Looking back on her childhood, Margaret recalls how she often felt as though she was “not very clever” in comparison to her classmates (p.2). This is not surprising given that at just six years old, the life that Margaret had always known in Glasgow was uprooted, and she was forced to “start school again, amongst strangers” (p.2). Following her mother’s death, Margaret, along with her younger brother, Chick, were sent to live with their middle class grandparents in Paisley, Scotland. As a result, Margaret and Chick were both enrolled in a “posh” school (p.2) that Margaret does not describe fondly in her memoir. She recalls with great disdain, “I hated this school” (p.2).
Although Margaret does not explicitly specify what type of school it was that she attended in Paisley, her descriptions of her female classmates and the smart uniform she was required to wear, seem to suggest that it was a private girls’ school. Of the uniform, Margaret remarks, “The hat made me scratch… [it] tied with elastic under my chin, almost cutting my head off” (p.3). However, it was not only the uniform that made Margaret feel uncomfortable in her school environment. Her portrayal of her classmates as “strangers” (p.2) could perhaps be an indication of the dissimilarities that she felt were present between herself and the other children as a result of her working class background. We are told how Margaret’s refusal to conform to the requirements of her new middle class life would often cause her to be singled out during classes; “The teacher [would] come to inspect our hands as to their cleanliness. Mine of course, were much below par; I [would be] sent to the wash room to scrub” (p10). Before moving to Paisley, we are told of how Margaret was not afraid to get her hands dirty – literally – as she enjoyed playing freely “in the dirty back court… where no one had dustbins and garbage and litter lay all around” (p.1). It is perhaps a result of the experiences Margaret had growing up as a working class child in Glasgow that leaves her unconcerned by such issues as cleanliness, and consequentially, isolates her from those around her who share different values.
It is also a result of Margaret’s refusal to part with the wayward behaviour she no doubt adopted playing in those “dirty” streets in Glasgow, that prevents her from becoming the ladylike young schoolgirl her grandmother desires her to be. During a disagreement with a student during a cookery lesson, Margaret recalls how she “promptly landed her on the jaw with [a] fish; the teacher saw this and marched me to the headmaster” (p.10). From this description, we can see how as a child, Margaret’s inability to let go of her old life in Glasgow and the unrestricted freedom she possessed there, ultimately prevents her from successfully transitioning into middle class life.
Margaret describes her brother Chick, however, as becoming “a greatly changed little boy” as a result of the schooling he received in Paisley. Unlike his sister, Chick is able to surpass what Margaret deems “habits” from their old life; “Perhaps this was due to the hygienic conditions in which he now lived. 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).
When Margaret turns nine, she and Chick both return to the care of their father in Glasgow, and it is there that both siblings resume their studies at “Cowcaddens School,” a much less strict environment; “Now we went to school together and on the way there [there was] a piece of waste ground and masses of dandelions… We spent a lot of time there. We begun plunking school again and again” (p.5). The fact that Margaret and Chick were able to “plunk school” – in other words, not attend classes – without receiving punishment, is evidence of the poor public school system that was in place in Glasgow during the early twentieth century.
Although Margaret does not discuss the education she received at Cowcaddens, she does describe the great enjoyment she experienced when going to school there. However, her delight was not because of the curriculum, but rather a result of the free “school meals” she and Chick would receive; “[We] went to school for breakfast and lunch; when school ended the unfortunates stayed in school for tea at 4.30pm, bread cheese, huge Paris bun, we loved it” (p.5). Although looking back, Margaret brands herself one of the “unfortunates,” I think it is interesting that unlike in Paisley, she was not made to feel that way about herself by those around her. Unlike Margaret’s teacher in her private school who would rebuke her for being unclean, Margaret recalls how in Glasgow, “My teacher, Miss Omay, was so kind and understanding… Miss Omay was always asking questions as to my home life and many a little pack of sandwiches she would put inside my school desk” (p.8). Here, the kind actions of Margaret’s school teacher can be deemed evident of the shared values amongst the working classes regarding community and togetherness. As opposed to shaming Margaret in front of her classmates, Margaret’s teacher uses her position of power as a means to help her student in whatever way she can. Although putting some sandwiches in Margaret’s desk was most likely viewed as a small act in the eyes of Miss Omay, it was important to Margaret; so much so that she not only remembered it for many years to come, but also documented it in her memoir so that the kind ways of her childhood teacher could be acknowledged, and perhaps adopted, by others too.
Burnett, John. Mayall, David and Vincent, David (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography (Brighton: Harvester, 1897) Vol: 2 No: 802.
Middle Class Schoolgirls Wearing Straw Hats (Accessed on 28/11/2014)
School Children in a Classroom, 1927. (Accessed on 28/11/2014)