Monday, 26 August 2013

A dodgy educational history

And now another flash of autobiography. A glimpse at my school reports when I was aged nearly nine and twelve and a half. You're going to see my name as a child of course, but that can't possibly matter now. It might after all be another person entirely, and not the me that now is, five decades on.

Remember, by the the time I was five I was encased in a protective armour of secrecy that I had fashioned for myself. I was difficult to know, a solitary child who never showed the world, not even her parents, the real child within. By twelve I was consumately practiced in the arts of dissemblance and secret subterfuge, as well as any courtier, resigned to playing a careful, low-profile game of survival inside an institution that I passionately disliked. My two objects: (a) to leave with enough educational ammunition to land a money-making job; and (b) simply to join the adult world that had been beckoning for a very long time, a world in which I would at last have some personal control over my young life, and not have to toe the line. But of course I did not see how unrealistic I was.

The grammar school I did time at was full of strict rules and competitive expectations. I saw that several of the masters who taught me also thought the ethos stifling and out of date, but they had to conform, keep quiet, and become part of 'the team'. I had enough intuition to see that some of them, such as the art and music masters, felt pretty uncomfortable with their position. It was very easy to spot the career masters, who aspired to become Head of their Department, and shaped their behaviour accordingly. I did not want to sell my soul like that. There must be more to life than being a hectoring martinet.

One or two masters of lesser ambition had instead written and published standard textbooks on this or that. For instance, Mr Colebourn, the Latin master, had published Latin Sentence and Idiom and Civis Romanus by the time I was there, and of course we used those books. They are still standard works in 2013. For the record, I liked Latin. It was an introduction to early Roman history (Romulus and Remus, and the tyrants) and Julius Caesar's descriptions of how he conquered Gaul (that's France nowadays). For O-level Latin we studied Virgil's Aeneid (which deals with the destruction of Troy, and the hero's subsequent wanderings around the Med). These were interesting academic diversions, although I hasten to add that I was rubbish at Latin, and couldn't get even a scrape pass at the exams. I was never any good at any exams at all, with the sole exception of my three A-Levels. More on that later. Of course, there was plenty of messing around. I remember, in 1966, when the Beatles' Yellow Submarine was in the charts, seeing 'We all live in a yellow navis longa' written indelibly inside my copy of Civis Romanus, a navis longa being a sea-going galley, vaguely like a Viking longship. I didn't call Mr Colebourn's attention to it. He would have spluttered with outrage, and had me caned, thinking that I was the culprit and stupid enough to give myself away. As if. Not this wary fox.

One thing I remember about Mr Colebourn was that when he sat down in front of the class, reading a passage from one of the textbooks, his trousers would ride up above his socks, and I couldn't help noticing how smooth and hairless his legs were for a man in his fifties. As if shaved. It was disturbing and distracting. Funny the things you recall.

So onto that school report at age nine, at Barry Island Junior Mixed. Here's the document:

Summer Term 1961. The young me had come third in a class of twenty-eight. The teacher Mr Roberts (his words signed off by head teacher Mr Davies - both good Welsh names!) had written 'Julian has attained a good position in class. He is a diligent and eager worker, and should be able to continue with this splendid effort.' Splendid So what had I done to deserve that? Very good conduct, never late. I'll grant him that. But despite the list of subjects, I was really being assessed only on English and Maths. He was right to give me top marks for English. I loved the subject. I probably earned hatred for my flawless reading ability, and alienation for being quick with apt and clever words. My maths mark looks slightly doubtful, though, and in point of fact I was a complete duffer at any figurework. I don't know what Mr Roberts based his '84 out of 100' on. He must have made it up.

Not that he went out of his way to be nice to any child. He was the teacher who forcibly stopped me reading any more Beatrix Potter - an incident described in my post Welcome to Melford Hall on 9 October 2010. I certainly never gave him any apples, nor sucked up to him in any way. I see him now, in my mind's eye, a middle-aged man in a small school, destined never to rise further in his career. Even Mr Davies the head teacher was never going to get higher. Dead end jobs. And the class was full of dead end pupils. I remember one dockworker's son, nicknamed Ocker, a big, lumbering boy. Big enough to push me around - but in fact we kept our distance. I respected his fists. He respected my tongue and my fierce face when threatened. He couldn't tell whether it was bluff or not. It was not: I would have seriously hurt him if he laid a hand on me. I had read how James Bond fought the ruthless agents of SMERSH. I was licensed to kill.

Three years later, after the family had moved from South Wales to Southampton, I was at Taunton's School, and my Autumn 1964 report was a glowing one:

Top of the form! I'd come up from far behind like a surprise Grand National outsider to beat twenty-eight other kids. I'd finished a losing twelth in the previous term's race. Dad's pencilled figures in the left-hand margin show how eagerly he and Mum tried to follow my school career. They must have been delighted with this result. Mum especially would have exulted.

