Could do better?

My school record is well-thumbed, a first edition and has laid unread for 50 years in my drawer. What happened to the owners of those fountain pens who wrote in blue and green ink I wonder? And what of the Headmaster,

Mr Bass, BA? Embossed in dark blue on the cover, the name ‘Brittons County Secondary School’.

We addressed our teachers as ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’, good natured banter was returned with tight smiles or frowns as we were aware that conduct, attendance and punctuality counted towards end of term marks. ‘Lively approach to the subject, fairly good result, neat and conscientious, always tries, attained a satisfactory standard, keen and hard-working, pleasant and polite, courteous, quiet and cheerful manner’ must have been written hundreds of times.

There was a list of 17 subjects. Technical Drawing, added later, lasted a year and History, two terms. Religious Knowledge/Instruction was obligatory. Mr Shaw taught music and was inspirational;

I remember his angular shape, wavy hair and glasses as he clowned around in an effort to get us to relax and breathe properly, turning shy pupils into budding singers. In Arts and Crafts we potted, painted and sketched. Sadly, one of our masters, a kind and serious man, drowned when he was on holiday; his small, precise letters in black ink between dotted lines resembled a Pissarro landscape on white canvas or conjured up a monk leaning over illustrations in gold leaf.

In English Mr Vaughan-Evans asked us to write compositions. In his end of term reports he used the plus sign for ‘and’ – he was obviously in a hurry. He married the maths teacher, Miss Griffiths, who wore her cardigans back to front.

On cold winter mornings we wore short blue skirts and played hockey, the sounds of clashing hockey sticks and raised voices resounded in the fog. In the changing rooms the smells of plimsolls hung in the air like the black rubber mask at the dentist.

My memories of gym mistresses, and there were many, fade into just one – a strong shouldered, squat lady and never seen without a whistle round her neck. She signed herself JK and wrote, ‘Works hard’ in light blue ink. I don’t remember working hard.

In the Science Lab, the teacher rounded off her comments with a precise full stop as though prescribing medicines. Difficult to know why the Domestic Science teacher, a failed nurse, had turned to teaching. Her reports read: ‘Seemed promising even though the exam results were disappointing.’

It was thought a good idea to make aprons and gym skirts in the Needlework class. My efforts were unpicked so many times they looked worn out before they’d been worn. And written English wasn’t the lady’s strong point, ‘conscientious’ was spelled wrongly two years in a row.

Staying on an extra year meant studying for RSA certificates in shorthand/typing and GCE O levels, then joining the ranks of white collar workers and commuters to London from Elm Park, Dagenham East, or Rainham stations. It took two years to learn Pitman’s shorthand and learn to touch type which we did by listening to music. We trained pinkies to stretch across keyboards and pressed thumbs down on space bars, easy exercises for the pianists. Shorthand was a foreign language and the outline for ‘shoes’ remains with me to this day. Our kindly shorthand teacher made her comments carefully along the line.

We were unlikely to set the world on fire but under our teachers’ tutelage, our characters and personalities took form. However, we never gave a thought about what they did outside school or the hours they spent correcting homework. When we left, most of us said a cheerful goodbye. More than 30 years later at a school reunion, we knew them by their body languaqe and some of them even recognised us.

Heather Grange, Plymouth, Devon