Scientists say time travel is impossible, but we’ve got a little girl at school who would suggest otherwise. I met Elsie on the first day in my new school; she wandered into class and I thought maybe someone had played a trick on her mum and told her it was Dress up Day. Pinafore, boots, mob cap, slate. The weird thing was – no-one seemed to notice. It was as though it was perfectly normal to have a Victorian child in every classroom.
The other children teased her a bit about her mobcap – until there was a break out of nits and then everyone wanted to borrow it. The girls all wore tunics and white shirts for their school uniform, so her pinafore blended in; and some of the girls were so taken with her ringlets that they were soon all sporting the same hairstyle!
I often wandered how she travelled to us from 1865. I never saw a silver DeLorean parked next to the head-teacher’s car – nor was there a little child-sized Tardis come to that. One day I cunningly asked the children how they came to school so that we could make a tally chart; how would that go? Car: 11, Bus: 9 Foot: 7, Bike: 2, Mystic wormhole to another time: just the one?
But she explained that she walked along the lane by the fields, past the new station for the trains, along the High Street, past the shops; and then into the main doors of the school. That was when she met the rest of the class as they were coming in through the playground door. Her lunch-pail containing a chunk of bread and some cheese went in the big plastic box with all the other Spiderman and Hello Kitty lunchboxes.
She managed on average two or three days a week. It made me realise how different her life was. On the other days she was expected to help her mother at home. One day she had to stay at home to look after one of her little brothers who had been kicked by a horse while he was working as a street sweeper. Another time she had caught the measles and been seriously ill.
Then on one memorable occasion she was very apologetic for arriving late on Monday; but her whole family had been up to London to see the inaugural meetings of the Salvation Army in the East End. The crowds had been immense and it had taken her family a long time to get home afterwards and she had overslept. I was more used to the children telling me they’d been to the park, or gone shopping with their mum for their weekend news. Not many of them tell you, with shining eyes, that they’ve been patted on the head by General William Booth himself!
I keep having to remember not to talk about ‘the olden days’ – because for her it means ‘this morning’ but then of course when most of the children talk about the olden days they mean ‘yesterday’ – so it’s probably fine.
One incident that made us all laugh was when she curled her lip and sniffed with distain describing the ridiculous new book that all the children at home were talking about.
‘A completely nonsensical novel with idiotic plot and unbearably peculiar characters.’ Written by an Anglican minister who ‘Really should know better!’ She thanked the good Lord that this kind of rubbish would soon be forgotten. Turned out she was talking about ‘Alice in Wonderland’ – she won’t be very impressed with Tim Burton’s version then!
So each day as I say goodbye to the children I know that 29 of them are going home to play on their tablets and eat microwave meals in front of the TV, while one is probably busy cleaning a chimney!