Clan Donald Magazine No 1 (1959) Online
The Day School Began by Finlay J. Macdonald.
My father was very nervous on the day that school began. At first I thought he was embarrassed for wearing his Sunday suit on a Monday, and it didn't occur to me that he had been to school before and knew the worst that was to come.
I tried to put him at his ease as best I could, as we walked the half mile from home, but I didn't get on very well because I wasn't in proper trim myself. For one thing he insisted on holding my hand, and I was scared that it might get around the village that I needed moral support from a man who was eight times my age. And then, there were little memories that kept nipping at my brain - memories of the many things which, according to my mother, were either going to begin or end on the day that school began.
It was on my tongue to suggest that we should turn back and devote the day of God's sunshine to the peat-stacking, which was far behind schedule that year, but, as I was framing the idea so that it wouldn't sound suspicious in words, the school gate squeaked in my father's hand. It was a low, slow squeal, as if the gate, which had seen so many boys in its day, was either warning me or being sorry for me; but the immediate result was that the noise of it brought the head of Miss Dalbeith to the window, as the bell would bring a waiter in the days when hotels were hotels.
That was the first day I knew that my father spoke English, and I was proud of him- as I was proud, too, of the gallant little figure that he cut as he stood with his head thrown back, looking straight through Miss Dalbeith's spectacles into her eyes. Whatever he said he gained his point; I was granted permission to enter the school, and the last that I saw of him that morning was as he strode through the gate, shrugging his shoulders and feeling for his pipe, like a man with a. weight off his mind.
To this day I have a horror of walking into a crowded hall and I think it dates back to that moment when I walked into school. Twelve pairs of eyes seemed to bore straight through me, and when I stood and gave a strained but cheery little grin there was no flicker of recognition from the boys and girls I had known all my life. The smile slipped off me, and my feet stopped walking, and I felt like a man from the Grazings Committee finding himself at the W.R.I.
An incomprehensible rumble from behind me was followed by a vicious tug on my left ear. I turned round with the smirk end of the grin still frozen on me, and looked straight into the knees of Miss Dalbeith's hand-knitted stockings. I looked up and up till the back of my neck was hurting, and when 1 found the face there was little to reassure me there.
At the age of five, everybody over twenty seemed ancient to me, and so, to this day, I cannot really say whether Miss Dalbeith was old or not. But she was an imposing woman-taller than most of the men in the village - and she held herself very straight, because she believed that that was the first step to health. Her spectacles were so heavy that I can remember little about her face except that it was tanned a rich brown. and so must the rest of her have been, because she was forever embarrassing the men of the place by sun-bathing in odd corners of the Common Grazing when they were shepherding. If she were young now-a-days she would be known as an out-door girl; she was one even then, before they were thought of elsewhere, and I remember hearing people wishing that she were a member of the kirk so that she could be thrown out of it for riding up and down the village on a motor bicycle on Sundays. So strong was Miss Dalbeith's personality that that is all I can remember about her - her tan, her spectacles, and her motor-bicycle - the things that our womenfolk didn't have.
I thought of none of those things as I stood at her feet: Instead, the awful realisation came to me that she and I were going to find it difficult to understand each other; I had enough Gaelic to do me for the rest of my life, but she didn't have a word of Gaelic in her head!
At that moment I would cheerfully have solved the problem for us both by slipping away to the peat-stacking, or back to the mud bothies I had left half built. But she was a woman of resource. She turned to a boy with whom I had fished for sticklebacks the night before and she rumbled a few sentences in his direction To my amazement he understood, and he shuffled out on his bare feet and led me to an empty seat beside three girls in the front desk. Miss Dalbeith then descended on me with a big square slate and a long thin slate pencil which she presented with yet another unintelligible sentence. From then on she left me in peace for a while to study my surroundings.
The school room was square and high and green and yellow. The legitimate furniture consisted of a desk and a high stool by a window which never closed during Miss Dalbeith's day, and on our side of the room there were long desks each meant for six pupils. But most had been empty for a long time.
My own particular area of the front desk sloped down from a slot for my slate, and in front of me were three deep letters which I discovered afterwards to be my Great-Aunt's Rachel's initials. I was the sole representative of the Lower Infants, and I shared the front pew with my immediate seniors - two girls in the Higher Infants and a goddess in Junior One. Behind us sat the five members representing Junior Two, Senior One and Senior Two, and behind them, in the third and last of the seats in occupied territory, sat the two ladies and the gentleman representing, respectively, Senior Three and the august "Qualifying."
The "Qualifying" was worthy of note. I knew the young man very well, and I had respected him all my life for his many sterling qualities. He could break. an insulator on a telegraph pole with every stone he threw; he could waggle his ears backwards and forwards and up and down; he could play "The Road to the Isles" on a comb, and I had seen him with my own eyes smoking a cigarette. All these things he could do, but it was not for any of them that he distinguished himself that day.
I had noticed early on that Miss Dalbeith was paying him a great deal of attention, and I had considered it rather unfair. I had no idea what it was all about, but it seemed to me that he had devoted most of the morning to standing up and down at her behest, sometimes muttering monosyllables to her and sometimes not. But; at last, a stage came when his stock of language seemed to dry on him, and he stood for a long time saying nothing although Miss Dalbeith kept spurting sentences at him. A queer kind of tension developed in the room, and I felt it in my heart to be sorry for him, till I realised that all must be well when I saw him walking out to her desk and offering her his hand. There was a crack like a plank breaking, and then another, and another, and I could see Evander wincing where he stood between me and Miss Dalbeith. When he walked back to his desk he was blowing into his clenched fist like a man who had gripped a nettle in the corn, and some sixth sense told me that this was one of the things my mother prophesied for me.
For the next few minutes, I scratched surrealist objects on my slate till the thing was full. I was wondering what to do about it, when the girl beside me leant over stealthily and indicated that I should spit on my sleeve and rub. I did so, and, lo and behold, the square slate was like new. That was the most immediately useful lesson I learnt in school.
There was a great tedium in not knowing English, and the morning was soon heavy on my hands. I had worn my pencil to the knuckle and my sleeve to the woof. I had even had a quiet chuckle to myself at the crazy pictures on the wall - pictures of brown women harvesting corn in fields where the water came up to their ankles. Who had ever seen brown women? Who had ever cut corn in a shower, far less in the deluge which seemed to have been?
But, soon, even the pictures lost their interest. Soon, too, the procession of outstretched hands became wearisome to my eyes and tiring on my sympathy. I didn't know what to do next and I certainly didn't suspect that the end of my boredom was in sight.
For some time I had been conscious of a mild uneasiness for which there did not seem to be any apparent solution in that particular green and yellow room. The uneasiness increased with the knowledge that I was hemmed round with girls whom I could hardly consult; and if I couldn't speir of them. How much less could I surmount the linguistic barrier between myself and Miss Dalbeith. The latter was never a woman of perception, and when she noticed my predicament that day, it was far far too late. And there was little she could do about it except take me once again by the ear and set me -sore in heart and damp in spirit- on the road which led home.
As I walked through the sunshine, the road-menders were downing tools for their eleven o'clock break; I could scarcely believe my eyes, and my first thought was that their watches must have stopped. But they hadn't. And joy came back into my life at the thought that it was just the beginning of the morning, even if it was the end of the day on which school began.
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