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My most memorable day at school

My Most Memorable Day at School 

On a Summer’s day in the late 1940s I woke up after a restless night to see my father bringing in my early morning tea. 

“Wake up, love”, he said cheerfully. “You’ve got a good day for it, sun’s shining already.” “Good day for what?” I thought, still half asleep. Then I remembered. Today was the first of my School Certificate examinations: English Literature. “I’ll never pass”, I told myself, “and what difference can good weather make?”

 After a very quick breakfast I went to collect my English books, so that I could revise on the bus. 

As I put on my school blazer my mother said, “I’ve got you a special treat as your exams are starting. I’ve save up our sweets coupons, and managed to get enough Mars Bars for you to have one each day of your exams”. She looked triumphant. This was a feat indeed in those days of sweets and chocolate rationing. 

I thanked her and set off for the journey to school. As I went into my form room hysteria was everywhere, as each girl bemoaned her inability to cope with exams, all except one, known as the ‘form swot’. She said, “I don’t know what you’re making such a fuss about. If you’ve done the work, you’ll pass the exam. I’ve got nothing to worry about”. 

Then, before we could hit her, in came our form prefect. “Good luck, kids” she said, in the confident manner of a member of the Third Year Sixth Form. “My lot all got through, and so will you. It’s never as bad as you think.” She could afford to be patronising, she was soon to go to Oxford to read Classics. 

Then our form mistress came in and called the register, and each of us answered, “Present, Yes, No” – a quirk, I believe, unique to King Edward’s High School. “Yes” signified that we had changed into our indoor shoes, and “No” that we had no reports for bad behaviour. I recall a girl who dared to answer “Absent, No, Yes”, but she only did it once. 

The teachers were always known as mistresses. The word ‘mistress’ did not then have the meaning given to it in the film ‘The Happiest Days of Your Life’, in which American soldiers were billeted in what had been a girls’ boarding school and were amazed to see in the dormitories notices stating, ‘If you need a mistress in the night, please ring the bell’. 

After the register we made our way to the gym, where the exam was to take place. A member of staff stood at the door, and frisked us as we went through. This was to make sure that none of us had dictionaries, notes, or any kind of examination aid, hidden in our pockets. She discovered my Mars Bar, eyed it doubtfully, then grudgingly allowed me to take it in. “Undo the paper silently”, she commanded. I considered telling her that the Mars Bar has quotations from Macbeth and John Milton printed on the wrapper – but decided against it. 

Once inside the gym, we sat in rows awaiting our fate. The Head of English Department presided at an important looking table in front of us. On it was a pile of writing paper, question papers in sealed envelopes, a stop watch and a glass of water. Why should she need water, I thought. We were the once who were likely to feel faint, but none was provided for us. 

One of her minions walked amongst us, distributing writing paper; then she herself undid the sealed envelopes and gave out the question sheets, placing them face down, so that we could not read them before the dreaded time of half past nine.

 It came soon enough. I thought of the Armistice in 1918, and of the soldiers who were said to have died just before eleven o’clock. But so far, we were all still alive 

“Open your papers”, came the command. “Now you may start. You have until twelve o’clock.” 

Rustling sounds filled the room as we looked through the questions, turning the pages hopefully, then the clicking of fountain pen tops being removed for action – biros not yet invented. Chairs creaked and feet shuffled as we tried to settle down to work. Then came the silence of concentration, which was strangely audible in its intensity. 

I read the first page:

‘Universities of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and Birmingham.

School Certificate Examination.

Write legibly and pay great attention to spelling and punctuation.

Answer two questions from Part One.’ 

Part One was about A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I felt sick with fear – we had not studied A Midsummer Night’s Dream! I had never read it! What will happen if I faint, I thought. Will they carry me out, or just leave me here on the floor, to prevent disturbing the others? 

Then I turned the page, and found the familiar word, Macbeth. All was well. I was not going to faint after all. 

Macbeth was one of my heroes. Yes, he was a murderer, but he had an awful wife who made him do it. I liked him. I wrote for some time, feeling at ease with the subject, and almost enjoying myself. 

Maybe I’ll read English at Oxford, I thought, and moved on to Part Two. This was about John Milton’s poetry. The questions looked interesting, and not too difficult. I settled down to answer them, feeling relieved, and confident. 

Then I felt hungry, and remembered the Mars Bar. I took it out of my pocket, looked up from my writing as I did so, and suddenly noticed that a girl sitting in the next row seemed to be in some distress. She had put her head down on the desk and was clutching her stomach. 

The invigilator, with ever watchful eye, appeared at her side. “Jean”, she whispered, “What is the matter with you?” Jean said miserably, “Oh Miss Baker, I’ve got an awful stomach ache. I think I’m going to be -----“ She pressed her handkerchief over her mouth. With enormous speed she was propelled from the room. Heads turned, chairs banged, papers fell on the floor. Gasps of surprise, shock and even of excitement came from all sides. 

The second invigilator stood up. “Girls”, she said, quietly but firmly, “Get on with your work. May I remind you that anyone who speaks will be disqualified”. 

I returned to Milton. For some time all was quiet, but then, Jean came back to her seat, carrying a large washing-up bowl. 

Miss Baker, who had escorted her, said, “Try to get on with your work, dear, and if you’re going to be sick again, just use the bowl”. 

My Mars Bar, by then, had lost all its charm and I lost my concentration. I could not take my eyes off that bowl. 

I had been about to answer questions on Milton’s poem, L’Allegro: 

“Haste thee, Nymph, and bring with thee,

Jest and youthful jollity,

Quips, and cranks, and wanton wiles,

Nods, and becks and wreathéd smiles.” 

But all I could think of now was: 

“Haste thee, Jean, and bring with thee,

A washing-up bowl, speedily;

And if thou art feeling sick,

Thou must use it, pretty quick!”

 

I abandoned it, and turned to Part Three. 

At last, it was twelve o’clock. “Pens down now, girls”, said Miss Baker. “No one will speak until I have everyone’s work on this table.” 

She moved along the row of desks, collecting our papers with practised hands. I hoped she wouldn’t fall over the washing-up bowl. 

The ordeal was over. I had answered the required amount of questions; Jean had not been sick; I had not fainted, and no one had been disqualified. 

Outside the door of the gym we all began talking at once: comparing notes, bewailing our mistakes, threatening to kill ourselves if we failed the exam. 

There were no more exams that day, so we were allowed to go home early. 

“How did you get on?” asked my mother. I was about to tell her when she said, “Don’t leave your blazer on the chair, the cat’ll sit on it”. She picked it up, and the Mars Bar fell out of a pocket. “You haven’t eaten it!” she exclaimed incredulously. “I saved up all those sweets coupons for you – I thought you loved Mars Bars!” I explained about Jean, and the washing-up bowl. Mother looked impressed.

 “Oh dear”, she said, “I’m glad it wasn’t you that was sick, especially if it had been after you’d eaten the Mars Bar. I mean – what a waste, after all the trouble I’ve been through to get it. Never mind, you can eat it tomorrow, in the next exam. What is it, by the way?”

 

 

“Maths”, I said, and then started to laugh. “And that always makes me feel sick!”