Generations of dawdling to school

The "day boys" were definitely different.

I suppose you could put it down to good home cooking (as opposed to the dubious school version of that art). But it was something more than cuisine. Every morning, the five of them - three were brothers - would spill self-confidently, jubilantly even, onto the school playground, as though dropping in from another world.

Nothing about their arrival recalled the "melancholy Jacques." (Remember your Shakespeare? "Then the whining school-boy, with his satchel,/ And shining morning face, creeping like snail/ Unwillingly to school.")

As for the rest of us, all boarders, we didn't go willingly or unwillingly to school each day, we were just already there.

I became friendly, back then, with one of the three "day boy" brothers, and sometimes I was invited to their home for a glorious Sunday afternoon. A giggling, riotous, exuberant, cake-and-trifle, do-what-you-like sort of time. It was everything home life should be - which is just about everything boarding-school life wasn't - however amiable this particular boarding school was.

I just heard an item on the news about the ways in which most children these days go to school in Britain - day school, I mean. Far more are delivered by car than not. The item was about a proposal to introduce many special high-tech school buses.

Each kid would swipe a card on entering the bus, and this would immediately be logged on a central computer so that parents would know their child was safely aboard. The argued advantage was that fewer cars would clog rush hour and mothers would spend less time as taxi drivers. But there was also concern that some children would be deprived of wholesome exercise and fresh air, cycling or walking to school.

I found this enchantingly old-fashioned, I must say. To think that there may be some children - in remote country places, perhaps - who still, in our auto-dominated age, actually go by foot or pedal power to school!

If there are in fact any such energetic younglings, I don't suppose it would cut much ice with them to realize they are the tail-end of a very ancient tradition. (Shakespeare's dawdling schoolboy doubtlessly dawdled on foot.)

Flora Thompson, in "Lark Rise to Candleford" (1939) describes her own late-19th century impoverished hamlet childhood. And her evocation of the children going to school suggests a continuum surely unchanged since schools first existed.

"School began at nine o'clock," she writes, "but the hamlet children set out on their mile-and-a-half walk there as soon as possible after their seven o'clock breakfast." The mothers wanted them out of the house, and the children "liked plenty of time to play on the road."

She makes you picture these shabby country kids "straggled, in twos and threes and in gangs" up the long road. "In cold weather some of them carried two hot potatoes which had been in the oven, or in the ashes, all night, to warm their hands on the way and to serve as a light lunch on arrival."

Between home discipline and school discipline, they threw off such "civilization" on the road to and from school. There was shouting and quarreling and bullying, playing marbles, bird's nesting, snowballing, and sliding on icy puddles. And eating.

They ate turnips and pea-shanks from the fields, ears of wheat, young greens from the hawthorn hedges, sorrel leaves, blackberries, and crab apples. This was not so much because of hunger, but "from habit and relish of the wild food."

You sense that Flora Thompson was putting into words a child culture of "going to school" that was ages old, unchanged for centuries. Perhaps it is this, as a kind of folk memory, that objectors wish today had not been replaced by cars and buses.

"Going to school," for me, was not like this. It occurred, not at the start of each school day, but at the start of each term. The schools I attended were hundreds of miles away. I traveled between home and school by train.

The first time, my parents accompanied me all the way from home in Yorkshire to Kings Cross in London. (Devotees of Harry Potter will know this major station as the place where Harry vanishes through a brick wall before embarking on the Hogwarts Express to his new school.)

I do not remember what happened that first time, but I was told later of my parents' astonishment and dismay when, met at the station by a master from the school, I walked away with him without even saying goodbye.

In my defense, I probably had no idea what was going on. I probably misunderstood, and thought I'd see them a minute or two later in another part of the station. It was not a deliberate snub, I feel certain. Fairly certain.

After that first time, we were trusted to travel to school parentless. So the train ride was our long road to school, and I remember vividly that halfway feeling, almost wild in its temporary freedom, yet full of foreboding.

Given a choice, I would have stayed at home. Yet I cannot deny that school life - once you were taken over by it again - involved some quite marvelous things. Things that could never have happened in the home world.

The night before we had to go back to school, we always went "to the pictures." It was meant as a treat. It was a treat. But sitting tremulously in the dark, transported into that escapist but temporary celluloid world of Hollywood or Pinewood, was very like standing on the edge of a cliff.

You dreaded the moment the credits rolled and "God Save the Queen" began. It meant, with the inevitability of Authoritative Decree, that this was it! THE END! The holidays were finished.

At dawn one would have to jump off the cliff and turn back once again into a schoolboy. You'd say goodbye to the freedoms and luxuries of home for endless weeks of doing what you were told (mostly) and being subjected to Latin (too much) and longing for cakes (oh, longing!) and playing Rugby (badly) or cricket (worse). You'd have a cold shower every morning and eat school porridge and be known only by your last name.

As I've said, this regime had its compensations. But I've been sorry, ever since, when films come to an end.

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