Friday, 20 December 2013

"we were destined for the jam factory"

"I adored my Primary School, the female headteacher, was a Cambridge MA, who had been Steiner trained. My mother was better educated and more middle class than my father, who was very working class but hugely intelligent. I had a thirst for knowledge from as early as I can remember and my mother taught me to read and write at the age of 3 and the head allowed me to start at age 4. I enjoyed studying for the 11 plus, I loved the challenge of it all. My teacher was keen for me to go to the Grammer School (the High School for Girls) and told my parents that I had the ability to pass. 

I passed all the written exams but had to go for an interview at the Grammer School, as there weren’t enough places that year. The interview was appalling for a child of that age. I stood alone before the board of governors and the headmistress. I couldn’t understand why they were asking me the questions they were – what newspaper did my parents read? What did my father do? Did my mother work? Did we own our house or was it a council house or rented? Where did we go for our holidays? What did we call our midday meal? They asked me very little about myself; what do I want to do when I grow up? I wanted to go to university and teach and do research, but I didn’t feel they believed me. When the letter came saying I hadn’t got in, my parents accepted it, although my mother was very cross and blamed herself for “marrying down”. My headteacher wanted to take it up with the local authority as she was appalled, but my parents said to let it drop.

My first day at the school was horrendous, I had never met such rough kids before was totally confused. The teachers seemed to be hostile and unfriendly and not like being there. 

I very rarely speak of my secondary school days to anyone. I was bullied from that first day until the day I left. I was beaten up, burnt with cigarettes, sexually assaulted by other girls and ostracised. I told my mother after a year about the bullying, I though she would get me moved. In fact she gave me a slap and told me never to mention it again or to anyone else. I think she just couldn’t handle the guilt or something. I never trusted her again to help me in life and we drifted apart in closeness from that day onwards. At age 14 I tried to commit suicide several times. 

The school had absolutely no expectations for any of us. Teachers endlessly told us we were “rubbish” and “the dregs” and that we were destined for the jam factory (which employed large numbers locally) or fruit picking. Most kids mucked about in class and barely any teaching went on. We had to take the pointless CSE exams. Most kids left after those; they didn’t offer anything else beyond a few O’ levels if a teacher fancied teaching them. 

I did O’ levels – English Lit and Language, History, Art and Needlework. The local authority allowed me to transfer to A level college after that, but really I was restricted in which ones I could take because of the O levels I had. I was very depressed at that college and found it increasingly hard to trust people and make friends. It makes me weep when I think what a friendly, out going child I’d been at Primary School. I got a place at University, but my parents wouldn’t let me go. They thought I would be rejected at university due to my social class. I was allowed to go to teacher training college instead, as this would at least give me a proper job at the end. I had a breakdown at college and the college doctor refused to sign me off as medically stable in order to teach. I worked for years in low paid jobs, totally lacking in confidence. After marriage, I did a degree through the Open University, then three postgraduate qualifications at another University. Eventually I taught on a degree course for over a decade; I am now teach workshops as well as mentoring students who have mental health issues. I have achieved a lot in life through hard work and determination. I still feel angry about things that never should have happened. What about all the other kids out there that never got a chance." 

Not to be re-used without permission


  1. With us, it was the bra factory. You have won. And so have I. Lots of us have. Here is a poem I wrote quite recently about that time.


    'Look at me
    When I speak to you.

    If you’re so great
    look me in the face.

    What have you Ever
    Actually Achieved?
    You stare at your shoes.
    You’ll Never
    Amount to Much.'

    I did not cry. I did not.
    I wipe away her spit.

    (Pen Kease 2013)

  2. This made me feel so sad, I had a similar experience in the early 80s comps in Hackney. Nothing upsets me more then children being denied their right to decent education and to go further, especially from the working class. I always tell my girls that we have to work twice as hard to get half as far in this society and I don't want them held back like I was, so very unfair.

  3. What a waste! But well done you for overcoming all those hurdles!