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An essay on an essay

January 19, 2011

By Margie Riley

A very long time ago, my friends, when I was still at school, I wrote an essay entitled ‘Spring’.  We had been given carte blanche (as long as we stuck to the proscribed subject!) by our English teacher, a fearsome woman, who was also the headmistress of the boarding school in which I was incarcerated.  Thank goodness conditions at boarding schools seem to have become less of an ordeal for children than they were some fifty years ago.

We lived on a farm in the English countryside, and it was a small child’s dream.  We had a mixed farm, with crops and animals.  We grew spring wheat and barley, flax and oats.  We had pigs and dairy cattle for a while (and later one lone house cow), chickens, beef cattle and sheep; I had the ultimate in animals, my own pony.

In springtime, of course, come the young of the animal kingdom.  The cattle, having been kept indoors through the winter, lived on the downland and more or less looked after themselves.  They didn’t generally require too much assistance or extra warmth as the calves arrived later in the year after the ewes lambed.

The lambing took place in one of the barns not far from the farmhouse, with the barn divided into pens constructed of wattle hurdles, for the lambing ewes.  The sheep were brought in at night from late February so that the loss of lambs to the cold was lessened.  The ewes appeared to relish the warm straw on which their lambs were born and most quickly bonded with the new arrivals.  Occasionally one would be rejected by the mother, or a twin – or sometimes even a triplet – and would be pushed away.  We used the ancient practice of covering the rejected lamb with the skin of a dead lamb and this was often effective in encouraging a bereaved ewe to accept the rejected babe.

Sometimes nothing worked and that’s when we had lambs in the house.  For many years there was a coterie of lambs in the laundry area (luckily tiled with flagstones and not an absorbent floor-covering).  These bottle-fed little ones were always delighted to see us approaching with the warm bottles filled with cows’ milk and when they began to suckle their little tail stumps would literally whirr with delight.  One year we had orphaned twin lambs named Greedy and NotSo, for that was the nature of each…

Of course things went wrong too; farming is not a pastoral fantasy-land with happy, forelock-tugging peasants basking in the glow of a pat on the head from the land-owner, fat and cuddly animals, and plentiful food.  The days I remember with such affection and delight were not easy ones.  Rationing resulting from WWII was still in place and it affected every aspect of our lives.  When farm machinery broke down it was not necessarily that easy – nor is it today I surmise – to find replacement parts readily.  There was, needless to say, no such option as hopping online and purchasing the needed bit; it was a question of ringing the dealer, ordering it over the phone, waiting and hoping that the dealer could locate it, and then waiting again until it was ready for collection or delivery.  Ploughshares sheared off when they struck the many rocks in the soil – these sarson stones come to the surface as the soil it turned and tilled over the years; tractors ran over sharp objects and the tyres were punctured; harrows and seed drills lost bits and pieces every now and then.

This is how I approached the essay entitled ‘Spring’ rather than dwelling on the pretty bits.  Aged thirteen, I thought it was a novel approach to discuss the breakdowns amongst the primroses, violets and bluebells; the death of lambs and the feeding of the greedy, windy orphans; the birth of a litter of kittens in the middle of some crisis and the escaping of the herd of beef cattle.

It was not well received.  The English harridan carpeted me, tore the work to shreds and told me she thought I was trying to be ‘clever’ – well you would, wouldn’t you?  My multi-page, hand-written essay, the one in which I had invested so much time and effort, was apparently all for nought.

I don’t remember any other essays I wrote, but this one, so effectively ridiculed and rejected, has remained with me always.

The morals of the story are:

a) be careful how you treat a child’s work,

b) consider tempering your work for the audience, AND

c) stick to your guns and realise that you have created something worthwhile and continue with your writing!


Margie Riley is more than a proofreader and editor, she is a wordsmith. She is a member of the Queensland Society of Editors, a local writers’ group and a number of professional and networking organisations. Margie has a mind for trivia, a passion for words, a sharp wit and a well-developed sense of humour.

Find out more about her services as an editor and proofreader at Proofreading Guru.

  1. January 19, 2011 5:27 am

    Absolutely Margie! We need to be so careful about our feedback to others. Thanks for sharing some of your journey as a writer with us at Write Anything!

  2. January 19, 2011 5:53 am

    That was mean of your teacher- she should have encouraged you for thinking off the track. At any rate, she shouldn’t have torn the essay.

  3. January 20, 2011 4:47 am

    How horrid. For what its worth, I loved your little summary of your essay and of farming life. As a teacher myself, it’s certainly reminded me to treat everyone’s work with the respect it deserves, mistakes or no mistakes.

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