Sacred Heart, Aston by Gordon Hughes

I was four years of age in 1942 when I began attending the Sacred Heart Catholic School on Prestbury Road, Aston. The reason my parents decided to send me to a catholic school - even though we were not catholic - seems to be twofold.

First, during the early part of the war the Germans began bombing major industrial centers like Birmingham both day and night. With the school being on the opposite corner to our house in Grange Road, my parents probably felt more comfortable having me nearby.

Secondly, for a short time during the early part of the war, a woman teacher from the school lodged at our house. The majority of eligible male teachers had joined the armed forces, which left schools with a shortage of qualified people. Women were recruited to fill the void and those from out of town were billeted with local residents while they found permanent accommodation.

I remember quite clearly at about four years of age going to school with our lodger and playing "peekaboo" with the students while hiding under her desk. This exposure gave both my parents and me a familiarity with the school. If an air raid happened during school hours, the children would all be taken down into the crypt of the Sacred Heart Church, which was adjacent to the school and the resident priest would join us - at the time it was Father Tarbuck. The crypt was a strong structure with heavy stone columns but a direct hit on the church would have probably killed most or all of us.

Perhaps as far as the church was concerned, faith played an important part but the sad fact was that no other alternatives had been made to provided shelter so many children at short notice.

After the war the teaching staff began to change and I came to hate going to school. Most learning at that time seemed to be based on fear, mostly of the cane, which was used liberally to beat students - mainly boys but also on the very rare occasion girls.

The Headmaster's main role seemed to be the administration of punishment. I don't ever remember him uttering a civil or kind word. To have the Headmaster called to the classroom for disciplinary reasons was a "sentence of death." He rarely left until someone was severely caned. Such harsh discipline was used even for the most minor infractions, like talking or eating in class. Caning was usually done on the fingertips of the child's open palm at the discretion and whim of the teacher. Permission was not required from the Headmaster nor was a record kept of the infraction and the punishment. For some teachers the cane was used only as a last resort but for others it was part of the curriculum.

During the time I attended the Sacred Heart, the overwhelming majority of students were Irish. I was one of only three Protestants but strangely enough, other students rarely bothered us for religious reasons. However, I felt that some of the teachers singled out the Protestants whenever possible by picking on us or making snide comments. Being made the center of attention can be a major problem when you are a child. Compared to today, the educational standards at the school were appallingly bad but perhaps no worse than many other schools.

The school had no science programs or even laboratories and equipment. I was told that this was due largely to the Catholic Church's views on creation. Our teacher told us that the church and science were at odds concerning "Darwin's Theory of Evolution." There were no musical instruments in the school, save for an old upright piano, which was played quite competently during lunchtime by a very talented teacher named Mr.Ludden, who had obviously had some classical training. The sum content of the music program consisted of singing, which the boys hated. Inevitably at some point the teacher would have the boys and girls singing separately. For some strange reason the boys considered singing to be "sissy." While the girls sang loudly when it was their turn, you could barely hear the boys, who I suppose were afraid of being laughed at by the others in the class. Sometimes the boys would start off singing quite loudly but then as each one felt they were being heard above the group, they would taper off into an almost inaudible and toneless mumble. It was quite funny really, with the boys crouching lower in their desks, looking around for vocal support when it was quite obvious that none would be forthcoming.

Maths was very basic, and until I left the school at age thirteen, consisted only of addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and fractions. The school did not have a gymnasium; consequently there were no physical education programs. Any exercise was done in the schoolyard, weather permitting or at the classroom desk if and when the teacher felt like it. The swimming program consisted of a walk to Victoria Road swimming baths for about a half-hour of "splashing and dunking" once or twice a year. There were no recognizable school sports teams. The sports program was limited to the occasional trek to the Holford Drive playing fields in Perry Barr, where we would engage in a very disorganized game of football with about twenty on each side. The game's strategy mainly consisted of everyone except the ball carrier shouting "Pass it to me!" The only other exercise option was to run around the perimeter of the field or throw "bean bags" to each other.

Each day before recess students would be given a small bottle of milk. We had to drink it whether we liked it or not. If you suffered from lactose intolerance, that was just too bad. A few students who hated milk literally had to force it down. I remember one poor girl who would sit there jiggling her legs with a small amount of milk in her mouth, trying to summon the courage to swallow it. The bottles had a cardboard cap recessed into the neck. There was no tab so the cap had to be pressed in to get hold of it. If you weren't careful the milk would squirt out all over. On hot summer days - and there were a few - the milk would often turn sour while it sat in the playground but we had to drink it anyway. Wintertime was the best, particularly if the milk was beginning to freeze, we thought that was a real treat.

