When I was in primary school reading wasn’t encouraged.
The defining reason behind this modern-day bombshell was that when I was in primary school there were precious few alternatives, therefore reading ruled by default.
Like Syria; who needs elections when you’re a regime?
One blocky Amstrad computer in Year 5’s portacabin*, which had its own stake of territory behind the blackboard, complete with a cover to stop the sunlight bouncing off the screen and blinding the front row, no mouse at all and a permanent power-point (a luxury in a portacabin) because if it powered down completely it took the best part of a week to power up again.
We could do blocky number-puzzles on it. That was it. The future indeed.
So the library, which consisted of typical 4-9yr old fare and existed in the space leftover between five classrooms and an assembly hall held power. I can’t remember a single book that existed in that space. I’m sure they were interesting but by the time I’d arrived in school I was already reading. And then I discovered Thundercats, Ewoks and all the other great eighties cartoons, with their tie-in weekly comic books and written literature took an unfortunately distant back seat.
We had a village library nearby, but the librarians weren’t very child-friendly, and I can’t recall going in there much at all until I hit puberty. And I was a late developer.
But I can remember some of the books. They had book fares in the final two years. Companies would come and lay out their wares for inspection and then the suffering parents had to hand over cash to buy whatever it was at a reduced rate, with the school taking a cut of the overall takings.
‘The Demon Headmaster’ by Gillian Cross was one, ‘How To Eat Fried Worms’ by Thomas Rockwell was another. But the one I remember the most, and the one that, with the help of Amazon and all things tech I managed to reacquire a few months ago was ‘The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler’ by Gene Kemp.
It was originally written in 1977, and it does capture the sense of seventies English comprehensive and primary schooling. Horrendous school dinners, usually consisting of liver, cold and temperamental heating (see below), asbestos, playground equipment suspended above concrete, stickyweed fights, dirt, soccer, and poster paint that wasn’t toxic per se but you were advised not to drink it.
Many of these things were around a decade later when I discovered it. Mildewed wooden bricks, clearly an English thing because I discovered the same thing in high school, college and during my second stint in university in London. Polytechnic rot I call it. Its odour is distinctive, all industrial actions and beige. If beige was a smell then it would smell like polytechnic rot.
What I liked the most was the characters. Those of the teachers were captured perfectly. ‘Sir’ was the Headmaster and like in ours he was usually approachable. At least the second one, Mr. Carruthers was. The first, Mr. Alsop, always scared me (it was the glasses), primarily because he caught me talking in assembly once, singled me out and told me to shut up. And yes I’ve never forgotten that. But Carruthers was okay. Shorter, with a moustache any World War 2 fighter pilot would be proud of, he clearly hadn’t been ground into a beanpole cynic like his predecessor. I’m sure the generations that followed me at that school saw to that.
In the book the deputy head, Mrs. Somers, was a different kettle of fish. Tyke hates her. And you find the feeling’s mutual. In fact it’s Mrs. Somers who blows the lid off the fact that’s staring you in the face from the beginning. In reality we had Mrs. Weaver. And if that name sounds ominous it was with good reason. Tall lady, big hair (it was the eighties) and with little time for horseplay and high-jinks. Which when you’re the deputy of a primary school is a little like being a lobsterman who’s allergic to shellfish. Cutting when she spoke, and with the ability to admonish at will I never saw her good side. She was the “bad cop” of the school, we walked in fear. I never had a specific run-in with her though I know a few friends who did.
But in the book Tyke is just a pupil in the last term of primary school. A friend, Danny, is slow and Tyke steals exam answers to allow him to get into the regular comprehensive with the rest of them. Danny does, but Tyke does so well the school tries to push for grammar school induction, which Tyke balks at.
On the last day Tyke, whose been climbing everything since the book begins finally gets courage and shimmies up a drain pipe to the top of the school’s bell tower, the bell not ringing for years. Of course everyone comes out and tells Tyke to come down. Which is fine until Mrs. Somers comes out and drops the bombshell.
Tyke’s a girl.
Heck, if that was my name I’d call myself Tyke too.
And, seeing red, Tyke rings the bell. Which causes the tower to collapse almost killing her, causing thousands of pounds of damage and leaving the school yard looking “as if a bomb had hit it”.
Exit stage left.
I didn’t expect Tyke to be a girl. But when the reveal comes it’s not important. girls get into trouble in school just as extreme as boys do, it’s just a smaller percentage. And at that age gender is both extreme and identical simultaneously. Pre-pubescent in body, repulsed most of the time in mind.
I didn’t wreck my school. But I did have bullish reactions in a world that was too china-shop esque for me, at that time, to understand. I got into trouble for being thoughtless a lot. But hey, I was dealing with stuff, it was understandable. If not exactly understandable consequence free *blush*.
And I can still see a lot of my primary school in my head. Being small. Leaves and driving rain, autumn winds and snow and Christmas parties and all those things that make childhood special. In ways that are both good and bad.
I don’t remember my last day in Primary school. My parents had been trying to get me into a better school than the local comprehensive (which at the time was only a few rungs up from gladiator school), which involved entrance exams and scholarship attempts. So I didn’t go for a tour of the neighbouring high school, and the end of one chapter of my life was sadly tarnished with the sickly apprehension that I had to leave the comfort of my world altogether if I was going to progress.
This is okay. You have to move forward. But I read something like Gene Kemp’s book, Gene’s a girl by the way, and I wonder if she wasn’t writing from her own feelings and her own experiences when she was young. Sticking by your friends regardless of the problems they might have, telling the truth, trying to do the right thing, and ignoring people who say you can’t do something for stupid, society-centric reasons.
I love the last line the most.
“She still intends to climb the rock fall”.
You should still have dreams, and you shouldn’t let others influence when you want to do, even when they say you shouldn’t.
And remember, this was in an era when Public Service Broadcasts were harking on to children about the dangers of farm equipment, electricity and crossing the road like it was going out of fashion.
Its pages contain personal magic; something innocent and honest, but powerfully human. And it’s hard not to be touched when I read between the lines. A book that’s nothing special to many great critics will forever live in the top ten of all time for me.
*I always found it odd Year 5 had a portacabin. It always implied the school didn’t build the same number of classrooms for the years attending it. Years 1,2,3,4 and 6 had the main building, with Year 5 enduring a year of sporadic heating by means of a number of ancient storage heaters, made all the worse in my 5th year when the snows came (1988-89) and any heat generated escaped in every direction possible long before the school day started. It almost burned down the following year, but as of writing it remains a rite of passage for any graduate and a school staple.