In August of 1962, when I was five, I went to George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh. I went there because my brother Jimmy had gone there four years earlier. I have no idea why my parents chose Heriot’s, but I, at least, didn’t do a test anywhere else. Jimmy seemed to be thriving there, tall and cheerful and very blonde, and now gabby, shrimpy me was going. I had been only once before, with my mother, for the test. The test consisted of my being asked to identify animals – there was a lion and an elephant and something I didn’t get – and then I was given an orange, asked what it was, and told to place it on the desk I was sitting at. A little while later I was told to put it in the desk, which I did. I suppose they were looking to see if I dealt with the desk lid gently enough, but I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t get to eat the orange.
That endless summer, Jimmy told me lots about the school, almost none of which I understood. It just sounded big. One day we were on the swings in a tiny park in Kirkliston, waiting for my mother, who was visiting a bedridden old lady across the road, occasionally looking out of the dark house to make sure we were still there. Jimmy talked about the teachers, and I listened respectfully and tried to remember, thinking that, scholar as he was, he might give me a test, but we just went home.
My Primary One class was called Class B. This was good, because Class B was, according to Jimmy, better than the other class, Class A, because he, four years previously, had been in Class B, and, indeed, it did appear, as the years passed – Class D, 2L, 4L, 6L, 9L, 13L – that I was in a class with the clever boys. But I didn’t know that then. I just knew that I was surrounded by potential friends, 39 of them, because there were 40 boys in my P1class. I could tell you stories about them all, but in essence, Class B was not about them but about Miss Murray.
Miss Murray changed my life and I loved her. Her room was painted bright yellow and she called it ‘The Sunshine Room’. She taught my class in P1 and P2 and then – she told us – because she liked us so much and was close to retirement, she asked if she could teach us in P3, and Gilbert Galloway – Gibby – the tall and kind Head of the Junior School – agreed. She had never taught P3 before. During that year she was ill for a while and our class felt her absence keenly. She was replaced first by a stern, unsmiling retired woman who brought a grey dead presence to the Sunshine Room, and then by a powdered little lady who smiled constantly and gave us sweets every day, including astonishingly, Roses, which I only saw at Christmas, but even that didn’t win our hearts away from Miss Murray. When she returned she said she had had a poisoned finger, but I think she had had something bad. She was thinner and lined, but she was back and normality and safety returned.
I did well. I could, of course, already read, because my father had taught me to read, starting with the ‘Bimbo’ and progressing to the ‘Victor’. And he taught me to count. Old Jimmy Wyllie, my grandfather, taught me Geography and History – at least he taught me capitals and dates and battles, specifically focussing on his special subject of ‘Great English Defeats’ – and rewarded my brother and I when we remembered them. So I struggle to remember what Miss Murray taught me, apart from the middle class Edinburgh ways which most of my classmates already understood. She made me speak differently; she was the definition of a Morningside spinster and she saw elocution as an integral part of the curriculum. I wasn’t to say ‘porrrk’, I was to say ‘pork’ as if it rhymed with ‘fork’. I wasn’t to say I’d been to the beach at ‘Gullane’, it was ‘Gillin’. And because I loved Miss Murray, I imitated her every word. My mother, usually irascible at being contradicted, suffered her younger child’s polite corrections and my father, who adored Miss Murray, played along, perhaps a little uncomfortable with these new alien voices but perhaps seeing that this was what, in practice, aspiration was.
Miss Murray was a religious woman, and Jesus appeared in the Sunshine room from time to time. She would sit at the piano and sing in the kind of voice old women have at funerals, teaching us hymns. We did not shine at ‘Soldiers of Christ, Arise’, which is more a hymn for the adolescent boy, preferring instead the minor keys of ‘I Love to Hear the Story’ which was a great favourite of Miss Murray.
‘I am both weak and sinful, but this I surely know
The Lord came down to save me, because he loved me so.’
I wasn’t a huge sinner when I was 5, but I don’t think that was the point. Miss Murray saw us as her angels, I think, and liked to hear our angelic voices. If I think of her now, an astonishing time later, I think of a slant of sunshine, dust motes and little boys singing hymns after lunch.
Two years after she stopped teaching us, she retired. An ocean of time had passed, of course, a third of my life. Good grief, I was 9 by then, and she had been my infant mistress, my prep lady, but it had been a glorious three years. By this stage I was in a different regime with Miss Middleton, who was a tough lady, with a helmet of thick steel grey hair. She had taught my older brother, and the comparison did not stand me in good stead. She liked clever, mature, organised boys, with neat handwriting and I was too little and needy and talkative and careless for her. I was, I confess, silly, but I mourned the tiny troll on the end of my pencil that my father had given me and which she wordlessly wrenched off during Arithmetic one day. I never saw it again and I remember the deep black line on my messy jotter.
I think she knew I loved Miss Murray; I was certainly not alone. I’m not sure why she told us that Miss Murray was retiring, but she did, and Kenneth McDonald and I took up a collection then someone, Kenneth’s mum I think, bought a suitable piece of jewellery, a brooch with a garnet in it, probably from Jenners, and probably a great deal more expensive than the small change we collected, which had been supplemented by a crisp pound note from my dad. I was a kind boy and I wanted there to be more, so I utilised my pocket money, and, unsupervised and giddy with love, added a colourful tea towel with Scottish scenes on it. Then three of us went to see her.
We burst into her classroom unannounced. She paused, chalk in hand and said ‘hello’ gently.
Ever a showman, and trained by my father, I more or less shouted, ‘Miss Murray, we are sorry you are retiring. We have bought you this.’
I don’t believe I had ever seen an adult cry before, and certainly not Miss Murray. We turned and ran away from the Sunshine Room, back to Miss Middleton and Colditz, wordless but proud of a warm feeling that we had done something good. Who knows what these new little P1 boys thought as she sat down at her desk with her head in her hands?
Who were these women – Miss Murray, Miss Anderson, Miss Redman, Miss Stenhouse, Miss Hamilton? They all seemed so very old, and variously kind and stern, sitting in the little staffroom for ladies, smoking. If you dared to go there to ask something or to report some playtime mishap, the door opened and smoke came out first. Did they ever pause and think, in all these years of little boys, about men, or marriage, or their own children? When I was a child it was just possible for women to marry and continue to teach and there were a few married women on the staff, but these ladies were too old. Did they have fathers or brothers they lost in World War One? Did they have boyfriends in the 20’s? Did they mourn little boys they had taught who died in World War Two? Did they sometimes sit and rock at home in Morningside and Stockbridge, surrounded by little gifts of pottery figurines and glass animals and think that life had passed them by, as they lit another Benson’s? Or did they live in old age content that they were remembered kindly? And loved. And sometimes, still loved.