‘You’d better go in today, young lady,’ my mother said, pulling in just before the school. She used both hands to crank up the handbrake. ‘I’m going to wait here until you do.’
I pushed the MG’s door open, grabbed my black satchel and crunched my loafers into the mucky slush that disguised the curbs of Jail Lane. The filthy icy water sneaked into my shoes as I unfolded myself. My white socks turned grey.
‘Thanks for the lift,’ I said sarcastically, and slammed the door.
The grey pawns were all shuffling towards the school gates. Prefects patrolled the iron bars making sure no one slipped out. This was going to be difficult. Her eyes pierced my back. I had one more chance before I was sent away – to my father’s (if he’d have me). But there was no way I was walking into that building. The days were long and life was short. I hadn’t been for six weeks. I had no friends there and I wasn’t interested in what was being drilled in. The beating against the wire of a tennis court by a girl who was twice the size of me had been the turning point of no return. I approached the gate. Her car hadn’t passed me but surely she would have turned round as Jail Lane led to nowhere. I dared a glance over my shoulder as I hitched up the satchel. The MG was backing against the slushy curb. I bent down as my heart pounded against my back. I pretended to check my books. I stood up again and turned towards the gates. She must be driving away now. A little boy bolted past and the prefect called him to her. While she interrogated the boy I lifted my head up and walked straight past the school.
I never went back.
Of course all that was a long time ago and the world has changed since then. The late seventies was still an era of corporal punishment and learning by rote. Comprehensive schools were rough places. Pink Floyd said it all. It took me many years to go back into an institution. Nowadays education is far more student orientated, teachers are encouraged to elicit both questions and answers, no doubt at least in part, as a result of our generation brought up in Jail Lane determined to change attitudes towards young people and education. In England at least.
I’d almost forgotten about those unhappy days until I took Leo to school in Monchique and saw him with his hands on the bars looking out.
I realised then that education is still an emotive subject – particularly for those of us who have had bad experiences. Like discipline, everyone has an opinion on education. Being in Portugal has made things even more complicated as Leo’s cultural references (at least for now) are British – we watch CBeebies, he’s seen the Gruffalo in the Alice Holt woods and we’ve done the Superworm trail at Bedgebury.
I know what it’s like to be different. I still remember the girl’s voice before the fist hit my face.
‘You fackin’ norvener, ain’t you.’
I know the importance of integration and of growing up in one place. And I know the importance of education.
Yet after two unhappy weeks at the pre-school, I knew I had to do something. I’d heard only good things about the school, but the regime was too much for Leo who was used to climbing the fig tree, riding the donkey and playing with his tractor and train set. The group was big and the children needed to stay in line. They spent long periods sitting at a table doing nothing. The teacher had no choice but to drag and hold. Leo wasn’t responding well to such treatment. Most people told me that I needed to cut the cord, let him cry and he would settle down. Of course. I could see that most of the children did look happy. But, in the mean time, I could tell he was deeply unhappy. After school he was aggressive in a way that I’ve never seen before. While I hesitated, he took things into his own hands and exited through the security doors on his own. He’s only three. We left.
We visited the Waldorf School in Monte Judeu, near Lagos. It is set in an old primary school so without the bars and with lots of fig trees to climb and plants. Everything is made of wood from tree houses to rocking horses. Inside there are cosy corners with wooden toys, cushions and curtains, soft and inviting. The children can play freely and every day they can (but don’t have to) embark on bigger projects – painting, sculpting, woodwork or baking. There is no encouragement to learn to read or write but perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. I don’t know much about anthroposophy, the philosophy on which the Rudolf Steiner schools are based, but I like what I see. Unfortunately, it is a long way, and, currently, full. The classes are as big as in Monchique and, although subsidised, it is not free.
In the meantime, we try the state school in Marmelete, a provincial village between Aljezur and Monchique. The building is run down and there is a large fence around it. It is not a beautiful environment but the outside space is bigger than Monchique and I know that there are not so many children. We meet the teacher who immediately hugs Leo. Leo runs around, making himself at home. I find out that there are only five children, one three-year-old, two four-year-olds and two five-year-olds and there are two, sometimes three, adults looking after them. Upstairs is a primary school with twelve children. I find it hard to believe. We start the next day. I stay with him the first two days and we take in his Playdoh and play with the others. Now, two weeks later, I leave him there without screams or tears (or Playdoh) for two or three hours three times a week. He is always smiling when I collect him and there is no aggression afterwards.
We have been very lucky. Someone, somewhere seems to have forgotten about this little gem. One of the five-year-olds is also half English and as I go in I can hear Leo and the other boy teaching the children colours in English. ‘Green!’ Leo shouts. ‘Green!’ the others repeat.
Not bad for a provincial school in the mountains. Next month is Sao Martinho – a sweet chestnut festival. And maybe one day I (or hopefully someone else!) will translate the Gruffalo.