From Cider With Rosie, by English poet Laurie Lee, which focuses on his life growing up in the English countryside between World War I and World War II.
The Village School
Our village school was poor and crowded, but in the end I relished it. It had a lively reek of steaming life: boys’ boots, girls’ hair, stoves and sweat, blue ink, white chalk, and shavings. We learnt nothing abstract or tenuous there – just simple patterns of facts and letters, portable tricks of calculation, no more than was needed to measure a shed, write out a bill, read a swine-disease warning. Through the dead hours of the morning, through the long afternoons, we chanted away at our tables. Passers-by could hear our raising voices in our bottled-up room on the bank; ‘Twelve-inches-one-foot. Three-feet-make-a-yard. Fourteen-pounds-make-a-stone. Eight-stone-a-hundredweight.’ We absorbed these figures as primal truths declared by some ultimate power. Unhearing, unquestioning, we rocked to our chanting, hammering the gold nails home. ‘Twice-two-are-four. One-God-is-Love. One-Lord-is-King. One-King-is-George. One-George-is-Fifth…’ So it was always; had been, would be for ever; we asked no questions; we didn’t hear what we said; yet neither did we ever forget it.
So do I now, through the reiterations of those days, recall that schoolroom which I scarcely noticed – Miss Wardley in glory on her high desk throne, her long throat tinkling with glass. The bubbling stove with its chink of red fire; the old world map as dark as tea; dead field-flowers in jars on the windowsills;; the cupboard yawning with dog-eared books. Then the boys and the girls, the dwarfs and the cripples; the slow fat ones and the quick bony ones; giants and louts; angels and squinters – Walt Kerry, Bill Timbrell, Spadge Hopkins, Clergy Green, the Ballingers and Browns, Betty Gleed, Clarry Hogg, Sam and Sixpence, Poppy and Jo – we were ugly and beautiful, scrofulous, warted, ring-wormed, and scabbed at the knees, we were noisy, crude, intolerant, cruel, stupid and superstitious. But we moved together out of the clutch of the Fates, inhibitors of a world without doom; with a scratching, licking and chewing of pens, a whisper and passing of jokes, a titter of tickling, a grumble of labour, a vague stare at the wall in a dream…
‘Oh, miss, please miss, can I go round the back?’
I return to the school room and Miss Wardley scowls. But all is forgotten when Walt Kerry leans over and demands the results of my sums. ‘Yes, Walt. Of course, Walt. Here, copy them out. They aion’t hard – I done ‘em all.’ He takes them, the bully, as his tributary right, and I’m proud enough to give them. The little Jim Fern, sitting beside me, looks up from his ruined pages. ‘Ain’t you a good scholar! You and your Jack. Wish I was a good scholar like thee.’ He gives me a sad, adoring look, and I begin to feel much better.
Playtime comes and we charge outdoors, releasing our steamed-up cries. Somebody punches a head. Somebody bloodies their knees. Boys cluster together like bees.
‘Let’s go round the back then, shall us, eh?’ To the dark narrow alley, rich with our mysteries, we make our cluttering way. Over the wall is the girl’s own place, quite close, but we shout them greetings.
‘I ‘eard you, Bill Timbrell! I ‘eard what you said! You be careful, I’ll tell our teacher!’
Flushed and refreshed, we stream back to our playground, whistling, indivisibly male.
‘Did you ‘ear what I said then? Did you then, eh? I told ‘em! They ‘alf didn’t squeal!’
We all double up; we can’t speak for laughing, we can’t laugh without hitting each other.
Miss Wardley was patient, but we weren’t very bright. Our books showed a squalor of blots and scratches as though monkeys were being taught to write. We sang in sweet choirs, and drew like cavemen, but most other faculties escaped us. Apart from poetry, of course, which gave no trouble at all. I can remember Miss Wardley, with her squeaking chalk, scrawling the blackboard like a shopping list.
Our waking life, and our growing years, were for the most part spent in the kitchen, and until we married, or ran away, it was the common room we shared. Here we lived and fed in a family fug, not minding the little space, trod on each other like birds in a hole, elbowed our ways without spite, all talking at once or all silent at once, or crying against each other, but never I think feeling overcrowded, being as separate notes in a scale.
That kitchen, worn by our boots and lives, was scruffy, warm and low, whose fuss of furniture seemed never the same but was shuffled around each day. A black grate crackled with coal and beech-twigs; towels toasted on the guard; the mantel was littered with fine old china, horse brasses and freak potatoes. On the floor were strips of muddy matting, the windows were choked with plants, the walls supported stopped clocks and calendars, and smoky fungus ran over the ceilings. There were also six tables of different sizes, some armchairs gapingly stuffed, boxes, stools, and unravelling baskets, books and papers on every chair, a sofa for cats, a harmonium for coats, and a piano for dust and photographs. These were the shapes of our kitchen landscape, the rocks of our submarine life, each object worn smooth by our constant nuzzling, or encrusted by lively barnacles, relics of birthdays and dead relations, wrecks of furniture long since foundered, all silted deep by Mother’s newspapers which the years piled round on the floor.