My very first day at school

2011-01-19 00:00

NOTHING could have stopped me. I was five years old and I had been waiting. School was over the hill at the Sinclairs' farm. Gem Sinclair was the teacher and her husband, Donald, (a farmer who wore wonderful long British-style khaki shorts) was, we children believed, our headmaster. Our school was called Gem's School Dargle — We Sparkle. And this was printed on our great heavy pewter badges (with a star to illustrate the sparkle) that pulled our cotton shirts or dresses way away from our flat chests and that were made by one of the grandads, Khulu Line.

Why could nothing stop me? Well, the love of my life was at school there and I had been in love with him from at least the age of three. What more could a five-year-old girl wish for other than to be in the daily presence of the teacher's son, Iain?

So off we set. Nice and early. With Dad. From our farm down District Road 17. In the brown Chev truck. No longer would my sister be the only one who could indulge in endless school days in the presence of my prince. There I would be and I would be noticed at last. I would have proper status.

We had no uniforms and, it being summer in the Dargle, no shoes were necessary. But we did have to line up on the farmhouse veranda and have our nails inspected by the headmaster before he set off to mind his farm. Suddenly, I was afraid of Donald as he marched up and down and we held out our hands for inspection — how had this happened? I had known Donald since before I was born and adored him and sat on his lap whenever I could at the tennis club. New terrors gripped me now as he approached, but my nails were clean and I passed muster.

Then it was prayers: "Our Father …" with our eyes closed and "Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, look upon a little child …" and my eyes fluttered open and a tear squeezed out and down my cheek. I felt something momentous, something profound. Standing on the veranda of the farm school with the 12-odd other pupils, ranging from Class 1 to Standard 3, I knew that something had turned over in my life. I was part of something I had never known or been part of before. I had no idea what it was.

And then Gem went inside and began to play on the already opened piano. "All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all …" And we all sang because we knew the words from going to church on Sundays and I felt safe because I knew from Sunday School that I was one of those creatures.

But hell. I looked up and down the little row of us. My prince was not there. The world was a piece of damp ash. I looked again. He was not there. Gem got up from the piano and I asked her, my heart flapping in my chest like a terrified bird, "Where's Iain?"

"Oh," she said, as if it was inconsequential, matter-of-fact, with some pride in the evenness of her tone, "he's gone to Merchiston. We took him yesterday. He's a boarder now. A big boy."

I was crushed. Paradise lost. And what did her comment mean — that I was not good enough? That I was not a big enough girl to be in the same school as him?

Well, actually, it turned out that I wasn't big enough to be in the same school as my prince. Going to big school wasn't all that I had anticipated. I was dropped into a pool of dark disappointment. I had misled myself and was ashamed. I wasn't good enough. I did not qualify, somehow.

But in the classroom (all 12 of us in the enclosed sun room) my salvation came quickly in the form of flash cards for reading. The Standard 2s (there were two of them) started us on our reading with the wonderful, large, rectangular, shiny white flash cards. And oh the magical words there: "look – shop – cake – sweets – play – good – mother – father".

My life took shape, crystallised with the reading of those crisp black-inked words into something I felt was known and could be mine forever (even if my prince was gone). My first day at school had begun and very soon I would even find out what the terrifying ram named AAAAAAAAAAAAAA who lived in the barn would do to us all at sandwich time. And I would get to stay extra long for the night on my own for my own history and piano lesson on Wednesdays. (I was the only one in my class and that was to remain the happy situation until Standard 4 when it was my turn to leave for boarding school.)

I could not have continued to live had I not had my very first day at school.

• Floss Mitchell is a Pietermaritzburg psychologist. She started school in 1953.

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