My sister Jacinta gave me a wash in the big earthenware sink in the yard, with water heated on the cooker. She dressed me and put on me the smock which I had inherited from my brother Pepe. She took me to the Beaterio, where the little children went, and delivered me to a Sister. I was about four years old. My mother had been educated at the Beaterio from early infancy until the age of 16, and wanted all her children to go there. She knew that the most long-lasting memories, those which stay with a person for life, come from one's early childhood.
I was miserable at first, but the Sister took me in her arms and introduced me to the class. By midday I had become integrated into the social community of boys and girls in that blessed place. Almost everything was learned by chanting; letters, numbers, the first words … It was like an extension of the family. They came to collect me in the afternoon, but all the children looked forward to going back to the Beaterio each morning. People loved the nuns as if there were their own family.
I will never forget our playtimes in the yard, with a cistern in the middle, in the shade of the wall which led to the castle tower.. It was a setting where “the stones spoke”, but I still can't work out what they were saying. The lesser kestrels lurked in the holes left in the ruined stones, and the little children ran about shouting and making a real hullabaloo. Getting onto the cistern to look at the Moor who had constructed it was an adventure which everyone wanted to experience.
I also have memories of another school, which was in the Calla la Amiga, a few houses up from my own. It was just that, a “friend”, which took in small children during the summer. It was a sort of nursery school, so children didn't have to stay out in the streets all day. It was run by a woman who I think was called Maria de los Santos. There was a charge, for you had to hand over a 10 cent coin each day – those copper coins, big and heavy, with which you could buy so many things. The woman got us singing and told us stories, and we had to bring a slate, with a cloth tied to the frame to wipe it clean. We also took along a bottle of water and - I don't know why - we used to put licorice in it which turned it deep red as if it were wine.
But the place where we began to learn in earnest was the National School, run by Don Manuel Marchante. Don Manuel was a widower, he had two sons, he always wore black and he was old. The class consisted of forty or fifty pupils. The classroom was situated in an alley which led down from the Calle Real to the Rio Verde. It was shaped like an L, and the furniture consisted of a crucifix, the teacher's table and chair, a large blackboard, some maps on the walls and a cupboard for the books. He always wore glasses with big thick lenses for his myopia. In the mornings, the classes were orderly and we made good use of the time. But in the afternoons, Don Manuel would come back from lunch somewhat drowsy, which sometimes caused him to nod off. The school had just one class for children ranging from 5 or 6 to 12 years old, and the older ones taught the smallest ones to read. But when they saw Don Manuel dozing off, chaos would reign.
In spite of everything, the pupils ended up liking Don Manuel. At that time, schoolteachers were badly paid and were obliged to give private lessons to earn a decent living. Don Manuel as well gave extra classes after the end of the school day. I recall that in those classes he attached a lot of importance to reading. The reading text was Corazón by Amicis, an Italian book which was supplied to a lot of primary schools during the Republic. It was good, and we went through a new story every week. But in addition Don Manuel dedicated one day a week to studying the Spanish classics. He sat the older pupils in a circle and they took turns reading from some novel or book of stories. The younger children listened attentively to the older ones reading, and those short narratives would make them tremble with emotion. Don Manuel had two sons and believed that they would also become teachers in Alcalá, but he eventually moved to Jerez.
Occasionally Don Manuel could not attend class due to illness or because he had to go to Cádiz. Then Don Jorge, a young teacher who had studied at the University, would stand in for him. Don Jorge's youth was noted as soon as he came through the gates of the school. Nobody chattered, he maintained discipline effectively and made good use of the time. Nevertheless, Don Manuel taught us well and earned the appreciation of his students.
Some ten or twelve years later, Don Manuel retired. All the generations of students who had passed through his hands organised a tribute and a meal, in recognition of his teaching work. I myself attended. Don Manuel had spent many years battling deficiencies in the education system, so that the young people of Alcalá could be well-informed and prepared. And even so, is must be remembered that in those days more than 60 per cent of the population of Alcalá were illiterate.
There was another school in the Carril Alto, run by a teacher who walked with crutches, whose name I cannot recall. I had no contact with that school; I only remember seeing the teacher walking with great difficulty up the Calle la Amiga. That image remains in my childhood memory.
Translated by Claire Lloyd
SERIE DE NOCTURNAS, 16-01-2017.
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