My school days were not happy ones. I was seemingly an impossible child to teach because of my short attention span and strong leanings towards an alternative lesson plan – ie. why don’t we all just do our own thing until the bell sets us free? I’ll be over here, staring out the window at cloud formations. The nuns at my convent school didn’t greatly care for this kind of non-compliance.
I reached peak difficulty in third class, where I spent some portion of each day in disgrace at the outer edges of the classroom. Sister A was genuinely worried for my nine-year-old soul, particularly after I was reported to have eaten my neighbour’s crayons (I was researching whether the orange one tasted of orange, the green one of apple, etc). I would be banished to a wooden prayer kneeler with instructions to pray for enlightenment on how to be ‘good’. As I rarely understood what had landed me in my predicament in the first place, I failed miserably in my assignment, further distracted by the discomfort of the prayer kneeler which was designed to gouge into kneecaps at exactly the point where a person’s weight might balance on it. A sort of beeswaxed focusing of the mind, except that all the mind could focus on was how extraordinary the pain was and how long it might continue for.
It remains one of my clearest memories of my school days, although to her credit, at least Sister A didn’t ever smack us, unlike most of the other teachers, who seemed to swing a ruler for the sheer love of the swish of wood through air. Yet it isn’t my only memory from that year.
Sister A loved books, and she would read aloud to us at the end of each day if we’d behaved. No one in that class was more enthralled than me, and the story that particularly gripped me was the classic Saki short story ‘The Lumber Room’. For many years, it remained niggling at the back of my mind as I couldn’t remember either the name of the story or who had written it. I had more of a sense of it being about a dusty room and the mysterious treasures within. But when I happened to stumble across it recently quite by chance, all the memories came flooding back, good and bad.
The plot of ‘The Lumber Room’ had also remained hazy in my mind, but rereading it as an adult it was instantly clear why it had struck a chord with me. It tells the tongue-in-cheek story of a young boy, Nicholas, who has misbehaved – in a ridiculously minor way – and as a result is prevented from going on a day trip to the beach with his family. His heavy-handed punishment is to suffer the boredom of remaining at home in the care of a stern aunt and having to make his own entertainment. But Nicholas has a plan, and uses his time to explore an enticing lumber room that the children are not allowed into. What was unusual about the story, written around 1914, was that far from being the usual cautionary tale, it depicted a child who manages to outwit the oppressive adults as well as fulfilling his own wishes. No wonder it held so much appeal. Incidentally, as Saki (aka Hector Hugh Munroe) was, by necessity, secretly gay in Edwardian England, these themes had underlying layers that the good sister and I were equally oblivious to.
For me, story time was an oasis in a day of boredom and bewilderment, and it always ended too soon, usually on a cliffhanger. I would be frantic for Sister A to read on, and the worst punishment she could dole out to me – worse than the kneeler and the clueless contemplation – was to refuse to do that day’s reading because we hadn’t been good enough to earn it (guess who the foot-shooting culprit was there, more often than not?). By the time I left third class, I was so hooked on stories that the only thing for it was to start reading books myself so that I would always be able to find out independently what happened next.