Nostalgia as Pebbledash
Nostalgia guides us, and not always in the most helpful directions.
My memories of primary school are scattergun, a smattering of half-forgotten moments. I remember vividly the experience of queueing up at my Year 3 teacher’s knees, waiting to ask her my burning question, my chest puffed up with the early symptoms of the kind of misplaced academical snootiness that would characterise much of my education since:
“Can you help with a spelling please? It’s a very long word.”
” What is the word, Jonathan?”
“Heck – tick”
I remember looking around to see who overheard this burst of brilliance.
Most of my memories play out like this. They are mere glimpses of oddness: they are more photograph than video clip.
In Reception I told someone they had ants in their pants and they cried. I thought I had fallen in love once during a PE lesson whilst playing piggy in the middle on the school field. My friend started a small fire to the cloak room. Somebody said a racist word in fitness club. In Year 4 the new girl put her hands down the back of her pants and encouraged people to smell it. The Deputy Head stopped me crying in the lunch hall by winking at me and teaching me how to wink. I proudly boasted of ‘being the boy who likes every pudding’. I had a Spice Girls keyring and a sticker of Sally Gunnell. A potter’s wheel pinned me to the floor of the car park. The teacher mispronounced organism and some other children started laughing; I didn’t get the joke until like two years later. In Year 2, I played with a Year 1 girl who was often mean to me, and I didn’t know her name so I called her Little Blue Riding Hood. The substitute teacher was rumoured to be another species and the music teacher drove a yellow Fiat Panda. When the ball went out of bounds for a throw-in, I would always be honest if I touched it last, and my team would shout at me for being an idiot as a result.
The fact that these memories remain as shards and as fragments does not undermine their impact. As far as I am concerned, these kinds of things shaped me as much as anything else I clearly learned but do not remember learning, such as how to do my shoelaces, where to put a question mark, how to measure an angle or the sequence of the Tudor monarchs.
Memories of the Carpet
One set of my memories is unaffected by this fragmentation and blurring. Memories of reading are the most concrete ones I have from school. These stayed with me and struck me important even at the time. They attest to the peculiar power of reading.
I say peculiar intentionally; the power of reading is a strange one. In my classrooms as a child – and now as a teacher – the opening or closing of a book can be enough to immediately alter the mood of a room, to calm or madden the class as if they were one body and to give the impression of stopping time.
As a kid, when we visited the library, we were allowed to browse for ages, and the teacher generally left us be. I don’t actually remember them being there, but I know they were. We had about a 5 minute walk to cover to get to the library, but at the time it felt so much longer. An old man called Cyril would sometimes stop us all on our walk through the estate and give out mint imperials. We would arrive, crunching the mints, and would lug our completed books up onto the library desk, before running around. Lots of the kids did anyway. I had my slow route planned which I tended to stick to. I had a look at the tapes and CDs first, then moved to comics, then to the section of adult non-fiction books I was allowed to have a look at, before moving around the kids section to the non-fiction. I would often end the session standing in the Young Adult section, feeling as cocky as I did when I was declaring my knowledge of the word ‘hectic’.
Certain books stand out to me, and seeing the covers now still transports me back.
One of these is ‘Blabbermouth’ by Morris Gleitzman. Another is a retelling of Ivanhoe, which I couldn’t really understand. Another, which I didn’t ever read but would always look for was ‘Johnny and the Bomb’ by Terry Pratchett.
Back in school, the most salient memories of reading seemed to be tied to the five minutes before lunchtime. Perhaps the knowledge that food was on its way was what heightened my engagement for this time period, but I feel as though if all of my primary school memories were to wither, the last one to fade into the ether would be the experience of looking up into the yellowed mouth of our partially-deaf regular cover teacher as she bellowed ‘Please Mrs Butler’ at a shuddering volume.
At the time, this teacher appeared to us to be absolutely ancient, but with retrospect, she was probably only pushing 45. She had her reading glasses on a chain, and when she put them on, her eyes were like the headlights on a Volkswagen Beetle. In my mind’s eye, I imagine her to be about 14 feet tall, but this is because all of my memories of her now come from the position of me on a small chair gawping up at her.
When she would say the words ‘THIS BOY DEREK DREW’, she would get so much louder and quite often a ball of bubbling spit would land on the table next to me. Her breath was old coffee. Once it landed on my hand.
We wouldn’t vary the poems. It would always be the same poem and the predictability of it made it no less exciting. It was exciting in the way that the predictability of Christmas or that moment you get out of the door at playtime is exciting. Novelty was not required.
The Bringer of the Hush
Reading was, for me, mostly a personal experience until I was a bit older. In Year 7, I made a friend for the first time who read lots of books and had a house full of them. She would lend me hers and we would read things that were not commonly read by kids of our age. I would go around on a Saturday so we could read the Guardian Weekend supplement.
I gradually came to understand the power of sharing these stories, and how recommendations and book chat could be really exciting. My friend showed me books she had read that I had never heard of, and I devoured them. Books like ‘The Ringmaster’s Daughter’ and ‘The Solitaire Mystery’ changed my life, in a quite tangible way.
As we fast-forward now into my own classroom, I am trying to recreate that gentle sense of mundane awe that I felt when I first saw my friend’s bookshelf in her bedroom when I was about 12. I could point to any one of them and she could talk to me about it. They were tattered and torn, well-thumbed and drawn on. They had notes and comments, even sketches, alongside the text. The books were very much in the world of the living, unlike the copy of Johnny and the Bomb that absorbed dust on the bottom shelf of the library.
That lilting memory of the descending calm, as the supply teacher would loudly clear her throat ahead of our daily Ahlberging, glows in my mind every time I rotate my swivel chair with a dramatic flourish; the kids know this means I am going into my chest of drawers where my copy of AF Harrold’s ‘The Imaginary’ is.
They are pining for the story so badly, I fear we may have to deal with withdrawal symptoms once it is over. I have been working with what is going to be my class now, for just five whole days. Already, our reading time is sacred. This class is much like one I had a few years ago, who I loved for their character, humour and temperament, at the same time as deeply resenting how difficult this made my life.
“These are all great questions Year 5, but for this next bit, please no more hands up and no more questions. OK, so in thi… your hand is up … I said, no questions.”
“I don’t have a question, I want to make a statement.”
They are effervescent.
Thus far, at this early stage as I am working out the class, the kids, the personalities and the dynamics, my one reliable technique, my one faultless and effortless routine, has been to slowly raise ‘The Imaginary’ aloft.
As if it some kind of conch, they gather around me, settle and anticipate. Some of them confided that they found the bedroom ‘hide and seek’ scene really scary, and the Emily Gravett’s illustrations certainly helped this along, but every single child – even those who were looking at me from between their fingers, huddled at the thought of what might happen next – every last one of them was quiet, looking and waiting.
This is the feeling of reading.
This is that transcendent quality that moves beyond talk of grammar, punctuation, vocabulary, spelling and sentence structures. This feeling hints at the truth that stories are more than just the sum of their parts.
Even within an engaging curriculum, I have yet to find anything that can create the same kind of fervent buzz, the same kind of verve, as does a story well told.