Where does our ‘right and wrong’ come from?

Snow on Sherburn Hill

Sherburn Hill

I suppose she was the first authority figure we knew, outside our family. Mrs Hailes was headmistress of Sherburn Village Infants. A warm jovial older lady, and although she never took us in class, she taught me the difference between ‘a’ and ‘an’, just while we were waiting to do something else. I would now always know it was ‘an elephant’.

Perhaps ‘being good’ or ‘being naughty’ have little to do with right and wrong or good and evil. I was ‘good’ because I didn’t want to disappoint Mrs Hailes.

My friend Martin ‘lifted’ a Matchbox car from the hall where a jumble sale was being set up. He showed me it in the playground. It was a little second-hand, bashed, paint scratched combine harvester. He held it under the soapy foam that came out of a waste pipe from the sinks in the dinner hall, which was a separate building from the school. The flow of foam made the little combine spin round. It was brilliant, but wrong. I couldn’t believe he’d done it. I knew he shouldn’t have it. I knew we couldn’t put it back. I told him so. Then I dropped it into the drain. I don’t know how Mrs Hailes found out, but she did. We explained everything. She listened. We left. She knew that we knew and that was enough punishment: the shame of letting her down.

We only knew Mrs Hailes for those three first years of school. In 1978, we moved up to the junior side, and Mr Jackson was our headmaster. She retired and went to live on Sherburn Hill. We had a celebration in the hall and she got presents, given by Mrs Reed who would now take her place. She looked happy. But I felt it was sad. I often wanted to go up Sherburn Hill and thank her for the elephants.

If you liked this theme of childhood and school memories you may like:

I own the only surviving copy of time

My headmaster still owes me £50

Why do we remember what we remember?

Everyone remembers a good teacher

The Creative Troublemaker

Don’t Talk to Strangers

The End of a Friendship

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

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2 comments on “Where does our ‘right and wrong’ come from?

  1. It is absolutely true, Ayd, that we retain indelible memories of those key figures from our early years who struggled – with different degrees of success – to impose the crucial ‘right and wrong’ values upon us. Here is one of mine, from a very long time ago . . .

    MARCH, 1959

    He couldn’t believe it. Bloody sums again!

    “Bloody sums again!” complained Robert to the others on his table. Why did Miss Pinchen have to go away and get married? When he found out where she had gone, he would write to her and tell her how many sums Miss Baxter had been giving them since she left.

    Next to him, Parvinder put her hand up. “Please, miss, Robert said ‘bloody’ again!”

    Like an owl, Miss Baxter turned her head slowly around from scratching the sums on the blackboard with her chalk talon. She spotted her prey.

    “Come up, Robert Bell!” she snapped. She walked purposefully over to the sink as he made his way there, too. She took out a soap dish from a cupboard above. There was a pile of little cubes of soap in the dish. She pointed to the dish.

    Robert knew what to do – he had been getting one of these at least once a day. He took a cube and put it in his mouth. He had to keep it in for ten minutes. As he went back to his seat, he felt the admiration of the others as they watched him. He couldn’t decide if the horrible taste was worth it.

    He sat down again and tried to do a sum. Parvinder always kept her arm around her book so that he couldn’t see her answers. He looked for his rubber.

    “Who’s pinched my bloody rubber?”

    “Please, miss, Robert said ‘bloody’ again!”

    With two cubes in his mouth, the morning milk tasted horrible. Yesterday, he had drunk quite a lot of water at playtime. There had been a long complaining queue behind him at the water fountain. One bigger boy – known as Gobstopper – had finally yanked him away.

    “Ain’t your tongue clean enough yet, soldier boy?”

    Before playtime, they had a health inspection. A man with a stethoscope and a lady in a white hat came to look at their hair, test their breathing and check their eyes and teeth. They went up one-by-one to a bay near the sink at the front. They didn’t take long and soon Robert was called up. The man hardly said anything, just “Hmm.”

