Back then, there were no crèches. Children played with other children outside the house from morning till parents came back from work. It was fun and there was much that was learnt from the older girls and boys who were already at school and showed off their writing skills as they wrote their names in the sand or taught us to count up to 10 or even 20, using whatever means we could find such as maize or lucky bean seeds and small stones. We all knew who the patient teachers among the older children were and we all jostled to be in their play group.
Both my parents were teachers and my earliest memory of listening to a story being read was when my mother would sit with my younger sister and I and read from the small hard cover lime green book. This was a story about the exploits of the clever rabbit and her family. My most favourite part of the story was when they went on a picnic one Sunday afternoon, and oh how I so wished I could have joined them. The pictures in the book were so interesting to look at and I must say they stretched my imagination.
My sister and I named the river that ran past the picnic spot Lily, gazed at the sheep grazing close by and played a game where we earned points by naming the colours of the flowers in the meadow. Many years later, when I had my own children, I had the pleasure of opening the same book and reading to them the fascinating stories about the rabbit and her family.
On the big day of my first day at school, I remember I wore my prized green school uniform with white socks and black shoes. This was the first and last day I wore my socks and shoes as I was just about the only child in the elementary section that had shoes on. I remember feeling very awkward and soon took them off at break time and put them carefully at the bottom of my school bag.
My classroom was on top of raised ground. This was a long room with square openings for windows but with no glass to shut out the elements. When it was hot, it was pleasant to sit by the window but on days when it was raining, the teacher, a Mrs. Khumalo, helped us move the long desks away from the windows. Occasionally, a wandering cow would come to listen in to the children’s laughter, stick its head into the classroom and sometimes show appreciation of the lesson by mooing so loud, much to the amusement of all of us. If my memory serves me well, there were about 13 of us in sub-B, eager beavers ready to learn.
Our day started early. This was a mission school and the priests and nuns believed in discipline. Everything was bound by timelines and strict demarcations. Before school, the sub-A and sub-B classes, equivalent to modern day grades 1 and 2, had their own assembly and morning prayers. The prayers were followed by choruses that we often sang at Sunday school. The prayers were conducted by the headmistress who was a nun. We were happy if the prayers and notices took a bit of time because then it meant the arithmetic period which was always the first period was shorter than usual. At the beginning of sub-A, arithmetic seemed easy as our informal teachers on the playground had taught us to count but as time went on, things started to get a little tricky. I for one, being very practical by nature, did not see the point of adding 1+3 or whatever other numbers that were written on the board. The relevance of this exercise was also never explained.
Afterall, we went to school back in the day when only the teacher had a textbook and everything we needed to know was written on the board!
My worst memories of Little St Augustine’s, as the early primary school was called, was the time it took before we could write anything in an exercise book. Before one could be given an exercise book, one had to practice writing Arithmetic and English class exercises in the sand outside. It was important to find a good clear space where the sand was fine to enable one to write clearly. Initially, we had to use our forefinger to write perfect letters and numbers. Only when Mrs Khumalo was satisfied that you had mastered the art of writing in the sand, was one allowed to use a small stick which resembled a pencil. The next stage in the early learning stage was to be given a black slate and piece of chalk to practice writing at home. Needless to say, there was competition around who would get an exercise book first. This meant that we all took the practice sessions very seriously.
It was a huge relief when I eventually graduated from using a slate board to getting an exercise book and a brand-new pencil sharpened by Mrs. Khumalo.
At break time, we played in the field below. Games included chasing after each other, tickling each other and this, after sharing what was in our lunch boxes.
Home time was at 12:30, but we had to stop working and stand up from our desks in order to say the Angelus before leaving. This prayer was preceded by a loud bell rung from the church. Even when one was walking, one had to stop in their tracks and say, “Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed is thy womb that bore our Lord Jesus Christ, mother Mary pray for us sinners now and for evermore Amen.” I have often wondered what sins I had committed at that tender age to be asked to confess them.
The most memorable day of my early years of schooling was when one day, a green jeep appeared from the distance and was parked behind the classrooms.
Two men – one white and the other black – dressed in white long jackets, came out, set up a long table and put some boxes and bottles on the table. Before long, were summoned to come out of our classrooms and to line up. Once we had been accounted for, we were summarily asked to roll up our sleeves. This was followed, to our horror, by one of the men giving us a good jab on the top of the left shoulder and the other, following with a pinkish sweet that melted instantly in the mouth. There were no letters of consent to take home or explanation to us children of what was going on. I guess the head mistress had already granted them permission to give us the TB Jab and the booster for the Polio jab that each one of us had got at birth or at their first visit to the clinic. We learnt much later that there was a serious outbreak of TB and the government had put into action a plan to get all children under 13 vaccinated against the two menacing diseases.
The modern concepts of human rights, democracy, and parental autonomy over their children, were foreign back then. Do not get me wrong, I am not complaining as I believe that saved many children, me included, from illness or certain death.
In my next episode, I shall recount my experiences of what was known then as upper primary.
(Dr Linda Chipunza is responsible for Student Support at The DaVinci Business School.)