First form discipline - and BO! - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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First form discipline - and BO!

When a teacher was talking we had to sit up straight, sometimes with arms folded in front of us and sometimes sitting on our hands. A child was permitted to speak only when spoken to. Anyone who spoke out of turn had to sit with a finger across his or her mouth; anyone who did it twice got a slap or was forced to stand out at the front of the class until the end of the lesson (the 1940s equivalent of the Naughty Step). Sad to relate, a few of the boys and girls seemed incapable of learning to read or write and they took very little interest in anything - and the teachers eventually left them to their own private world.

I couldn't understand why many of my fellow pupils came to school with dirty faces, dirty fingers, dirty and tatty clothes. I was always inspected by either Mum or Dad before leaving the house for school. One particular boy always exuded really disgusting body odours and eventually two or three of the girls plucked up courage to complain to the teacher that it made them feel sick having to sit close to him. The boy was then moved to a single desk near a window which was kept open, except in really cold or windy weather, for his benefit. He seemed quite unperturbed by this; I don't know whether anyone ever explained to him the reason for the move, but he kept his desk by the window for as long as I can remember.

We all quickly began to idolise our own teacher, Miss Thompson. She seemed very old to us but in fact it turns out that she was only about 20 years older than we were. Miss Thompson had been to London and that impressed us no end. None of us, and probably none of our parents, had been there. "Tell us some stories about London," we regularly begged and she usually obliged. London was 200 miles away, she told us, had six million people and was the largest city in the world. We learned that London was the centre of the British Commonwealth, London was our Capital City, and London was the most important city in the world. We were mildly disappointed that 'Miss' had not met either the King or the Queen, nor did she know Christopher Robin or Alice, but she had stood outside Buckingham Palace and watched the Changing of the Guard.

As the weeks went by, Miss Thompson told us about the mighty River Thames and the large boats that docked right in the centre of London after sailing in from exotic ports all around the Empire. We paid rapt attention as she told us about the Tower of London where the King kept his crown, the Queen kept her jewels, and where Britain's enemies had their heads chopped off by the Beefeaters before their headless bodies were thrown into the River Thames and eventually washed out to sea. Miss Thompson told us about Piccadilly Circus, the centre of the known Universe, and nearby Trafalgar Square with its pigeons and Lord Nelson atop his column. I was a bit confused about Horatio Nelson: I knew he had only one eye and I knew he had said "England expects that every man will do his duty" but there seemed to be no obvious link between the two.

All the teachers apart from the Headmaster were women and, apart from Miss Thompson, they seemed to come and go at regular intervals, no doubt due to wartime commitments. All I can remember about the first Headmaster, Mr Moore, was that he was an advocate of corporal punishment for boys, strokes of a cane across the hand, and we lived in fear of him. He was the only teacher allowed to wield the cane. I cannot remember him ever smiling or saying a kindly word to any of his pupils. I think it was at the end of 1943 that Mr Moore was replaced by Mr Paterson, more of whom later. The other teachers maintained discipline and pupils' attention by slapping us on the head, or throwing the blackboard duster at us when we were out of immediate reach. We just accepted this as normal practice.

Above: War shortages are well exemplified by my very first school report at the end of 1943, which was handwritten on a small piece of paper which I still have. By then Maureen Hall and I had become rather sweet on each other, but when it came to academic tests we were great rivals. That school report showed that I was 2nd out of the 40 pupils so I assume Maureen was 1st.

Before we broke up for the Christmas 1943 holiday, the 1st Form staged its version of Cinderella. I played the Prince and, inevitably, Maureen Hall played Cinderella; Maureen and I and the rest of the cast had to learn how to dance the classical minuet for the ballroom scene. That was my introduction to Beethoven's famous Minuet in G which Miss Thompson played on the piano. When the others were rehearsing their dance, I sometimes followed the music on the piano stand as Miss Thompson played and thus learned about the basics of reading music. Cinderella was staged in the Parochial Hall, next door to St James' Church and lots of families and friends attended the single performance. The only things I can remember clearly about the play, apart from dancing the Minuet and the truly embarrassing green tights I was forced to wear, was the speech I had to proclaim at midnight when Cinderella had dashed off, stage rear, to go home to her Ugly Sisters. I had to run after her but return, crestfallen, clutching one of her shoes. Then I declaimed loudly from front centre stage this immortal couplet:

"She's gone and nothing could I find, but this glass slipper left behind."

In the final scene, when Prince and Princess were happily reunited, I was supposed to give her a quick 'peck' on the cheek as the curtain came down - and that was how we rehearsed it - a quick peck! Unfortunately, I got carried away at the public performance: I kissed Maureen full on the lips and in a tight and lingering embrace - much to her embarrassment and the loud cheers of the audience. Sadly, or maybe thankfully, due to wartime shortages no photographs were taken.

November 2017 Comment.  I have just read that one school in UK has banned their children from kissing on stage during end-of-term productions because it may be construed as "inappropriate touching." It has taken 74 years but "Sorry, Maureen" - wherever you are. (See also this page).

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