By Charles Sharpe
Yes, I was a Dux medallist at Liff Road Primary School. My achievement may not have been as meritorious or as heroic as it sounds. I’ll explain all about that a little later. It is true I had been a high flyer throughout my primary school years. In my last two years at Liff Road School my class was Primary 6a and finally Primary 7a. Our class teacher was Miss Cameron. I was good at mental arithmetic – always the first to put my hand up and click my fingers, stand up and edge down the aisle between the desks to draw Miss Cameron’s attention to me when she posed mental arithmetic problems for us.
“What do 23 half crowns make in pounds, shillings and pence ?”
“Miss! Miss! £2 – 17s – 6d ! Miss.”
For anyone born after the decimalisation of our currency this was spoken as two pounds seventeen shillings and sixpence. I never found out why the symbol for a penny was “d”, but as you’ll discover I was not at that time very good with codes or symbols.
“If 3 oranges cost one shilling and threepence how much would 7 oranges cost?”
“Miss ! Miss me, Miss, me Miss ! two shillings and eleven pence, Miss.”
In numbers this was written as 2/11 and in common usage you’d say “two and eleven.”
I not only made Miss Cameron aware of my prowess in mental arithmetic. I always got full marks for spelling tests and I was excellent in my grammar lessons and particularly at sentence analysis. For instance, I would always spot a very useful truth like “this is a subordinate adverbial clause of time qualifying the verb ‘travelled’ ” as well as other such exotic ‘grammartalia’.
Keen as I was to impress Miss Cameron with all my work, I was also a fidgeter and a whisperer and a sender out of love notes to girls. Custom, and I think shyness, had it that these notes were never sent directly to the object of one’s romantic affection but were circulated around the class so that others could inform her or him that she or he was loved by the sender. My notes were like this..
and also I sent notes out to spin the idea that this love was mutual.
(I drew in the heart to show that this was a note that could only be written by a girl).
All these extra-curricular activities of mine got on Miss Cameron’s goat to the extent that she felt impelled to give me the belt about three times a week. I was quite good at looking tough when taking the belt and managed to stay expressionless except for the slight involuntary lifting of my left foot at the very painful moment of impact between the strap of leather and the palm of my hand. Another boy, IB, who got the belt about twice a day and who was reputed to be the second best fighter in the school always noticed my tiny sign of weakness and without exception he would shout out that I was “a cowardy kif !” Given his fighting reputation I never argued the point with him.
Thinking back about the punishments we received, the teacher our class had before Miss Cameron, Miss Gilchrist, who taught us in Primary 4 and 5 had a different disciplinary method. I always remember Miss Gilchrist as being very old. She was a stocky, quite powerfully built woman whose grey hair was always cut short and she wore a wrap around Paisley pattern overall which was the uniform of women of a certain age at that time when they came to do their domestic chores. Her method of controlling the pupils in her class was singular. She would put any of her pupils whom she thought recalcitrant face down and fully horizontal over her knee and skelp them five or six times on the bottom with her right hand. When she’d finished administering her particular kind of corporal punishment she’d say, (and she spoke always in Scots with a Dundee accent), “Woe betide ye if ye dare tae dae that again for Eh’ll gi’e ye a bare bummer !” Perhaps fortunately for the sake of all our dignities I can’t recall it ever reached the stage of anyone getting a “bare bummer.” On one occasion IB had his “doup skelpt” by Miss Gilchrist and he threatened to bring his father to school to sort her out.
She retorted, “Eh, an’ Eh’ll bring meh faither here tae sort yours oot!” This stopped us in our tracks. Even IB, the second best fighter at the school, was gobsmacked. We were all, everyone of us in the class room that day, awestruck that someone as old and as fierce as Miss Gilchrist could have a father. What kind of fearful monster would he be?
Having said all this I can’t really remember anyone complaining to the authorities about Miss Gilchrist. I don’t think there was one of us in our class who had any thought that she was unduly cruel. I think we respected her. We would not have been able to put this in words but she had our respect because she, more than our other teachers, had experience of, and understood, the kind of life most of us were living in the Lochee community. Much of the time she spoke the Dundee Scots that we spoke out in the playground, on the streets and with most of our families. We accepted her and the things she did, though even for those times these seemed a little bizarre. In punitive terms her “doup skelping” may have been less painful than being strapped though no doubt it was much more embarrassing. I have to say that during the following years I was belted regularly by Miss Cameron, but I had always managed to avoid Miss Gilchrist’s punishment. This may have been because I was better behaved than I was eventually to become, and I have a suspicion that this was partly so because I could not bare (oops, Freudian slip)……. I mean I could not bear even the thought of the indignity of having my bottom whacked in public.
