The Minefield 1935-46
by: Allan, Betty
Note: A've invented names for aa the characters here.
The day o the 1936 school prizegiving wis a reid-letter day in oor faimily. We got oor picter in the Press & Journal! A prood Mam had the photy framed and it graced oor livin-room wa ever aifter, her three smert quines. Rose (14) had won the Dux Medal, and Lily (11) and me (6) each got First Prize in oor class. Of course, A thocht prizes wis a grand thing at that time, but noo A'm nae sae sure. Does onybody iver think foo the non-prizewinners maun feel year aifter year? Aifter aa, it beet tae be the same twa-three that gets the prizes aa the time. There's something cock-eyed there.
The traditional Scottish education system wis aye held up tae be a gran thing. Nae doot it wis, in some weys. We did get things weel drummed intae us. But a lot o the time we learned through fear. We workit hard, nae oot o interest but oot o terror. Tae be found wantin didna bear thinkin aboot. This didna apply tae aa teachers by ony means, but there wis enough o it tae mak school a misery.
A can mind fine in the weeks afore A startit school at Easter 1935, aa kinds o fowk wad say,
"Oh,aye, wee Betty, so ye're startin the school, are ye? Weel, weel! Ye better watch yersel. Ye'll be gettin yer licks there!"
It wis the standard kind o banter tae five-year-aals, fae the neebours, or the postie, or in the shops ,
‘I ken the teacher. She gies ye the strap every mornin."
"Och,she dis not! Ye're jist sayin that!"
Rose and Lily didna get the strap every mornin, so A kent better nor tae believe that bittie, but wi sic a lot o tormentin aboot 'the strap' at the school there wis aye a wee bittie o doot at the back o ma mind. Ma sisters said,
"Ye've tae keep still and sit up straicht in yer seat. and nae spik tae ither pupils. and say 'Yes. Ma'am' or 'No, Ma'am' tae the teacher if she spiks tae ye."
"Fit if she disna spik tae me?"
"Weel, then ye dinna say onything at aa."
The maist important thing tae mind at the school, then, wis tae sit still and be quate, and dae fit ye wis tellt. Some peer bairns had an afra struggle wi that, but A wis already naitrally inclined that wey so A didna find it ower hard. In fack, A took tae the school like a duckie tae watter, takin an interest in maist o the lessons at that stage. The teacher had a system o rewards. Full marks for a week earned ye two caramels on Friday, very few errors and ye got ane. I often got caramels,
but maist bairns never got ony, and some o them were the kind that didna get much at hame either.
A had been weel-tellt aboot the lavvies. "They're stinkin!" aabody said. Mam's instruction wis, "Dinna go tae the lavvies unless ye're jist desperate." A wis five year aal! Mam nivver seemed tae think o complainin tae the local authority aboot this health hazard! Fan A got there, A could see fit she meant. Six seats in a row, encrusted wi shit, and an antrin skoosh o watter gaan through the hale thing tae flush it oot! A wid hae nocht tae been terrible desperate! The trouble wis that oor teacher, Miss Grim, made it a rule that aabody must use the toilet every play-time. Nae doot the wifie had had ower mony puddles on the fleer. A decided that the best thing wis tae disappear intae the lavvie building (she nivver ventured inside),and then jist sit in a meenitie and come oot again.
Of course,there wis aye somebody ready tae clipe,"A'm tellin the teacher you didna pee!" A wid say,"A'll gie ye a caramel on Friday if ye dinna."
They wad ken they were on tae a pretty safe thing. So A learnt in the Infant Class foo tae bribe ma wey oot o trouble!
