What going to School was like – a century ago

Sometimes the differences between people and peoples are striking.  A French friend emailed me to congratulate me on some good news: then he went on to say that his favourite wild mushrooms were over, but he hoped that with the new moon, they would soon be plentiful again. No English friend of mine has ever written me anything like this.  So I am going to tell you a story about the same part of France: it was told me by a French man, Marcel, now in his 80s, who was born there and lived the life of a peasant at that time.

This is the story.

My School Teacher

My name is Marie. I am the youngest. I have four brothers, and we live in a fermette, which is a smallholding, a very small holding, on the edge of the forest high up in the hills of the Auvergne. My Papa has a good job as a stonemason, and Maman is very proud of this. Other people in the village have jobs, shoeing horses, cutting wood, things like that, but a stonemason, – that’s serious: it means we have a bit more money than some other people. Maman says it is good to have the money, but we must be careful not to make the others jealous. My favourite brother is Jean.

This is why. You see every morning in the winter we all walk together to the next village to meet our friends, and then we walk on with them to school. Sometimes there is a lot of snow, and Jean knows I find it hard not to slip or stumble. So he carries my log for me, and I carry his lunch for him. This is much easier for me, – Jean told me he remembers how hard it was to carry his log and his lunch  when he was small, and I am the youngest.

You may wonder why we had to take a log to school?  It is because in those days we had no central heating in our school room. Can you imagine how cold it would be in a great big school room with a high ceiling with no wood to heat the stove? That’s why every child has to bring a log in the winter. Sometimes the bigger boys bring two logs: one for the school room, and one for the teacher.  Everyone knows the teachers have little pay, so our parents help them when they can: some logs in the winter, eggs when the chickens lay, and a cheese… When Maman preserves vegetables for the winter, she always makes an extra jar for our Teacher.  I am very proud when I give it to him, for it is not every family that can help our Teacher as much as we do. Maman says it is good to give, but you must be sure to keep enough for yourself.

What I am trying to tell you is that when we get to school, all the logs go in one corner, and our Teacher tells one of the big boys to keep the stove going and put the logs in.

I don’t have to do that, but on the day I am telling you about, it was my turn to put the lunch tins on the stove to warm up a half hour before dinner time. Every lunch tin was the same with two parts: in the bottom bit, there was some meat, and in the top part there were vegetables. No-one had sandwiches, and nobody had any crisps or bananas or anything like that!  I had never seen a banana! But the food was good, and we all enjoyed chatting to our friends at dinner time while our Teacher was upstairs having his dinner.  Then the great bell rang and it was time to start lessons again.

Some of us found it hard to learn to read and do sums, but not me. I was not so very clever, but Jean had taught me my letters and how they went together before I went to school, because he said, “You will feel stupid if you can’t do it.” So I had a head start. It wasn’t long before our Teacher saw I could do the work, so he said “Marie, you can read already so you must help me with the others. You can stay to have some tea with me after school and I will show you what to do.” This made me very happy. Perhaps I could be a teacher myself when I grew up. “Yes Monsieur,” I said, “but can Jean stay with me? I can’t walk home in the dark alone.” Our Teacher looked at Jean and nodded. “Yes,” he said  “and your brothers can tell your Maman why you’ve stayed behind.”

After classes were over, our Teacher took Jean and me upstairs to his rooms.  They were snug, and there were photos of Teacher’s family up on the walls. We had some hot milk, and biscuits, – this was a treat – and then Teacher told me who I should help and what they should read. “Tomorrow, you must help Anne, Jeanne and Lucine,”  he said. “They have been here 2 years now, but still they read badly. We have so many children to teach here, all different ages, and I have to teach them everything!”  I had never thought of this before. I could see teaching was not so easy. “Just listen to them and correct them when they make a mistake,” he said. “When they have finished, tell them they have done well, it will make them try tomorrow. It is very important to encourage children.”

“You are encouraging me,” I said. “I am glad I am going to help you.”  Teacher smiled at me. “You are a good girl, and a clever girl. You remind of my sister. That’s her photo on the wall.”  Sadness passed across his face.  “She died when she was eight. The doctor could do nothing, and we couldn’t afford it anyway.”

Jean said “We had a sister who died too.”  I said “I think they are both in Heaven.”

“Yes,” said our Teacher, “but Heaven is a long way off.”  We were all quiet  – then we left to walk home under a starry sky.  

Published by Charlotte Sebag-Montefiore

After many years working as a clinical psychologist in the NHS, I became an author. My years as a mother and grandmother gave me plenty of practice telling children stories. I have become very interested in dinosaurs and animals, and I really enjoy rhymes and riddles!

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