The Progress Prize
This is the story of how, at fifteen years old, I became aware of the idea of home-schooling, and decided that was what I would want for my children of the future - children I was certain I would have one day. It's funny to think how this certitude was sealed and how fate then went on to provide. But for now, please consider this only Part 1 of a tale that ended up spanning many decades. On that I hope to continue.
I pulled on my boxy green-striped school uniform complete with blazer, cap and tie, called to my mother goodbye, before heading out the door one spring morning in 1973. Walking the fresh leafy lanes of Ashtead, I thought back over my first year of living in England, reflecting on how far I felt I was from my old life back in Calgary. I'd finished Grade 9 at the cozy Mount Royal Junior High in anticipation of entering real high school at the grand Western Canada. Now, however, I found myself in an unfamiliar system at a grade level called Lower Fifth Form at ‘Parson’s Mead Grammar School for the Daughters of Gentlemen’.
“What a stupid name,” I thought with mild disdain one more time, “No wonder the kids from other schools around here call us the 'Parsley Weeds!” It seemed a student of ‘Parson’s Mead’ automatically morphed into a ‘Parsley Weed' which didn't come with an air of flattery. And although I cringed at the nickname, I could laugh at the play on words, reminding me of the constant fun the Brits had with language. The school name also amused my father but for different reasons. He was struck by how it was a perfect example of the deeply patriarchal, class-conscious society in which we had landed, how it insinuated that although it was important who your father was, ie: a gentleman, your mother could be well, anybody or even nobody for that matter, or more hilariously according to my dad, 'a lady of the night'! But surely gentleman don’t get tangled up with ladies of the night or else they wouldn’t be gentlemen, would they? But then I was too young to share in his humour anyways, it being kind of disturbing if looked at too closely. I later discovered that the school, founded in 1897, was specifically designed to groom these daughters of supposed gentlemen for a successful home life, such were the times.
This day was a special day at school, being ‘Prize Day’. A few weeks before, I had been ceremoniously called up before the very intimidating Head Mistress to be told I would be receiving a prize on Prize Day and that prize came with a book of my choice. You can be sure that my hair was brushed, tie straightened, knee-socks pulled up before knocking nervously on the thick wood-paneled door that lead to her formal sitting-room/office. You see, Parson’s Mead was part-boarding school which meant that while some of the girls boarded full-time, others went home for the weekend, and then there was a third group called ‘day girls’, like myself at that point, who came and went every day. With a large clutch of charges under her constant care, the head of the school lived on the premises, as did various others like the boarding school house-matrons, those domineering, no-nonsense types who appeared to lack a sense of humour. Not to cross one of those was something I learnt straight away when I was a weekly-boarder for the first three months of my time at the school, before my parents bought a house in the village.
I made the mistake of washing my hair during my one allotted fifteen minute bath time on Wednesday evenings, only to discover that weekly boarders were not allowed to wash their hair at the school, the reason for which I never did discern. My dormitory mates turned pale and became frightened for me when they saw me emerge from the bathroom with my hair wrapped in a towel high upon my head like a beehive. With much frantic movement and noisy whispers, I was immediately bundled into one of their cubicles to be hidden from view. There I was told to get rid of the evidence by vigorously rubbing my head until the heat from the friction stung. I was then handed a comb before matronly ‘Matron’ came striding down the hall, stern and ever-suspicious in her white, shapeless uniform, her arms crossed sergeant-like across her ample bosom. After that I thanked God for the brand new invention of dry shampoo which my older sister in a letter from Canada had sympathetically suggested. At eighteen years old, she hadn’t followed the rest of us to England but was back ‘home’ trying to forge on alone with perhaps the wrong boyfriend, one who was busy taking his motorcycle apart on their living room floor. It was not long before she abandoned that mess to join us in our new life in the old country a few months later. “Yes, it makes the scalp itchy,” she agreed, “but at least your hair won’t look so greasy-gross by the time the weekend rolls around.”
Every Friday afternoon the school secretary ordered a taxi for me, one of those iconic, black London cabs we all know and love. I would be dropped off at the train station for my solo trek up to the big smoke to join my parents and brother for the weekend where they were happily ensconced in a company flat in London, in posh South Kensington don’t you know, until my parent’s found a house in Ashtead. My mother loved it, what with shopping at Harrods and Selfridges just around the corner or visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum and Hyde Park, all just a stone’s throw away. It was fun for her, back in her country of origin after half a lifetime spent on the edgy bald prairie, now soaking in a culture she had grown to miss so much so that she had almost abdicated her position as wife and mother the previous year by running away and into the arms of her England. Luckily, my father had managed a double quick maneuver by getting transferred by the company to this supposedly perfect place. I sensed the new opportunities that were before me now but I also felt that not being able to wash my hair all week was a bit much to ask of any teenage girl and anyways, my brother in Grade 12 was having a very relaxing time at the rather lax American School, a pleasant walk from the flat, having to complete just one more year before graduating, fingers crossed!