The school building itself was a two-story structure with an open plan concept. During the war all the ground floor windows had sandbags piled in front of them to stop flying debris, glass and shrapnel from entering the classrooms. Floor to ceiling retractable wooden partitions divided the rooms - three upstairs and three downstairs - with a separate room for kindergarten on the main floor. All the toilets were outside in the schoolyard. The junior's toilets (students up to about age eight) were located in a passageway between the school and the church. The boy's urinal - which was nothing more than a trough with a tin roof over it - was in full view of girls passing to their toilets. I was never able to go when anyone was around and always used the closeted toilet instead. I was not alone in finding it a dehumanizing experience and even at that age resented the lack of respect for privacy. Fortunately, at the senior level the boys had a separate schoolyard from the girls with separate toilets.

It was a rough school. Bullying was rampant and playground supervision was minimal during recess. Often a small gang would wander around the playground picking on the weaker kids or loners for no particular reason, other than some primitive urge to inflict pain and suffering on another human being. Frequently there would be a fight in the schoolyard and even though the staff room overlooked the boy's playground the teachers generally ignored it unless someone was getting seriously hurt. I got the impression that fights were a major diversion from the monotony. Usually they would start with a push or an idle punch being thrown and would probably have ended there but inevitably someone would shout "fight" and a crowd would gather around the combatants - after that there was no turning back. If the fight was starting to cool down, the crowd would push the two contestants into each other to heat things up again.

A couple of characters from the Sacred Heart have stuck in my mind. One of them was a particularly unkempt and disheveled individual who looked something like a "Raggedy-Anne doll." In fairness we probably all looked that way. None of us existed much above the poverty level and many well below. Apart from his appearance, this particular fellows unique peculiarity was to take a deep breath, puff out his cheeks and hold it until he went bright red in the face. After about ten seconds or so he would finally explode, spit and all, with the word "Ponnnnnnng!" For some strange reason he thought it was hilarious. Perhaps it was a statement about his own hygiene.

The other character that stands out had an absolute obsession with Al Jolson, the famous "blackface" singer of the 1920's. He could narrate almost the entire dialogue from the movies "The Jazz Singer" and "Jolson Sings Again" and knew all of Jolson's songs off by heart. In the playground he would often pick a spot and go through his repertoire, ad nauseum, to no one in particular, complete with an imitation of the singer's mannerisms and inflexions. I've hated Jolson's music ever since.

Instead of proper names, many students had nicknames such as "Bush, Beetle, Spook, and Pepper." The names either matched an element of their physical being, personality, or notoriety. Mine was "Stork" because of my height and spindly legs.

One incident at the Sacred Heart involving me, stands out in my mind. It occurred when I was in the second floor classroom, at the side of the school facing our house on Grange Road. In the days before permanent wall mounted chalkboards, a portable blackboard and easel was used for instruction. It was a cumbersome arrangement and took up floor space, so students were appointed at random to set up the blackboard and take it down at the end of class. One day I was chosen for the job of setting up the blackboard and easel. As I grabbed the board and turned to walk towards the front of the class, it began to slip from my hands and caught a fire extinguisher, which hung on the wall nearby, sending it crashing to the floor. The fall broke the valve of the extinguisher and it began to spray foam in all directions as it rolled around the floor. The teacher grabbed it and ran down the stairs to the outside of the building. In the process he sprayed a continuous line about waist high on the outer wall of the stairwell. The chemical etched the paint and the mark stayed there until I left the school. After the incident the Headmaster was summoned and I thought that I would surely receive nothing less than the "death penalty." Instead I got away with a few caustic remarks about my intelligence and competence, or lack of it. I can truly say that I left my mark on the Sacred Heart.

The old Sacred Heart school has since been demolished and a new school - which is located on Trinity Road under the same name - has replaced it. When I returned to the old site in May 2002 the vacant property was being used as a car park.

Footnote
The above article is a description of people, events and conditions as seen through the eyes of a young boy some sixty-years ago. It is not my intention to discredit anyone living or dead nor is it my desire to discredit the Catholic faith. The staff and students of the new Sacred Heart School are not in any way connected with my story. Furthermore, times have changed and I am confidant that the facilities at the new school are of the best quality and that the current staff and curriculum adheres to the highest educational standards.