My Knife Crime

While most enlightened countries don’t require children to start formal schooling until they’re 6 or even 7 years old, England and Wales are so wedded to the idea that longer must mean better, that children here are required to have started school by the end of the term after their 5th birthday. And in fact, most children start school when they are 4 years old.

So it was that just after Easter in 1954, I started at Oakthorpe Primary (Infants) School in Edmonton. It was a five minute walk from where we lived in Empire Avenue: turn left out of the garden gate, a hundred yards to the junction with Pasteur Gardens, left and then right, and down Chequers Way to the bottom of the hill. Then turn right at the corner where the witch’s house lowered behind its overgrown hedge and crumbling gate, and it was another fifty yards to the school entrance. We walked this walk four times each day, come rain or shine, my mother pushing the pram with my baby sister in it. We didn’t own a car, and every day my mother would collect me from school at midday and by some maternal magic place a cooked meal on the table for me, and then return me to school for the afternoon lessons.

I have very few memories of infants’ school. Perhaps the experience was so overwhelming, with new impressions and learnings coming at me so thick and fast, that my head got full and I simply blanked them out. Perhaps it was so traumatic to be separated from mother for five hours a day, that my subconscious has pressed the Delete button. Or maybe it’s just that it’s so long ago, that the natural human Forgetory has clicked into overdrive. But truly, I don’t believe I have ever remembered much about those two or three years between 4 and 7 years old.

One memory that swam up from the depths just today was the memory of my first and last and only knife crime. My parents had given me a small toy penknife. It was made of bright red plastic, with a grey plastic blade that folded out, and for a time it was my pride and joy. I couldn’t be separated from it. I took it to school in my pocket. And during one of our ‘learning through play’ periods, I took it into the Wendy house and showed it to one of the girls.

What is the sixth sense that teachers are gifted with, that brought the class teacher to look into the Wendy House? Did she hear the quiet whispering of a boy and a girl, obviously up to some four-year-old hanky-panky? Or was it the complete silence that, to an adult, is even more suspicious?

She saw the knife in my hand and pounced. What to me and my parents was a safe toy suitable to be put in the hands of a 4-year old, was to her a dangerous weapon. You might not be able to cut your finger with it, but you could certainly put an eye out with it, if you tried hard enough. She confiscated my beloved toy and put it in her desk drawer, to be returned at the end of the day with a warning not to bring it to school again. I was as mortified as I knew how to be. I was still too young to have learned that everyone hates a goody-goody, so I had always striven to be one of the ‘good boys’ of the class. And here was I having committed such a crime that the teacher confiscated something from me! What would my parents think? Would they, too, be shamed and ostracised by the neighbours?

Fortunately even shame and disgrace don’t last for ever. Perhaps none of my classmates even knew the storm of self-reproach that raged within me. Maybe I even rose in the esteem of those who hate goody-goodies, because I had brought a knife to school and it had been confiscated.

Most probably I am imagining all of this, and neither my teacher nor my parents nor my classmates ever gave the matter a second thought. So much for the dramas of life that suddenly come to mind sixty-five years after the event.