Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | September 8, 2009

Childhood memories: Charles Leedham-Green

Dear Sasha,

The first time I went to school I was three years and seven months
old.  There were two other pupils at the school, girls rather older than me,
so there was no streaming.
The teacher was probably in her teens.  We had a mathematics lesson.
We were each given a piece of cardboard that had the outline of
a one (1) with all the trimmings, thus
   /__  |
      | |
      | |
      | |

We were required to colour this in red, and after some effort we more
or less achieved this task, and the best effort, far far better than mine,
was held up for general admiration, and we were asked what this might be.
The two girls answered `The figure one' in unison.  I had the impression
that they had been coached to do this.  However, I was not so sure and
remained dumb.  I had a suspicion that as even this high quality art
work was inclined to go over the lines, and leave some parts of the
interior uncoloured, it might not be quite a figure one.

I am still not certain of whether I was right to be cautious, but I went
right to the bottom of the class.

Later of course I went to a big school, with some twelve pupils and two
teachers.  It was an excellent school; I think the teachers, who were sisters, were in their
seventies; perhaps a little younger; unmarried because of the slaughter of
the men in the first world war.  I was at this school till the age of six
or seven, and was taught a fair amount of French, Latin, History, Norse
mythology, spelling, art and mathematics.  We were taught arithmetic up to
the extraction of square roots and the calculation of hcf's and lcm's by
factorisation.  I was reasonably competent, except perhaps for the art,
but was inclined to think about things (or gaze out of the window) rather
than getting on with my work, a tendency that the teacher regarded with some
understanding.  Sometimes, when doing a long multiplication, I would set it
out the other way from the way we had been taught; so I started by multiplying
by the unit entry of the second number instead of starting with the most
significant digit.  The teacher took this in her stride, and learnedly
told me that I had set it out in the German style.  She was a brilliant
teacher, but they retired and closed the school as I was leaving, raising the
fees for the last year from £2 per term to £2 10s per term.  At my next school,
which had 70 pupils in 6 classes, having rather lost track, through lack of
pratice, with how to set out multiplications, I set out a multiplication in some
way unknown to God or man, but got the right answer, to the confusion of the
teacher.  I also surprised him by knowing the word `colloquy' at the age of seven.
Not infantile precocity, but spelling lessons at the previous school.

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