Tuesday 13 October 2015

Education, Form 1Y and 2A

September 1959. So there I was at Grocers, with my sky blue blazer, cap and shorts. Yes, we wore shorts in the first three years. I was the youngest boy there. The school was half jewish, half christian. So we sang "non-denominational" hymns such as "God grant grace", which (at the time) I totally didn't understand, because what on earth is "grace"? But now I know that it's a christian concept, cleverly smuggled in as non-denominational, but with no effect on us whatsoever because I doubt if any of us knew what "grace" was. And I went to a place a couple of miles away for a kosher lunch. You kind of knew who was jewish and who wasn't, but it was never important, and there weren't separate groups.

I was put into form 1Y (there were three forms, 1X, 1Y and 1Z, 35 boys per form), and our form master was Dr Lamont, who was a history teacher. I expect he was a good history teacher, but I found history too difficult; as far as I could see, it was just a series of unrelated events with names and dates to memorise, and I have an extremely poor memory for unrelated facts. Not as difficult as art, though. I just couldn't understand the point of it or how to be good at it. What I really really liked was maths (of course) because I could see how it fitted togather, and physics, and chemistry, although we weren't, at that age, allowed to do chemistry practicals. Physics practicals tended to be fairly tame things with springs and pendulums and string.

On Wednesday afternoons we had sports; we were bussed to the school playing field at Edmonton, and I'd shiver in the cold wearing my green football shirt (I was in Green's House, named after a Mr Green who was a school person a very long time ago) and hope that a football wouldn't come near me. Or in the summer, I'd hope that I could be a fielder a long way from any action. Then a community bath to wash off some of the mud, and a coach back to school. And there was an annual cross-country run; I walked round; let the sporty types get out of breath. I wasn't too keen on sports. French was a foreign language to me, and I couldn't see the point of Religious Instruction either. Nor did the other boys, we all played the goat in RI.

We also had swimming, in the school pool. Naked. I couldn't swim at that point, so I just splashed around in the shallow end and pretended I was learning to swim.

There was a library at school, which wasn't anywhere near as good as the one at Stamford Hill. But there was also a small Science Library, and I think I must have been the only one who noticed it. I found "Chemistry experiments at home for boys and girls", which you can still buy today if you search carefully, and which would be a wonderful gift for any child, although the parents might never talk to you again. And "Science model making" which you might also be lucky enough to find via the internet. These two books were a beacon for me.

Another new thing for me, was woodwork. There was a woodwork/metalwork shop at the far end of the schoolyard, and I learned the skills of sawing, planing, sanding, gluing, drilling (NEVER LEAVE A KEY IN A CHUCK) and making mortice-and-tenon joints. I really enjoyed working with my hands; it was the first time I'd done so, and it gave me the confidence to make all sorts of things later on. My first effort was a wooden T-handled dibber.

To get to school, I took the bus. It was a 653 trolley bus. It had two rods that picked up the electricity from overhead cables, and it ran cleanly and silently. When the pickup rods came off the cables, the conductor had a long rod with a hook that he could use to put it back in place.  Later, they replaced it with the diesel 253.  I guess that maintaining those overhead wires must have been a nightmare, although I never saw a break. The fare, for a child, was a penny halfpenny., 1 1/2d. Yes, we were still wrestling with pounds, shillings and pence. Some of the kids had bicycles. For me that seemed an unattainable luxury; besides, I couldn't ride a bike. That came much later.

Still, in the evenings and on Sunday mornings, I was being force-fed the reading (but not understanding) of hebrew, compensated slightly by those wonderful bread-and-jam sandwiches beforehand.

At the end of the year, we had exams, and I must have done OK because I got put into the premium class of 2A. And I won a prize. "Inside the atom" by Isaac Asimov, where I learned about protons, neutrons, electrons and positrons. And mesons. It was published in 1956, and it started an interest in atomic theory, which led me to quantum theory. I still read lots of books on quantum theory, and I still don't undertand it, but that's OK because Richard Feynman said "If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics". 

I don't remember what I got the prize for, but I'd guess it would have probably been for doing well at maths, that being the only subject I ever did well at.

In this second year we still had the weekly half-day of sports, but instead of Wednesday it was a different day, I can't remember which. Probably either Tuesday or Thursday.

I also got offered the choice between Latin and German. I chose Latin, because I had a vague idea that it would be necessary for going to university, which means even at age 11 I was planning to go. Our Latin master was Mr Boyd, rather elderly but he made Latin a lot more interesting that French.

September 1960. Being in the more advanced class of 2A, we were able to move faster, because we left all the dunces behind in 2Y and 2Z. I learned algebra and geometry and I discovered Pythagoras' theorem, which I thought was very elegant.

We were also doing English grammar. You wouldn't believe how many tenses there are in English. "I would have been being seen", which is a subjunctive passive pluperfect, or something like that. And we did essays. The purpose of learning to write essays at school was to beat out of you the natural writing ability that you might have, and instil in you an artificially complicated style. It wasn't until many years later, when I went on a writing course, that I realised that the best way to write, is to write the way you would talk. And we learned how to parse a sentence; dissect it into verbs, adjectives, adverbs and so on. An example we had to parse was "plome the pleakful croatation will be ruggling ungleshably in the rit". Nonsense words, but you can still parse the sentence.

At the end of the year, I got the prize for music (a large volume of Sherlock Holmes short stories), I can't imagine why. Maybe it was because I could slightly play the piano. My aunt Alice was a music teacher, and once per week I would go round there for my weekly scolding at not having practiced. The only piece I remember really enjoying learning, was "Rondo alla Turca  , played with enthusiasm rather than accuracy. Fur Elise was just soppy. But a few years later, I acquired an accordion, and I found that it was like a portable piano, and great fun, and my piano playing skill became useful.

And at the end of the school year, I was 12 1/2, and my bar mitzvah was looming. I had extra lessons on reading (and singing) the section that I'd be called up to do. I really wasn't enjoying that; it seemed so pointless. I think that by then I was an atheist, although I didn't have the words for it (or the nerve to tell my mother).

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