School Reports: The Stories Behind the Numbers

I’ve done a deal of packing and moving and unpacking in the last couple of years. And amid all the pains is the pleasure of the unexpected find. Unearthed this week is this school report from the 1950’s.

I remember Miss Kempster well, although I cannot say with fondness my chief memory being that of a generalized fear and the specific shame of not being able to do “joined-up” writing. That and her bright red lipstick. Until middle of that second grade year my school setting had been idyllic. Somehow teaching script had taken second place to reading and writing stories, running the school shop, visits to Rumming’s farm at lambing time, identifying wildflowers and country dancing.

Clarence Street Primary Junior School was a very different educational order – red brick Victorian built with great civic pride and resembling a fortress- desks screwed to the classroom floor, high ceilings with tall windows high on the wall to allow light but no distractions (but oh the excitement when we could see snow flakes falling up there!) and outside toilets at the bottom of a very steep asphalt playground.

We were the lucky ones. The bottom two classes in these overspill post-war years were housed in a makeshift annex. We had free milk every morning and a hot lunch every day.

There was a map of the world on the wall with the empire in red. (This empire was a good thing as it meant we had an Empire Day holiday every May.) I remember wondering whether Nigeria was in any way connected with Nigel who sat two desks behind me and was too squeamish to eat his apple cores.

This was a place of serious learning. We were being prepared for the big tests of the 11plus – the test that would sort us into the sheep and goats and determine our educational destiny.

This was a generally favorable report. My progressive early years had obviously prepared me well for the traditional system and in that rigidly stratified system I ranked well in that top class of six such classes scoring 130 and a half points out of 145. Such pleasing exactitude.

I was excellent in Spelling, careless in Arithmetic and not so good in Needlework and Scripture (it was a very full curriculum). My punctuality and conduct were excellent. I had not yet learned to deal with the misery of school by disruptive means.

Two things stand out for me. First the number in that class – 48. All arrayed in rows with those scoring top at the front of the first row and all the way to the bottom child in the back corner. Forty eight small children, one room, one teacher. No wonder Miss Kemspster ruled with the blackboard pointer.

And the second is to be reminded that at age 8 at least I had not yet learned what I could not do. Seems to me that the years that followed were all about finding out that I was not good at one thing after another- music, art, mathematics, Latin, French, physics, chemistry, biology and all the rest. I was an avid reader so that go me through English and as history mostly consisted of memorization and copying down dictation as the teacher read from the textbook I continued to do well.

There’s a saying that teachers are guided by either a desire to replicate their own school experiences or a determination to do quite the reverse.

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