After school let out at the end of each week, I could not reach the London apartment fast enough. I traveled by said cab, nicotine-infused train, urine-drenched underground and finally by foot, to the alarming sound of cat calls all the way up Gloucester Road. I burst through the front door, shouting my hellos as I went running down the hall, stripping off my uniform even before I made it to the bedroom. I could not wait to jump into a steaming hot, full bathtub where I would submerge and let out an enormous sigh. Around about that time, Rod Stewart’s latest hit, ‘You Wear It Well’ would start circulating inside my head while luscious shampoo bubbles popped around my ears.
But back to Prize Day. To me, Head Mistress seemed old and very stern, although her cheeks still had that soft pink skin so often seen on elderly English ladies who have spent their whole lives dodging the rain. I liked her cheeks because they reminded me of my grandmother's who lived on the fens near Cambridge, in a cottage surrounded by flowers and fruit trees that my grandfather grew. But unlike my grandmother, the Head Mistress was a spinster and so was quite alone, although at tea-time she was brought her tea and biscuits on a tray lined with a pretty embroidered cloth by one of the kitchen staff. That must have made up for something. And the dark furniture that surrounded her had not a speck of dust. I hardly breathed when I entered in case I created some. It was obvious that someone very fastidious cleaned and polished her suite but something told me it was not the Head Mistress herself. That seemed an enviable position to be in from where I sat when she told me to sit on one of a pair of faded, chintz-covered, wing-back chairs.
Head Mistress peered disconcertingly over her bifocals at me from behind her big desk for a moment. At that point I was not completely sure why I was there. I distracted myself by gazing out the large, leaded-glass picture window behind her which looked out upon the lush school gardens. These were lovingly tended by two resident gardeners. Another smaller window to the side was open to the damp English air. Through it I could hear the volley of balls coming from the tennis courts around the corner just out of view, as well as the usual shouts of the ubiquitous “Sorry!” when a pass was missed. I enjoyed playing tennis out there in my new, white eye-let tennis dress with matching knickers, and liked to make fun of the other girls for being sorry all the time. Were we not learning and therefore expected to miss nearly every other ball? Was a constant stream of apologies necessary? The English, it seemed, were worse than the Canadians on that score!
I was glad I chose not to ride my ten-speed bicycle to school that day. It was actually a boys bike, a version for girls not having been available, so I had to get used to swinging my leg up high to get myself over the bar and onto the seat. It was simply not possible to do this in any kind of lady-like fashion while wearing the school uniform. To avoid exposing my underwear, which thankfully were not part of the kit and so could be any style or colour of my choice (at least that was something), I would slip on a pair of jeans under the summer dress or the winter pleated skirt for the ride to and from school. That’s called being practical. The extremely strict and quite frankly frightening history teacher, Mrs. East, caught me in the act once as I rode onto the school grounds on my way to lock up my bike in the shed behind the science building. She told me in no uncertain terms, again with arms crossed in front of ample bosom, heaving under dark mauve twin-set, that I was not allowed to wear blue jeans to school, or anything other than the uniform in fact. In her mind this meant I would no longer be riding my beloved ‘Midnight Streaker’, the name I had given my bike due to its black and red streaks, to and from Parson’s Mead Grammar School for the Daughter’s of Gentlemen. She did not know that my bike was bought for me by my father the summer before back in Canada when my mother was away considering the abdication that I mentioned so it meant a lot to me. Not only did the bike anchor me to Canada, it also anchored me to my father who believed that the bicycle was the best human invention ever. Knowing it to be insane not to be allowed to ride a bike to school because of an issue of uniform, I then got around this nonsense by nervously dismounting my bike and slipping off my jeans just before the school came into sight and the reverse on the way back home. However, it would not do to have this new tactic discovered on the same day I was told I was to receive a prize.
