Wednesday, 12 March 2014

The First Day Of School

"I don't want to go Mummy" said Christopher for the seventh time on the morning of his first day of school. He had repeated it at each stage of what his mother was hoping would be the start of an efficient new morning routine: The first time he had said it was in a sleepy drawl after she had caressed his cheek and smoothed his hair to gently wake him; the second was an expression of discomfort as she dressed him up as a miniature schoolboy in a bright white polo-shirt, smooth claret jumper and dark grey trousers that had a sharp crease down the centre of each leg; the third announcement came through a mouthful of milky corn flakes when she casually mentioned that it was important to eat breakfast before school; the fourth was said as more of a reminder to her as she switched on the television to entertain him while she tended to her younger son; the fifth came from a stroppy face as she dragged him away from the cartoons and it was soon followed by a sixth time whereby he angrily emphasised each word as she wiped his furious features with a damp flannel.
By the time she was bent down at his feet to strap the stiff black shoes to his feet she noticed that she was being subjected to a sullen-faced silent treatment from him and this continued until the final seventh time when they were barely two hundred yards from their home, over halfway down a slope that curled through the housing estate. This time it was said differently and was more affecting. It wasn’t just because of the silence that preceded it; it was said quietly. It was less of a defiant protest or a tearful plea and more of a measured proclamation of the truth, which is quite arresting from a four-year-old.
The tone was enough for Christopher's mother Emily to stop pushing the pram that carried her younger son James. Christopher looked up at his mother. Emily searched his face for a moment; a face that still held for her the soft-featured look of a baby. There was no point reasoning with him – how can you explain the benefits of a good education to a child who lived for the moment? He remained silent; his dark brown eyes were fixed on her as he waited for news of his fate. Emily felt her shoulders relax. Then she said “right” and turned the pram around to return the way they had come.
"What's happening?" enquired Christopher.
"We're going home" she said, as if announcing the start of a mysterious, slightly dangerous adventure. And in a way it was. She had never considered home tutoring and had no idea if it was at all possible, whether she had to register or if she was even capable, but she felt intrigued and, yes, excited by the idea. It was a nervous excitement because of the responsibility to her son but also because she would have to face the reactions of her family and friends, not least of all her husband who, whether he agreed with the notion or not, would be upset that she hadn’t consulted him particularly as she had never expressed an interest in it before.
And why was that, she wondered, recognising how inspired she felt at that moment. But then, how many people question such a seemingly natural process in life – to do so seems so counter-intuitive. No, not counter-intuitive, she realised. Entering ones children into the schooling system wasn’t an instinctive or emotional act; it was logical. In fact she was at a loss as to how she would even begin to argue her case; to justify her decision to anyone. And yet she had found something in the eyes of her son that had flooded and rocked the pillars of rational thought in her brain.   
It was then that she noticed an annoying itch in the back of her head.
As suddenly as she was intrigued by this new vision of her son's future, she began to feel guilty. But it was more than guilt: An enormous sense of wrongdoing stiffened her muscles and faltered her liberating strides.
Emily kept her eyes fixed ahead but she was becoming aware, in her peripheral vision, of the quizzical stares she was receiving from parents walking their children to school. Christopher was looking around, also aware of the other children all dressed in claret and grey and heading merrily in the opposite direction from them. He watched one older boy whiz past on a scooter so far ahead of his mother that her presence seemed redundant except to carry his school bag.
Christopher let go of the pram and stopped walking. Still troubled by her thoughts, Emily continued for several paces before she noticed that her son was not by her side.
"Come on then. When we get back you can have a drink and a biscuit and watch some television while mummy goes on the computer." The itch started to become vaguely painful. She rubbed the back of her head but it offered no relief as it felt as if it was emanating from inside her skull.
"Discit" came the young voice from inside the pram, echoing the word ‘biscuit’ he recognised from his mother.
"Come on Christopher. Mummy has a headache. I'll find a way to…" she stopped and winced – it felt as if talons were lightly scratching at her brain.
"I want to go to school."
Emily felt her heart sink.
"You're sure? I mean you don't…"
The unruly tuft at the crown of his newly cut hair bobbed as he nodded.
"You're sure?" Emily repeated weakly.
Christopher looked at his mother as if she was mad and nodded once more. Almost magically, the itching in Emily's skull began to ease.
The children are already starting to line up to their classrooms in their little segregated section of the school when Emily and Christopher arrive with the pram. Two women are standing near the door of the classroom: a beaming teacher greets the nervous faces with terms of endearment whilst a slightly austere-looking teaching assistant looks on.
As they join the line of parents who are subconsciously keeping to the same distance from the classroom, Christopher turns to his mother. Emily kisses him and holds him tight and tells him that everything will be alright, despite the fact that he has not even questioned whether or not it will be.
Christopher then kisses James who frowns and says "Crissfer" as his brother turns and joins his new classmates, his companions for the coming years of change. They each file into the classroom with Christopher who is the last in the line and Emily gasps as he disappears through the door, which is then closed.
Through the frosted glass she watches his broken shape shrink and then walk to the right. The windows are almost fully blocked out by blinds but they are raised just enough for Emily to see the claret and grey mid-sections of identical boys and identical girls passing backwards and forwards. The images begin to stir long repressed memories that finally threaten to surface. But the threat is only fleeting. She barely notices the sensation of the chemical change in her brain that forces a tear to her eyes and ensures the memories stay hidden.
Around her, many other parents also dab tears away from their eyes. They smile to each other believing that the reason for their emotional state is due to a mixture of pride and sadness. But this is only what they are led to believe as each of them is shielded from the real reason they fear for their child on the first day of school.
Inside the classroom, much later in the day, when the parents are far from view, each of the eighteen little boys and girls is taken aside one by one and led to the school nurse's office. There, the teaching assistant asks the child to look into a kaleidoscope viewer. Then, as the colours split and burst before the child's eye, she places a tiny insect on their left shoulder, which crawls alarmingly quickly up their neck and then into their ear. The child winces as it crawls down the ear canal, and then gasps at a needle-prick of pain as it pierces the ear drum, passes through and then secretes a sticky substance that repairs it. From there it slithers into the fluid-filled cochlea, through the organ of corti and onward to the primary auditory cortex on the side of the brain.
Still its journey has not ended as it seeks out the prefrontal lobe in order to pacify the host and then on to the hippocampus and mammillary body, which harbour emotional behaviour, learning and motivation. There it will stay for the next twelve to twenty years until it burrows to associate areas of the brain for which scientists have not so far been allowed to find specific roles or functions.
A new tear springs to the child's eye, a result of a chemical change in their brain, but they are not distressed and have forgotten the pain already. Then they are finally given permission to leave. The teaching assistant places a tick against a name in an extremely large book, fatter than five telephone directories; hard-covered and stitched through its spine with unbreakable thread. On the dark, leathery cover of the book is the name of the school with the subtitle: 15th edition.
Nearby, Christopher plays with a pirate ship. He has no memory of the tiny centipede-like insect and nor will he for the rest of his life. That is until the moment arrives for his child to attend their first day of school. Then he may experience a sense that something is not quite right - something unnatural that defies sense and logic. He may even try to resist taking the child despite uncertainty about his reasons. But he will take them nevertheless.