When I was delivered to school for my first day there, I was conscious only of there being a lot of nice people around and a lot of nice things to play with, which seemed like a lot of fun, so I got stuck in straightaway. Or I was about to, when suddenly I became aware of my mother hovering on the doorstep. I thought she had gone. I thought she had just left me to have fun. But, no, she was hovering, looking rather anxious but pretending to be cheerful.
All at once it was borne in on me that for her this was a momentous day. This was the first day of her life on which I would be taken away from her and she would have to spend the rest of the day alone. One day far in the future I would leave home and not come back and then she would be alone all the time and this was a foreshadowing of that awful day. No wonder she looked sad. And how selfish I had been! I was happily going to join the party and forget all about her! Thank goodness that, just in time, I had become conscious of her needs.
So I crossed the schoolroom floor back to my mother, took her hand and said ‘Don’t worry, Mother. I’ll see you again at tea-time.’
‘Lunch-time, darling,’ she said.
“I’m quite happy to see you again at tea-time,’ I said.
‘No, it’s only till lunch-time,’ she said.
A shadow must have passed over my face, and then it occurred to me that I was being selfish again.
‘I will see you at lunch-time, then,’ I said.
At that moment a teacher spotted that my mother was finding it difficult to tear herself away and came over to distract her attention while I made my getaway. She was called Mrs Panton and I came to like her best of all the teachers there, as she had a mind and could think for herself. All the others were just very good at group games. Take the coloured pencils and dried pasta and tubes of glue away from them and they would have been helpless. But Mrs Panton was different.
I remember that, halfway through that very morning, she came across me sitting in a corner staring into space and said, ‘A penny for your thoughts!’
(I had already learnt that this was one of those untrustworthy grown-up statements. I had often told people my thoughts and never once had been paid for it. But I went along with Mrs Panton because I knew that grown-ups got unhappy if you didn’t and it was up to us children to keep grown-ups happy.)
‘I was just wondering,’ I said.
‘Wondering what?’ she said.
‘I was wondering who I would be if I wasn’t me,’ I said.
‘Good heavens!’ said Mrs Panton. ‘What one earth do you mean by that?’
I was surprised. It seemed pretty obvious to me.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘everyone is different. I am not the same person as Johnny, and he is not the same as Molly-who-cries-all-the-time, and Molly is not the same as Sally, even though she cries all the time too.’
I stopped there for a moment. Those were all the names of the children I had got to know at school that morning.
‘Well, anyway,’ I said, ‘if the things that make me different were changed and I was somebody else, who would I be? I couldn’t be Johnny, because Johnny is already Johnny, and so I would have to be somebody else. But who? I would have to be someone who does not exist yet. But how could I be someone who does not exist?’
You may not believe that I thought these things but I did. I often sat and thought about things. I remember once about that age looking up at the night sky and thinking how much bigger the sky was at night than by day. By day it was filled with clouds, which were just above your head. At night it was filled with stars, and they were millions of miles away. But the question I wanted to know the answer to was: what happens when you run out of stars? When you come to the end star – there must be an end star – what lies beyond?
I asked my mother once and she hadn’t got the faintest idea.
I asked my father once and he said ‘If there is something beyond what you think is the end star, then what you thought was the end star wasn’t the end star after all,’ which was true but not very helpful.
I asked Ralph once and he said that he couldn’t imagine any form of life without stars, though I suppose he was thinking of people like Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier.
It so happened that Mrs Panton had been to university and had studied philosophy before she got married and found herself reduced to kindergarten work, and so she must have been staggered to hear a child at kindergarten ask a question like the one I had just asked.
And I don’t suppose I would have asked it in the first place if it had been explained to me what school was all about.
It’s a funny thing, but when children go to school nobody ever tells them what the whole idea of school is.
They just tell them they are going to have fun.
Nobody ever gives them the real low-down, as follows: ‘In fifteen years time, children, you are going to go to university to study something like philosophy, which is all about the way we think and reason. But before that happens, you have to go to a big school and learn languages and maths and history and things, to give you some knowledge of the world we think about. But before that happens, you have to go to a small school and learn about spelling and geography and numbers and shapes and sports and things, so that you have the tools with which to deal with knowledge. But before you can do that, you have to come to this very small school and learn how to be friends with other children and put your coat on the right hook and how to stick dried pasta on to a big bit of paper to make shapes and pictures, which will give you an early inkling of routine and discipline. If you don’t do all that, you’ll never get anywhere near philosophy.’
I think that pretty much sums it up.
What had amazed Mrs Panton was that she had come across a child who seemed to have bypassed the whole damned system.
On my first day of pre-pre-pre-school, or whatever it was technically, I had started asking questions which would not be out of place in the first year of university.
Without the benefit of years of dried pasta training, I had moved smoothly into the shallow waters of philosophy.
Well, it was hardly surprising, after living in the same house as father all those years and being exposed to his perpetual questioning of life, his joy at creeping up on logic from behind and seeing if he could frighten it into doing something unaccustomed.
No wonder that, from to time during the morning, Mrs Panton came back to look at me in awe and exchange a few words with me.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time by then to exchange words with her.
I had just discovered the joys of sticking dried pasta on large pieces of paper, of sticking different coloured and different shaped bits of sticky paper on to more paper, and of fighting with other children who were trying to take my bits away from me.
This was something I had never done at home.
It was great!
So much so that by the time my mother came to get me at lunch-time, I was making a rainbow out of curved pasta (though there was never enough blue pasta shapes – are you listening Italy?) and instead of being glad that she would not be alone for the rest of the day, I was furious that I would have to go home with her and give up my rainbow and burst into tears.
‘Oh dear, oh dear, has he been very unhappy on his first day?’ said Mother, seeing my misery.
‘No, he’s been full of beans,’ said Mrs Panton. ‘And very philosophical,’ she found herself adding. ‘Darling, ask your mummy the question you asked me earlier…’
Of course she meant the one about who I would be if I wasn’t me. But I’d forgotten all about that. So I asked the question which was really bothering me by then.
‘Why does Tommy Parker always get the red pencils?’
Mrs Panton gave me a sad look. I had let her down. I had gone back to being an ordinary child who would have to go through another thirteen years of education after all before he could get back to where he had been at the moment of arriving at his first day of school.
Someone Like Me 2005