I am in my first ever class at school, and I am almost five, and I do not want to be here. I want to be back home, barely a mile away across the lovely park, where I would be riding my tricycle up and down the garden path or along the footpath at the front of the house where I first mastered the art of tricycling, or drawing houses or cars or trains, or perhaps playing with my train, laying out the track across the old carpet of my bedroom, or colouring in pictures with my new felt-tips that my father had acquired as free samples that they distribute in abundance to salesmen in the trade, for that is the world he inhabits in these early years. But no, I am at school, and we have just been handed, each of us, a new exercise book, larger than the folded foolscap variety I am used to, with their shiny bright red covers that I can buy in Woolworth’s for just a penny or two – for the new exercise books that are being distributed across the classroom must be quarto in size, and with their pastel covers, they look so appealing. How pleased I am to have my own exercise book!
And now the teacher is telling us what to do, telling us to draw a house, and explaining it with a drawing of her own, done in white chalk on the blackboard at the front of the classroom. And in my enthusiasm, I take up my HB pencil (also provided by our teacher) – which really isn’t dark enough – and draw a version of that house on the very first page of my book. But now the teacher tours the room, checking on our progress, and I realise I have done it wrong. My house fills the whole page. It is a bold and confident house, with noble walls and stable roof and wide front door, wide enough for a grandmother carrying a child’s tricycle. Oh dear! I have done it wrong, the only one who has done it wrong. The teacher returns to her place at the front of the class and explains that the house can only work if it is quite small, when later, one day at a time, the rest of the street will be added, house by house. For these houses will bear their street numbers, and through this exercise we will learn our numbers and their correct sequence. (I already know how to write the numbers, up to 10, anyway, after which it got a bit more tricky, and for some weeks, I felt that 90 should come in the sequence where 20 in fact appears, and when I was told the truth of it, I felt terribly sceptical.)
So the teacher hands me a large eraser that smells of rubber and of living lost days languishing in the classroom, with which I am to remove my lovely house and replace it with a little ramshackle affair that is to be labelled ‘1’. But the eraser is not very effective, and I already know, thanks to my grandfather and his gifts, that a 2B or 4B pencil, although darker, and although having a greater presence on the page, usually rubs away much more easily. I struggle against this dreaded HB marking, and nearly ruin the page, catching at the paper and creasing it. From now on, for the rest of my life, every time I use an eraser I will be plunged back into this humiliation of having to rub away the house I made too large, whilst the rest of the class looks on, condemning me no less than does the teacher.
A similar incident occurred just a few weeks later. The teacher told us to draw a large letter T on our page, and of course, that is what I did. Only it was not a ‘T’, it was a bird table, and my T was too large, again, and there was no room for the birds. Again the teacher intervened, but this time, thank goodness, there was no smelly eraser. Instead, she told me to draw the birds hanging upside-down from the bottom of the bird table and clinging to its support. It looked very silly indeed, and I felt, again, a fool.