Thursday 29 October 2015

Education, form 3 alpha

In my third year at Grocers grammar school, we were divided into four groups. 3 alpha was the top form, above 3A. And the hoi polloi were 3Y and 3Z. I got put into 3 alpha. I was 12, and still in shorts.

It was a good year. There were exams, of course, but nothing serious, just the ordinary school exams. We were, of course, keen to do well; if we hadn't been, we probably wouldn't have made it into 3 alpha.

In maths, I was doing trigonometry, which I very much liked. Geometry not so much, but it was still good. I was introduced to logarithms, which is a really neat way to do multiplication without going to the effort of using the technique of long multiplication (no longer needed because of calculators). And logs leads to slide rules, which is a way to multiply and divide, and I acquired a six inch slide rule. Which, now that I think about it, was the first computer I ever used. Art was still compulsory, but I no longer took it seriously - I couldn't see the point of it, nor could I see how to do well at it. Latin was good fun, probably because  Mr Boyd, our latin master made it interesting. Latin was the first time I found out about declensions and conjugations; that nouns could be masculine, feminine or neuter, that verbs took endings.

Here's a useful mnemonic that I found in Arthur Ransome's "Swallows and Amazons" books (hugely recommended, it really inspired me to learn how to sail a small boat, but sadly I never had the opportunity). 

Common are to either sex:
Artifex and opifex,
Conviva, vates, advena,
Testis, civis, incola,
Parens, sacerdos, custos, vindex,
Adolescens, infans, index.
Judex, heres, comes, dux,
Princeps, municeps, conjux,
Obses, ales, interpres,
Auctor, exul; and with these
Bos, dama, talpa, tigris, grus,
Cavis and anguis, serpens, sus.

I didn't learn this, of course.

Our set books was "Mentor" (teacher) and "Civis Romanus" (Roman citizen). You can buy it on Amazon but I don't know if that's the same book. We also did some of the latin poets; I remember Ovid and Catullus.

English doesn't have declensions (except the possessive) and, as far as I can see, all English verbs are irregular, meaning there's no rhyme or reason. But I found English grammar easy, probably because I'd read so many books. By now, I'd pretty much read my way through every book in the Stamford Hill library that remotely interested me, and I had developed a taste for science fiction; Asimov, Clarke and all the others that are today regarded as classic SF. Tottenham library had an entire bookcase devoted to SF, which helped. I used to get the bus to there, and carry back a dozen books, each week. Until I discovered that they'd take Stamford Hill library tickets, and then it was more like two or three dozen. And that might sound like I was gaming the system, but I was actually reading all those books, and that's the entire purpose of a public library.

We also did some English literature. "Loneliness of the long distance runner" and we did "Taming of the Shrew", which I quite liked, but didn't understand in the slightest, partly because of the archaic language, but mostly because the plot just didn't make any sense.

History was still just one random thing after another, and I found it pretty incomprehensible, which is strange because now I read a lot of history. Some years after I left school, I found out about World War 2, which was deeply interesting (and happened a few years before I was born, but every day I could see sites around London that had been bombed), and left me wondering how it came about. That took me to World War 1, which took me to the Boer war, Crimea, the Napoleonic wars, and I had discovered that history wasn't just a random series of events, it was all about cause and effect, and maybe I should have realised this a long time before, but I hadn't, and no-one had bothered to tell me, probably because it's obvious.

Geography, I felt, was pretty similar to history; it was just one random place after another. Except that I fould map reading quite interesting, and then the way that geography influences human activity, and eventually I would up getting a grade C at geography O level, whereas I got an H for history. H means "specatcular fail, as bad as it gets".

We could choose between woodwork and metalwork. I chose metalwork, it seemed to me to be more useful. I learned things like brazing and riveting, filing, hardening and tempering. I made an aluminium matchbox holder.

I also loved physics; we did sound, and thermodynamics, light and mechanics. And mechanics linked up with applied maths, which its point masses, and thin light inextensible strings, perfectly elastic billiard balls and ladders leaning against walls. Our physics master, Mr Bushell, was mostly chalk-and-talk, but also did some great demonstrations, such as using an heat-expanding wrought iron bar to shatter a cast iron bar.

I went seriously downhill in French. We did a book entitled "Aventur en Fronac", and I totally lost track of what it was about - I still have absolutely no idea. I do remember an essay I did, in which I stated that the Massif Central is a big railway station. Oops. A double failure, geography/french.

Chemistry was getting more and more interesting. We did valency, and electrolysis, and we were doing practicals that involved pipetting, weighing using a lab balance. Heating limestone to make lime; dissolving it in water to make lime water. Use of litmus paper. Our chemistry master, Mr MacDonald, did some spectacular demonstrations; sodium in water, for example.

I managed to avoid biology; I didn't fancy the prospect of dissecting a frog, and besides, I had no ambition to go into the medical profession. Although I didn't have any specific idea of what I did want to do.

Back home, I took a refrigerator that no longer worked, and used it as a cabinet for my chemistry equipment. I learned how to blow glass tubing, how to use a blow pipe and charcoal, lead casting. I made hydrogen and oxygen; I tried electroplating (and failed) and growing crystals (failed). I did simple spectroscopy, made records of what compounds had what colours and what their solubility in water was. Lots of fun.

Once per week, we had the dreaded games afternoon, but by that time I'd learned how to stay out of the way of the football (in winter) and field in a remote corner of the field (in summer).

By the end of the year I did have one major success - I had learned how to swim! That got me the prize of a year's free membership to Hackney Baths. I went once, and never again. It's hard to think of anything as boring as swimming from side to side in a swimming pool, unless it's swimming from end to end.

My main thing was still maths. And I was good at it.

And I must have done well enough in the end of year exams, because they put me in the top form again. 4G!

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