sousa’s Washington Post, Stars and Stripes Forever and The Liberty Bell and our spirits soared with each note only to come crashing down when it stopped and the command came to sit and not move for the next 30 minutes…
She ruled the teachers too. Of course, she was the boss, she could! Their dresses couldn’t be shorter than just above the knee, they weren’t allowed to have long hair swinging and swaying in abandon, even the hair had to be in a bun and pinned up or cut short. Many is the time that we heard her having “very loud discussions” with a teacher in the school passages. We were quiet as mice while playing on the mat with our painted bottle tops, trying to master 1 x 1 = 1 and 1 x 2 = 2… and when the teacher came back into class sniffing and wiping tears, we didn’t know where to look.
Maybe that is why one teacher took it out on us. She would slide into the desk next to us and with her very long sharp painted nails pinch the tender flesh on the inside of our thighs when we used an eraser in writing, or got an answer wrong in maths (we called it maths, you call it math… we say potayto you say potahto). Anyway, it hurt so bad but if we cried we had to stand in the corner with our back to the class and that was even worse.
Maybe that is why, if you left your knitting or sewing at home by mistake, another teacher made you stand in that corner with your back to the class for the whole period. The corner of shame. In primary school we stayed in the same class for most of the day and the teachers changed classrooms, but it was the same corner every time. And when I wasn’t the one in the corner, I giggled and whispered and pointed same as everyone did when I was in the corner.
And maybe that is why yet another teacher gave the whole class bitter aloe crystals to suck – punishment for whatever you were guilty of. Fidgeting, whispering, erasing in your neat writing book, not getting your alphabet letters perfectly aligned… those crystals tasted so bad and that was intended to be the punishment. But, the whole class ended up sick and retching and had upset stomachs and we went home crying and complaining. There was an investigation. It ended up in the local newspapers. It was a scandal. The teacher stayed on – not sure what her punishment was. Did she get pinched or did she have to stand in a corner?
(Aloe crystals are used as medication to regulate bowel movements, a tiny amount is needed.)
Having such a strict disciplinarian as ruler, had its benefits. We excelled at the annual Eisteddfodd. (Welsh, a festival of literature, music and performance). It was THE event when I was in Primary School. Poetry, singing choir, recital choir, musical instruments, solo singing, you name it. Honorable Mention, Honours, Highest Honours. My sister and I sang in the school choir and we were trained and drilled, we practised hours and hours until we achieved near perfection and yes, walked away with Highest Honours and the Head Mistress bowed and accepted flowers and smiled one of her rare smiles (not at us, at the presenters). I sat in the front row when practising, I could touch her while she was directing with her little baton, I was the recipient of more of the spittle when she sang along to Strauss’ Tritsch-Tratsch polka. We were good, oh yes, we were good.
But there were joys! How can I forget the piano duet played by two accomplished young musicians – over and over we heard them practising and it was beautiful. Beethoven’s Turkish March from the Ruins Of Athens Opus 114. It stays in my memory to this day and I’ve since learnt to play it myself.
And how can I forget my sister’s beautiful voice when she sang her solo “Griet my skat” – an Afrikaans folk song.🙂
How can I forget the proud look on my parents’ faces when we told them how well we did.
It wasn’t all bad. I was a disciplined, well-behaved child for the most part and I knew how to march… left, right, left, right and so on.