Saturday, 11 March 2017
My mother taught me to read before I started school, so I could manage little Ladybird books and form crude letters on paper by the time term started in September 1972. In the days before modern curricula, primary schools in the early 1970s were a beautiful, psychadelic mash of art, song, and nature walks. We wrote sums in chalk on slate squares. We labelled the parts of a flower in our drawing books, and wrote about Saint George in slim, feint ruled books.
I loved our little Victorian red-bricked rural school with sixty children from outlying villages. I pleaded to go when I had measles and a fever of 102 degrees, and commando-crawled to the back door in my nightdress to catch the school bus. My Dad had to restrain me. On the infrequent occasions I pass that little school now, I’m gullet-struck with sorrow. Whether this is nostalgia, or because the building has stood empty for a decade, I am uncertain. Most likely, it is because of what happened next.
The summer of 1977 was full of colour: the merciless festooning of halls, lamp-posts, pets, anything, with patriotic bunting, and exotic teenagers on TV with fluorescent hair and safety pins. Our bright chatter at school, between recounting episodes of Six Million Dollar Man and lyrics from Abba songs, was punctuated with talk about the test we had to take to determine which ‘big’ school we would attend the following year. I was a good kid, a bright kid, and paid no attention another test- we were always having tests, and at ten I, as any child should, knew no fear. None of us truly understood the import of one afternoon spent answering questions in a booklet. I didn’t realise the result of that test had the capability to drain the colour out of my world for many years to come.
Some time during 1978, life as I knew it came to a halt. I failed the Eleven Plus.
The significance of certain words began to press on my mind. I recalled how the Secondary Modern was referred to as ‘a bit rough’, but this didn’t concern me as much as the use of ‘pass’ and ‘fail’. Pass and fail were as prominent and insistent as Jubilee bunting. It was clear that for me, and the other children who didn’t achieve a high enough mark, that we were off -cuts. Chump chops.
During the summer holidays I became introspective, anxious, ashamed. I decelerated from happy, breezy, funny Bev to moody, angry Bev and stayed that way for the next five years. My husband and family would probably say it’s been more like forty. There was no induction, or Welcome Day, or pastoral care; no friendly, shepherding seniors. We stepped down from the ‘cattle wagon’ – a bus with wooden-slatted benches running lengthways down what was effectively an oblong metal box on wheels- to jeers and cat-calls from the older children.
We funnelled through the main doors into the dilapidated building, a stew of horror with an undernote of simmering violence, and stood in the main hall while the headmaster hollered at us from a lectern and teachers at the side of the hall physically assaulted pupils for seemingly no reason- although they must have been talking, or fidgeting, or some other unacceptable misdemeanor. I looked around at us, assembled in our black uniforms, funereally cast against the maroon-blazered successes of the Grammar School, wondered what terrible thing it was we’d done wrong.
Is it possible for an eleven year old to be depressed? By the second year, I was showing signs of giving up. I no longer felt motivated to do any work. I felt anxious much of the time. I only wanted to eat crisps and chocolate. I swore like a navvy. I couldn’t be bothered to wash. I spent evenings in bed thinking about death and if we were all to die anyway, what was the point in anything? Rather than crawling across the floor with a fever to get to school, I shrank beneath the blankets with undefined malaise and my mother wrote notes to school to explain that I was ‘run down’. I stayed at home and taught myself to play the guitar, and thrashed along to Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. ‘There is no future / And England’s dreaming,’ I sang along with John Lydon.
The consistent message at school was discouragement. The tenor – anger. Nearly every teacher (apart from ‘Happy Harry’ who taught religious education and was what we’d call these days ‘pleasantly confused’) had overtly said we were failures, a bunch of miscreants, unemployable, stupid, good-for-nothng, hopeless, not worth educating. Physical and verbal violence was a daily occurrence- teachers to kids, kids to teachers, kids to kids. I walked past the Woodwork block one day to find the whole class and their teacher, Mr Taylor, pressed to the windows, watching me. I had bright orange hair, crimped and backcombed like Siouxsie Sioux. Mr Taylor opened the window and addressed me, in front of his class of boys : ‘Oi! Look at yourself. You fucking freak’. Can you imagine what would happen to that man now, for saying that to a pupil? If you couldn’t look after yourself, you were doomed, so the school had a reputation for brutality. It took no account of size, age, or gender. You could expect to be ‘twatted’ with alarming frequency. Some teachers even encouraged inter-pupil scrapping.
By the age of 15 we had careers guidance with an austere Northumbrian called ‘Naggy’ Norman.. I asked if I could go to Art College. Naggy’s advice was ‘you need O levels to get into college, and you’re not going to get them here, so you’ll have to think about something else. Maybe Gymphlex?’ Gymphlex was the sportswear factory down the road. Word had it that Naggy had a secret tunnel from beneath the school to the factory floor, and was paid recruiting commission. My friend Ange confided ambitions to be a radiographer. Naggy despoiled this with laughter and more pressing suggestions of Gymphlex. For every girl, the advice was Gymphlex, and tacitly, marry and have kids. For the boys, army or land work. Computers came in during my last year at school. Only the boys were allowed to use them, but what did it matter? We were none of us good for higher ambitions; we were herded like cattle to the abbatoir- choiceless Patsies being taught to lower our expectations. By the age of 14, Secondary Modern had broken my spirit, and those of my peers, clean in two. I began primary school as a happy, bright, bookish little girl, and left Secondary Modern a depressed, dispirited failure. I couldn’t be bothered taking CSEs. They meant nothing, and I elected to leave before the exams. I couldn’t take another day.
One night in 2008 I watched a Channel Four programme called ‘Law of the Playground’, where celebrities fondly recounted their memories of school. Robert Webb (comedian, half of Mitchell & Webb, alumni of Robinson College, Cambridge, Footlights, Labour Party supporter) talking about his experiences at Grammar School. The Grammar School in the same town as my Secondary Modern. ‘There was no competition between the two schools,’ he says, ‘but you KEPT THE FUCK AWAY from those kids – until they became lorry drivers, or something’. And that dismissal, in the name of comedy, laid bare the prevailing attitude, by someone who purports to be a socialist : superiority, public condemnation of our violence, stupidity, and lack of ambition. And my reaction? Well, I just defaulted to my training and took to Twitter to offer him a twatting at the Grammar School gates.
I put a lot of effort into rebuilding myself over the years following school. I spent two years on the dole, then got myself into Technical College for O and A levels in a revelatory atmosphere of encouragement and respect. The old, old feelings of adoring learning came back.
‘Have you ever thought of University?’ said my English tutor.
‘Me? University?’ I replied. ‘It’s not for people like me. Is it?’
‘It’s very much for people like you’, she said.
She managed to unpick the tight knots of uncertainty and broken confidence, and killed the demons raised by Secondary Modern education. Three years later I sent her a card thanking her for her kindness and no small part in the honours degree I’d gained (2:1) in English from the University of Liverpool. She sent me back a William Morris card declaring that she had unstinting faith in me, and that I, like many others, had survived an educational ordeal.
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