Harry Turner's Episodes of Personal History
Early Memories #4    | HISTORY Page | Obituary Page |

4. School in the Sky

Periodically I bump into other ex-pupils of St. Paul's Church School, once in Manchester's Temple Street, just round the corner from Mawson Street, now part of the demolished past. "Yeah, the one with the playground on the roof !" we chorus, recalling the unique architectural feature of that solid block of masonry, sited on the opposite side of the street to the parent church and infants' school buildings.

As I recall, the school was presided over by Miss Asquith, a grand-dame, tall, gaunt, broad-shouldered but motherly. On the ground floor Miss Scott, bespectacled, lips perpetually pursed, kept the junior class in order with the aid of an instrument, probably no longer seen in today's educational establishments, which I have always known as a 'clicker'. Its handle was surmounted by a wooden cone to which a flat strip of wood was firmly held by a rubber band.

The strip could be flicked with the thumb to produce a loud clicking noise, a sound that served to focus wandering minds on the task in hand. When a pupil drifted into a private dreamland, Miss Scott was not above giving the culprit a smart rap on the knuckles with her clicker to command instant attention.

Up above, on the way to the roof-top playground, Pop Hewitt reigned, a benevolent autocrat, cheery, roundfaced, balding, a plump Pickwickian character peering at the world through rimless pince-nez spectacles. He had no problems keeping discipline in his class: he would joke and set the class laughing, but if the response threatened to get out of hand, his voice acquired an incisive edge that cut through any tomfoolery and immediately restored order. He favoured a whippy slim cane for punishment but, as I recall, rarely needed to use it apart from an occasional prod when correct answers were slow in forthcoming.

And then there was Mr. Slater. Looking back I feel sorry for him: he was not popular. Obviously teaching was not his chosen career--he was a decidedly unhappy man and it often showed. Short-tempered and sadistic, he had a scar, a permanent bruise across the bridge of his nose, feeding the legend that he had at one time been a boxer.

The cane he wielded, too frequently for our comfort, was thick and well-frayed at the end, usually delivered across the palm of the offender's outstretched hand, particularly painful when, by accident or design, the cane struck the joint of the thumb. Occasionally, on a good day, we were granted the optional punishment of writing lines, less distressing but eating into valuable private time; or we were set the more practical task of copying out interminable perms for Mr Slater's weekly pools coupon during our lunch hour. He left no stone unturned in his bid to escape from the job.

During my stay in Mr Slater's class, my auntie Jean who danced with the Tiller Girls came back from Paris bearing gifts. She gave my mother a statuette of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. "Rub his hump and make a wish, and your wish will come true", she told me. I thought about this after one particularly bad week with Mr Slater, and was tempted. I rubbed the hunchback furiously and wished hard, wished that something would take away Mr Slater and end his oppressive regime...

Come Monday, the impossible happened. Pop Hewitt took over the class: Mr Slater did not come in. He wasn't in Tuesday either, when we learned that he was not likely to be with us for some considerable time, having fallen and broken his leg during the weekend. When, exactly, my guilty conscience wondered.

The hunchback statuette was among my mother's possessions when she died. I have it still and while I like to think I'm not superstitious, I've never ventured to invoke its powers since. ■

4a Alternative Fairy Tale Ending

Come Monday, the impossible happened. Pop Hewitt took over the class: Mr Slater did not come in. He didn't come in on Tuesday.

In fact we never saw him again.

It seems he'd apparently come into money.

A big pools win, we heard later.■

© Harry Turner, May 1997

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