My most impressed memory of a Christmas carol, in Primary school, was, ‘In the bleak mid winter’, and I tried to think why, of all carols, that one should be significant….
I do think we sang it, as little children, in our Church of England primary school, (now demolished), in a truly heartfelt way……..why…..?
That set me off on a whole stream of consciousness, memory lane……
As little children, we were very aware of painful, extreme cold; the kind of cold, that was a real feature of life, in those times. Yes, nature was harsher; we knew well the feeling of the kind of cold, ‘when Dick the shepherd blows his nail’. Our school building itself, St. James, in New Brighton, would never have passed a Health and Safety check, by today’s standards.
I can remember, as a very small tiny child, being led in to class, in our crocodile, off the tarmac yard, and up into a covered iron staircase; a very hard, cold, steep iron staircase, sort of ‘green’…it is a clear memory.
And then, at the top of it, we entered a warm and safe, pleasant, cosy world. We loved our primary school teacher, Miss Owens! What a wonderful person she was; an EXCELLENT reading teacher!
She gave us, what we did not have at home, and we loved her for it. My infant classroom, at St. James, was a place of nurturing treasure! I exaggerate not! As cold, poor children, (I was one of nine), we had the joy of a cosy, live real roaring fire in our classroom! Yes, a real, roaring fire – so welcoming! Of course it had a stout fireguard, and I can’t remember anyone ever being told off for going near it, and I can’t even remember any grave warnings about it!
It was part of what made ‘school’ with Miss Owens, a great place to be! That fire, coupled with those beautiful intoxicating hyacinth scents, she grew in those see-through glass jars… and the stack of jig saw puzzles, this was magic and heaven of a real kind!
Oh we loved school, with her, in that magic place! She knew how to teach reading, and must have delighted in bringing to the children of ‘the poor’, that is, those children who would be described as ‘disadvantaged’ today, the pleasure of achievement and success!
I was one of her best readers; she knew how much we needed her, and how much we needed to be affirmed! She knew all about us; we trusted her, and respected her, this kind, caring but firm, grey haired lady.
In spite of a background so totally devoid of any of the things we use today to ‘develop’ children, I believe that the gift of literacy, my infant teacher, the first teacher in my life gave me, and that ‘snug’ feeling of being important (alas not available at home) enabled me to go on to pass the 11+ exam.
This memory lane trip carried me back to what Christmas meant to us; to our family.
I was a bright child, as my elder sister was; we both went to ‘Grammar school’. We were sensitive children. We suffered much.
Our father was an alcoholic, and a very sick and abusive man. Our home was squalid and unhealthy and unsafe, and our mother, permanently pregnant and trapped.
We, as very small children, endured the sounds of the most terrible fights, and witnessed scenes, which degraded us and them.
We lived in fear and shame; we never took any one home, and became ‘responsible adults’, caring for each other, from as soon as we were able. We are all still well; our parents have gone.
CHRISTMAS in our home, meant, like other Christian festivals, a time when there would be more drunkenness, more fights; more rows and a feeling of being even more different than the rest of our neighbours.
We would get more anxious; more edgy; more afraid, and school was closed.
One Christian festival, our mother left home…that was TERRIBLE…I think she was away about a week.
I don’t want to make everyone sad at this time of year, but the sentimentality of Christmas does add insult to injury sometimes, and we need to remember that.
I forgive my parents; my mother was trapped; my father sick. For that reason, after many years of struggle, I found and am a member of Nacoa. Patron Mo Mowlam was a similar survivor, and I’m proud to say, so too is Fergal Keane.
I give thanks to the Miss Owens of this world, and to people in the public eye, like Mo Mowlam and Fergal Keane who talk about their childhoods to raise awareness and contribute to giving hope and strength to children living with alcoholism in their homes today.