She towered over me with an evil menace.
WHACK, the first hit came suddenly, the pain was sharp and hot. I fought back any form of response trying to gain the upper hand. However this seemed to fuel her rage and the second hit was much harder, this time the pain seared through my whole body. I wanted to scream and kick out, but I stood firm and silent. Others were watching, but I was on my own, nobody would help, they couldn’t. When the third hit came, I felt nothing, I was numb. It was over, for now.
It was August 1965, my first day at school aged four years and eleven months.
In fact it hadn’t taken very long for the old battle-axe, as I would call her from then on, to single me out. I had been in class for barely an hour when she bellowed at me for the second time that morning “BELL, I will have order in my class at all times, does your Father not teach you any discipline”. “He does teach me discipline” I responded defending my Father’s name, “only last night he skelped my backside for pinching a biscuit”. The class erupted in laughter, but not for long, old Battle-axe had her own eruption and commanded everyone to be silent, which they were instantly. She marched to a cupboard at the side of the room and brought out a basin, took it to the sink and filled it with cold water. There was a murmur from the older kids behind me in class, they seemed to know what was coming. I thought for a moment she was going to throw the water over me, but no, the basin of cold water was placed on a table in front of the radiator. What was going on?
Then she spoke,” I will need to teach you how to behave in my class young master Bell” and with that she pulled a long leather belt from her desk and placed it in the basin of water. I was still confused, thankfully the battle-axe went on to explain “the belt will stay in there for ten minutes and then it will go on the radiator to really stiffen up ready to give you three of the best”. “Shit” I thought, yes even at that tender age I had managed to learn a few choice words from the farm shepherd, I can’t tell my Mother about this. She had been so excited driving me on the three mile trip to school this morning.
I was in the front seat of my Mother’s white Triumph Herald, a rare honour, no seatbelt and struggling hard to strain my neck to see out the window. Up on the hill I spotted some of the older kids walking to school over the fields thinking I would be doing that as soon as possible. As we made our last left turn I could see the school, it shone white and stood on a rise a few hundred yards setback from the road. There was no apprehension from me, I just wanted to get up there.
My Mother pulled up at the gate and, as she told me much later in life, was ready to deliver some well-rehearsed guidance for my first day at School…too late I was gone. Maybe I should have listened! Some kids I knew were playing up near the School and I took off at high speed to join them, first running down the hill with great strides almost out of control, and then regaining my balance sprinted up the hill to join my classmates.
We started mucking about straight away, what we were doing escapes me, just playing! This great fun was suddenly interrupted by a loud ringing noise and I turned to see a large white haired lady ringing a brass hand bell with great force ”LINE UP’’ she shouted ”PUPILS ON THEIR FIRST DAY STAND HERE”.
I ran to my spot and beamed up at this commanding lady, no smile was returned. Two others, a boy and a girl, joined my line behind me and I turned to welcome them with a push and a laugh. ‘YOU’ and I turned to see the white haired teacher staring down at me, ‘BE QUIET AND GET IN LINE’ I should have taken this early exchange as a warning, but thought nothing of it.
We walked slowly and quietly into the large classroom. The desks were laid in rows, Primary one to Primary seven. Obviously Primary one was right at the front, in the firing line.
When I look back, everything on that day seems so clear in my memory. It was a momentous day filled with excitement, fear, decision making and of course minor brutality. I know it will be hard to believe that a boy who had not yet reached the tender age of five was making conscious decisions that would develop his character and play a huge part in making him the person he was to become. But I firmly believe that.
My first decision that day was not to show any fear to the battle-axe as she prepared her leather belt for my punishment with such drama. Admittedly it was harder to keep up that bravado when the blows came, but I did. I imagine I had been prepared for this by the farm shepherd who, especially when his breath smelt of whisky, had a nasty temper and a long walking stick that would hurt if he ever caught me where I shouldn’t be on the farm. Luckily I could easily outrun him, but one day he set his dog after me which resulted in a three inch scar on my head. Sound training indeed.
The second decision was more of a realisation. I was on my own. Nobody in that classroom could help me and I was not going to speak to anyone in my family about what had happened. My parents were so full of hope and excitement sending their first son to school, I was not going to spoil that. So I told no-one. I was just going to have to get on with it.
It wasn’t the last time the old battle-axe belted me, but it never had the same effect as that first time. I knew how to deal with it now.