Ae thing A had real trouble wi was writin. In Infants 1 of course, we started aff printin each letter by itsel. First 'o' for orange, which wis shapit like an orange, 'a' for aipple was deen the same as an "o' but had a slice cut aff its richt side. Bob wi his bag was V and Dick wi his drum V. Tae mak the last twa we first made an -o' for the bag and the drum and then added a lang stroke on the left or richt side o it for Bob or Dick. It was aa logical enough, and the basis for maist o the letters was the 'o' shape, which must be drawn anti-clockwise startin and finishin at the tap. A couldna see fit difference it made faraboot A startit drawin a circle, and had formed the bad habit o startin it fae the bottom. A can see noo that in order tae move on later tae cursive writin, wi each letter flowin fae the previous ane, it wis necessary tae form the letters in the richt wey. But naebody pit it tae me like that. A wisna supposed tae reason why. Fit happened ae day wis that Miss Grim, determined tae brak me o this heinous habit, stood ower me wi a ruler, threatenin:
"The next time you start a round letter at the bottom, I shall punish you."
Weel, slate-pencil squeakin, A scrawled a few laborious letters the richt wey, but wi her stannin at ma elbow A got a bittie flustered, and afore A kent it a had startit ane on the bottom line. Doon cam the edge o the widden ruler on the back o ma wee fingers brackin the skin on the knuckles, which startit tae bleed. A wept tears o shock and ootrage.
The lesson A learned that day wis tae stick tae the rules, foo-ivver daft they micht seem. Ye may be sure A nivver startit anither 'o' at the bottom. Mind you, A nivver did learn tae be a neat writer, but that's by the bye. This wey, early in ma school career, A learned tae be cannie. A learned tae step gey warily aroon the teacher. For a teacher, like a caged tiger, micht at ony time and for nae reason turn real vicious. Fae then on A wis aye on ma guard wi teachers. The ither thing A learned that day wis unquestionin obedience. Wis that a good thing, dae ye think?
Aifter that A cam through ma first year at school wi flyin colours and suffered nae further violence fae the teacher in that class. In Infants II, foo-ivver A fell foul o the same wifie again. Oor class teacher in II wis Miss MacSween, a gweed-natert young deem that A likit a lot. Noo and then she and Miss Grim swappit classes for ae aifterneen, and it wis on ane o these days that Miss Grim ca'ed me oot tae the fleer and gied me ae gweed wallop wi a leather strap on the palm o ma haan. A nivver kent fit wey, and she didna bother tae enlighten me. A micht hae been spikkin tae the quine next tae me, but A certainly wis daein naething worse nor that, and hadna gotten ony warnin. The reason for that wallop is a mystery tae this day. The strap she used wis a comparative licht-wecht, manufactured specifically for chastisin Infants, A suppose! A wis six year aal at the time. Nanetheless, this wis less o a shatterin experience than the ruler episode because, as A've tellt ye, A had been learnin that this sort o thing micht be expeckit. A had seen a puckle class-mates walloped the same wey. A had got the message clearly noo, if A hadna afore, that it wis THEM versus US. A wis in a war, like it or no.
The early years o Hitler's war maun hae been a tryin time for the teachin staff at oor school. A trainload o evacuees fae Glesca, complete wi a couple o teachers, descended on the village as the war startit, and aa had tae be taen in and educated. (A can mind noticin that the Glesca bairns were on much matier terms wi their teachers than we ever were wi oors.) A local hall, and anither room at the Public Library wis baith commandeered for classrooms. For some reason twa local teachers had tae shift intae these rooms, and the evacuees got space up at oor school, aboot half a mile awa. Bittie by bittie, as the evacuees drifted back tae Glesca, the puckle that bade on were integrated intae oor classes, but at the time A'm tellin ye aboot oor class - Primary 3 & 4 - had been displaced and relegated tae the caal and cavernous public hall.
It maun hae been a struggle even teachin the three Rs wi aa this upheaval, and fan it cam tae needlework, that had tae be daen wi the sewin teacher up at the main school. So eence or twice a week time wis wastit walkin up there and back. Us
quines wis tellt on these days 'not to loiter, but to walk briskly so as not to waste valuable school time',
Noo, fae the age o six, asthma was the bane o ma young life. Whiles the attacks wis bronchitic, and the treatment then wis bed rest wi affa het antiphlogistine poultices on chest and back.---Here comes 'Auntie Flo'!" the District Nurse wad warn, slappin on the steamin goo. Nae a happy experience, A can tell ye!