    Suddenly, there was a break in the routine. The man asked to see the attendance and address book. He told Robert to sit down by the sink. This hadn’t happened to the others – it wasn’t bloody fair. He sat there miserably in his vest and shorts. Then the lady in the white hat asked him if his mummy was at home. Of course she bloody was – where else would she bloody be?


    Then the lady brought the dish of little soap cubes from the sink and handed them to the man. Robert was astounded! How had they heard him swearing? He hadn’t said it out loud, had he? He reached up and took a cube. It was halfway to his mouth when the man snatched it back. Robert was very confused and the sides of his mouth began to twitch.

    The lady told him not to worry. She helped him to put his shirt on and he went back to his seat. The man went to talk to Miss Baxter. He looked very serious. He was shaking his head and tapping on the dish with his finger. It was a puzzling memory picture.

    Robert opened his new library book. It was about London and it had a lot of photographs. Parvinder poked her finger into his arm and pointed to his pencil on the table. It was broken in half.

    “Look what somebody did,” she whispered. Robert turned away from her and put one elbow on the table, hand on chin.

    He was halfway through his book when he looked up again. The man and lady had finished with the class and were leaving. The class were leaving, too, as it was playtime. Miss Baxter went out and he was on his own in the classroom. He had an idea.

    He grabbed an empty box from underneath the painting place and skimmed quickly up and down every table in the room. Rubbers, pencils, sharpeners, crayons, nib pens and rulers all went into the box. Next, he went around again, putting them down anywhere he wanted. He tossed the empty box back. Then he went outside for a drink.

    After play, there was handwriting practice. Robert had sharpened one of his pencil halves and had started copying the poem from the blackboard. He heard Graham Calderwood first, on another table.

    “Hey, that’s MY ruler! Yes, it is, it’s got my name on!”

    “I never took it. Ruth says you’ve got her sharpener.”

    “Gimme that! It’s mine!”

    “I can prove it – my mummy bought these colours for my birthday!”

    “Let GO! MISS BAX-TER!”

    Miss Baxter was moving backwards and forwards through the tables, trying to sort out all the quarrels. Everyone was arguing, pushing and pulling. Some people were out of their seats checking other tables for their things. Robert had inherited two pencils, a rubber and a box of crayons from others who didn’t recognise them as theirs, and didn’t want to be caught with them. He got up and strode up and down, holding them out.
    “Are these yours? Does this belong to you? Do you know whose this is?” It was very satisfying. He felt like Robin Hood.

    “All right! Everyone sit DOWN!”

    Everyone sat down. Miss Baxter was red in the face. “Now, just look after your own property. Get on with your handwriting – and, if it’s not done neatly, you’ll miss painting and do it again!”

    Miss Baxter was always cancelling painting. She didn’t like the noise and mess. Robert picked up one of his new unclaimed pencils to continue the handwriting poem again. He read over to himself what he had written:

    ‘Postman, with your singing
    And letters galore –
    Who knows what you’re bringing,
    Knocking at my d –’

    There was a knock at the door. Miss Baxter greeted a man they hadn’t seen before. She nodded and smiled a lot. He came round the class talking to them and looking at their books. He asked Robert why he liked Biggles.

    “He has a friend called Ginger, miss – um, sir – and my hair is ginger.”

    Then Robert read to him for quite a long time. The man told him that he liked Biggles, too. He talked a lot to Miss Baxter. She was still nodding and smiling.

    Just before dinnertime, Robert was called up to the front of the class. To his surprise, he was highly praised for his reading standard. Everyone clapped him! The man asked if they could all hear him read something. Robert went to his seat and brought back his London book to read.

    “This is a book about London, where we live and where I was born,” he explained, proudly. He turned to the page where he had last stopped. In front of the class, holding the book up with both hands, he continued reading aloud.

    “ ‘In nineteen forty-five, the streets of London were once again filled with crowds of joyful people, celebrating the end of . . . .’ ”

    Suddenly, Robert stopped, his mouth became dry and his knees started to shake.

    “Go on, lad,” encouraged the man, in a kindly tone.

    Robert continued, hoarsely.

    “Um, ‘. . . .celebrating the end of another terrible bloody war.’ ”

    *** *** *** *** ***


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