School Memories

Folk drawing

By Pat Townsend
Reprinted here by the kind permission of Pat Townsend, daughter of Reg Wilks

Red-brick walls and roof of slate
Built in Victorian tradition.
The little school awaits its fate
Such high windows! Built in an Age
When children must not see
The world outside. They must not see
Women chatting, washing flacking, or the cherry-tree
Blossom-decked in Spring like a bride.
They must not be distracted
By rumbling farm carts and delivery drays
Or attracted by the racing, fleecy clouds
And the sun's warm rays.
Small heads bend humbly over desks
Tiny fingers struggle to guide
Cross-nibbed pens over copy-books.
Sparkling eyes shine in pride
When teacher praises neat work.
The untidy still use slates
And the squeaking chalk grates
On the ears.
In winter, the tortoise stove smokes sulkily
And sulphuric fumes mingle
With the steam from damp clothes drying.
Cold fingers and toes tingle
And Jane Barnes is crying
Because her chilblains itch
And Miss says she mustn't scratch.
Charlie Smith blinks back tears too.
He is scared that teacher will catch
Him out on the eight-times table.
For, try as he will, he is never able
To remember the dreaded nine times eight.
But, in the afternoon, the stove begins to glow
As the smoke clears and tears
Are forgotten when Jane helps to stick
cotton-wool snow
On the high windows and Charlie's class sweetly sing
Carols of praise to the Infant King.
Ivy, cones and holly berries on the Nature Table,
But soon the children will be able
To pick the dainty, brave snowdrops.
Then cowslips from Mill Mead scent the whole room
With unmistakable, heady, sweet perfume
And primroses which star gorsy heathlands
Are bunched in small hot hands
A present for teacher.
And bluebells from Bloom Wood
Ring, with beech leaf accompaniment.
Thus, season pass as seasons should
Timed by dandelion clocks picked during walks
On Cobacre, where the girls split stalks
Of daisies to make chains for necklaces and crowns
Jewels fit for a Queen even the Queen of an Empire.
But Queens die like the flowers
And crowns fit younger heads. Wars are fought
As the school bell tolls the hours
And the sun sets slowly on the proud Empire.
Yet, reluctant to forget past glories
Still on Empire Day in May
The children wave their flags so gay,
And teacher's flowers are patriotic too,
White cow parsley, red peony and cornflowers blue.
And a blood-red flower in a strange sad way
Recalls another glory on Poppy Day
When the children sit silent for an endless minute
In remembrance of brave men. Men who were once
Small boys at these very desks.
The clever, the dunce
The cheeky, the shy; for heroes like children, are
a mixed lot and Death is not selective.
Life within those cosy red-brick walls seems unchanging.
Each day broken into segments by the bell
Which signifies a change of lesson.
Reading, writing, sums and chanted tables,
Sewing, handwork, singing, stories, fables.
Yet, outside those walls, the world is changing
Progress marches and the village is growing.
The children hear no more cows lowing.
On their way to be milked at nearby Fennels Farm.
No more friendly clippety-clop
Of horses hooves passing the windows.
Houses spring up on top
Of the hill, magically, like the mushrooms
Used to in Austin's meadow.
Soon the little school is bursting
With lively children thirsting
For knowledge, and hungry
For school dinners in the new canteen.
Yet still the builders speculate
And vie to build the best estate.
Buses, lorries, grocers' vans
Deliver people, bricks and cans
To their destination
And still there is procrastination
Over the site for a new school.
But eventually the plans are passed
The new school is built at last.
But still the old school serves as an overflow.
And, after morning assembly, children file
Two by two, in crocodile
Towards those red-brick walls. So still
They laugh and chat and smile
Beneath that old slate roof
And the high windows are gay
With more sophisticated flowers.
Giant chrysanths, and prize-winning "glads"
Or Gold-Medal roses grown by Dads
Who need no more a vegetable patch
To eke out the family income.
And even humble tadpoles hatch
Into opulent frogs not in mere jam-jars
But smart aquariums and stick-insects
Recline comfortably on branches in vivariums.
The ancient cupboards bulge with books
Toys, crayons and gay paints
And the young teacher smiles as she looks
At the children's pictures of Helicopters, cars,
Planes, rockets and space-ships
Reaching out for moon and stars.
But this is a brief glory, a short reprieve
The children soon must take their leave.
For still the village grows and grows
And gloating Agents sell the rows and rows
Of "Ideal Homes with lovely view."
And the little school which served the few
Is useless for so many
So the doors are barred the gates are locked
The old bell tolls no more
There are cobwebs on the ceiling
And dust on the wooden floor
The grass grows long in the tiny field at the back
And weeds grow through holes in the worn tarmac.
Red-brick walls and roof of slate
Built in Victorian tradition
The little school awaits its fate

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