Back in the Sixties, with little traffic to threaten us, and enough older ones to keep an eye on the tots, we’d make the street our playground from the moment we munched our cornflakes till it was time to brush our teeth for bed. As soon as we could walk unaided, we were absorbed into the local gang, running and jumping, hopping and skipping, laughing and screaming between the chip shop at the top of the street and the dairy at the bottom. Our mothers would put us out the door in the mornings like they might put out the cat, depositing us on the doorstep and directing us towards the rabble with, if need be, a tap on the behind. The tarmac would become a racecourse, cricket pitch, or battlefield; coats became hurdles, goalposts, tanks; the pavement a chalky art gallery, hopscotch grid or both. We swarmed from one end of the street to the other, flowing like water from one game to the next. Apart from the leaders, giants of ten and eleven who were almost grown-ups as far as the little ones were concerned, we had no need to distinguish one child from another when we moved with the herd. Boy or girl, fat or thin, dark or fair greyed out in a blissful merger of body and soul.
It was only at school, assigned a specific seat and expected to stick with it hour after hour, day after day, that the differences between us began to matter. Later, kids would be bullied on account of a pair of national health glasses, an odd haircut, or a name that rhymed with willy; shame we brought from home and could do little about. But school imposed its own distinctions, a sham personalisation designed, it seemed, to cut off other options and keep us in place.
This is your classroom, said a beaming Miss Bamford, but when I thought I might like to sample the classroom down the corridor where my sister’s paintings adorned the walls, I was hauled back and made to stand in the corner. This is your chair, but when I wanted to sit on a seat that was bathed in light from the high window, I was slapped on both hands with a ruler. This is your coat peg with a lovely picture of a panda above it, and lovely it was, but so were the sailing boat, the gingerbread man, the scarecrow and the thirty other images arranged around the cloakroom, each one out of bounds.
I could hardly contain my disappointment. So many times I’d stood with my mother, my hands clutching the bars of the rusting gate, gazing across the yard at the slate-grey schoolhouse, longing for the day I could take my place inside. Twin stone staircases led to a heavy wooden door, the numbers 1873 embossed above it, as grand as the entrance to a castle. At school I’d learn to read, and never have to go without a story. I’d glide up those steps like a fairy tale princess, entering one day by the left side, the next by the right.
All my hopes that school would widen my horizons caved in on me. I didn’t understand that the letters above the stairs spelt out BOYS on one side and GIRLS on the other. That my mother would laugh, then plead, then slap me hard on the legs and carry me up like a sack of coal when I tried to go up the wrong one.
“Look at Geraldine,” said Miss Bamford. “See how good she is, getting on with her work.”
Through my tears, I studied the little girl on the seat beside me. Hunched over the hinged double desk, she copied strings of noughts and crosses from the blackboard with a fat wax crayon. I recognized her carroty hair and freckled nose from the day before, although we hadn’t spoken. I was in awe of how at ease she seemed, as if she’d been at school forever.
She saw me eyeing her furry white cardigan. “It’s rabbit wool,” she whispered, as Miss Bamford turned her back on the class to chalk some more shapes on the board. “If it gets up a baby’s nose they could suffocate.”
I thought of my baby brother. If he were to die, would I still have to go to school?
Geraldine held out her arm. “You can stroke it if you like.”
I had to stay at school, or I’d never learn to read. Perhaps Geraldine, who seemed to understand the rules, could help me.
“Go on,” she said. “It’s lovely and soft. Like a kitten.”
I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand and reached out towards her. As I did, she jerked her hand away under the desk and nipped me on my thigh. I yelped.
Spinning round, Miss Bamford glared. “I will not tolerate this behaviour in the classroom. Go and stand in the corner!”
Geraldine watched me go, angelic in her angora cardigan, a beatific smile on her face.
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