Nov 08, 2023

Memories from our school days that followed us into aged care homes

Talking to residents about their time at school, I hear many mixed reactions about the influence of early education on a person. [Source: Shutterstock]

It was Plato who said: 

“Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness but direct them to it by what amuses their mind so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.”

When we think back to our school days and the formative years, we tend to reflect on our individual experiences of school life. Talking to residents about their time at school, I hear many mixed reactions about the influence of early education on a person. Many would recall the strictness of teachers and the corporal punishment imposed often when not justified, classes were large, and obedience was the order of the day. Other forms of discipline ranged from detention after school to writing a hundred lines for talking too much in class. Many memories centered on first friendships and lasting impressions that teachers made upon young minds.

I recall my first day at school with excitement and anticipation; my mother told me I was going to school the next day. I was bemused at all the children in the playground, most of whom I knew from the village, were all crying. I saw the day as being one of great adventure and enthusiasm. On the way home from school after an enlightening exploration of new toys and fun, chatting endlessly about the day I just had, my mother informed me as I enjoyed it so much, I would be attending school until I was 18 years old; even at the tender age of four, I knew that was a long way off. I had been hoodwinked and deceived by my mother, who had strategically navigated around the best method for me to accept my impending fate. It was not until the following day that I was the only child left crying in the playground with the realisation that school was not for the day!

I felt education was akin to a Pandora’s Box of many subjects that would encapsulate my mind into wanting more; this was not the case for many elders talking about post-war school life. Tom*, a resident I had the pleasure of caring for once, narrated memories of the dreaded school bell ringing to bring the children into class and fear of the wrath of the not-so-kind teachers. Learning the three R’s, reading, writing and arithmetic, chanted together. His wartime recollections had been overshadowed by the fear that when the bombs dropped, would there be anyone left alive at home? Clutching a gas mask for protection and frantically running to and from school made life a scary place. 

Happier recollections leaned towards the fun at playtime ranging from hopscotch, hide & seek, skipping ropes, marbles, and simple games that enthralled the children of post-war Britain. Other thoughts recalled the nursery rhymes taught, dancing around the maypole on May Day, and the Christmas pageant with costumes made from crepe paper and cardboard. 

One lady I spoke with, Kathy* told me about her early school days, and the teachers were catholic nuns; her memories were one of fear and hatred for the often unfair cruelty imposed. When Kathy arrived in residential aged care, those fears and anxieties returned. “I was surrounded by strangers and wanted to go home”.

She added that the very young care staff were running around with jobs to do, and fellow residents were peering at the new resident, making her feel uneasy and bewildered. At first, she felt intimidated, lost and frightened, and those school day memories had come back to haunt her. It wasn’t until the second week when a new caregiver *Lucy, took it upon herself to, as she said, “make me her project”, which meant she took Kathy under her wing and introduced her to some other like minded residents whom she soon became friends with and would eat meals together. 

The transition into residential aged care can be daunting and challenging for people when most of their previous lives have been with family and friends in the outside world. When residents enter residential aged care, they are faced with a new set of living conditions and an environment that is unfamiliar and alien to them. 

Another lady experienced years of torment caused by bullying because of her weight. The long-term effect this had on her confidence and psychological well-being haunted her entire life. Although she told me that she is accepted for the kind-hearted person she is and is happy at last. It is clear that schoolyard bullies become workplace bullies, and the cycle continues to breed more contempt.  

Another woman called Elizabeth* told me that she didn’t hold a passport and that her teacher had influenced her so much that knowledge became her passport in life. She was inspired to follow her dreams wherever she could; that inspiration propelled her into being one of the few working-class children of the 1950s to enter a University and obtain a degree in English and a career in education. Elizabeth stated, “My passport to life opened doors into a world of skills and endless opportunities”.

For children in post-war Britain, the winters were harsh, and many children walked to school wearing homemade balaclavas, scarfs and gloves, usually the handy work of mothers and grandparents with the compulsory duffle coat for protection from the cold weather. The long, hot summer holidays were spent outside playing with friends from school, climbing trees, swings and slides, playing games, and riding bikes until darkness fell, and tired children would wander home with scraped knees and would flop into bed. 

Often, I hear stories of long-lasting friendships made in those early school days, some of which became lifetime connections and played a significant role in many people’s lives.

We all know that making friends, especially when entering a new environment like school, is essential in forming a sense of belonging and purpose; they make us feel safe and inclusive. Friendships help us establish social skills and confidence and aid the learning process when happy, healthy bonds form.

   * All names used are fictitious to protect the individual’s identities.

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