The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is the man who'll get me a book I ain't read.” ~ Abraham Lincoln.I remember my first day of school. Do you? I was one of the kids that cried. That's pretty much how I still feel if you dump me in a crowd of strangers & abandon me there.
I did not like school. Not that I was unhappy, just bored. What went on inside my own head was far more intriguing than your average classroom & I'm not a people person. Not really. Unlike my own children I did not go to school to socialise though people fascinate me nearly as much as they bewilder me & besides I never did learn that neat trick of keeping pace with my peers. By grade 3 most of the girls were boy mad & I'd just discovered King Arthur ~ an obsession that has yet to wane. No, something far more interesting made school bearable.
The one redeeming fact about school; it had a library.
I do not ever remember learning to read. I remember flash cards, which even in kindergarten I thought silly, & 30 odd kids obediently chanting their ABCs ~ something I didn't actually learn until I was an adult because I didn't need any ABCs. I needed, I wanted, Books! I remember, in odd kaleidoscope fragments, the first time our class was taken to the school library because I couldn't quite believe my eyes. There were hundreds & hundreds of books ~ or so it seemed to my 5 year old eyes ~ though in reality it can't possibly have been very large, tucked away as it was in a corner of the secretary's office but they told us we were allowed to borrow these books. Take them home. Read them comfortably snuggled up on our very own beds.
Libraries were not as common then as they are now. I don't ever recall being in one until that moment though we owned plenty of books & my mother always read to us at bedtime ~ which probably accounts for the fact that if I wasn't already reading by the time I began school it was near enough as made no difference.
I remember what I took home that day because I was allowed to choose for myself & little girls in the 50's & 60's did not get too many opportunities to choose things for themselves: a Babar the Elephant, A Big Ball of string & Spot has a Bath. Oh dear. There is no accounting for taste. I devoured them in one sitting, just as soon as I got home from school, & I was back at that library the very next day to swap them for something else. My mother was, I think, quite pleased. My father thought I should do my homework first. I did not care. I had found my escape from a world that was always to overwhelm me though, like most children, I found ways to cope & I had my friends.
Most Australian schools are uniform schools, more so then than now. Then, as now, I hated the uniformity & that those ugly blue & white checked dresses with skirts bunched round the middle prevented me from doing any of the more interesting activities because "the boys might see our undies!" At 5 I couldn't have cared less & I doubt the boys would have been interested either but by November in a Sydney summer the thermometer was threatening to have an apoplexy & the playground was seared to a brown & cracking desert baking under a white hot sun. There was no relief if you stayed in the playground. Even our drink bottles, dutifully frozen solid the night before, were tepid & undrinkable by lunch time.
I used to slip away, climb the rickety wooden steps to the landing & slip into that tiny library. There the linoleum was cracked but cool, the windows pushed up as far as they would go to catch an unlikely breeze. The overhead fan whirred drearily, steadily pushing the warm air around the room & it was inevitably empty. Even the secretary was in the staff room having lunch & coffee. I would browse the shelves like a grazing cow, running my small finger past spine after spine, anxiously scanning the titles for one that would catch my attention, greedily pull the chosen book from it's place on the shelf & collapse, turk fashion, where I was & begin to read.
In grade 3 they moved us up to the *Big School*, the upper primary grades, which had, joy of joys, a much larger library with a particularly brilliant librarian who introduced me to the delights of efficient research!. My only fault to find with her was that she was obsessive about books being read in their correct order ~ something I have yet to learn to do. Once again the large room was almost empty apart from the librarian & I & there were, indeed, hundreds & hundreds of books to choose from. It was a mammoth task to steadily work my way through as many titles as possible.
Outside the cicadas skirled a giddy disharmony under a brazen sky. Balls thumped against melting tarmac. Ropes thwacked the dirt as the girls jumped rope. A hundred or so small bodies hurtled around their confined space, buzzing like flies in a bottle but I was far away with the Famous Five, the Bobbsy Twins or one of the *Twins* series. In winter my friends pulled their jumpers down over their hands & huddled together eyeing off the boys while the winter wind groped under their skirts & made them shiver but I was warm & snug in the library basking in the gentle heat of an English summer, gazing up to the icy fingertips of the Matterhorn while a boy called Peter pushed a wheelchair over a Swiss cliff, reading the Billabong books that were not on my mother's shelves.
Oh, there was just one other flaw in Mrs Lowden besides thinking books should be read in order. For some strange reason, when the bell went to signal the end of recess she thought it her duty to chivvy me out of the library & in the general direction of my classroom. I can't think why. One can have no better education than the free reign of a well stocked library.