Friday, April 02, 2010

Fifty years ago

Fifty years ago, I was nine and three-quarters and in Miss Harvey’s class. The previous year I’d been in Miss Dickson’s. She was in her thirties, I’d say - a brisk, cheerful woman with those winged glasses fashionable in the 50s and very tidy, almost childlike handwriting. I liked her, though looking back I think she was probably an organised rather than a very motivational teacher. But she inspired confidence. And I was a good girl, quiet and shy but eager to please, with neat writing and good spelling.

But when I was nine our teacher was Miss Harvey, who had a big face, an amused expression and a deep voice with an English accent. On the first day of the school year, a new girl whom I’d been told to look after asked me a question while Miss Harvey was talking. I whispered an answer. Miss Harvey asked me my name and told me that I was "obviously going to be a trouble-maker". I was completely cowed and thought from then on that this was her view of me. So that was the whole year ruined. I expect that Miss Harvey actually forgot what she’d said to me about ten seconds after she’d said it but I didn’t realise that at the time.

That was the year I stopped doing my homework – not because of this incident, I don’t suppose; just because it was so boring – and didn’t really start working again at school till my final, pre-university year. I just coasted along, cushioned by my ability to read quite fast and to write, spell and punctuate accurately. I had a reasonable memory and was good enough at sums. However, I lived my life anxious that someone would notice my lack of diligence, though no one ever seemed to. My reports tended to say that I lacked confidence. This was true, but mainly because I hadn’t done the work and was having to improvise quite a lot.

At home, when I was nine, we lived in a bungalow which had had two bedrooms and a toilet built into the attic space for my brother and me. My bedroom had a long window overlooking the garden, which was quite big (by British standards) with lawns, flowerbeds and apple trees. My passion for gardening started there. I loved to tilt lupin leaves so that raindrops ran down the grooves and gathered in the centres, shining like jewels. I used to bury my face in carnations and pinks to drink in their fragrance. And lilac blossom – blissful scent, still probably my favourite. I loved the daffodils cheerfully piercing through grass beneath the trees; the furry beards of iris, their velvety petals and bright colours; the sharp yellow and orange of nasturtiums and the squeaky feeling of their leaves.

I was quite a solitary child, I think, though not actually lonely - just because there were very few children living nearby and I spent a lot of time reading or daydreaming or wandering round the garden. My brother was (is) two years eight months older and though we got on well, our interests were very different and I don’t remember our playing together. He knew a lot more than me about everything and was my main source of information about things that I didn’t necessarily want to ask our parents.

I attended a school in the centre of the town and so my school friends didn’t live nearby. My best friend at that time was Dorothy, who was to be killed in Brussels at the age of twenty-three when a car mounted the pavement that she was walking along. Dorothy was the class golden girl: blonde and pretty and sensible. She always got sent on any errands to other teachers – an enviable task, since the messenger got to wander about the empty corridors, looking through the glass panels at other classes. Though Dorothy was my best friend, I was aware that I was only one of her best friends: she was popular with the other children as well as with the teachers. She and I used to go swimming on Saturdays at the chilly public baths at Portobello. I think the water was slightly heated but the air certainly wasn’t, and we shivered violently when we came out, pulling our clothes over our not-properly-dried bodies in our desperation to get warm again. Then we would go to the cafeteria, which was empty and draughty, offering very little. But if we were lucky an assistant might come out from somewhere and sell us a hot buttered roll for two pence (or tuppence, as we called it). They were so delicious: white rolls (we always had brown bread at home) with the butter just melting. These post-swimming warming snacks were called “chittery bites” or in Standard English, “shivery bites”. Then we’d go up to my house or hers and play dressing-up. I still miss Dorothy and wonder what she would have done with her life. We stayed friends and I got a letter from her the week before she died, telling me how much she was enjoying life in Brussels. She's for ever twenty-three while the rest of us... are not.

Fifty years… how unimaginably old my nine-year-old self would have thought the fifty-nine-year old version if she’d met her. Older than her mum; not much younger than one of her grannies; older, much older than Miss Dickson and Miss Harvey. And yet - still the same person in most ways.

So: what were you like when you were nine?


  1. I recognise the solitary me in your words - nose in book when not observing the world around in detail. Some of that girl still persists, but now a computer screen vies with books for attention, and provides Blogland friends from all over the world...

