Latin, stockings, and snobbery - Naomi Mitchison, George Orwell and others remember their schooldaysby Ian Irvine / August 21, 2013 / Leave a comment
Janice Galloway with classmates at primary school (third row, far left)
Naomi Mitchison recalls her days at the Dragon School in Oxford before the First World War:
“I liked the smell of school, I liked hanging up my coat with the rest… The only wretched thing was that when I started school I had to start wearing black stockings which went right up under my button-below-the-knee knickers. Apart from that I wore a blue serge skirt and a blue jersey, but I did at least have a school blazer with badge. I remember in my first term a boy approached me with a tin and asked if I would like some bread and cheese. Not being allowed to eat cheese and supposing myself not to like it, I hesitated. But when he opened the tin it was hawthorn buds which I ate happily and still eat… I felt I was being admitted into the society.”
George Orwell writes about prep school in 1915:
“The snobbishness that was an integral part of my own education would be almost unthinkable today, because the society that nourished it is dead. I recall a conversation that must have taken place about a year before I left St Cyprian’s. A Russian boy, large and fair-haired, a year older than myself, was questioning me.
“‘How much has your father got?’
“I told him what I thought it was, adding a few hundreds to make it sound better. The Russian boy, neat in his habits, produced a pencil and a small notebook and made a calculation. ‘My father has over 200 times as much money as yours,’ he announced with a sort of amused contempt.
“That was in 1915. What happened to that money a couple of years later, I wonder? And still more I wonder, do conversations of that kind happen at preparatory schools now?”
Lorna Sage remembers grammar school in the early 1950s:
“Latin stood for higher education, still, in the early 1950s, a kind of litmus test for academic aptitude—you couldn’t get into university without an O-level in Latin, it was the sign of being able to detach yourself from [the] here and now, abstract your understanding of words, train your memory…
“‘Nisi Dominus Frustra’ [‘Without the Lord, all is in vain’—the school’s motto] was mumbo-jumbo for the mind’s ear. The motto my new school truly believed in, however, was ‘mens sana in corpore sano,’ a healthy mind in a healthy body, and team games, religious knowledge and ‘domestic science’ figured large on the curriculum. The high school cultivated the air of being somehow still fee-paying, it was designed to produce solid, disciplined, well-groomed girls who’d marry local traders and solicitors like their fathers. The 11-plus had let in a leavening of out-of-towners and outsiders, but that made it only more vital to insist on sub-public-school mores—uniforms, ‘houses’ and an elaborate hierarchy of prefects and deputy prefects.”
Janice Galloway recalls her arrival at Ardrossan Academy, a Scottish comprehensive school, in the 1960s:
“Second week, the rules gave way to orienteering. We were expected to know our way around in the dark. The building had long straight corridors gloomy as mine shafts even first thing in the morning, but subjects became identifiable by scent (Latin smelled of dried-up newspaper, French of lavender polish, Physics of cold, soft lead)… In every classroom were runic messages from those who had been there before us, every available inch of desklid thick with inverse braille. Initials, disembodied eyes, skeletons, spiders and swastikas, bald heads peering over lumpy little walls, and arrows with targets, hearts or trajectory lines. Stick-men sporting balloon-animal genitalia and stick-women ballooning a good deal more [that] we tried to hide under pencil-cases, jotters or the tinny box of a geometry set…
“If our classes were rigidly streamed (A to F based on the ripeness of former exam results), it was Darwinism in action, a natural order at work. If we felt uneasy as the F-streamers headed off down the corridor, trying to look blasé rather than bulldozed, we needed to toughen up. ‘We don’t have lame ducks here,’ Miss Lyons said, and though the phrase filled me with compassion I did not want to be lame.”
Andrew O’Hagan recalls St Michael’s Academy in Kilwinning in the 1980s:
“Academic distinction was mostly a matter for the birds, so the best a boy could do was to set his mind on surviving four years of PE… It was a wonderful education in the intricacies of human nature… First lesson: let nothing stand in the way of winning. My good-at-football erstwhile mate would choose one loon after another… until the teams were nearly complete, except for me and Mark McDonald and some poor dwarf called Scobie left glistening with shame on the touchline. A new deputy headmaster came to the school… so I wrote him a well-spelled note about reversing the method used for the picking of teams. I remember the day and the very hour.
“‘O’Hagan,’ the PE assistant said, ‘pick your team.’ I walked the few yards onto the field like General Patton contemplating the sweep of his Third Army over France. ‘Scobie,’ I said, ‘McDonald.’ And so it went on until every lousy player in the group had smilingly succumbed to an early invitation from the worst football picker in the history of St Michael’s… [We] got beat 12-0.”