On my very first morning in St. Paul’s School, after morning assembly in the small school hall, at twenty past nine precisely, Mr. Jones welcomed me to class. Then he adjusted his tie, buttoned the middle button of his green corduroy sports jacket, and selected an unused piece of white chalk from the cardboard box sitting on the rim of the blackboard. He looked up at the top left of the board, and, slowly, squeakily, wrote the day and the month, followed by the work of the day on the blackboard - sums, writing and reading – and, with extravagant gesture, wiped the powdery chalk from his fingers.
Then, he smiled, sat on his polished high chair, watched us dip our pens into the black inkwells, carefully copy his words in our books, and reminded us as we did our school work about the need to ‘do things right’.
All morning, seated in five rows, one behind another, we followed the same routine. By mid afternoon, when we had added, subtracted, multiplied and divided, recited the alphabet, and written sentences with capital letters, all to his satisfaction, we went in the yard and had our class photograph taken. We came back in, sat up straight and behaved ourselves. Mr. Jones stood up. Clearing his throat, he softly began to read aloud a chapter from one of Enid Blyton’s great children’s adventure books, The Famous Five.
I was hooked. I loved the story.
I told Mum and Dad that night that I thought my new school was really good, and, I said, “No one wears hob-nailed boots.”
The same thing happened on Tuesday. We worked and worked and worked. And the same thing happened again on Wednesday morning. All work and no play and no big spark competitions at playtime. But I did love hearing about the adventures of the Famous Five during the afternoons.
After the Wednesday lunch break, as soon as we had sat down at our desks, Mr. Jones checked to see what Graham Paul, not the fastest or the best writer in class – Charles Hawkins was the best - had written during the last part of the morning.
“Finished, Paul? Show me what you wrote.”
Mr. Jones sniffed loudly. Satisfied, it seems, with Graham’s efforts, he told us we’d worked really hard. Mr. Jones was, he said, really pleased with all of us.
As he spoke, Mr. Jones walked slowly over to his green cupboard, leaned over and opened the door. It creaked as he pulled it completely open. We craned our necks and we could see it was filled with all sorts of wonderful things. He looked inside, chose something that took his fancy, and placed it, with great care, on his old wooden desk, just to the side of the chipped ceramic pot of Stephenson’s ink.
It was a yellowy-white limpet shell, just like the shells stuck to the rocks on Lariggan Beach. There ere little blue marks near the top.
When every eye in the room was fixed on his, Mr. Jones, slowly, very deliberately, picked up the shell and gently ran his fingers over it. He held it up, against the sunlight coming through the window, looked at us, and, quietly, asked if we knew what it was. No one said a word. We’d all seen limpets every time we’d gone to the beach. But, I was to discover, I, for one, knew nothing about them.
Using magical, enchanting words, he set fire to our imaginations. Mr. Jones told us he was holding treasure, treasure from the sea, then what it was, where he’d found it, and how long he’d had it.
His story-telling voice was soft, like my dad’s - and his story about his treasure was as spellbinding as the best of Dad’s tales. Mr. Jones described the life of a limpet, why it stuck so firmly to the smooth granite rocks when the tide was out, how it fed on tiny algae when the tide came in, and why blue barnacles lived on its shell. I was entranced. I closed my eyes. I could see the limpet shell sluggishly sliding over the seaweed-covered rock, feeding as it crawled. I could see it sticking tight to the rock face when the sea receded. I knew that barnacles loved to spend their lives on the limpet shell.
It was then, for me, that the classroom – and the learning - came alive. The atmosphere in the room sparkled, making my hair on the back of my neck stand up, my fingers and my brain tingle. I had no idea that limpets that clung to granite rocks were so interesting. Did they have sharp teeth, I wondered?
“SO,” he asked,
“I’ve shown you the common but very beautiful and very interesting limpet.”
Gilbert Murley looked across the room at everyone and smiled. He knew what was going to happen next. Mr. Jones asked loudly, with his eyes widening: “OK, who’s got something in their pockets? Anyone got anything good to show us all?”
“Empty your pockets, boys, on top of your desks so that everyone can see what you’ve got.”
“Move your desks closer– show each other what you’ve got.” “Who’s got something REALLY good?”
A chorus of “I ‘av, sir, Look!” filled the air. We all did. In a second, the desks were covered with all sorts of bits and pieces that, for whatever reason, had caught the eye and the curiosity of young boys.
During afternoon playtime, everyone in Mr. Jones’s class talked about the special things they’d shared. Three of us made plans to go and find limpets down on the beach just past the harbor as soon as school finished.
Just after four o’clock, I ran down Adelaide Street, with Dudley Rowe and Roger Wakfer, onto the promenade, down the steps to Battery Rocks. We couldn’t get there fast enough, wanting so much to find a limpet like Mr. Jones’s, one with barnacles on its shell.
