‘…Off to school we gaily go.
Every one with smiling looks,
Slates and sums and copy-books.
Mother at the gateway stands.
Baby waves his pretty hands,
Thinking with a merry coo,
Wish that I could come with you !’ (Gomm, 31).
Amy devotes a section of her memoir to her experiences at school and entitles it ‘Off to School.’ The title does not seem to hold any importance like other titles in the memoir. This one is just because it was something that had to be done. The title comes from a poem she comments, ‘so insisted a children’s book we had around that time. There was a picture to prove it, too’ (Gomm, 31). She begins her school section with an ironically optimistic poem.
This poem makes school seem like something that the children looked forward to. However, Amy’s inclusion of the poem is to highlight her distaste for school. She did not gaily go off to school but instead did not have much feeling toward the education system. Amy’s commentary on the poem suggests that she was aware of school not living up to the expectations the children’s book provided, ‘Young as we were, we saw through it. “Gaily” and “smiling looks”? It was a nice thought. “Slates, sums, copy-books”? They belonged to school, and there they stayed. And did you ever know a baby who, wanting to do something he wasn’t doing, expressed himself in a “merry coo”? A furious yell, in our experience; and better not to try rhyming with that.’ (Gomm, 31). Amy’s sarcastic thoughts on the poem suggest that school was not a gaily affair. The inclusion of humour when writing about the baby crying indicates the realistic outlook Amy had on school as a child. She was not duped by the optimism of children’s books but instead learned herself that school did not hold any significant value for her.
Amy tells us that she went to school for the first time, sometime between 1904 or 1905 but only “perhaps half a dozen times.” It was not really significant part of Amy’s life. She tells us, ‘I’d go for a day, pick up something (it certainly wasn’t education!) that laid me low for a few days or weeks’ (Gomm, 31). Amy’s sarcastic comment about picking up something that was certainly not education highlights the strong distaste she felt regarding the education system. It seems that Amy believed the education system of the twentieth century was lacking. John Burnett writes ‘the acquisition of learning was evidently regarded by all classes except the poorest as having important social, economic and cultural attributes’ (129). This perhaps indicates why Amy had such distaste towards school as she believed it would not benefit her life.
As Amy tells us, she only went to school for a short amount of time. Therefore, she writes about the experiences of her siblings Laurie and Syd shared at school, ‘So when we talk about going to school, the chances are that it was only Laurie and Syd who were going. And it’s Amy who’s writing. You see the difficulty?’ (Gomm, 31). Amy’s rhetorical question indicates that there might be some confusion for this section of the memoir but the reference to ‘I’ in this section is Laurie or Syd through Amy’s writing. Amy writes about the long distance her siblings had to travel to get to school but they knew other children had to do the same so they did not get upset over weather conditions, ‘Other children who came long distances were in like case, so we didn’t waste any sympathy on ourselves. The rude health brigade didn’t come to much harm from it.’ (Gomm, 32). Amy suggests that the health brigade did not seem to care too much that the conditions the children walked in could led to ill-health.
Amy talks about the dinner bags the children took to school that contained, ‘sandwiches – bacon, cheese or hard-boiled egg. There might be a slab of home-made or dough cake; a wedge of cold spotted dick or treacle pudding, or a current turnover.’ (Gomm, 32). The time devoted to describing the food the children took to school suggests that it was the most exciting aspect of school. Amy tells how the children were so exhausted and hungry from their journey to school that it would sometimes result in eating their lunches, ‘Give a child food at about 7.30am. to be eaten at noon or later, and what happens? What happens when you keep a horse with a nose-bag permanently at the ready? We would eat most of our dinner sandwiches at mid-morning break; because we’d eaten our mid-morning snack on the long, hungry walk to school.’ (Gomm, 32).
Yet, despite her obvious distaste for education Amy briefly discusses her memories of school. She remembers eating a cherry and being told that a cherry tree would grow inside her, ‘What worried me about the cherry tree wasn’t the fact of it being there. I had this hat complex. You had to wear one. As soon go without your dress as without your hat. And how would I get it on, on top of this cherry tree?’ (Gomm, 34). Amy humorously remembers her childish gullibility to believe childlike notions. Also, it is significant that Amy remembers silly memories like this more than anything actually to do with school or education. Amy ends this section of her memoir with no feeling toward school, ‘We’ve gone to, and came back from, school; we’ve whiled away the dinner time. What you might reasonably ask – was the purpose of it all? Education, that’s what. We’ll tell you…’ (Gomm, 36).
When Amy turned fourteen, her family moved from Charlbury to Oxford where Amy actually thoroughly enjoyed her schooling experience. Through age, perhaps Amy realisedAmy was clearly very capable and her school teachers believed in her ability as they suggested she applied for a scholarship. However, when Amy told her parents she did not think she would be able to do it, they do not push her and she does not “sit for the scholarship” (Gomm, 105). Despite, the clear disappointment Amy felt, she explains that her parents had a point, ‘they had a point of view. There would have been difficulties if I’d succeeded. Though the family fortunes had improved, they weren’t so good that one child could call on so much books and school uniform, and general “setting up”. There’d have to be a concert, to raise funds. Their inborn independence rebelled against that’ (Gomm, 104). This highlights the struggles of working class – despite the fortunes of the family increasing, it is not possible for them to aid Amy’s possibility of a scholarship. Johnathan Rose writes, ‘although parental interest in education did decline steadily with class status, no less than 71.3 percent of working class people described their parents as interested in their schooling, compared to 82.3 percent in other classes’ (131). Perhaps Amy’s family were interested in her schooling but they simply did not have the financial stability required for a scholarship.
324 GOMM, Amy Frances, ‘Water Under the Bridge’, TS, pp.163 (c.55,000 words). Brunel University Library.
Burnett, John ed. Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education, and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s. London: Alan Lane, 1982.
Rose, Jonathan. ‘Willingly to School: The Working-Class Response to Elementary Education in Britain, 1875-1918’, Journal of British Studies 32. 2 1993, 114-138.
Children at School –
Children enjoying school dinner –