I hated school. I don’t remember my first day at school but I certainly remember my last. I was standing in one of the open corridors that ran around the cloister, as it was called, talking with some classmates and one of the teachers. It suddenly hit me: this was my last day at school; in a few minutes I would be leaving. Forever. A strange sensation ran through my body like that when you wake up from an unscheduled nap with that panicky feeling that you must be late for something. My head seemed to swell up like a balloon. The feeling passed and later I walked home across the playing field as I had done countless times before. It was over. Done with. No more school. What a relief.
My school career was somewhat chequered. My mother didn’t trust the state school system and wanted to send me to a private school but being a widow living on a widow’s pension and occasional work as a nurse, she hardly possessed the means to do this. I first went to a school in an ordinary house a few streets from where we lived. I have only vague memories of it and of the mauve uniform we wore. The whole school would go for walks and when it rained, we were given red raincoats to wear.
My next school was sited the other side of Preston Park in a big ramshackle house. My mother took me every day and I was permitted to ride there on my tricycle and leave it in a storeroom until home time. One day I told my mother that I didn’t want to drink milk at break anymore. When she asked why, I said it was because they poured the milk into a few beakers which were refilled and passed on to other pupils without being washed. My mother was horrified and went straight down to the school to complain. After that I was given special treatment: a beaker was washed for me.
I was moved again, to another school in a big house. There were borders there, including a small boy who looked quite normal but was perhaps slow-witted because at lunchtimes, the headmaster and teachers would make fun of him and all the children would laugh at him. I was given special tuition in writing because I was judged to have fallen behind.
I was then moved to a school in Hove, run by two sisters, a married one whom we liked and an unmarried one who always criticized everything. I went there and back on the number 14 bus. During registration, they would tell us to get out our reading books. I felt embarrassed because I was a book behind everyone else. So I used to open the book inside the desk and pull it out open so that the number on the cover wasn’t visible. One day in reading class, the teacher asked me to read, starting with the title of the story. Hesitantly, I began “Cabin soap…” All the children laughed. “Come along, now,” said the teacher. “It’s ‘Cabbage Soup’…”
Finally, my mother saw sense, and sent me to the local council-run primary school. It was certainly an improvement on the others but I never shone academically. In those days, there was selection and you either went “up” to the grammar school or “down” to the secondary modern. You could also take an examination and if successful, elect to go to the technical school. I was judged “borderline” for the grammar school, and when I was selected, I think it was more by luck than by judgement.
If I had disliked school before, the grammar school was where I really began to hate it. The headmaster was severe and everyone, teachers included, were afraid of him. One of my proudest memories is defying him to his face and getting away with it. I was considered abysmal at games and gym, hopeless at science and maths, useless at history and geography and mediocre at all the rest. I did have a flair for free composition and in the sixth form, my best subject turned out to be English literature. This was the subject I was supposed to study at university but I managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by failing the English exams at the end of the first year. I switched to languages instead.
I have always had problems with exams. This is because of a sort of mental block I have. If I have to complete a task by a deadline, something happens in my brain. It’s as if a shutter comes down and I can’t get started on the work. If I do manage to do a little bit, I feel so bouyed up as a result that I shelve the entire task for several days until fear of the approaching deadline stirs me into half-hearted activity. This is not a good way to prepare for exams. I remember my Spanish professor, whom I liked and admired, looking at me over the list of second-year exam results, and asking “Why? Why?”
Somehow, I managed to get an upper second, despite not doing any revision worthy of the name and skipping the classes that bored me. But studies aren’t everything and at university I learnt far more than book learning. For that matter, I read a lot of the set texts after finals, when the pressure was off and I could enjoy them…
I remember sitting in the lounge of the Students’ Union one day and suddenly realizing that my university career was at an end. So was my money. I needed to get a job and sharpish. So, by one of those delicious ironies, I became a teacher. I fetched up in a “New Town”, teaching in a big comprehensive school. That taught me a few things, mainly that I wasn’t much good as a teacher. At the end of the first year, they came to me and wanted to make me an assistant house master. The idea would have frightened the life out of me but for the fact that I already had another job.
And so I set off hopefully for The Smoke*…
*Old slang term for London.