Mair aften, though the attack wis diagnosed by Mam tae be 'jist asthma' and then A wisna supposed tae be ill enough tae bide aff the school. There wis nae ventolin inhalers in yon days, and the only treatment wis the affa coorse-tastit Felsol powders. A kind o ephedrine A suppose. They helpit the breathin a wee bittie, as lang as ye didna exert yersel. A wis packed aff tae school in the mornin in good time, so as tae be able tae tak it easy and nae get oot o breath by hurryin.
'Tak yer time, noo. Dinna hurry!" was Mam's instruction.
Ae freezin caal winter mornin, wi hardpacked sna makin the streets real skitey, A had wheezily puffed ma wey first tae the school playground for assembly as required, and then in a crocodile doon tae the hall ahin oor teacher, Miss Soor. Aifter an hoor or twa it wis time for the quines tae gae back tae the school for needlework, and Miss S's order wis "Hurry there and hurry back, girls".
Aifter the shooin lesson we straggled back in twas and threes, wi me trailin ahin the rest, fair forfochen. Miss Soor had been watchin for us fae the corner windae o the hall, wi its view richt alang tae the fit o the school lane. We hadna been movin faist enough for her, and she sent ane o the loons oot tae tell us to "Run!". Aabody else took tae their heels at eence but, mindin Mam's instructions, A walkit on as briskly as A could manage withoot chokin up aathegither. A wis weel knackered, jeelt and miserable on that freezin mornin, and really should hae been at hame in ma bed. Fan A had toiled up the stair tae the classroom, Miss Soor wis waitin, fair white-faced wi temper, tawse in hand.
"The other girls all ran when they were told, but you chose to disobey. Hold out your hand!"
Afore A kent it, A had gotten a richt hefty whack ower the fingers, palm and wrist, leavin bricht reid weals for a good while aifter. This wis a much heavier strap than Miss Grim's. A didna, as far as A can mind, say a word. Certainly A
said naething in ma defence. A nivver got the chance. A had nivver felt sae sma, lanely, and defenceless. Ma main concern at that meenit, A can mind clearly, wis that A must nae greet. A shouldna lat her see me humiliated wi tears. (The tears came later, on the skitey, breathless wey hame for ma denner.) For the time bein, A sat gaspin at ma desk, strugglin tae steady ma pencil for Dictation, the next
item on Miss S's schedule. A kent ma classmates wis lookin sideweys at me, wonderin, 'Will she greet noo?'
A wunner fit Miss Soor gained fae thrashin me that day? A ken fit she lost. She lost in that meenit ony trust A micht have had in her. She lost ony cooperation or gweedwill there micht hae been atween us. Fae that day A grudgingly did fit A had tae dae in her class, and nae a fraction mair. A nivver again spoke tae her unless A had tae, A avoided the sma optional classroom courtesies, and A certainly didna ivver again bring her flooers as A had whiles deen in the past. A took nae pairt in ony extra activities aifter school hoors; A volunteered for naething. Fit Miss Soor achieved that mornin wis the transformation o a bricht, interested, willin pupil intae ane that wis determined, as far as she daur, tae be surly and uncooperative.
Even noo, aifter mair nor fifty year, A find it hard tae forgie Miss Soor. She'd had mony a 'sick note' fae ma mither aboot the asthma and she should hae seen that A wisna weel. In ony case, she should surely hae asked for an explanation afore lashin oot wi the tag. A hid nivver been a problem pupil. So fit wey did she thrash me that day'? A'll nivver ken. Mebbe she wis jist haein a bad day. Or mebbe it wis jist my turn; ither bairns got the same treatment fae time tae time,and nae doubt had felt jist as bewildered and ootraged as I did. In fack, some o the mair unruly loons got lickit every ither week and they jist got coorser and coorser. On that day A could see fit wey.
