Miss Hartley’s Peanuts
Originally published under Margaret Drake in Lancashire Life – 1970s
Miss Hartley, who taught third-year infants at Barrowford Council School (now Barrowford Primary School), was everyone’s favourite teacher. In her classroom were a piano, a grand wooden desk on which she kept a box of Ink Eradicator and the register. Huge windows, with thick cords hanging from them, flooded the room with light, and in the corner was a tall cupboard in which she maintained a constant supply of peanuts in their shells. These were given as prizes for doing good work, like getting all your sums correct or writing a particularly enthralling story because nut allergy and the elf and safety people weren’t around in 1943.
On the occasion I am about to relate she produced a more unusual and superior prize to be won than peanuts. It was a large print of a painting by Sir John Everett Millais, which I’d never seen before. The original of The Boyhood of Raleigh hangs in London’s Tate Gallery. It shows a man and two children sitting on a beach. One boy, presumably Raleigh, is listening intently to the man but his mate appears either totally depressed or as guilty as hell. All I knew that day, was from the style of their attire it was a scene from another age because I’d never seen anyone walking round Barrowford dressed like that.
Miss Hartley gave us a clean sheet of paper and a pencil, and then proceeded to chalk script on the blackboard. When it was finished she turned to us with a beam and said, ‘We’re having a competition this morning. I want you to copy down what I’ve written and the neatest writer shall have the picture.’
Not many days previously she had told me I was a neat writer, and in my childish imagination not only had I won the picture, I could actually visualise The Boyhood of Raleigh adorning my bedroom wall. I could even perceive my mother standing next to me, adoringly patting my head. As far as I was concerned it was a given that the picture was mine – before I’d even put pen to paper.
I was one of the first children to finish writing and sat smugly with my arms folded, ruminating on the exact position it should be hung, and I decided it would have pride of place on the chimney breast.
Normally I looked forward all week to Friday afternoons because we invariably wound up with a fascinating story and Miss Hartley was currently reading my favourite of all time, at the slow rate of a chapter per week – The Adventures of the Wishing Chair by Enid Blyton. On the Friday afternoon in question I could barely concentrate on the antics of Chinky, the children and the chair’s fluttering wings because of anticipating the prize, which was to be given at the end of the day.
In time she closed the book, smiled her lovely smile, and we all smiled back. She took The Boyhood of Raleigh down off the wall where it had been displayed for the day and rolled it up. ‘Margaret,’ she said, ‘come here’. I walked proudly to the front, tears of joy pricking the corners of my eyes, and held out my hand. In it Miss Hartley deposited two peanut shells. ‘Well done’. she said. ‘You were second’.
My best friend Jane Hobby won The Boyhood of Raleigh, and so she should , for her writing was always perfect.
Throughout my life I have regularly seen prints of The Boyhood of Raleigh; in hotels, on greetings cards, people’s homes and especially in art shops. On these occasions I am reminded of the important lesson I learned that day – that things don’t always go our way. The key word is to accept. It is one of the hardest in the English language to fully take on board.
I always try to leave a corner of my mind ready for if things don’t work out exactly as I expect, and then I won’t be quite as disappointed as I was that day when I had my first experience of the pitfalls of presumption.
And something I avoid like the plague when I’m in London is the Tate Gallery.
Beatrix Potter is internationally famous for her beautifully-illustrated “little books” and it is worth noting that because Millais was a friend of her father, Rupert Potter, she was allowed to sit watching him create his masterpieces during her childhood. A rare opportunity indeed.
Here is a condition of reproduction of the image through Creative Commons.
The painting is by John Everett Millais.
Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Mattis.
Original uploader was Rednblu.