I have never liked having my photograph taken – still don’t – but do make an effort to keep existing pictures (well, ones I approve). Early, black and white, ones were taken of me when I was sent to Oxford House School, Lexden Road, Colchester at the age of three. A Montessori preparatory school, it was (and still is) a parents’ dream. There I am, standing gauche and skinny in my summer school uniform in the garden of Number 47 – a child of the 1960s, with sixteenth century gargoyles behind me and the remains of a Roman villa underfoot.
I’d long wanted to learn to read and write – I grew up surrounded by books and with parents who read daily; to me, to each other and to themselves. My books had pictures, why didn’t theirs? What were those patterns on the page and how could they hold attention for hour after hour? My father patiently wrote out words for me to copy. Early attempts at writing my name onto items around the house led to indelible accidents with biro ink – my father’s brown leather wallet had my blue name writ large. Forever.
I copied beautifully and clearly and through the looking glass. A left-hander, I automatically and instinctively wrote from right to left with reverse lettering. My writing made perfect sense to me; and to others when held up for scrutiny in a mirror. In an attempt to convince me to conform (my parents had failed to persuade me to write ‘the right way round’) and to channel my constant questioning, it was decided that school would be ‘a good thing’. A short search provided the name of a suitable institution which was also walking distance from Number 47.
The pink and white gingham dress, the white ankle socks, the regulation shoes, the boater, the beret and the grey blazer were all purchased. My photographs were duly taken and I was sent to school. I did not like it. Not at all. This through no fault of the school or its teachers. I just didn’t like school. In fact, this continued for the next thirteen years – until it was post-compulsory. At best, I learned to tolerate it; at worst, I learned how to write my own sick notes.
Every morning, while attending Oxford House, I went through my rapidly-established ritual. I had the same breakfast, or would eat nothing. I had to be walked, hand-in-hand, by my father from front door to school gate, or would not move. Measles were a cause for celebration. My godmother came to pick me up from school in her pink bubble car and deposited me in front of my exasperated mother in the garden at Number 47. She shook her head, I smiled; confident of a categorical argument won without a fight.
The school uniform remains almost identical at Oxford House today. After some years away from Colchester, and in a neatly ironic way, I returned to Lexden Road as a teacher. Every morning I watched the little children in their ever-so-slightly-large-to-grow-into uniforms, hand-in-hand with parents or nannies, walking into the school building. And I knew that if I’d had children of my own, that’s exactly where they’d have been and that’s exactly the uniform they’d have been wearing and I’d have been as sure as were my parents that I was doing it the right way round.