Grade School
In England,
1914 - 1916

School must seem strange at all times, it cannot be natural to go to school. It is no odder than the world outside, only more concentrated. So that when war was declared in 1914 our hysteria became a fair copy of what could be found outside the grounds only larger, we displayed it in purer form.

I can remember headlines saying


in bigger letters than any I had seen and nothing else at first, no one went to whom I had to say goodbye, my father was too old, my eldest brother not old enough yet. We slipped into war the creatures of a routine which did not vary and it was only gradually things began to be different.

Many boys had their fathers fighting and there was one such parent, a general who wrote every week to our old monster [the headmaster of his grade school]. When a letter came he had us all called together and then read what was in it. We followed how things were going with flag pins stuck into a large map put up over the scholarship board.

If we did wrong we were reminded they were out there fighting for us...

Now we did no more gym but were drilled instead, no more boxing but dummy bayonet fighting. We formed fours twice a week, we shot with rook rifles on a miniature range. And was it then or some time later that, as our school was on the south coast, some formation of the hills round brought no louder than as seashells echo the blood pounding in ones ears noise of gunfire through our windows all the way from France so that we looked out and thought of death in the sound and this was sweeter to us than rollers tumbling on a beach.

As food began to get short we were put on to growing vegetables in the gardens. Twice a week we weeded and did jobs of the kind that were not too difficult. Being strong I was given a mallet to split firewood, another boy held the wedges. One day our old tyrant came and held these himself and I hit him smack on the thumb, splitting it open. He never said a word and walked away hiding his finger. He did not even hold it against me.

At one time in the year we went out to hoe turnips on a farm near by, mangel-wurzels such as in happier days my mother had Poole [the gardener] roll across the lawn for her to shoot and we were so hungry we ate the small ones. The farmer, an enormous man, had been a weight lifter and to reward us when our work was done he gave a performance with those long dumb bells they use, made of iron painted black.

Food, always in our minds, began to haunt our dreams. Not that we were unhappy or obsessed only there was not enough and what there was of bad quality. I can remember hams more than high with gaps in the meat and a smelly clear liquid in these, plates and plates of rice and messes of lentils. But we never really had too little, no one's health was affected, it was only unpleasant and not something to go through again. Sunday stood out for that reason because on that day they gave us cake for tea extra to the slabs of bread with margarine we had on weekdays. And for lunch, as we sat all strange in our Eton suits, having been to Sunday service and finished our regulation Sunday letter home, there might be what was our favourite sweet of all, ginger pudding with treacle.

Sunday smelled, I do not know why, but that day perhaps because one had time to notice. It began with the school chapel which was heavily waxed to make the tortured wooden pews stand out, grained pine, and then the linoleum everywhere had been polished. Again, each Sunday afternoon we had a walk still dressed in our best and we could draw in the sweet country air, this island's attar of roses, coming from the sea overland to where we meandered, the woods all about us, rooks up in the sky, the cattle in the fields. Every lane so it now seems was sunken, tufts of grass and wild flowers overhung our walks and sometimes, coming over the hill, we had that view over all the county where it lay beneath in light haze like a king's pleasure preserved for idle hours; that was how we went within earshot of the guns, chattering and happy through loveliness.

Almost in the town we were outside there was a park they let us visit, a place of broad grass avenues, the slopes on each side covered by trees and with bracken which hid the deer. The great house it was about hushed the whole place, was beautiful by time, by its leisure and by something which even at the age one was then was overwhelming. It was here, on these Sundays, I began to have those first movements of delight, those first motions toward the open heart which is growing up, taking one's place, looking beauty right in her cow eyes.

There were other smells, and this is almost too much one fears to be believed, as when there was an epidemic of measles or another illness of that kind and our headmaster had everyone wearing two pairs of socks with garlic in between. This was indeed a stench and our schoolmistresses went about like cats found out, with haughty faces.

There was the smell of hot water when after football he made us take off our clothes and step into a trough sunk in the floor and here I first knew modesty, that shrink from mass nudity I still have, that shock, that feeling this is wrong which in my case is the strongest of all instinctive feelings. To this day I draw blinds and lock doors. I feel helpless with no clothes. I mind men seeing me naked more than women.

The war went on, more and more people were killed. When our mothers visited us they often had news of relatives who had lost their lives. When they came down they were allowed to take us out to tea in the town and it was a rule we had made between ourselves that each of these times we should take a friend with us. This rule was unbreakable and it so happened that when a friend's father lost his life and his mother came down to read out his last letters home I went out with them and after tea we sat in that park I have described and they both cried over his letters as we sat with our backs against a tree. You would have thought this rule could be relaxed at such a time but there was no question of it. We always had boiled eggs when out for tea.

--- From Pack My Bag
Henry Green
©1993 New Directions
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