But the report is full of holes. Even English was a contradiction: 'The grammar puzzles him at times, but his written work is most promising.' No surprise there. I've never been one for artificial analysis, and English Grammar at the time pulled sentences apart in a way that made no sense. I revelled only in free composition. The weak subjects were Latin, French, Science and Handicraft. The last bored me to death, but I'd wanted to do well at the others. I was finding that in a class of well-motivated pupils who had flown through their 11-Plus exam, I was an also-ran. And this was not even the brightest class for my year. But it was still pleasant to get a 'Congratulations!' from the peppery old headmaster. I did so much want to please my parents.

It was a high-water mark. From here on my form position gradually sank, to the puzzlement of the masters and the despair and shame of my parents. I lost heart. It was just too difficult to handle the horror of puberty and the pressures of term exams at the same time. I could never explain that to anyone. I sat on it. I pulled myself together just in time to get good grades in my A-levels in 1970. Here's the proof, on the slip of paper that was posted to me:

Geography: an A grade (actually with distinction). English Literature, a B grade. Art, another B grade, although if I hadn't trashed my still life, it would have been an A. Mum and Dad had something to celebrate again. Why not? I did it for them.

For myself, I hardly cared. My Art College course had been vetoed by my parents. I was destined for the Civil Service, already accepted in fact, bar some easy formalities. Dad had arranged it, and Mum wanted it for me. Forty-seven years of servitude lay ahead, then release at age sixty-five, with a pension. (I got remission for good behaviour, and served only thirty-five years)

I didn't think about all those - most of my year - who had gone off to university. I had deliberately not applied. But I thought much more of the few who had taken what is now called a gap year. One in particular had bought himself a guitar and gone to New Guinea on a social service project. New Guinea! Distant, exotic, primitive, life-changing. One could discover one's true self in a place like New Guinea. But it was too late to go, and I knew that I would not be allowed to. And I wasn't going to put up a fight. I fell in with my parents' wishes.

And so began decades of doing the conventional thing. Of doing what was expected, but wanting to do and become something else, though never quite formulating what that something else might be. It was no consolation to realise that most people have to squeeze themselves into the same standard mould, for better or worse. Very few ever manage to find a life that fits them properly.

I still mourn for New Guinea. Why, I might have learned to play the guitar quite well - and who knows what else.


  1. Do you regret the course you took in life Lucy, apart from waiting so long to transition that is?

    Shirley Anne x

  2. Oh yes, Shirley Anne. I should have stood up to a lot of people, parents included, and the lessons for me are (a) never appease anyone; (b) my own point of view matters as much as anyone else's; (c) following one's own instincts and doing what one really wants to do is best in the long run.

    But on the whole, I have few complaints! After all, despite bowing to so many pressures, I am here, alive and well and finally mistress of my own fate. It's entirely up to me now.


  3. Lot of stuff rings bells here.

    Similar school, though for one which had been going for six hundred and sixty six years you would have thought they would be better at teaching than they were when I was there. all the teachers had Oxford or Cambridge degrees so I guess they were bright in their youth but many seemed to be serving a sentence like me!

    One of the first things they taught me was that someone like me had no place in the world, well their world anyway, so I just kept my head down and aimed to pass and no more. They were so dumb that they never worked out that I was dyslexic, a strange form which allows me to read perfectly well but the separate part of the brain which does the writing left me staring at sheets of paper wanting to scream at not being able to write words i had read hundreds of times!

    Unlike you I could have walked into an easy job in retail management but my mother told the person offering this juicy position that her child would go to university which was news to me!

    I served a few years sentence in an industrial prison camp before it dawned on me that it was an open prison and I was free to leave so I did and hid away in the country.

    I am glad that I destroyed all old documents without reading when clearing up my parents home, judgements by those who clearly had not a clue are of no interest to me then or now. Being able to do an arts course would have suited me better but nothing was more shocking a suggestion at my school and even someone like me who never made any effort was told that I was too bright to go to art school, never mind that at ten at the interview to enter the school i told them that I wanted to be an architect!

    Opps sorry, seem to have written a blog post!

  4. Caroline, copy and paste your comment into your next post! Don't let it stay buried here.

    When young we really have no idea how to oppose the notions of those who are 'older and wiser', except by being bloodyminded and childishly stubborn. The transition into adulthood (and political maturity) comes when you finally realise how to handle these savants.


  5. I think we three must have been somewhat timid in our youth, I know I was at any rate. One thing we can all say is that we've wiped the slate clean and started again, this time getting it right!

    Shirley Anne x

  6. Hear, hear!

    We can still mess things up, but at least we are at last living life with conviction.



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