Lessons were much the same. Beyond the fact that when the register was taken we had to say “Present please” and curtsy when our teacher first came into the room, there wasn’t much difference at all. We learnt how to read, write, do maths etc. The only difference was that we started learning a language in our second year at school. When we left I had started learning a second language. Had I stayed in South Africa I would probably be fluent in two languages. I find it very, very strange that primary school children don’t learn a language soon after they start to learn to read and write. Other countries are so much better at this than the UK is, and I honestly wish the UK was better. I’d like to have a second language. It’s so much easier to learn when you’re younger than it is when you’re older.
School started at 8:20 and ended at just past 3. I would be picked up from school in my first two years of school, but once I was deemed old enough to walk to my mother’s work I did. I very quickly learnt how to read while walking. I loved reading. It was quite possibly the best thing I was taught how to do. Reading opened up new worlds, magical worlds that just didn’t exist on the TV or in films. I read anything I could get my hands on. We would be given chapters of books to read for school the next day and I’d then read the whole book that evening. It was through books that I got a love of history. We were asked to read a story from a book of short stories. While reading the whole book I read about Anne Boleyn and her execution. The story didn’t go into the history much, but talked about how her ghost is said to haunt the Tower to this day, rushing towards the place where Henry spent the night praying, then sobbing outside his door for a reprieve. It was my first taste of history and I wanted to know more. I was so excited to be moving to a place of castles and so many old houses to visit.
Reading also lead to me reading things I perhaps I shouldn’t have read. In one of my classrooms there was a set of bookshelves arranged in such a way that it felt like we had a miniature library in our class. We were allowed to pick out books from the shelves and read what we liked during reading time. I discovered a book that was all about how babies were made. I was 7 years old at the time and very curious about everything. In fact, I still am very curious. I read the book and asked my teacher what it meant. She told me she would explain it to me at the end of the year. I then went home and told my parents.
“I know how babies are made.”
“Oh yes”, they said, expecting me to tell them a typical playground story of how the stork comes or something like that.
“Yes. The man puts his penis (pronounced pen iss) into a woman’s vagina (hard g, the i pronounced as it is in in) and the sperm meets the egg and it becomes a baby”
My parent’s jaws had dropped. I don’t remember asking them what it meant. I think I’d decided that I was already going to be told about it, so there was no point asking my parents as well. I didn’t really know what a penis or vagina was but I knew that babies didn’t come from the stork. They came from some strange act that my teacher would explain later in the year. My parents then told me that I really shouldn’t talk to the other children in my class about this as their parents wouldn’t like it. So I shelved the knowledge into the back of my head and carried on. Parts of the book I still remember. Thanks to that book I know that the egg is about the size of a pencil dot on a page and that you can’t see sperm without a microscope. At the end of that school year my mother walked me out of class. I turned to her and said “She never did explain the book to me”. My parents won’t let me forget my mispronunciations of the male and female genitalia.
What was very different were the school trips I went on. I didn’t realise how lucky I was until I tell people about them. One of my first school trips was to a nature reserve that’s situated in Cape Town. I’ve always loved nature reserves and I think my love stems from this trip. Rondevlei Nature Reserve was home to an array of birds and animals, including hippos. We spent the morning learning about the animals and the various birds and plants in the education centre before walking off around the reserve. We learnt about the danger of the hippos, that even though they look heavy and slow moving, when they charge they can be deadly. It wasn’t said in a way to frighten us, but to inform us and to make sure we knew what to do on the very rare chance that there was a hippo out of the water. We watched them in the lake, bobbing along, occasionally they were just shapes bobbing along with just the top of their heads and their nostrils peeking out. At other times it was most of their bodies. For the most part, though, they were just placidly floating in the cool water. It seemed strange that one of these creatures could run faster than we could. We whispered together, wondering whether there were crocodiles in the water too. There weren’t and we were a little disappointed at that.