  2. When I was nine (not quite fifty years ago but getting on for), we moved from inner-city Bristol, to rural Essex. I'd just settled down and made friends when it was decided that I needed glasses - I can still remember how awful it was going into school that first time. So many children seem to wear glasses now but then it was uncommon - which is odd thinking back on it - and you were lumbered with awful NHS plastic things in pink or blue. I hated them and they made me a figure of fun. Unfortunately, the teacher hardly knew me and was inclined to put the blame at my door.
    I, too, was a solitary, but not lonely child with much older siblings, and I took refuge in painting and drawing.
    At the Easter of that year we moved again, to a smaller village. It had a wonderful village school, a terrific teacher who taught the top sets of the top two years together, and everyone accepted me, glasses, Bristolian accent and all. Eventually, I went back to the original town to grammar school with some of my tormentors, but I'd grown in confidence by then and some were even glad to see me!
    It's frightening the effect a teacher can have, and as you say, she probably never even knew. My daughter, who had to cope with a selection of kindly but eccentric teachers when she changed school at nine, has always said that it stood her in good stead for the eccentric bosses she has subsequently encountered!

  3. My life was so different. I grew up on a farm on the Canadian prairies with three brothers and a sister. I went to a one-room country school with some great teachers and some not so good. We spent a lot of time outdoors playing by the creek or in the woods. When indoors though, I usually had my nose in a book. My home now is very similar to the place where I grew up and not that far away. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  4. Oh Isabelle! I had tears in my eyes by the time I reached the end of your post. You write so beautifully -- and tenderly. What a lovely peek into your young self.

    When I was nine, we lived in a new neighborhood and while there were many children to play with, I wasn't one of the "in" crowd -- my younger sister was though. She was cute and petite and blonde. I was big and awkward and brunette. So, I led a more solitary life, more like yours. I LOVED books and some of my best friends were found in them. And nine was a VERY pivotal year -- the year I learned how to sew -- a passion that's stayed with me all these years. Your last paragraph fits me to. a. T. -- that's exactly how I feel!

    Happy, Happy Easter to you and the Life family! I hope you'll have a few of your children with you -- we're in for a quiet one -- just the parents and hubby -- so I'll be drinking just a bit of your melancholy!

  5. When I was nine, we had lived in Canada for two years and I was still desperately trying to rid myself of my English accent so I could fit in. I was a chubby, but not fat, little girl who loved animals and books, was scared of boys, and was deemed the sensible child by my parents. I fought with my older sister who was always getting in trouble and I felt very superior to her because my grades in school were better. I had friends in my suburban neighbourhood in Calgary, but they were so very different from me and I quite often found myself just going along with whatever they wanted to do because it was easier than arguing about it.
    If I were to meet that little girl (me at nine) now, I'm not sure I would like her very much. She was a bit boring and supercilious.

  6. I think you must draw in like minded souls, because we all have a lot in common judging by the comments. I put mine up as post, so thanks for the lifeline back to blogging. I have found it impossible lately!

  7. I wish I could remember back! You seem to have such a clear recollection. I think I would have just moved to a new suburb and a new school and I believe I was happily running around with new friends and lots of glorious space to explore, and still excited about having my own bedroom. It's interesting to think about because my firstborn is now 9.

  8. I was nine years old in 1957, and I can't remember much about that particular year. I have memories of scattered events from my childhood, and as I remember stuff, I add it to my online life story blog. I think you might have read it ages ago, Isabelle. I haven't added much to it in recent years because I haven't remembered any more stuff worth recording!

  9. Loved reading your memories! I'll have to think on this for another time, as, right now, I'm playing hooky from the kitchen where I intended to get an early start on baking....Hmmmm. And here I am sneaking a "quick" peek at blogs!

    Happy Easter to you Isabelle!

  10. It was 1975. I was an achiever in school, taking piano lessons, dance lessons, horseback riding lessons, playing in piano recitals and at church. Everything was right in my world. I was adored by my parents, who were still married at the time. My little sister and I played together. Our family lived in a cedar saltbox house on a high hill on the north shore of Long Island. The house that I still see in my dreams even to this day.

    My life now could not be any more different from that time if I had moved to the moon.

  11. When I was nine, 53 years ago, we moved to another country. I can still remember vividly the dread I felt as the teacher introduced me to the class and I saw a sea of unfamiliar faces. No sooner had I made tentative friendships than we moved again and eventually three times more. For me the feeling of being a stranger looking in and never being part of a group was a familiar feeling throughout my school years.

  12. I am delighted to meet you. There is so much I can identify with in your writing. I too wish I had been able to blog about my children while they were young. Their lives have slipped through my fingers like water and even the photographs (of which there were many) cannot convincingly rekindle the person I was then. However, it is possible that it would have been slightly too addictive, and maybe it was better to exist in the moment with them, rather than removing myself to record for posterity.

  13. Fifty years ago I was a dreamy child with my head always in a book, loved the royal family and cats. Now I have a royal collection, 2 cats and love to read. Havn't changed a bit! Can't decide if that's sad or not???