galI have few memories of my primary schooling; I was relatively content I think. I always rushed home for lunch. My mother and I would eat our sandwiches silently, books propped up in front of us until I had to return to school – as late as possible so as to avoid having to face the million acres of the grey, hard tarmac and the tribes of sociable children playing impenetrable games whose rules I could never penetrate. One strong memory is of my sitting in the head mistress’ study sighing that I had read all the books in the infants. She told me with a conspirator’s nod that she would borrow some for me from the juniors and – oh joy! – said I could visit her when the others were reading aloud around the class, I guess I had been sent to her for a rare act of non-conformity. I had lost myself in reading the class book faster than the rest and thus was several chapters ahead when asked to take my turn at reading aloud. Apart from that, I was a successful learner (and what else was education for in the ‘50s?); a high achiever who never asked awkward questions and had neat handwriting. 

 Janice Galloway’s account of her early school experience resonated with me. She was in her council house in Ayrshire, me in mine in London, at the same time. She writes: I was studious. I excelled at being quiet, was great at being good. I exceeded expectation at anything that let me keep my head down, safe. I got gold stars. And she goes on to describe her delight at discovering literacy:

Reading was Janet and John and the Dog with the Big Red Ball. Janet and John had a daddy in a suit and a thin mummy in a frock. How she kept it clean with no pinny was a mystery.jan1jpegThey were polite sorts with a tree in their garden, and the collie had a lead. Miss McKillop forgave me for being able to recognise letters when I first arrived (It’s not their fault is it? It’s the mothers), but she read out very slowly. This made reading more boring than it might have been, but at least there was a story. …

Writing happened in a small jotter with wide-spaced blue lines: two thick bordered by two thin. Making writing happen was largely a matter of hitting the jotter guidelines in the right places and had something of a fairground game about it, only touching the wire with the wand instead of not. It was oddly thrilling. Sometimes an 0 turned out as a tomato (correct) or an ear (incorrect) or a bean (nearly correct) and each was a surprise. …  Writing let you imagine your way into all sorts of people.Putting the letters together was a whole new territory. It was spelling, which highlighted the whole thing: c, a and t were just letters, individual, awkward, strokes – cat was a word. If you let your mind float looking at the word, a picture appeared too – the animal in question! Letters made ideas. Joined with spelling, you could make your own words up and say the thing you wanted to say. Spelling wrote down what you were thinking. It was astounding. The day we wrote whole sentences on cardboard strips and put them up on the wall for everyone to see, I thought I would burst.  I see Kitty. The ball is red. The dog runs. A story all around the walls and into the corridor, going on till it reached the world beyond. Look at Kitty. Look. A story made of words, made of letters: ideas made of marks. It was the cleverest idea ever invented.