School Days in Lislea in the 1940s (2)
Things became much more serious for Hugh A Murphy in senior school
When I moved into the senior classroom, life was quite different to the more relaxed atmosphere of the infants’ room. We were dealing now with serious learning and a much more formal regime applied, where a quick mind, or at least a quick wit, was a useful tool for survival.
We had learned the basic principles of letters and numbers in the infants’ class but we soon found out that there was much more to this than 'one and one makes two' and 'the cat sat on the mat'. We were now in a new world where reading had to be done from large books with continuous paragraphs and where mathematics moved into the advanced stages of unheard of concepts such as multiplication, subtraction, and even long division.
These latter nightmares were contained in a harmless looking, hard backed, book, which we always carried with us and to which the master alone held the key, 'The Answer Book.' Many hours were spent at night, with the help of my mother, working out these imponderables. Having the right answer, however, was no guarantee of safety, unless your answer happened to correspond with the one in the 'The Answer Book'. This book, although we soon came to suspect its infallibility, was always inviolate and never subject to appeal.
The master’s table was placed across the room at the upper gable wall, and to the right of this, as you came in through the main door, was a row of display cabinets, the first of which contained an array of stuffed animals.
I remember especially a fox with head turned looking straight at you as if you had just interrupted him momentarily as he passed. There was also a badger, a squirrel, and a number of smaller animals and an impressive selection of birds, especially a pheasant which never failed to hold my attention. There were also sand-filled trays of birds’ eggs of different sizes and colours.
Next to this was a display which always fascinated me, a host of multifarious shaped bottles and phials which contained various coloured granules and liquids. Their mystery was added to by the fact that they always remained out of reach, as the cabinets were never opened and we knew instinctively that even the remotest interference with them would be followed by instant capital punishment.
In front of the table, there was an open space, between it and the start of the rows of desks which ran with precision in arrow-straight lines to the back of the room where a door opened on the left wall into the infants’ room. In the middle of this space stood the blackboard, resting on an easel.
This was the gathering area, where we assembled at various times each day with bated breath for individual reading practice, and also for arithmetic. Swift retribution was normally exacted on the spot for any shortcomings and many a victim was sent out to cut the instrument of his own execution from the hedge along the road.
Writing practice consisted of a headline, which the master put on the board in beautiful copperplate writing, and which we had to copy down through a full page of our exercise books. All writing was done with ink pens, long narrow wooden shafts with a nib attached. Each desk was supplied with an inkwell, which was always kept topped up, and a supply of blotting paper.
There was always a sense of urgency to get the copying finished so that we would have time to 'herd the sheep'. These were small white insects which always seemed to be in plentiful supply in the old wooden desks, especially in the cup beneath the inkwell. We soon found out that they had an aversion to ink.
The competition was to gather as many of them together onto your desk as you could find, normally by letting them crawl up a piece of paper, and then 'herd' them by putting a circle of ink around them. Many an hour was spent by those of us lucky enough to sit in the desks towards the back of the class 'herding our sheep' rather than honing our minds.