In my meeting with Head Mistress, she solemnly instructed me to go to Foyles Bookstore in London as soon as possible, choose a book and bring it back to her. She would then present it to me in front of the whole school on the big stage on the big day. It sounded a bit like picking my own Christmas present which seemed pretty good so I did as I was told, boarding the train the following weekend, making sure there were plenty of other ladies in the non-smoking compartment. It had not taken long to learn by direct experience that those trains seemed to attract a certain number of perverts wishing to expose themselves, given half a private position within sight of an unsuspecting young female victim. Forty-five brave minutes later, once again in the heart of the dirty, exhausting yet exciting city, at fifteen years old I was finding my way to the iconic bookstore on Charing Cross Road.
Upon entering Foyles Bookstore, I was immediately overwhelmed by the sheer number of books lining the over-stuffed shelves, in aisles upon aisles of not one, two, three or four, but on five floors. In between, all available space was taken up by tables piled high with all the more titles to tempt me. I immediately froze under the weight of my decision, there was simply too much choice. In my mind, the eyes of the Head Mistress and even the whole school were upon me. “What book will she pick?,” they seemed to whisper between themselves. “Will it be an ‘appropriate’ choice?”, they wondered. I remember thinking it had begun to feel like a test!
I had been given a generous sum of money to spend and so I could conceivably have come away with something substantial like a large, glossy coffee table volume on the history of film, let’s say, or perhaps a compilation of the last quarter century of ‘Life Magazine’. I was flummoxed, vacillating this way and that, something I am apt to do when under stress anyways, getting mentally worn out and beginning to despair when nothing jumped out to say, “Pick me, pick me!” Panic was definitely setting in as the task of choosing grew too great, the responsibility too heavy for one so young. I exaggerate of course but only a little, such was my bewilderment. Then, just at the moment of crisis, when I was wondering of it would be okay to leave without a book, I inadvertently picked up a small, slim volume, costing a mere fraction of what I could have spent and that book ended up influencing the rest of my life. I think that means that the book I chose was priceless.
I was being awarded a prize that I felt had a dubious distinction; it was called the ‘Progress Prize’. It turned out, I had apparently come the furthest in more ways than just miles covered. In Canada, lessons at school were rather slack by comparison, as was the dress code. I had come from a world of patched jeans with large triangles of loud fabric sewn into the bottom side-seams to create really big bell-bottoms. My friends and I were the little brother’s and sister’s of the hippy movement, born too late but determined not to be left behind. Our teachers were chummy and spoke to us of team spirit, teaching us how to chant ‘rah, rah, rah’ at school sport tournaments. We studied a little, yes, but we also went to those pep rallies, put on plays, put up posters and ran for student council. We had good old-fashioned box-socials and were even allowed to ‘man’ the school office at lunch hour so that the staff could take a break, all in a co-ed environment. In short, it was fun! Then came England, and the school for ‘who cares who your mother is’.
While my friends back home were entering the exciting world of Grade Ten at Western Canada High School, I was, well, joining the ‘Parsley Weeds’. Here I stood up to attention with the other girls to say, in singsongy unison, “Good Morning, Mrs. So and So,” when the teacher entered the room. I suffered the indignity of having the hem of my skirt measured to make sure it was not too far above my knees, as well as the heels of my shoes, to be sure that they were no more than an inch in height. That was the meager maximum that was allowed in those, otherwise, outrageous days of Elton John and his sparkly six inch platform soles. I was appalled to have my scalp examined for something called head lice, which I had never heard of prior to my arrival. And when it came to practicing deportment, I began to think I was at finishing school after all while the girls and I walked around the room ever-so-carefully in stately fashion, balancing books upon our heads. I might as well have been in an episode of that pre-schoolers’ television show called ‘Romper Room’! It would have been a whole lot more fun if I had been allowed to burst into a lusty rendition of “See me walk so straight and tall, I won’t let my basket fall, eyes ahead and don’t look down, keep that basket off the ground”, just like on the idiot box. Maybe the rest of the girls would have laughed and joined in, singing the seriousness of it all away but then again, that might have made the books hit the floor which would have landed us all in trouble. To top it off, all winter I was forced to play field hockey in a chilly gym slip, as they called it, and woolly knee-socks on freezing wet fields. There was no sympathy coming from the ‘games’ teacher for those ‘sensitives’ with asthma, like myself. Treated suspiciously we were, reluctantly allowed to sit out on only rare occasions. Otherwise, I had struggled on with ankles bruised from one too many run-ins with overly-enthusiastic hockey sticks belonging to the opposing team. Not really my favourite cup of tea.
