As I read a short story to my grandson the other day, I had a flashback to my early days in prep in a Victorian primary school.
Our classes were crowded. We didn’t have a collective name back then; the term baby boomers came many years later. Sadly, it’s now often used as a derisory term, to label us all as overindulged and entitled – the ones who have spoilt the future for this generation.
Back then, we just knew there were lots of us crammed into small classrooms, sitting on half-sized chairs and trying hard to understand how to decipher the big letters of the alphabet hung around the room.
I don’t remember feeling entitled, just baffled and bored sometimes. My source of bafflement was the first primary reader called John and Betty. This ever-so-English gender-biased book was meant to last us for the entire prep year. I think we focused on the first few pages for weeks.
Read: Do men hate women?
We learnt that John can jump, but Betty can only skip. Scottie the dog featured somewhere with, no doubt, John throwing him sticks to fetch. I doubt that Betty was allowed to be so forward and rough in her behaviour.
Day after day we read and reread the same pages, waiting for the whole cohort to understand before moving to the next section. If I close my eyed tightly, I can still see the illustrations on the page.
I was bored witless until the following year when that group method appears to have been abandoned and I was let loose on the world of literature. Mind you, once able to read there was a dearth of good books, except for Enid Blyton. We moved from The Faraway Tree to The Famous Five. Mention Enid Blyton to baby boomers and the majority will utter a contented sigh and a glazed look will cross their faces. Nostalgia works every time.
Despite the gender stereotyping in Blyton’s books, she managed to create a world of fun and adventure and time alone without parents. Food was mentioned in great quantities. Out of the goodness of their hearts, farmers would hand the children (as they freely roamed the countryside) fresh-baked scones with lashings of cream and the occasional bottle of fizzy drink. Oh, what bliss that conveyed to a youngster trapped in suburban Oakleigh.
What did the boys read? I assume they were reading Biggles and the Just William series, since that was about all that was available. I even resorted to reading them too, though the air force jargon and the English social class rules were a tad difficult to comprehend.
But it was not all doom and gloom. As the early years of primary school progressed, we were given the Victorian School Readers, a set of writings that covered some of the classic narratives and poetry. They were first published as sheets of paper that we put into a binder cover. We slipped the pages under a string to hold all the loose leaves. Later, they were published as hard cover books and they gave a generation a range of myths and legends from history to relish and remember.
Today, our grandchildren have a huge choice of material for all reading abilities. It is so gratifying to see.
Despite some happy memories of prep, I am grateful the world has moved on from John and Betty.
What do you remember from your early years of school? Were the reading offerings deplorable? Why not share your experience in the comments section below?
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