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by Charlotte Barratt

When I first walked into our school
My senses reeled.
Assaulted by colours,
Mugged by noise,
Overpowered by shape and texture.
The overflowing, superabundant glut of everything
Struck me as obscene.

"It all looks so bare," they said on the last day of term,
As they took down the computer-generated Christmas cards,
The twig and tinsel mobiles,
The pantomime poems,
The winter paintings,
The paper doily icicles,
The play dough tree decorations,
The carved Nativity scene,
The jewelled party hats,
The coloured tissue stained-glass window shapes,
The Christmas concert photos,
The snowmen stories,
The artificial tree with its pile of pretend presents
And the nature table
With its frieze of robins, berries, fir cones,
Cotton wool snow and silver foil ice.
Wearily they demolished the South Pole role play area
And folded up the penguin costumes for another year.

"Today we’re going for a walk in the wild area," the teacher announced
Some months later,
"To look for signs of spring."
"Yesterday we spotted at least four pairs of frogs in the pond
So next week we’ll be able to collect some frogspawn
And keep it in that old fish tank until the tadpoles hatch.
And Morgan’s Mum has offered to bring in some ducklings
For you all to look at and hold.
Mrs Meredith’s bringing in some hen’s eggs for the incubator in the nursery
And in a week or two we’ve organised a bus trip
To Fernwood community farm
To see the baby animals.
You’ll need to ask your parents or grandparents for £3 bus money
And you can bring £1 spending money.
But don’t worry about that yet.
We’ll be sending a letter home to explain everything."

On sunny summer days the children run straight out of the dining hall
On to the playing field.
They roll down the slope,
Picking up clumps of mown grass on their uniforms,
Or make daisy chains.
They hide in the willow tunnel,
Swing round on the juniors’ rugby posts
Or run races,
Practising for sports day.
One class has a turn on the apparatus
Generously donated by the Parent Teacher Association –
Monkey bars, rope bridge, slide, swings made from tyres
And a long, wooden train.
Soon it will all need a fresh coat of varnish.
Back in the dining hall
The packed lunch children sort their rubbish -
Fruit skins and cores for the compost heap behind the herb garden,
Bread crusts for the bird tables in a separate bin
And empty yoghurt pots, crisp packets, cake wrappers, juice cartons
And sandwich bags back in their packed lunch boxes.

"We desperately need a new reading scheme this year,"
Comments the head after the long summer break.
"The old one is so tatty and old-fashioned.
In fact we’re going to have a real blitz this term and
Get rid of any equipment that’s not up to date.
I don’t care if it still works.
We need to raise the profile of the school."
And into three industrial skips go books,
Board games,
Sets of alphabet cards,
A doll’s house,
Stuffed animals,
Construction toys,
Hoops and bean bags,
A cracked sand tray,
Cake tins and a pair of scales,
Dressing-up clothes,
Vases of dusty artificial flowers,
Boxes of buttons and beads,
Wooden stencils,
Stubs of coloured crayon,
A laminating machine,
A complete set of miniature furniture,
A light box,
The plastic roof panels from the playground patio,
A broken child-sized toilet,
And one thousand and forty two other assorted pieces of rubbish.
"If only we had enough money in the budget this year
We could get rid of all those old storage units in each class
And replace them with those lovely, coloured
Stacking boxes from the catalogue.
But there’s no chance this year,
Not now that we’ve had the new computer suite.
It’s always the same old story,
Money, money, money.
And this government says
Education’s a priority!"

..The whole school went to the seaside this year,
Had an end of year picnic,
Watched a visiting theatre company and
Went to the cinema.
The county library bus came each term
To lend extra reading books to each class
And the children all saw the school dentist,
Wore red noses on Red Nose Day,
Learnt about healthy eating,
Went to the recycling assembly,
Exercised regularly
And had milk and fruit at break time.
Some of them saw the nurse, the speech therapist or the child psychologist
And the older ones went swimming and learnt how to cross the road safely.
All of them visited a church, a temple,
The police station, the fire station and the hospital.
All of them celebrated St David’s Day, Chinese New Year and Divali.

Sometimes in my mind I go to another school.
To get there you would need to fly to a foreign capital,
Travel by coach for two days,
Then for another day by Landrover
Until you reached the end of the tarmac road.
Then you would walk to the far edge of the town
Where the water carriers dip and sway over the well’s rim
And step out into the deep, scalding sand.
You would skirt the dunes
Where occasional camel trains rock into view on liquid light waves
And head for a lone thorn tree.
The first time I went there, to that school, I paused by the thorn tree,
Catching my breath in the bread-oven wind.

Today I am there in no time at all.
An empty doorway and one empty window look me up and down vacantly
While the wind blows drifts of sand and clouds of dust
Into the building.
I step inside, into a single room,
And smell the thick scents of silence and dust.
Hunger and pride hang in the air too,
And I read thirst and heat-dulled effort in a dozen faces.
The teacher, who has not been paid for three months,
Is smartly dressed in a crisp sky-blue tunic and trousers.
The children, whose clothes are all the colour of dust,
Sit barefoot and stick-legged, smeared in dust, on two wooden benches,
Copying a sum from the blackboard.
They are all boys.
Each of them holds a worn slate and a piece of chalk
That scrapes, scrapes, scrapes in the silence.
Eventually one boy rises, goes to the blackboard
And writes out his workings line after line,
Droning a commentary in some language I do not…
Ah, it is French, which he is learning at the same time as long division.
Any hesitation, any error in his work and the teacher’s rebuke is stinging.
I sense this is for my benefit and wish for invisibility.
There is nothing on the mud walls of this classroom – nothing.
At the end of the lesson I am shown the teacher’s prize possession,
A bilingual wordlist for the teaching of maths
Housed in splendid isolation in a small cupboard.
There are no other books,
Though the government promises to send more.
They do not arrive,
Any more than the teacher’s salary.

Once I went to this school at the end of the hot season
When land and people were panting
And the yearning for rain
Was violent.
Later that day it rained
And school finished
As boys and teacher went to plant seeds
And pray for a good harvest.
As I waded home
Naked children soaped themselves
Under the sheeting downpour,
And screamed with delight.

"Scarcity is SO twentieth-century," drawls a Californian I-pod expert on the radio,
And my heart breaks with the strain
Of holding two worlds in one mind.

Postscript: Whilst the above descriptions of two schools are based largely on real schools I have known, the exact details regarding equipment and conditions, names and quoted speech are fictional.  I believe, however, that anyone who is familiar with either environment will find them representative. 
My experience of the second school was confined to the twentieth century.  Things educational have doubtless moved on since I was there but recent reports of famine in this particular country suggest that scarcity is not yet a thing of the past.

Next poem Soliloquy of the Rev Jimmy Jones on the night before the massacre