Fit did A learn fae the experience? A learned that big fowk, even them that we wis supposed tae respeck, can be richt unfair, petty and unpredictable. A wis suspicious o ilka teacher A cam across aifter that. Anither thing a learnt that day. If ye hiv a disability ye'd better be ready noo and then tae whinge a bittie and mak muckle o it, lettin it work tae yer advantage raither than try tae mak licht o't or hide it. Wis that a good lesson tae learn, dae ye think?
A suppose A felt let doon, tae, that ma Mam and Dad took nae action aifter that incident. The thinkin at that time wis that it was bad form for parents tae interfere in school discipline. As A grew aalder and lookit back on it A made up ma mind that, if A could help it, nae bairn o mine would ivver be left lanely and helpless at
the mercy o some bloody-minded teacher. But maist o aa, fit A learned that caal mornin for the very first time wis foo tae hate. A hated Miss Soor wi aa the intensity o ma nine years. A wis nivver the same bairn aifter that. In a wey it wis the end o innocence.
The next educational wallop cam fae Miss Skrechie. She wis Domestic Science
teacher (Home Economics is the name nooadays, A believe). A wis twelve year
aal by this time and had graduated tae the Junior Secondary Department, and at
the time A'm tellin ye aboot we wis learnin tae bake oven scones. We aye had tae work in pairs, me wi ma pal Margaret. Step by step we pit the dry ingredients intae oor mixin bowl, and then rubbit in the margarine. Miss Skrechie stalkit roon the room, checkin on each bowl and passin comment. She had a maist affa sarcastic tongue, and nae a quine in the class would hae dared to dae ither than meekly obey instructions. Then we cam tae the tricky bit:
"Now stir in the milk a little at a time. We need a soft dough, but not too wet to roll out. For goodness sake don't make it sloppy."
Affa canny, ower canny, jist aboot drap by drap, A added the milk as Margaret ca'd the widden speen roon for aa she was worth. We wis faa-in ahin. Some o the rest wis ready tae turn the dough oot on to their floured board. Miss Skrechie's stalkin fitsteps cam in aboot tae the ither side o oor bench.
"Oh, hurry up. Betty. We haven't got all day! Here, - like this -'
And grabbin the jug oot o ma haan, she sloshed maist o the milk straicht intae the bowl and stalked aff tae glower intae the next bowl. Margaret and me lookit at ane anither. It wis easy seen fit wis gaan tae happen, and it did. Oor mixture wis far ower saft. It wis fair unmanageable on the floured board and stuck tae the rollin pin in a sticky goo. A wee whilie and the ominous fitsteps cam roon tae oor bench again. A wunnered fit Miss Skrechie could possibly say, or foo she wis gaun tae talk hersel oot o this. A micht hae kent. Crack! Her open palm skelpit ma left cheek as hard as she could drive it.
"You fool, I told you not to put too much milk in!"
A said nae a word, eence mair concentratin aa ma willpouer intae haudin back the het humiliatin tears o shock and pain. Ma spunky pal Margaret pit up her haun, real polite:
"Please, Ma'm, it wasn't Betty who put the milk in."
A've aften wunnered fit went through the wumman's mind then. If, in the heat o a moment's exasperation, she really had forgotten pourin the milk intae oor bowl, surely she must hae minded on it aifter Margaret spoke up. Onywey, her only response wis fit micht be ca'ed a sardonic smile. Naething mair wis ivver said
aboot it. Anither thocht A've aften had aboot this incident: - Even if the mistak had been mine, did an ower-saft scone mixture really merit a slap
that left fingermarks on a young face? Weel, it wis clearer than ivver that the 'them versus us' war continued unabated.Miss Skrechie left oor school nae lang aifter that and A dinna ken fit became o her. May her scones nivver rise, onywey!