On my journey from Primary 1a in 1950 toward Primary 5a in 1955 I had almost always been at the top of the class. Then in 1955, just about the time my youngest sister was born, BD joined the school when her family moved from Fife to Dundee where her father had been appointed as the head gardener at a famous park and estate on the outskirts of Dundee. BD, you may recall was to become the subject of most of my love notes, though I always retained a soft spot for HH. Like me BD was left-handed but unlike me her birthday was the 5th of May for I remember us writing the date 5.5.55 in our exercise books on her 10th birthday. BD was very bright and I found I had to share my place at the top of the class with her.
The academic year 1956-57 was a big year for Primary 7a because it was the year that we sat for the “quallie”, our qualifying examination, the results of which would decide whether we went to what was called a senior secondary school like the Harris Academy or the Morgan Academy or whether we went to a junior secondary school like Logie or Rockwell. The latter two schools were excellent in their own right and many of my fellows were attracted to them because they could leave school at the age of 15 and get into the world of work and wages sooner, whereas there was an expectation that those of us who might go on to the Harris or the Morgan would be staying on at school until we were 17 and some might even go on to university. Being from an ambitious family I was pushed to go for the Harris Academy and I had been indoctrinated enough to think it was a good idea myself.
Each year the scholar with the top marks in the Quallie was awarded the Dux Medal. My parents were keen that I should be awarded it and I wanted to win it too. I wanted them to be proud of me.
The “Quallie” had three phases. First there was an Intelligence Test, second there was an Arithmetic exam which was followed by an English exam. I didn’t finish the intelligence test. It flummoxed me. One question was,
“If §@$ reads as ‘cat’ what does the following read as? @§$ ”
The answer I now realise was “act” but my mind responded by protesting “If we already have adequate letters to spell out “cat” why do we need to be introduced to these new ones?” This complicated things too much for me and so I had a failure of imagination. My grey matter would not allow me beyond the barrier newly installed in my mind. I was blind to the code. As for the Arithmetic and English examinations I knew as soon as I had finished them that I had done very well.
A few days later Miss Cameron was looking at me in a strange and it seemed frustrated way. She spoke out what I believe she meant to keep as a thought. “ 69, 69 : how could you get a score of 69 in an intelligence test ?” She didn’t say anything else and neither did she mention it again but I knew that what she meant was that I had failed the Intelligence test. I am aware now that you cannot fail an intelligence test, it is meant to be a measure of a person’s intellectual insight. I guess my IQ score of 69 tells you all you need to know about me.
In any case I waited with trepidation for the result of the “Quallie” and wondered who would be the recipient of the Dux medal. I hoped against hope that by some miracle it could still be me.
A day before the Dux medal was to be awarded to the successful pupil it was announced that this year there would be two Dux medallists, a girl and a boy. The winners were BD and me.
I was delighted by this because it meant that, despite the Intelligence test, I had passed the “Quallie” and would go to the Harris Academy in August. I was pleased too for BD. It was good to have pleased my parents, but the decision to award two medals for the first time in the school’s history confused and I think troubled me.
In August when I arrived at the Harris Academy dressed in my brand new maroon blazer with cord trim I found that the first year pupils were split into six classes from 1A, the brightest end of the spectrum through to 1F, its less scintillating extreme. BD was in placed in 1C and I was placed in 1E. This did not necessarily mean that BD was only averagely clever because most of the pupils placed in 1A and 1B had been at the Harris Academy primary school and may have had a certain advantage in preparing for the “quallie.” That BD had been placed in a class that presumably was more able than the one I was in left me to wonder if the boy’s Dux medal had been awarded to provide me and my parents with a consolation prize or whether it was genuinely a decision to reward both the best girl and the best boy. “Maybe,” I thought, “I wasn’t the true Dux medallist.”
It doesn’t bother me now. I’ve got over it but it is interesting that I remember it as if it all happened yesterday.
Of course, I couldn’t be anything other than pleased by BD’s triumph after all….