Last weekend I went to The Phoenix cinema in East Finchley with Michael to watch Philomena. The Phoenix is one of the UK’s oldest purpose-build, continuously operating cinemas according to its website. The vaulted ceiling dates back to the early 20th century. It’s an amazing venue, and quite the place the Boulevardier should frequent.
The film itself was wonderful and thought provoking, albeit rather harrowing. Towards the end (and I won’t give plot away) there is a scene with an aged and retired nun. She belligerently defends her actions fifty years previously which materially affected Philomena’s life. Philomena remained calm and said she forgave the nun for her actions.
As we left the theatre my thoughts turned to my school days and as we walked back to our cars I told Michael a story about my first few days at school. Some of the detail had faded with time, and as I was meeting my parents for lunch two days later, I decided to ask Mum what she remembered.
After a morning coffee in the Boulevardier’s lounge my parents and I walked the short distance to The Maynard where we were booked for Sunday lunch. After we had ordered our roast chicken, roast beef and a beef and Guinness pie, I asked Mum what she remembered. I was unable to take a long and dramatic sip of sherry or red wine as I was rather dehydrated following a brilliant Halloween party the previous evening, and had decided to abstain.
‘Of course’ said Mum, ‘as if it happened yesterday.’
When I was three years old and not a London Boulevardier but a country boy, I went to playschool. There was no playschool in the village in which we resided and I had to go to the one in the next village. The first morning passed without incident, but on the second Mum received a call as I was distraught. Playschool was held in a timber annexe known as The Scout Hall on the outskirts of the village and one of the older children came in wearing a scary mask! This had almost traumatised me and it will come as no surprise that I didn’t want to return. I asked Mum why she didn’t make me go back.
‘There is no choice on whether or not you go to school but there is a choice with playschool’ Mum reasoned.
School soon came around and I was extremely excited and enthusiastic to go. It was six weeks before my fifth birthday. Mum thought she might have a problem leaving me there, but I was positive, took off my coat and ran to a table and sat down. Mum said I was proud as a peacock to be at school. Flamstead JMI was the only education centre in our small village and it felt massive. Its five classrooms and over one hundred pupils were all new to me and daunting enough on their own without the additional punishing circumstances.
The morning passed and Mum came to collect me for lunch. We lived close enough to the school to take luncheon at home. My mood had drastically changed and I did not want to go back to school for the afternoon. Confused, Mum asked me what had changed and I told her the teacher had smacked me. Mum didn’t believe a word of it as a teacher couldn’t smack a child – or could they? I didn’t settle at school as well in the afternoon as I had in the morning and Mum struggled to get me to stay. It was all rather upsetting.
When Mum returned to the school gates at the appointed afternoon time she encountered one of Dad’s sisters, Auntie Ann, and explained the rather odd events of the day. Auntie Ann said she would ask my cousin Lorraine who was also in my class what had happened.
Lorraine confirmed that Mrs S. had smacked me as I couldn’t hold my pencil properly and had tried to make me write with my right hand rather than my natural and favoured left. I hadn’t yet learned to hold my pencil between my thumb and second and third fingers, but rather held the pencil between all my fingers.
At this Mum went straight round to the classroom and demanded to speak with Mrs S.. She denied administering corporal punishment and held her position regarding changing the hand I wrote with. This was the mid-1970s, not the dark ages, in case anyone was wondering. Mum left the classroom and walked to the Headmaster’s office; he listened and confirmed he’d look into it.
Mum came home uneasy and hoped that all would be sorted. The next lunchtime she asked me which hand I had used to hold my pencil, and I indicated I had to use my right. I of course didn’t say right as I was too young to know the difference but rather showed Mum.
We walked back to school for the afternoon session and Mum went straight to the Headmaster who was apparently still looking into it. Mum wasn’t having any of it and told Mr Ashwood, the Headmaster that she was going to see the GP for a professional opinion.
Mum telephoned Dr Coombes that afternoon and he confirmed that there was no way the school should continue trying to change the hand with which I wrote. He suggested that Mum should notify the school of his opinion and if there were any more problems he would come to the school. Mum relayed the message to Mr Ashwood and I was suddenly allowed to use my left hand again.
Mrs S. was in Mum’s words ‘as sweet as apple pie’ thereafter with no further incidents. Years later when Mum would bump into her she would always ask after me. Mum would always give a curt ‘He’s fine’ response.
I can remember being smacked across the left hand, which knocked the pencil from my hand, and being aggressively criticised for using the wrong hand, holding the pencil incorrectly and not being able to write my name. My memories are in flashes and evoke somewhat unsettling emotions of panic and despair.
I thought we went to school to learn?
I can also remember being told that I was far too naughty to go out to play in the afternoon with the rest of the children and being made to sit on a chair outside the staffroom as Mrs S. watched me. I was terrified and so upset. I can remember being really excited about growing up and being old enough to attend school, and things unravelling and going so wrong so quickly and it was all too much. I made a dash for it but S. caught me before I could get out of the building and make the short run home. She smacked me again and chastised me for being so disobedient
Years later when I was in my late teens this incident used to haunt me and I wanted to go and speak to the teacher, dominate her, and see how she felt. I decided not to and I am glad I didn’t.
We finished our lunch. Mum was too full for dessert, aside from a spoonful of my sticky toffee pudding. Dad had some bread and butter pudding. We chatted more about old memories and I connected on Facebook to one of Mum’s cousins whose new address she didn’t have. It was a lovely afternoon. I always enjoy my parent’s visits to Crouch End.
Did Mrs S. ever look back and realise she had acted so wrongly? I have no idea. However, at least there weren’t any long-lasting or adverse consequences, and I really enjoyed school. In fact, aside from the first few days, I would go back and do it all again at the drop of a hat.
The consequences on Philomena were substantially more severe and in fact incomparable. It’s really amazing sometimes how a really old and rarely thought of memory is triggered. As I reflected I am glad I didn’t confront my teacher, and like Philomena, maintained my dignity.