A managed tae avoid violence fae teachers aifter that, but A had ae very close ca, mebbe the maist scary encounter o them aa.
Mr Flegbairn, oor Heidmaister, wis a legend in the village. He had taught, and terrorised, twa generations. His subject wis maths and science and he taught secondary classes I-III, the senior citizens o his wee empire. Flegbairn wis a big mannie, heavily built, or so he seemed tae us then. At the time A'm tellin ye aboot noo, A wis thirteen Year aal. As A've said, this man's manic bullyin wis notorious, and A had witnessed mony a beltin - maistly o loons. although quines whiles came in for the same treatment. The sicht o a big man strikin a terrified schoolmate as hard as he can wi a heavy 'Lochgelly' is something nae bairn can dismiss fae his subconscious mind. Indeed, even aifter fifty years, it's still there! A canna mind noo exactly fit wis the cause o this misadventure, but something had happened in the school that caused a bit o a steer. Mebbe Flegbairn had spoken tae oor class aboot it, or mebbe it wis something he didna want tae discuss. Onywey on this day, as he aften did, he walkit oot o the room on some errand, leavin the door a wee bittie open.
Lauchin, A turned tae the loon sittin ahin me and said something like 'Fit div ye think happened?' Then there wis a general chatter and speak aboot the topic aa ower the room for a meenit or twa until we heard fitsteps in the corridor and hushed up. Flegbairn mairched in and richt aff said,
"Betty Geddes, come out here!"
A wis mystified, but of course went richt oot tae his desk. Affa deleeberately, Flegbairn took the big Lochgelly - a richt thick, heavy job wi coorse lang thongs - fae the bottom drawer and walkit slow, slow, roon tae me, heftin it in his richt haan and slappin it gently on tae his left palm. A wis frozen wi horror. He demanded,
"What did you say to George just as I left the room?"
"I, I ... don't know, Sir. I suppose I said, 'What's happened?' or something like that, Sir."
"Didn't you say something else?''
"No, Sir. I don't think so", the strap wis noo slappin menacingly against his big thigh. ''I thought I heard another remark."
"Please, Sir, we were all talking after you left."
"Who made that very rude remark?"
''I didn't hear that, Sir. I don't know what you mean."
(It wis true - naebody had said onything that could ba ca'ed rude.)
"George Walker, come out here."
Peer George was grilled in the same wey, but tellt the same story as me. The 'tag' still dangled malevolently.Then, aa o a sudden, 'Very well, then. Perhaps I was mistaken. I thought I heard something but may have been wrong. I shall give you the benefit of the doubt this time, Betty. Return to your seats."
Phew! The Lochgelly wis returned tae its drawer, baulked o a victim that time at least. A felt sick tae ma stammack - really affa shooken up.
Eence again, A've nae idea fit A very nearly wis thrashed for. Something A hadna deen, onywey. Something naebody had deen. Ma classmates were aa as mystified as A wis. But A ken A wis affa affa lucky that time. Nae mony got aff eence Flegbairn's strap came oot o its drawer. Maybe the aal maniac had a soft spot for me!
Aa these brushes wi authority jist served tae mak me mair nor a bittie bolshie. A think A wis reasonably weel-behaved, but by the early teens A wis prepared tae dig ma heels in noo and then, and nae lat masel be pushed aroond. This brocht me eence mair intae conflict wi Flegbairn ower the maitter o church attendance - ane o his hobby horses. He decided that aa pupils in the Secondary Department should attend Sunday mornin service ilka week. He himsel nivver missed a Sunday, and wad note which o us wis absent. A had only recently gotten ma freedom (through longevity) fae weekly Sunday School, and wisna o a mind meekly tae trot aff tae the kirk instead. Daddy nivver gaed tae the kirk and Mam only noo and then, so there wis nae pressure at hame in that direction. Mam's opinion wis: "Weel, there's nae reason foo ye shouldna ging tae the Kirk tae please the mannie, but on the ither haan it's nane o his business if ye go or no. It's up tae yersel."
