The world of health and safety for children has changed out of all recognition during my lifetime. We daren’t let our young offspring run around freely these days. Schools have strict and detailed rules and procedures for ensuring the safety of pupils. And rightly so; we may bewail the passing of simpler times, but the fact is that rules and precautions are necessary, and every day’s news underscores this sad fact. So I thought I would share with young parents, and fellow grandparents, how it was just 70 years ago. I expect any parent of children currently at school to recoil in horror.
The setting is the wood and iron cricket pavilion at St Andrew’s School, Bloemfontein, but I doubt whether things were much different, in principle if not in detail, anywhere else.
Sub A and Sub B (as Grades 1 and 2 were then known) are housed in the cricket pavilion, a rickety old building that served as a barracks during the Boer War and was installed at the school some time later. It stands above the main sports field, a rugby field’s length away from the main school building. On the other side of the pavilion is a stretch of rough ground that will one day become the main cricket field in summer and two hockey fields in winter. On one side, about 25 metres from the pavilion, is the school swimming pool. It is rudimentarily fenced but there’s no gate. Next to the swimming pool is the gate giving access to the grounds from the street. Did I say gate? Not true; it’s a gap in the fence surrounding the school. More of this anon.
Miss Jacobs, the Sub A teacher, reminds us each day that we have to finish our sandwiches before going out to play. She and Miss Maree, the Sub B teacher, then set off across the rugby field to take tea in the staffroom in the main building.
Now from the perspective of 2017 when I’m writing this, let’s examine the question of safety; so back to the surroundings as I’ve described them above. Picture this: between 30 and 40 little boys aged from five to seven, left to their own devices for 20 to 30 minutes on a large tract of uneven ground, adjacent to an unfenced swimming pool next to the open vehicle access to the road running past the school. I didn’t mention that beneath the pavilion is a space between the ground and the underside of the floor, because the pavilion stands on stilts. This area has been bricked in but there is a gap at one spot. We are forbidden to enter the dark area inside the gap and under the floorboards. Guess what became an integral part of our playtime activities? Did I mention that the school shooting range is on the upper ground as well? We are forbidden to go anywhere near it, but there’s treasure in the mound of soil behind where the targets are placed – the lead fronts of the .22 bullets the shottists use. At least there’s one safety consolation; there’s no rifle practice during school hours. Imagine the reaction of the average South African school mom today. Better yet, imagine turning the notorious British “’elf-and-safety” commissars loose on this situation. But we all survived. I don’t recall a single incident of any sort in the couple of years that this was my daily play area. I wonder if this says something about taking responsibility, even at a young age, instead of the modern nanny state’s insistence that we all need to be protected from ourselves.
Finally, when it rains we get a special treat. The roof leaks in several places, so Miss Jacobs sits in the middle just out of reach of a large leak that produces a spreading puddle across the floor before slowly leaking through the gaps between the floorboards, while we range ourselves in a circle around her. Needless to say, the only subject we can do then is reading.
To my knowledge no anxious mother ever worried that her little boy would wander into the pool area, or decide to stroll out of the grounds, or fall while climbing unsupervised up one of the pine trees ranged along the school boundary. No school inspector fainted with shock and demanded an immediate end to the teachers’ distant tea break.
Such simple times…