We weren’t fast enough. Barry Sizzly, Roger Roach and Gilbert Murley had beaten us there. There they were, hands full of shells, standing by the best rock pool. “Hey, boyo, what you lot doin’ ‘ere?” they asked.
“Same as you, twerps!” we shouted back.
Laughing, we climbed over the rocks and explored more of the shallow rock pools, gently moving the strands of brown and green weed, and shouting loudly when we saw a shrimp or tiny jellyfish, and even more loudly if we saw a limpet actually slithering slowly across a rock.
When we found as many empty shells as we could handle, we sat on a flat rock, putting our finds in front of us. Barry had found the best limpet shell, one covered with barnacles.
As soon as we each had a good close look, Barry took it back to the rock pool where he’d found it, anxious not to hurt the barnacles.
“They’re great, ain’t they though?” he exclaimed. We tried to outdo each other about what we had learned about limpets and tiny barnacles from Mr. Jones, and, as we each knew something the others didn’t know, we agreed it was a draw.
When I got home, I showed my mum the empty limpet shells I’d found, and proudly told her about Barry’s shell that was covered with tiny blue barnacles. I washed the shells and put them in an OXO tin and, later, showed Dad what I had found.
Mum and Dad were very impressed how much I’d learned in school.
The next day, and the next, it was schoolwork again, neatly copying what was written on the board, using our fingers and thumbs to do the multiplication sums, and writing a short story about anything that came to mind. Mr. Jones would mark our work, give it back, and then expect us, quietly, to write our corrections.
On the second Wednesday, I knew everything was in place for amber time, the right time to bring and show Mr. Jones my treasure. I knew by then he must have felt my wish from my wishing rock.
Over the boiled egg and bread soldiers’ (finger-sized pieces of bread) breakfast, I told my mum I was going to show Mr. Jones my amber that I’d found on the beach on my fifth birthday when I was at the Infant School.
She smiled. “He’ll like it,” she said. “I bet he knows what it is.” “He’s a teacher, don’t forget. Teachers know everything.”
“ Bring it back home, though. Don’t leave it there.”
Sure enough, during the afternoon, when everything and everyone was quiet and the work of the day completed to Mr. Jones’s satisfaction, he went to his cupboard. As he opened the door, Barry Sizzley and Gilbert Murley glanced at me and winked. Mr. Jones looked inside and took out one of his treasures. He held it up and told us where he’d found it. He asked if anyone in class knew what it was.
No one said a word. They hadn’t seen anything like it before.
I had. My heart missed 87 beats. I felt my hands go hot and clammy. I knew what it was. It was amber!! He HAD felt my wishing rock wish. My moment had arrived. THIS was the time.
“That’s amber, sir, amber!” I blurted. “ I know ‘cos I found some amber!”
Telling Mr. Jones I knew he held amber in his hand made me feel really important. All the class stared at me. What an incredible experience for me. I was the only boy in class who had seen amber before.
Mr. Jones looked at me. “What?” he asked. “Paull! You know amber? You FOUND some amber?”
“Where?” “Are you sure it’s amber?” “What color is it? Can you see through it?” “Is it heavy?”
“You got it with you?”
You bet, I thought. I put my hand in my pocket and quickly took out my amber and, spreading out my white hanky, put it out on the desk. “Look, Mr. Jones, look.”
He put his amber back in the cupboard and came towards my desk. His eyes lit up.
’WOW!! Wherever did you find that amber, Paull? You FOUND it?” “Sure someone didn’t give it to you?”
Mr. Jones held it in his hand and looked at my amber lovingly, in the same way that Miss Harvey, my infant school teacher, did. I knew right away that the amber, to him, was very, very special. As I told him about finding it lying with the thousands of pebbles on Lariggan Beach, Mr. Jones stared at the amber, his eyes aglow. Even though Mr. Jones didn’t live in Penzance, he knew the beach well. I’m sure he knew every tide-pool, every rock, every pebble.
Mr. Jones’s eyes - and his smile - widened. “Speak louder, Paull, tell everyone in class.”
“Tell them about your amber.”
My day, my year, my life, especially in school, was made. Thank you, thank you, wishing rock.
That evening, during the hot tea, white bread and yellow, sticky treacle teatime, I couldn’t stop talking about what happened in school.
“Mum, Mum, Mr. Jones goes to Lariggan. He’s never found amber, though, like I did. He told everyone in class I was dead lucky.”
“He’s never found anything like it, either at Lariggan, Battery Rocks, or the beach at Eastern Green.”
”He lives near Praah Sands – he said he’s never found amber there, either.”
“There you go, Johnny,” she said. “Didn’t I tell you what you found was extra special?”
“Now finish your treacle sandwich, please.”
“Oh, and thank your wishing rock, too, ok?”