My Dickensian Schooling: Primary School Macedonian Style

Imagine Oliver Twist at school in the poorhouse. Chances are, you are imagining something similar to my elementary education.

Before moving to Australia, my education from grade one to grade five was in Macedonia in Europe. I lived in a picturesque village/suburb, where summer days were spent playing in tree houses and running in fields and children only returned home after sunset for dinner. Those are some childhood memories I treasure – a time before computers, texting and DVDs.

School, on the other hand, was a different story; I remember feeling extremely anxious and stressed days before starting grade one. Turns out, I had every reason to be anxious. What made this school different to western standards was the bleakness of it all. There was no air-conditioning or electric heating; instead, there was a perilous wood-fed heater and it was the job of students to load it with wood. That furnace burned – or should I say melted – one of my new jackets. Imagine 6-year-old kids being able to severely burn themselves on a school heater.

Although I started school in 1994, physical discipline was still prevalent. I’m not sure what the official laws and policies were on the matter, but I know that the teacher was allowed to slap you and slap you hard. Being a model student in such a frightening place, I never experienced the dreaded slap. (Physical punishment is no longer tolerated, for the record.)

If the heater was not scary enough, let me introduce you to the school toilets. The promise of clean and proper school toilets was what my mother used to entice us towards looking forward to living in Australia. The dilapidated toilet, with doors hanging off hinges, was literally a hole in the ground. The position for your feet was indicated and between your left and right foot stood the black hole of doom. With such a hole ever-present, people still chose to leave you nasty surprises, here, there and everywhere.

If that was not disenchanting enough, by grade four, a teacher scolded me for drawing a sun in most of my art paintings/drawings. What is so wrong with a child drawing a sun? Around the school was a local corner store where students could go and buy lunch during breaks. Rumour has it the shopkeeper purchased cheap ham (which was close to its expiry or possibly past its expiry date) and sold cheap sandwiches to students. Sickening!

As soon as you started grade five, the real fun started, with the introduction of roughly ten school subjects, ranging from Macedonian literature, maths, English, geography, history, graphics, music, sport – all taught at approximately grade seven to eight at an Australian standard. Chemistry and physics would be added by grade eight, but I was not there by then.

With such an intense daily schooling and a 20-30 minute uphill walks home, regardless of rain, snow and shine, I naturally found education in Australia a piece of cake. Although I spoke little English, the school work was at a grade three standard and I felt like a big fish in a small pond. With each passing year, I excelled in English also and it quickly became my favourite subject and I am now an English/History teacher and writer.

So what has my Dickensian schooling taught me? It has made me more motivated compared to my Australian counterparts. It has made me more resilient and not tolerate mediocrity. I believe that early education should not be as stern as mine was but with that being said, students should not be babysat or wrapped in cotton wool, either.

So next time I teach an unruly class, perhaps I should frighten them with anecdotes about my school’s toilet.

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