The First Day
Kathryn Scanlan has written this wonderful account of her first day of nursery at Balby Street School, in 1965, and of her journey across the Crags to get there…
I don’t remember if I held her hand tightly or ran ahead excited by the adventure. What I do know is that I walked the route I would take for the next six years.
Up and down, twice a day in the hottest of summers and chilblain-inducing winters. Thin anoraks and hand-knitted balaclavas were our only protection, legs left exposed, blasted raw by the wind that cut up from the valley.
The Crags, a little-regarded strip of land between our house and school; part nature reserve, part rubbish dump. We passed dehydrated grass, Hawthorne and dog roses, home to all manner of wildlife. Skylarks advertising their nest locations, piping their song before parachuting into them. Rich pickings for the child egg thieves, who tiring of the grey-white speckled bounty smashed them on the red shale path, leaving miniature mosaics of yellowyolk and crumpled shell.
Tiny vole skeletons left stripped of flesh, white grinning through carbon black, part of the aftermath of regular torching of the grass. Boys excited by the drama they had created catching the anger of sleep-creased men, roused from daytime slumbers after a hard nights graft, beating flames into submission with old rags.
Red and black, Scotch Burnet moths rising in a telepathic cloud each summer, leaving behind their punctured, parchment-thin cocoons. Wildflowers, collected by the armful, decorated the classroom. Flies and earwigs carried into the alien environment kept company with escaping frogs that had completed their metamorphosis.
The nursery class was reached through French doors, via a bridge which spanned the steep slope of the playground. A drain running beneath it was a magical river on rainy days. Radius-edged bricks topped the wall, which was an insurmountable height on that first day.
High windows ran along one side of the square room. In the summer, heat and sunlight poured through them. In winter, only clouds and birds could be viewed.
The cloakroom ran alongside the classroom, a row of low hooks for coats each identified to its owner by an animal. Illustrated in a simplified style on a pastel coloured card, slotted into holders cast as part of the brass hook.
The cloakroom was pervaded by the tarmac smell of San Izal disinfectant and the tang of coal tar soap. The bars miniaturised like the basins and sinks, so low an adult would need to stoop or kneel to use them. Polished grey terrazzo floor, crisscrossed by a movement map of blackened cracks, caused by the colliers cutting coal below.
It filled the grate in the classroom fireplace, guarded by a high fender, which became a perch for the teacher at the end of the day.
We sat in front of its blaze, cross-legged on the mat, feeling its warmth, mesmerised by storytime.