I will remember you.
Will you remember me?
Don’t let your life pass you by.
Weep not for the memories.
What do you remember most clearly about your first few years of formal education?
I’ve been spending a lot of time reading up on child behaviour/psychology and education (I’ve discovered that you can study pretty much any subject under the sun – and beyond – for free, thanks to the internet, as long as you don’t care about getting the qualifications to prove you’ve studied it), and am becoming increasingly aware of the huge impact that a seemingly insignificant event can have on a child. It’s quite scary. I can’t dwell on it too much, because the fear that I might accidentally set a child up for a lifetime of deep-rooted insecurities would paralyse me completely, and I wouldn’t be able to teach at all. But at the same time, I want to be as aware as possible of the effect of my daily attitude towards ‘my’ children.
I was mulling it over last night as I lay sleeplessly trying to pretend that my next door neighbour’s impassioned shrieks and howls and whines were simply her last cries as a pack of starving Alsatians ripped the flesh from her body.
In my primary school, the ‘infants’ were from P1-P3: about 4/5 years old to 7/8. That’s about the age range that I teach. Here are the only specific memories I have from school during those three years.
1. Being smacked by my P2 teacher for messy handwriting, and crying inconsolably afterwards. She didn’t hurt me. It was just a ‘skelp’, as they called it, and she cheerfully dealt them out all the time. They were received with smirks and laughter by the more mischievous members of the class. She wasn’t a child abuser or anything – in fact, I loved this teacher, who had never been angry with me until that moment. I remember how I felt when she smacked me: first, deeply embarrassed because all my classmates had seen me, the ‘good girl’, publicly humiliated. Second, confused because I knew I really had done my best with the piece of work I’d shown my teacher. It wasn’t my fault that it was untidy – I was 6, and to be honest, my handwriting has never really improved much! I was always careful with my work , and couldn’t understand why I was being punished. I thought the teacher no longer liked me, and I was devastated.
2. Richard Gordon stealing my colourful paper chain during art class in P3, and replacing it with his grubby, plain white one. I asked for it back and he just grinned idiotically at me, so I went to the teacher to demand that my property be returned. Yes, OK, that’s a fancy way to say I told tales. Now, I think a large part of the reason that I remember this incident is the fact that I accidentally called my teacher “Mummy” at this point. Always embarrassing. I then clumsily attempted to cover up my faux pas by hurriedly adding “…told me to tell you if anything was wrong…”, and to her credit, she didn’t laugh. I explained the situation, and she told me not to worry, that the chains were all going to be joined together anyway to stretch all around the classroom, so it didn’t matter whose was whose. Richard Gordon had won, and I returned, defeated, to work on the crappy white chain while he got to destroy my carefully-made work of art, covering it in glue and his messy paw-prints. I knew that ultimately it didn’t matter, but it still wasn’t fair. I felt that justice had not been served, and that small incident has stuck in my head for over 20 years.
3. The same P3 teacher being absolutely bowled over by a short story I wrote when we had to do the obligatory What I did on my holidays… thing. I even remember whole sentences from the story – the style heavily influenced by Enid Blyton – and the fact that I had painstakingly practiced slanting my writing to mimic italics for emphasis on a few words, just like in the Famous Five books I enjoyed so much. The teacher was delighted, gave me lots of praise, read it out to the less-than-impressed class (I was that girl!), and raved to my Mum about it when she saw her. I tended not to be very noticeable at school, being quiet, shy, and bookish, so having a teacher make a big fuss over me was a lovely (and apparently very memorable) experience.
That’s actually about it. Three years in school, and only three brief memories remain. I don’t remember a single lesson, or conversations with friends, or the structure of the day. I barely even remember what the classrooms looked like. But I can still feel the overwhelming embarrassment of being punished by my teacher, the confusion and hurt when I believed it meant she didn’t like me, the anger and sense of loss and injustice in the Paper Chain Incident, the pride I took in all my work, and the pure, undiluted joy and pleasure at having my writing praised and making the teacher so happy.
So it makes me nervous when I enter my classroom and look at the little individuals scampering around, and wonder what they’re going to recall when they think of me in 20 years from now. Which harsh, thoughtless words will they take to heart and carry with them without my knowing? Who is sitting there, quietly average, trying day after day to get some praise and recognition but being overlooked because she sits next to someone louder/cuter/smarter? Is that little boy with the illegible writing really not trying, or is he just going to be artistically messy like his teacher?! How did that girl feel yesterday when another child took her finished starfish craft home by mistake and I told her “Don’t worry, they’re all the same – you can just take hers”?
The chances are that when you spend all day with these children, you’re going to somehow damage them, however slightly… and that scares me. I suppose all I can do is be aware of it, and try to always be more positive than negative.
And go get that starfish back into the hands of the little girl who made it.