Extracts From "The Letter"
It was my first year in junior school, I was seven years old. My teacher was an old~school master, you could tell by his unsmiling face he missed the mortar board and cape. We had been warned as infants that he was the strictest teacher in the school and not shy of dishing out punishment; still in a time when teachers were allowed to beat you, and if they did, YOU would be in trouble with your parents, not them.
We'd been set some handwriting homework, five words to be copied out neatly five or more times on special double~lined handwriting paper, the kind that was used in schools for children to practice their lower case letters. The reason I'd not done this homework the night before escapes me, we may have had aunts and uncles or friends around, in any case I was rushed to do it the following morning. There wasn't much time and I only managed to do the first two words, I remember the first one being "vine". Mum and I thought I'd done enough as my writing at that stage was very good. I was top of the class in every subject, so we assumed I would get a pass.
I finished my breakfast and walked off to school alone, along the cobbled terraces and round the corner. Jumping over the coal chutes and kicking an empty pop tin down the side of the kerb (lots of litter in the seventies), I made my way. A five minute journey in the winter, maybe ten in the summer, school was very close by. Mum and my sister would follow on a little later. On a usual day I'd have played with my friends, lined up at the nine o'clock bell, and into the classroom for registration. We would hand in our homework, then back outside at nine~fifteen to line up again at the main building for assembly. Mum would time her walk from the infants block to come through the playground as we prepared to go inside, just so she could give me a hug and a kiss on her way to college; still a young woman herself at twenty~three.
On this particular day I'd handed in my homework and was immediately reprimanded for my failure to complete ~ ten lashes of a plimsoll across the backside. Bent over his desk at the front of the classroom, the pain and the slow count began. I was numb by seven and could only focus on the pile of music paper stacked in the corner. The count finished, I was released and made way for the next poor soul to receive their punishment. It was bad form among classmates to cry, the ridicule would have been far more painful than the spanking. I kept my tears and returned to my desk, to be then told I had to miss assembly and complete the homework.
Alone in the cold empty classroom the tears came, not from the lashing but for my Mum. She couldn't see me in line on her way through the school yard but as she passed the window she caught sight of me frantically waving to her through the glass. Prohibited from coming into the classroom she came to the window. I wanted to hug her, I pleaded with her to come in, not understanding why she couldn't. Mum blew me a kiss, told me everything would be ok and that the day would be over soon. She wore a blue mac as I remember, I can still see her disappearing through the school gates. To me she was all that was beautiful and I'd missed my morning hug when I needed it most; I was heart~broken.
This I believe is why the pen struggled to take hold of me, decades fearing my own written word, it's why I've always felt shame in my handwriting, even loathing the writing of greeting cards to the point where I preferred to be known as the family member who doesn't do birthdays. Then you came along. You came along and loved me, loved me in a way that I truly felt. You released me from that fear.....and I began to write.