Isn’t it funny how you never forget your first? It might be your first day at school, first love, first job, or whatever, but there’s something about it that stays with you all of your life.
I remember my first day at school vividly, although I would have been only five-years-old. Back then you tended to start school around your fifth birthday, the intake that year was staggered, those born a little later in the year, started later accordingly.
I had never even been to nursery school or mixed with that many other children, so it was in at the deep end for me. We had previously lived on a farm in the Bwlch area of Wales, which was so remote, the nearest shop was miles away. I think my mother used to go into the village and order goods which were later delivered in a van. I have vague recollections of the area, being wheeled on top of a pram down narrow, leafy country lanes. My brother was only a baby and inside the pram whilst I was seated on some sort of seat on top of it. There’s just 17 months between myself and my brother in age, so not that much really, though at that time there was a vast difference between a baby and a toddler.
I was a shy child, quite happy with my own company as long as I had my dolls to play with, and later, when I learned to read, my books.
My mother found the farming life long and lonely. For family or friends to visit her, many of whom did not have cars, it took several buses to reach us and then they’d have to run like the wind to get to the bus stop not to miss the bus back to Merthyr as buses were far and few between. We didn’t actually own the farm–my father was a farmhand. We lived in a little cottage beside a chapel, which had a Welsh speaking congregation. We ended up though finally moving back to Merthyr Tydfil and living with my paternal grandparents for a while, until we bought our own house in the same street, just three doors away. This must have delighted my mother as at last she could walk to the town which wasn’t that far away and see all her friends and family on a regular basis.
My grandmother took care of me and my brother whilst our parents worked, so it was she who took me to school that first day. As we started by age at the school, I was put in a class with all the other five-year-olds, so some were almost a year older. The first thing I remember is being shown to a small cloak room where I was told to hang up my anorak. Each peg had a different small coloured picture above it to make identification easy. Mine had a ballerina in a pink tutu. I have a vague recollection of a busy classroom with big thick crayons on the window sill in a circular holder. For some reason, I thought they were lipsticks! Well they looked like lipsticks to me, though who would wear yellow, green, blue or purple was beyond my childish mind.
I remember a large sandpit in the centre of the room and in one corner a Wendy House and in another, a small library of books, complete with table and chairs.
My main memory that day was of being overwhelmed! Most children were older and it appeared to be two classes compiled into one. Another little girl, who was older than me, took me by the hand and led me to play in the Wendy House. We were playing together quite happily when one of the boys, who was how shall I say, on the large side…poked his head in through the window of the Wendy House. I don’t know what came over me as I was a very shy child but I pushed the wooden Wendy house over his head so that he was stood wedged inside the window, huffing and puffing!
I vividly remember that feeling of acute embarrassment as I felt very uncomfortable and my face burned beet red!
I was told off by the teacher and stopped from playing in the sand pit that day as a punishment.
I don’t know if it was on that first day at school, but I remember the teacher, whose name was Mrs Williams, teaching us to read by writing ‘How Now Brown Cow’ on the blackboard in white chalk. The problem was, earlier, I hadn’t used the toilet. We had a toilet annexe just off the classroom, there were 3 toilets where children waited in line with a large glass window between it and the classroom, probably for the teacher to keep an eye on us. I had been last but one in the queue, but the little girl stood behind me must have changed her mind about going to the toilet as she went back to the classroom. For some reason I thought it shameful to be last in the line, so I went and sat down myself, with a full to bursting bladder.
So as Mrs Williams was chanting, ‘How Now Brown Cow’ to a class of captive five-year-olds, I suddenly felt a warm trickle of urine running down my legs. At that moment, I caught her eye as she realised what had happened and she walked over to me and slapped me hard on the legs. It was different in those days, a teacher slapping you seemed normal. I suppose I must have cried from the shock of it, along with being uncomfortable and wet, not to mention embarrassed in front of my peer group [notice the pun there!]. Strangely enough, I never, ever, remember wetting myself in school again!
Another memory I have of that particular day, is easels being set up for us to paint, we had a jam jar of water, a brush and some round blocks of paint. But for some reason, I kept dabbing my brush on the block of paint and then dipping it in the water and then taking my brush to the easel, so all that came out on the paper were some wet, clear brush strokes! I hadn’t cottoned on to the fact I was doing it the wrong way around!
When lunchtime came, we were made to wash our hands with the help of the dinner lady, Mrs Roberts, who was the bandiest lady I’ve ever seen to this day. No doubt, the poor lady might have had Rickets as a child and developed an infirmity as a result. I was always scared of her, not due to her deformity, but she never smiled and could be quite harsh with us kids. Once our hands were washed with the hard, white soap, and dried in the even harder paper towels, we had to sit back down at our desks and sing the following song, which I remember to this day:
Thank you for the world so sweet,
Thank you for the food we eat,
Thank you Lord for birds that sing,
Thank you Lord for everything.
Then we walked to the the dining hall and formed a line where we were shown to our seats. I can’t remember what I had to eat that day but I remember as we shared a canteen with the Catholic school next door, it was always fish on Fridays, which was my favourite meal of the week.
After a run around in the yard following lunch, so we could let off a bit of steam, I remember the afternoon being very relaxed where we were read stories, sang songs, said prayers, and then were told to put our arms and heads on the desk and close our eyes. I didn’t sleep but I think many children were spark out. It was probably to give Mrs Williams a break!
At home time all the mothers waited outside the classroom, or in my case, my grandmother was waiting to walk me home, via the sweet shop, no doubt. I would sleep well that night after a raucous first day at school… and for the following thirteen years!