"One person I remember from my schooldays is ..."
Old Ma Parsons. To her face she was "Miss Parsons" but in the playground and the street she was "Old Ma Parsons."
Of course all teachers were old but she was older than most. There were grey streaks in her black hair and she had a moustache. I can still visualise the brown wrinkly face emerging from her dark grey knitted suit. Her eyes were black and hard like currants and she never missed anything.
She wore thick ribbed grey stockings and black laced boots and the wooden pointer in her hand seemed like an extension of her arm.
I can still recall my first day at school. Some children were dragged in screaming, terrified of what was to come. They had been forewarned by their Mams - "wait `till you get to school they'll soon larn you." They didn't mean the three 'Rs'. but Mam said I wouldn't be hit if I behaved myself. That was easier said than done.
There are some children who seem to naturally antagonise adults and I was one such. Even my most innocent question was regarded as cheek by teachers. It seemed to me they asked questions in the hope that you couldn"t answer so they would have an excuse to hit you. In any event they didn't seem at all pleased when I answered something on behalf of another pupil.
The classroom at my first school had green walls and high windows you couldn't see out unless you stood on the desk. I was caught doing that shortly after I started school and had the pointer applied to my legs.
We sat in pairs at wooden desks. Whether it was due to a malevolent streak in the teacher or school policy, I'll never know but we were paired boy- girl. This didn't worry me but some of the lads hated it. Billy, the lad I sat next to, didn't mind. We got on quite well until he offered to give me a spearmint ball and show me his if I'd show him my pee hole.
I took the sweet but renegaded on my part of the deal. I had an elder brother and boy cousins and knew all about their anatomy and how they could pee up walls. Later in the playground when I refused to comply we had a fight. He was no match for me but he was saved the disgrace of losing to a girl when Ma Parsons hauled me off. She marched us both into school by the scruff of our necks. This was a double punishment for me because I was wearing my brother's out grown jumper. The coarse wool collar chafed my neck the soreness outlasted the burning tingle from the strap.
I wouldn't reveal the cause of the scrap and didn't defend myself when Billy said I'd pinched his spearmint ball. I bided my time to belt him for 'telling tales'.
The classroom had an open fire surrounded by a nursery fireguard. During the day, I think it was after dinner, we had to fold our arms on the desk and put our heads down to rest. I couldn't resist peaking, that earned a rap from the pointer by the beady eyed teacher.
We were turned out into the asphalt yard at break, unless it was wet when Miss Parsons took her milk in the class room. Ma Parsons always boiled her milk. She stood in front of her desk. The strap and pointer within easy reach of her hand. Her glittering currant eyes darted around the room while her venomous tongue flicked out to gather flecks of milk from her snake lips. I stared mesmerised, waiting for the last bit of milk skin to be captured.
"What are you staring at?" She hissed.
There were exciting toys fastened to the ceiling that I longed to use.
"Those," I glibly lied, pointing to the swing and rocking horse fastened out of reach. "Can we have a go now?"
"No you cannot."
The question was not answered unless "Hold out your hand," can be considered an answer. I never saw those toys brought down, they were just a few more of the interesting things one came across in childhood that mustn't be touched.
"You've had the strap!" Mam said when she saw my reddened palm. "What have you been up to?"
"You must know. What did your teacher say?"
"Then you shouldn't chatter."
My elder brother came to the rescue, "I think she means cheek. They always say that if you ask anything."
I didn't get any sympathy but a threat that if she heard of any more misbehaviour I would get one off her as well. Naturally, I tried to hide the result of further blows.
School phobia, the sociologists insist, is not so much fear of going to school as fear of leaving home. They may well be right for no one could have feared and hated school more than I and yet I never played truant. Well, there was no incentive for me to stay at home. I was walloped there too.
Day after day I prayed, as I hopped between the paving cracks on my snail like journey to the torture chamber, for Ma Parson to be dead. I never managed to miss all the cracks and so, of course, my revengeful prayers were never answered. Old Ma Parsons survived another day to await me, strap at the ready, at the journey's end.
She never knew that she owed her life to my passing the eleven plus. But for that, I would have burnt down the school with her in it. I had it all planned!
The dusty chalk and Lysol smell of school will always revive the visual image of my old tormentor. The only time she put down the pointer was at mid morning break.
Nemesis comes to all and it certainly came to Ma Parson one sunny afternoon.
That morning we had a reading lesson. Pinned up on the wall were the letters of the alphabet. Ma Parson pointed to each letter in turn and the whole class chanted the sound. Then she called out a name and the child concerned had to stand. Three letters were pointed to in succession. The victim had to pronounce the sound of each and then the word.
I was the first, and I had no problem even though 'm.a. r.' made no sense. I said it and added, "It's ram back to front." My brother had often written sentences, with his finger, in the grime on the window panes. My knowledge brought no praise, just a peremptory "Sit."
Ginger, a new freckled faced girl, was unlucky, she followed me but different letters were pointed at. She made no sound. I was bewildered. Why doesn't she say, I thought? She'll get walloped for sure. It did not occur to me that she couldn't recognise any letter let alone the words they made.
The pointer rapped the letter several times before Ma Parson lost her temper. She laid about poor Ginger with the pointer, calling her a stubborn idiot.
Ginger wet herself which earned her more scathing remarks. Most of the class sniggered.
That afternoon retribution came in the form of a muscular red headed Irish woman. She burst in the door, snatched the ruler from Ma Parson's hand and laid about her. She kept up a running tirade with the whacks. "Sure and you'd knock my kid about, would you. I'll larn you." The pointer broke as they struggled but Ginger's mother picked up the strap from the desk and continued her onslaught.
Someone started banging the desk lid and the class followed suit. It was a pity really for the noise brought the Head to the rescue and the attacker left. Ma Parson was lead from the classroom with the Head's arm about her shoulders. She was actually crying!
Another teacher came in and told us all to sit quietly until someone came. We were too shocked to disobey and the bell was rung before we had recovered. We didn't wait to be dismissed but charged out of the school falling over ourselves in the hurry to tell anyone who would listen.
I ran all the way home eager to tell my Mam. I hoped she would realise how lucky Ginger was to have a mother who would stick up for her. Sadly Mam didn't see it that way at all. She said the poor kid's life would be blighted. All the teachers would 'have it in for her."
"P'raps she go to another school," I suggested.
"It'll make no difference. They"ll get to know and God help her."
I never saw Ma Parsons again or Ginger, and the next teacher didn't use a pointer. She didn't use the strap very often either. Her name was Miss Chambers and Billy called her 'chamber pot" which I thought was daft until he told me it was the posh name for a "po"
Miss Chambers never lost her temper and that made her more frightening. Grown-ups always lashed out in temper, that was normal but the cold deliberate count of lashes was worse than all Ma Parsons swipes.
I have often pondered on the harsh treatment inflicted on children all those years ago. Some suggest it was due to the sexual frustration of women who had lost their lovers in the war but male teachers could be just as vicious.
Did the profession attract bullies or were teachers fearful of the pupils they faced?