Another trip was to a farm. We got to see a cow being milked, although we weren’t allowed to have a go ourselves. It had something to do with the risk of being kicked by a cow, but we were hoping they would change their minds, anyway, and let us have a go. We were able to be very hands on during the rest of the day that we couldn’t believe we weren’t allowed to be hands on with this. The farm had a pen of giant turtles. They were absolutely huge. Due to their size we were told that we could sit on them, if we wanted, and have a bit of a ride. The ones that it was ok to do this to were pointed out to us. Their shells felt so hard and smooth under my fingers, their skin was wrinkly and tough. Sitting on the largest one, feeling myself rock from side to side, I felt like I was going to fall off. The ground was so close, though, that it would have been a lot of fun if I had fallen off. In the guinea pig enclosure we were able to pet the soft, furry, friendly creatures. I put one in my straw hat (as demanded by the school uniform) and it fell asleep. I really, really hoped that no one would notice and I’d be able to take it home. They did and I had to put my new friend down. The best thing about that day, though was discovering the most incredibly sour sweets. We were allowed to go to the tuck shop just before we got back on the coach and they had these green sour sweets that a friend and I dared each other to buy. They were amazingly sour and we spent the journey back sucking on them, making the funniest wincing facial expressions.
The biggest difference between the schools I went to in England and the school I went to in South Africa was the second class trip we had to a farm. It was a class mate’s farm. They just had a batch of chicks hatch and she was telling the class and the teacher about it. The teacher decided that it would be a good educational trip for us to go and see the chicks. She very quickly got permission from the headmistress and our parents. Off we went by bus to my friend’s very big farm, swimming costumes in hand because we were promised a dip in the dam if we behaved. The chicks were tiny, but we weren’t allowed to hold them. Partially because they didn’t want us to hurt them, but also because we were told the hen would know they had been touched and they would be killed by her. We wandered around some of her beautiful land before heading to swim in their dam. It looked like a big paddling pool, but we all knew that it wasn’t and was extremely deep. Our teacher knew that we were strong enough swimmers, but made sure we kept to the edge, just in case we got tired. It was a lovely impromptu outing. Had I been older it would have highlighted just how different my life was to some of the other girls I went to school with. My house and the gardens around it would have been dwarfed by her farm. Luckily I was oblivious to it all and just enjoyed the experience.
My favourite trip was to Groot Constantia, a wine estate in the suburb of Constantia in Cape Town. It’s the oldest wine estate in South Africa. At the time we were learning about the Dutch Colonial era and the colonisation of the country. As the manor house on the wine estate is a beautiful example of Dutch colonial architecture, we went to go and look at it. I think we must have been around 8 years old at the time. It’s strange to think now that a group of 8 year olds went on a tour of a wine estate, but it was absolutely fascinating. We learnt about the history of the house and grounds, and then we got taken around the cellars. We were taught how the wine was made, and shown where it was stored. The smell of the cork barrels was so strong, as was the smell of fermenting grapes. After that we went on a walk around the vineyard. The grapes looked luscious and ripe. A parent that was with us picked a bunch and encouraged myself and another classmate to do the same, to taste the grapes, and so I did. As soon as I did that I heard our teacher telling off another child for doing the same thing, saying that it effectively amounted to stealing. I looked at the bunch of grapes in my hands and at the now severed stalk it came from. Knowing I’d get into trouble if my teacher saw me with it I quickly hid it in my lunchbox and carried on with the day.
As part of our history lessons we went on a walk around the area of Cape Town around our school. Springfield was over 100 years old, and so parts of it were historical in its own right. We walked around it and were taught about how and why it was founded by the Dominican nuns back in the 1800’s. We then walked around the area just down the hill from where the school was. One of the first things we were shown was the plaque that is put on any building over a certain number of years old to show that it was an historical building. We were taken around one of these buildings. It was a private residence, so the furniture and fixtures around the place weren’t from that time. However, it was interesting to see the layout of the rooms and imagine what it must have been like.