But boy, how we learned our lessons. Here there was no slacking but rather a rigorous delivery of history, geography, biology, mathematics, literature and language, French, and something oddly called, domestic science. It was full tilt and head on. Essay writing skills replaced the multiple choice exams I had grown used to in Canada. Learning was exciting and rewarding at times but not without considerable stress and a distinct feeling of having become a vessel into which a certain amount of information had to be poured, and fast. My own creative centre had little time to blossom and grow under such weight and there was scant time to check in with myself to say, “Hello.” Was that why I lost so much weight and I didn’t have a period for over six months? Or was I overly-controlling my eating since it was the only thing I could control in my life at that time?
It was in this climate that I arrived at the table of books on the third floor of Foyles Bookstore reaching for a small, unassuming title called ‘The Children On The Hill: The Story of an Extraordinary Family ’ by Michael Deakin. I turned it over to read the blurb on the back and there was my entry into a whole new world of educational possibilities. Here was a story about a young family in rural Wales pioneering a return to home-schooling, long before anyone else even thought to step out of line, at least as far as my adolescent self knew, daring to say goodbye to instituted education, trusting themselves and their children to their own innate guidance and wisdom. The children on the hill it said, had time to explore their inner and outer worlds to their heart’s content, learning naturally and fully, not being overloaded with quotas of information thrust upon them to be chewed and spat out at exam time, mostly to be forgotten immediately after. In that moment, I felt myself caught between two distinct approaches, one a tad loose around the edges, the other vigorous but strict and overbearing. Lo and behold, here in my hands was the description of a third way, another way, the middle way, set out in such a way as to suggest that freedom and true learning could go hand in hand. I was instantly hooked and very much wanted to be part of the grand experiment.
I self-consciously gave Head Mistress the book outside her office the following day. I had brought it to her as instructed so she could present it to me on Prize Day. I hoped she would not be miffed by my investigations into other forms of education, feeling acutely aware that I could be perceived to be admitting dissatisfaction with her school by choosing ‘The Children on the Hill’. I did not want to appear ungrateful but would she really take that much notice? And if she did, would she care? Ultimately none of this mattered, I had chosen and that was that and as it turned out, she never did share her opinion or invite me to have what might have been a helpful exchange on the philosophy of learning. More importantly, despite these feelings of discomfort, I had miraculously chosen to think for myself, a crucial step on the road to growing up authentically.
Prize Day came and went without much fanfare in the end, just a gathering on the squeaky floor in the old school hall that smelled of years and layers of wax and polish. There was an opening prayer and at closing, the usual singing of the school hymn, ‘Jerusalem’. We belted out those lyrics by William Blake because even in our youth, or maybe because of it, we sensed the sacred energy in ‘and did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green….?’ I almost got teary but then suddenly silly as it seemed a perfect opportunity to try out my pretend operatic voice, being safely tucked into a deep row of pupils away from any accurate earshot of the teachers. I had been called up to receive my prize from Head Mistress, along with a line of others who were receiving theirs. She had passed the book to me with a faint smile and a quick, efficient hand-shake. It was impossible to tell if she even noticed the title or what lay within. While there were other numerous awards given out that day, for what I thought to be real academic distinction, I was the only one to receive the humble Progress Prize.
Back in my chair, I passed the book amongst my curious friends but they soon lost interest. It didn’t seem to fire their imaginations like it did mine. I quietly tucked the book into my brown leather satchel, the one that my mother was so pleased to buy for me upon our arrival in England because it reminded her of one she had carried her schoolbooks in as a girl. It seemed terribly old-fashioned to me but I liked it because she loved it. After school that day, I flung it’s heavy weight across my back for the long walk home since I hadn't ridden my bike that morning. Down the street I went, past the Woodman Pub, the Youth Centre and the playing fields, alongside the tranquil pond with it’s flighty ducks and serene swans, across the open, grassy common, over the electric railway crossing to our new home at Number 10, Over Dale and to my mother, who was clattering away in the kitchen preparing dinner to the sound of trains passing by at the bottom of the garden.
I ran up the stairs striping off my school uniform like I always did, in favour of my soft faded jeans. I lay across my bed and began devouring my prize. Before long I was inhaling the fresh oxygenated air of the Welsh countryside where the children on the hill called home. Memories of stuffy schoolrooms where I dutifully bent over the pages of dry textbooks retreated within the first few pages, as I imagined being trusted and gently guided to follow my natural burning desire to learn and to know the world and myself by following my own true heart. I knew though, before I’d even begun, that this was not to be my destiny. Alas, it simply wasn’t on anyone’s radar in my world at that time. But later, as a mother? With my own children? Now maybe that was something I could muster. When I finished the book, I tucked it away with the idea firmly entrenched in my soul, believing that some day, some how, I would do just that!