I’m afraid he’s doing his best

When you are getting on in years (but not ill, of course), you get very sleepy at times, and the hours seem to pass like lazy cattle moving across a landscape.” So began that excellent novel by James Milton, Goodbye Mr Chips. Many readers will recall the memorable portrayal of Chips of Brookfield by that wonderful actor Robert Donat as he stumbled across the ‘quad’ in time to hear the school song sung at assembly.

My schooling couldn’t have been more different. I say ‘my’, perhaps it would have been truer to say ‘our’ schooling, for I was born a twin, and for almost 70 years my brother and I have been inseparable. Our schooling started at six years of age in a huge three-decker central school in Wandsworth some years before the war. As ‘mixed infants’ we occupied the ground floor, although for reasons not clear to six-year-olds the playground was on the roof behind high wire fences.

Early recollections are few, but striking. I was once honoured by Miss White, our teacher, in being allowed to remain behind to fill all the inkwells, from a stained white enamel can with a long, thin spout, and as a junior I was given the huge responsibility of ‘hooking’ the rings on the gas lamps in the classroom to light our work on an autumn afternoon. My brother David was given the privilege of standing next to the head boy – Brooks – as he held the Union Flag in the playground on Empire Day. I was never offered such an honour.

David was cleverer than I was, but it doesn’t always pay to have the ‘ready’ answer. Our teacher, one Thomas Taylor, asked if anyone hadn’t had the cane that term, he had been known to reward class members with sweets for full marks in mental arithmetic. My brother
felt there might be some reward within his grasp and raised his hand. “Ah, Sidnell,” said Mr. Taylor. “I do believe you are right. You’d better come out and see what it’s like.”

In 1938 we moved to St. Albans and attended an incredibly dilapidated building with the words ‘St. Albans School Board Public Elementary School’ carved in discoloured stone. An ever-silent bell hung high in the roof and the ‘playground’ was only slightly larger than the school building.

In those far-off days less than ten per cent of the pupils went to grammar schools, and we were certainly not numbered with those gifted children. We were sent to a new secondary modern school which had all the facilities we could have wished for. Unfortunately these were the early days of the war, and a school from London was evacuated to our city and the children immediately occupied the science classrooms and specialist rooms. We hated them, failing to understand that they had been parted from loved ones in war-torn London and didn’t want to be in the safety of rural England anyway!

With the departure of most of the gifted masters into the Forces any pretence of educating us disappeared.

We spent much of the two years in the air raid shelters or helping with the war effort by remaking ammunition boxes or helping with farm work. I recall that the small amount of maths undertaken involved tasks such as dividing £3,264 14s 113/4d by 37, or attempting to ascertain how many men would be required to dig a field measured, I believe, in rods, poles or perches. The value of such an exercise baffled me then and for that matter still does. My brother and I left school at 14 knowing practically nothing. We had one asset
which was to stand us in good stead in the years that followed. We had excellent memories.

Like most young men we were conscripted into the Army soon after the end of the war, and were drafted to Germany. It was on a particularly cold night in Northern Germany when we were guarding a stretch of barren heath that we made a decision that was to change our lives. We decided to ask the adjutant if we could give lectures on current affairs. Amazingly he agreed, and we were sent to the College of the Rhine Army at Gottingen University for a course in teaching techniques.

On leaving the Army we applied to Westminster College in London, but the Principal very wisely suggested we should do a year’s unqualified teaching first. Strangely I was sent to the same junior school in St. Albans which I had attended as a pupil. Many of the same staff were there, and no doubt wondered how such a poorly-educated pupil could ever hope to be a teacher.

I shall always remember my first class. The head led me along a dark corridor with uneven wooden floors and shiny brick walls stretching far up to the gloomy ceiling, he whispered before opening the classroom door: “You’re lucky, Mr. Sidnell. You have the smallest class in the school. You have only 39 nine-year-olds.”

Before I had time to reply the door was opened and there sat the children in desks which were tiered upwards towards the back of the classroom. The children sat in pairs on wooden benches which tilted up with a great noise as they rose to greet me. “Good morning, Sir,” they chanted, and 39 pairs of eyes were fixed on a young, very nervous man who had never taught children in his life! “Let me know if you need anything,” the head
called as he left the room. A moment later I was alone with my first class. I had not been shown how to mark a register, how to check milk lists, how to collect National Savings stamps, where the timetables were kept, which syllabus I needed to follow, when the children went out to play – in fact I knew absolutely nothing. In such challenging circumstances one learns quickly or sinks without trace!

Suffice to say I made mistakes, but nothing I heard or saw deterred me from my wish to go to college. The first lesson I learned was never to be surprised by a child’s response to a question asked. To try and involve all my class, I asked during the first week who would like to tell me of something special they had done during the holidays. I used the word ‘special’ as I wasn’t sure if all would have had a holiday by the sea, remembering that this was only three years after the war. The response was encouraging, and soon a lively discussion ensued. I then noticed a small girl sitting quietly and not entering the class recollections.

“Come, Jane, surely there’s something you’d like to tell us,” I encouraged. Every suggestion or lead I gave was met with a shake of her head and downcast eyes. I had one last try. “Did you go out with your older sister, Jane?” I knew she greatly admired her 17-year-old sister. “No, sir,” she admitted, but my sister did something very exciting.” Greatly encouraged, I asked brightly: “Please tell us all about it.” She stood and with a face full of excitement she proudly announced:

“My sister slept with the milkman last night.”

Somehow, I couldn’t find an appropriate reply to this piece of news!

John Sidnell