by Peter Street
Chapter One : Late Summer 1954
Mum’s first job of the day was to empty my adopted dad's potty. She would walk with it at arm’s length towards the outside toilet at the top of the yard. That outside toilet is where I first started looking for the lever: a lever I was convinced would somehow open the wall to other rooms. Secret rooms, where only I could play. I used to feel my hands over the peeling whitewash wall, absolutely convinced I would discover something in that outside toilet no other human had seen.
My first Catholic school day, I held hands with a red haired girl called Pauline. We couldn’t choose who we held hands with. It was a boy, girl, boy, girl thing. Once that was sorted we were led into the big hall to meet the priest and nuns of our school and church. It was from there we were taken into our classrooms to meet our teacher, Miss Egan, where a boy called Roger sat behind me. We became instant friends, but teacher would never let us sit next to each other. I don’t know why?
I thought I was doing really well at school. I had lots of friends and my maths book was full of red ticks. That was until Mrs. Gregory’s Year Three class when all the other kids in class had started working on fractions. It was also the time when a big hole just seemed to appear in my head when everything to do with maths and logic just seemed to dribble away never to be seen again. I tried looking around to see if any of the other kids had also suddenly grown holes in their heads. No. They were all hard at work with their heads still brimming with their maths. Some of the other kids were even chewing on their pencils as though they were enjoying the lesson.
Bored, I started playing with the green crayon I found in my blazer pocket. Before I knew what was happening I’d got the crayon stuck up my nose. I tried with my best nose-picking finger to get it out. But it was well and truly stuck.
Pauline Brooks, the girl near to me, seeing what had happened, started laughing. Soon all the class was laughing. I was beckoned to the front where Mrs. Gregory told me to blow my nose. Hard, harder than I had ever done before. There was more class laughter when a dollop of snot and crayon shot into my hand. Not only that, but I then had to walk down the aisle to get to the toilet. The teasing from that lasted almost two days.
Because my brain was nowhere it should have been, I was now being called the Class-Three-Troublemaker. So in the end, I thought it was only natural for me to become the troublemaker. I wasn’t going to be a nasty spiteful troublemaker. No, I was going to be more of a sort of prankster. Yes, a prankster. My favorite prank was played on Miss Goody-Two-Shoes Simpson, who was always given the best Monday morning monitor job of filling up the ink-wells for the start of the second lesson. Every time she reached my desk she would always pull a face. I would make an even uglier face back. She would then tell teacher while shedding crocodile tears. Of course they believed her.
That was the morning when teacher caught Pauline Brooks whispering across the aisle to Teresa Lease. Teacher stomped from her desk and without warning or saying anything, hit Christine so hard across the face she knocked her glasses on the floor and broke them. Punishment with the ruler on the back of my hand for pulling a face was mild compared to what had happened to Pauline.
Once, maybe twice a week, I helped Mum carry a bucket of
coal to Mrs. Nugent’s fruit and vegetable shop across the road...
Miss Egan would always ask the class to give Simpson a big clap because Simpson never spilled a drop of ink onto anyone’s desk. I couldn’t resist sneaking into class during the break to put mum's Andrew’s Liver Salts into as many inkwells as I could manage in the time. When Miss Goody-Goody Ink-Well Filler started her job while snooting at everyone, ink began to bubble all over everyone’s desk. Miss Goody-Two-Shoes wasn’t even told off.
Mr. Greenough, the headmaster, gave me three of his very best for that one. Roger told me to rub candle wax onto my hands before going into the headmaster’s office. He was convinced the cane would slide off so it wouldn’t hurt as much. It still hurt. Maybe, because my hand was almost red raw with the candle wax?
Mum was called in around once a month. The school thought of sending me to the nearby St. Paul’s even though it was a proddy-dog school. But mum being the devout Irish Catholic (Republican) freaked, saying she would make sure there would be an improvement. They even bought a Robinson Crusoe book which they leaned against Mum’s Bible on the front-room shelf. There were now two books in the house; neither were ever read.
Dad paid for me to visit a private maths teacher who gave up on me after just three sessions because she believed I had no concentration and was lazy.
I really, really wanted to learn, but it just wouldn’t happen. Yes, I could count up to a hundred but as soon as I tried to add numbers together or do division, the numbers wouldn’t move like they seemed to do for the other kids. Or those same numbers would just disappear never to be seen again.
Roger was a blond, good-looking lad, who never had dirty hands or knees, and you could always cut paper with the creases he had in his short pants. Both parents were professional people, probably the reason why he was always driven to our school in his parents’ shiny black Humber Hawk Mk V1 and when in class he always tried to sit next to me.
After school we'd sometimes meet up on Astley Bridge Park where I would try and help Roger swing across the monkey bars. He never once made it all the way across. After playing on the swings, I would tell him about the various wild birds like the Shrikes, Blue Tits or the clever Magpies who visited the park.
The two of us would sometimes rub candle wax on the park slide, then watched from the railings while the other kids went flying off the end and then laughed when they landed in the puddles of water.
Roger was the only one who didn’t laugh when Mr. Horricks hit me, hard on the side of my head with the board duster. That teacher made the class laugh even more when he said it was to knock some sense in. Again, only Roger didn’t laugh.
That was the weekend when I tried teaching Roger how to kick a football, but his timing was so far out that we both gave up. It was usually after Saturday Confession at Holy Infants Church when he would sneak a couple of hours away for us to meet up so we could spend a few hours in my house playing with my toy fort and lead soldiers, all the while wearing kiddie gas masks. A couple of those playtimes he would wear some of my spare clothes and we would dig for hidden treasure in my backyard. Later Roger would try and help me with maths and reading.
That worked for a couple of months until his parents found out about us playing around instead of going to Confession. Bugger. Okay, we stayed good friends by messing around in the school yard only, but again we were ordered, by the headmaster not to play together.
Hallgrim’s Church, Reykjavik, Iceland
for everyone with Dyscaculia
by Peter Street, copyright 2013
That church from
where I’m standing:
here bottom of the hill
and yellow houses
south side of Reykjavik
I’m sure is the space-ship
let me draw in her maths class
in ’59 while all other kids
were busy working
It has a stair case
on the outside like the one
I pretended to climb
sit, close my eyes
and wait for the countdown.