Of course, A would have likit her tae write me a note tellin Flegbairn tae get stuffed, but that wis clearly nae gaan tae happen, so eence mair A wis on ma ain. A bade at hame on Sunday mornin, and of course on Monday wis ca'ed tae accoont, nae in class, but by mysel, oot in the corridor.
"I didn't see you at Church yesterday Betty."
“I didn't want to go to Church. Sir.”
He gied me a lang lecture aboot showin a very bad example tae ithers that micht follow ma lead. A said A didna see foo onybody should follow ma lead if they really wantit tae dae itherwise. He asked:
“Is it against your conscience to attend Church?"
“No, Sir, but I didn't want to go yesterday."
There wisna muckle he could dae aboot it, but there wis a lot o eye-ballin and huffin and puffin and A wis real feart. A wis left in nae doot o his displeasure. Mam said: "You should hae said it wis against your conscience tae be forced tae
ging tae the kirk.'
I said, “You should hae written tae him for me, and said that!”
Ma ain very limited experience o physical violence and intimidation at the hands o the teachin profession is as naethin compared wi that o some bairns A kent at school. Some wis beltit time aifter time through the hale ten years o their school life. This wis aye deen in front o the hale class. Mebbe they were affa badly behaved and needed firm discipline, but inflictin pain ower and ower again on the student is surely nae gaun tae improve either his behaviour or his education. And mair nor that, every bairn compelled tae watch the thrashin o anither maun be tae some extent traumatised, so we aa suffered every time. Wisna that an affa wey o daein?
Lookin back, the maist troublesome kids wis maistly them that had a hard time at hame, and could hae deen wi a bittie sympathy and understandin fae teachers. A puckle A can think o eventually did real weel in life, even if they nivver got onywey at school. The system certainly failed them. A hiv tae admit that ma twa sisters got through school wi fewer punishments than me. Were they less perverse or less irritatin, or mair likeable or mair carefu, or better-behaved? A dinna ken.
Dinna get me wrang, A div hae plenty happy memories o ma schooldays. We had quite a lot o fun, ae wey or anither, and of course a lot o the teachers were kind and tried tae understand oor problems, overlook oor faults and appreciate oor efforts. A mind on these teachers wi affection, and believe that they were fond o
us in their wey. But A dinna mind a single ane that didna use the strap noo and then, so we had aye tae keep that in mind, ye ken.
Aye, A did learn tae hate ane or twa teachers and tae hate the system that pit me sae completely in their hands, and A really wis affa feart at Flegbairn although maistly A thocht he wis plain aff his heid. Thon mannie wis a real 'power freak' and should nivver hae been in charge o bairns. A think the general atmosphere o tension that hung ower the school wis due in the main tae his manic management ower some forty year, and that affected the staff as much as the pupils. Oor school couldna hae been a happy place tae teach in.
Fin A think on't, it wisna sae much the punishment that broke a bairn's speerit as the constant dreid o't, the watchin and waitin and hopin tae avoid the next clash. We wis tiptoe-in through a minefield. In 1943 Flegbairn retired at last, and in cam a new young heidmaister. It wis as if the sun wis shinin on us for the very first time. Aathing changed. He treated us as if we wis human beins an we fair blossomed. But he cam ower late for me, aifter the damage had been deen.
The last years o ma schoolin wis at anither school, for Secondary IV-VI. It wis nae a bad place at aa. The 'tag' wis still there, of course, but nae much in evidence, and for the maist pairt fowk behaved in a reasonable kind o a wey. Fan the time cam tae leave, it wis suggestit tae me that A micht mak teachin ma career, but A nivver considered it for a meenit. A had had ower lang and bitter a time o 'them versus us'. Tae tak up teachin wad hae seemed like gaun ower tae the enemy!
Weel, that wis ae bairn's experience o an education in the north-east o Scotland. It wis a kindo sma, localised, war. A minefield, richt enough. Some o us still bear the scars.