‘I can’t say they were the happiest days of of my life – I can’t say they were the unhappiest!’
His journey into education began with Miss Brown’s private school in Beeston. He instantly admits that he recalls ‘little of the school’s activities’ (p.2). There is a hint of irony when he speaks of his early educational experiences, mockingly summarising it as his ‘great adventure’ (p.2). He also admits how school allowed him to meet the girl that ‘gave birth to my interest in the opposite sex’ (p.2) and whilst he used to carry her books home, he comments on how ‘it was no hardship because she lived en route to my own home’ (p.2). His humorous tone continues when he mentions his next ‘love affair’ with his Sunday school teacher, as he states that he ‘may not have learned much about the scriptures but I did win a prize for one hundred per cent attendance’ (p.2). His consistent ironic tone within the opening pages of his memoir reflects his own identity and light-hearted, positive attitude regarding school, a trait of good humour which does not fade.
His first taster of education evidently took place in a private school, and in the early twentieth century, only wealthy children would attend due to its cost. This differs to the childhood educational experiences of many working-class people. They would attend a state school instead, as they were effectively free, due to the Elementary Education Act of 1891, which made school fees ten shillings per head (Gillard, 2019). This indicates his middle-class status, which is most likely influenced by his father’s profession as a store manager, and so his early experience of education was the opposite of working class people.
However, following the spontaneous move to Ramsey, a poor, working-class town, John identifies himself as a working-class child. He expresses this by comparing toilet systems, as whilst John’s family resorted to a large bucket in the corner of their garden, ‘only the aristocracy has flush toilets supplied from their independent roof tanks’ (p.6). There is a sense of resentment in his tone, which suggests that he was jealous of the aristocracy that he was once part of in Beeston. However, after living an upper-class experience within a private school, which places him within aristocracy, the change of atmosphere into a working-class town gives him a dual-sided perspective of class. He has experienced both, therefore his resentment may be a result of an acknowledgement of the class injustices within society. He tends to ignore his class status, and he doesn’t let it affect his opinion on education when resuming his ‘great adventure.’
His educational journey continues in Ramsey, as he was enrolled into the only elementary school in town. He has an ambiguous, conflicting opinion on his time there, as he admits that he ‘can’t say they were the happiest days of my life – I can’t say they were the unhappiest!’ (p.7). He regards himself as an average student, and solely enjoyed physical subjects, such as football and cricket. He also expresses a dislike for woodwork due to his imposing teacher. However, he admits that one of the few articles that he managed to complete happens to be a bookcase that ‘houses my Charles Dickens volumes to the present day’ (p.7). Despite this negative experience at school, he does not let it affect his personal desire to learn and teach himself. John is speaking from retrospect and possesses several Charles Dickens volumes, revealing his passion for reading and learning that has evidently never dissipated, fulfilling his identity as an autodidact.
John explains the system of elementary school, and how every year there would be a full examination to determine their move to the higher class. The class at the top of the ‘ladder’ was Standard VII. John decides to remain in Standard VII for six months after, ‘rather than remaining idle awaiting employment.’ (p.7). This reflects how education was very important to John, and that he’d prefer to use his time wisely by learning to boost his prospects. He is rewarded for this hard work when he obtains a job as a junior clerk in a local Solicitors’ office. The principle of this office simply suggests that he should learn to use a typewriter. He instantly began further education through correspondence courses run by the Bennet College. In his spare time, he taught himself typewriting and studied shorthand, and ‘achieved good speeds and both subjects proved a great asset in later years when I moved into a large city office’ (p.14). His desire to constantly learn and develop new skills is reflective in his successful, growing profession. The fact he is an autodidact reflects how his experiences of learning shaped his identity.
John’s optimistic attitude to learning and initial success within his career (halted by the war) denies the pre-existing belief that autobiographies ‘demonstrate a contrast between the struggles (…) of highly motivated individuals for education (…) in the earlier part of the [19th] century and the more passive acceptance of the majority when schooling became compulsory after 1876’ (Burnett,p.166). John, being born in 1914, experiences the compulsory requirements of school, and seems everything but passively accepting. He chooses to keep studying past the required age, which denies the conception that the compulsion of school controlled students.
John Sawyer, One man in his time, or, the first sixty years; an autobiography. 38,000 words. Born 1914, Beeston Nottingham.
Burnett, J. (1982). Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education, and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s. London: Alan Lane.