“Old habits are hard to die”
Margaret Watson’s childhood experience was unique due to the fact that she experienced both a working-class, poverty-stricken lifestyle but also a middle-class privileged one too. This meant that her schooling life was also unique, as she attended two very different types of institutions throughout her move from Glasgow to Paisley.
As we know, Margaret and her brother Chick’s life with their father in Glasgow was far from luxurious, as they lived in a poor-quality housing complex with other tenants, “the dismal tenement home at Ann. St, Cowcaddens” (p.1), where conditions were dire; Margaret even recalls there was “pee running out under the door” (p.2) of the house’s toilet. In contrast, when she and her brother move to Paisley with their middle-class grandmother, they are introduced to a life of luxury, where they are “taught to live like respectable citizens, not like heathens.” (p.1)
This direct contrast of lifestyle is reflected in Margaret’s experiences with education, too. Margaret describes herself as “not very clever.”, saying “this owing to [having] done a lot of plunking at Cowcaddens school.” (p.2) Cowcaddens School is the school that she and her brother attended when they lived in Glasgow and was likely to have been made up primarily of working-class students growing up in similar environments to that of Margaret’s. Margaret admits to ‘plunking’, meaning truanting, which she holds responsible for her self-proclaimed lack of intelligence. Truanting school is an activity commonly associated with lower quality institutions, and it was not uncommon for working-class students to not prioritise their education; as we see with the case of Margaret, working-class children’s home lives were often difficult.
When Margaret and Chick move to Paisley for a better life, Margaret finds the change from Cowcaddens to her new middle-class school somewhat difficult. She writes “I had started school again, amongst strangers. I hated this school.” (p.2) By referring to her new classmates as ‘strangers’, although literal, could also be reflective of how different Margaret felt compared to her peers. The school she attends at Paisley is a much stricter environment, and ‘plunking’ would not be tolerated here. Margaret recalls how the “teacher came to inspect our hands as to their cleanliness. Mine of course, were much below par; I was sent to the washroom to scrub.” (p.10) This line of Margaret’s memoir reflects how different she was compared to her fellow students, as she failed the cleanliness test whilst her more ‘civilised’ peers were deemed fine. Margaret felt singled out due to her working-class background, as factors such as the cleanliness of her hands would never have been an issue in her old life at Cowcaddens School, where she recalls playing with Chick in the “dirty back court. This was the yard where no one had dustbins and garbage and litter lay all around” (p.1) Margaret was used to dirty environments, so being thrust into a lifestyle where she had to scrub her hands at school was not enjoyable for her.
Margaret’s struggle at leaving behind the Cowcaddens lifestyle is further shown when she writes about an incident during cooking class, “I demanded my fish back, the culprit said no, I promptly landed her on the jaw with the fish; the teacher saw this and marched me to the headmaster.” (p.10) Violence like this will have been seen as uncivilised and un-ladylike, which are traits that Margaret’s new middle-class school valued greatly. This incident also shows that Margaret’s classmates were hostile towards her; a fellow student stole from her during class and sought to seek trouble. Margaret’s background set her apart from the others, and incidents like this show that she faced discrimination because of it.
Interestingly, Chick had less of a problem adapting to his new life, probably because he was younger than his sister and the traits of a ‘commoner’ from Glasgow were less ingrained within him. Margaret, however, was a working-class girl deep down, and no amount of personal hygiene or lavish clothing would change that. “I asked him if he still swore, he said no, asked did I; of course not I replied. This was a lie I did occasionally to myself, old habits are hard to die” (p.2).
Overall, Margaret’s memoir provides great insight into the differences in education and schooling in Scotland during the early twentieth century. The fact that Margaret was so open about truanting whilst at Cowcaddens School in Glasgow, shows the failings of the educational system during this time, and highlights the poor quality of public schools. In contrast, her memoir shows the strictness of middle-class private schools, where children were privileged and taught to be civilised, clean and tidy; something which Margaret struggled with. Although she got to experience both sides of the coin, when reflecting on her ‘better’ school in Paisley, Margaret expresses nothing but disdain, however her memories of the poorer quality Cowcaddens and her time spent there are fond, furthering the common theme of working-class pride within Margaret’s memoir.
Paterson, L (2003) Scottish Education in the Twentieth Century, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh