Writer of the Month
Disce aut discede
I am quiet in the car, unable to find words amidst the crowd of anxieties in my head. The car pulls in at the school gates and I force myself to get out.
‘I’ll wait a couple of minutes,’ Dad offers.
‘No, it’s okay, you go on.’ I reply, knowing it will be more difficult if he stays.
‘You sure?’ he asks, unconvinced by my crocodile smile.
I wave him off and turn away. The building is imposing – Bath stone, wide and elegant with huge Georgian windows. I order my unwilling feet forward, square my shoulders with a sigh and head up the slope, showing more outward confidence than I feel.
I am not alone. A hundred others are ushered like drones into the hall that doubles as a gym. It smells of polished wood and leather. The floor is parquet – as yet unwalked on since it was stripped and repolished at the end of last year. I see my reflection in its mirrored surface and I am intimidated by its antiquity and worthiness; ‘who are you?’ it seems to mock.
We are all shiny and stiff in our hideous new uniforms – bottle green gymslips for the girls, the boys in overlong short trousers, their prudent mothers allowing room for growth; white shirts; bottle green and maroon, diagonal-striped ties; bottle green blazers sporting the school crest; berets for the girls and caps for the boys, both with the school badge emblazoned across the front. Older girls walk through still in their summer dresses and boaters and we first years stick out like polar bears on a beach.
Boys greet their friends with a thump on the arm; the girls giggle and eye-up the boys. Snatches of conversation reach my ears. There is muted laughter and endless chatter. Everyone is talking to someone. Except me.
At one end of the hall is a high stage with steps leading up from either side. There is an enormous desk in the middle, a carved lectern to one side and a row of high-backed chairs behind. The school crest broadcasts its message from the back wall – Disce aut Discede – learn or leave – or as the pupils interpret it, cram or scram. On the west side of the hall there are tall French doors, leading to the quadrangle. One pair is open to let in the warmth of the September morning and I can just hear the splash of a fountain over the buzz in the room. On the east side, blocks of sunlight pierce the high windows, and dust motes dance like fairies in a spotlight, enjoying their fifteen minutes of fame.
A door opens and Mr. Rendall, the Headmaster, leads in his disciples. His presence displaces the chatter – silence falls. He walks to the lectern and waits for the entourage to sit.
‘Good morning, children,’ Mr. Rendall says, way above me.
‘G’ mornin’ Sir,’ rumbles back the respectful, sing-song reply.
‘I’d like to introduce you to the school governors,’ he informs us. Canon Rawlstawm – who looks a bit like Malcolm Muggeridge, I decide; Mr. Pierce – a local landowner; another Mr. Pierce – in this small market town, nearly everyone is called Pierce, or related to someone called Pierce, I discover later. This Mr. Pierce wins all the livestock prizes in the local and county shows. Mrs. Babbington-Haugh is a JP and Mr. Eardly-Wilmott, another local landowner. I can barely see them, as I am right at the front. The stage is very high from here and I am very little
One of the teachers – Mr. Ashby, comes forward. The Headmaster begins to read from a list of names, seemingly in alphabetical order. I start to get anxious as he nears the ‘H’s, but this is not my class. Mr. Ashby rounds up his flock and herds them to one side.
Miss Bintcliffe and Miss Dyer stand and the process is repeated. My name is still not called. I scrutinise Mr. Paul very carefully as he is obviously to be my Form Master. He looks a bit scary; he has big bushy eyebrows and a moustache. He smiles down at us and his eyes crinkle – I feel better about him.
Mr. Rendell’s voice drones on with the final names. I wonder why; the rest of us must be in this class, there are no teachers left. But wait, no! He’s passed the ‘H’s and I haven’t heard my name. Did I miss it? My breath comes in little short rasps, I blink my eyes rapidly and swallow hard. I look round the room in panic, millions of thoughts whizzing simultaneously round my mind.
I am at the wrong school. They’re not expecting me. What should I do? How will I get home? Where should I be if not here?
The Headmaster finally reaches the end of his list. My eyes begin to leak; I hang my head and take a huge gulp of air. ‘I mustn’t cry,’ I remonstrate with myself, ‘they’ll think I’m a baby.’
‘Is there anyone whose name I haven’t called?’ demands the disembodied voice. A new terror seizes me. I don’t know whether to put my hand up or not. What if he did call my name and I just missed it? I want to run away, but I have nowhere to go, I can’t get home it’s too far. My hand twitches at my side and I feel it inching upwards involuntarily. As it reaches shoulder height – seemingly an hour later - I shut my eyes and thrust it upwards in a fight or flight response. I crack one eye open and notice two other hands hovering nervously in the air. I let out the breath I’ve been holding.
The other children are marched off to their respective classrooms, whispering and giggling, waving to their friends in other groups. We three refugees gravitate towards each other without realising it. We try a tentative triumvirate smile while the secretary is summoned. She consults her lists and ‘finds’ the other two girls who skip off happily to their classrooms led by an older pupil. I am alone, in every way imaginable. There is still no record of me. My bottom lip bibbers, despite me biting it till it bleeds. I want my Dad to burst in through the doors and say he’s made a mistake; I want him to take me home to Mum and I never want to have to go to school again. It doesn’t happen. The secretary asks if I am a late registrant, and I go into a lengthy explanation in a tiny, halting voice. She remembers there is, as yet, no paperwork as I was transferred only a few days ago, due to the family move. I think I am relieved, but I’m not entirely sure.
I am allocated to Class 1B and I wonder at the significance of the ‘B’. My teacher, Miss. Dyer, reappears and sees that I am in danger of crying. She puts an arm round my shoulder for encouragement and steers me gently, but definitely, towards the door. ‘We’re over in ‘B’ block,’ she explains. I feel stupid now, which makes me want to cry even more.
The hall seems to sigh back into its sleepy contentment as we leave, the buzzing bees in the quad making it snore, happy with only the company of the dust fairies.
We cross the playground and skirt the school field, where the aptly named caretaker, Mr. Beadle, rumbles up and down on a massive roller, flattening his beloved cricket crease. Even the Headmaster is not allowed within the sanctified enclosure, Miss Dyer tells me with a smile. It is only ever used by the first team and for the inter-house cricket final, the rest of the time it is nurtured like an endangered species.
The classroom is a wooden terrapin building in a landscaped copse on the edge of the grounds. There is a little garden which looks like Aladdin’s cave: orange, red, yellow nasturtiums, jewels in a crown of green. It is as if the sun has come out from behind a cloud. It warms a little girl’s heart. Their cheerfulness gives me courage and I walk into class with the faintest of smiles on my lips and a glow of hope rather than panic in my soul.
My first day at the Grammar School is one I never forget. All it takes is a bed of nasturtiums and I am there again.