I went to school in the quaint time at the end of the 1960s, before political correctness and niceties about equality and not hurting feelings etc. If you know “Kes”, by Barry Hines, you will have a good idea of what I experienced. When I started secondary school, girls and boys stood on either side of the aisle in assembly, and the Head swept down in his black gown and proceeded to talk about “diffikit” things. He was a Bristolian, and I was new to the west country. I did not approve.
I was 11. I had already failed. I’d failed my 11 plus by one point. I found out afterwards that even my obedient parents had complained to the County Council in Essex, but to no avail, and so when we moved to Wiltshire, my fate was already sealed.
So here I was on the morning of my first day at Shurnhold Secondary School. The assembled forms of pupils filed out, the large unruly ones from the back first, leaving behind the green First Years. These had already been allocated their various forms. Yes, there were gradations of failure. First the “A” stream were announced, and duly taken off to their new classroom. The roll-call continued, right through to “F”, leaving me agog at what kind of imbecile might be in such a stream, and what sort of teacher they might have.
The few stragglers, such as myself, new to that boring country town which reeked of the Avon Rubber Company, were taken to a separate room to do the 11 plus all over again. Presumably counties did not communicate with each other in those days. By the middle of the week, I was finally allocated to the “A” stream and taken to my lesson: Rural Science with Mr Newton. He had a bald head sprouting a few long hairs, rather like the potato he was holding up, as he talked in a broad accent about cotyledons and di-cotyledons. The lesson moved on to the nature of different seeds, and he asked the class which seeds had hooks. Like Hermione Grainger, my hand shot up, and I answered, “Marigolds,” being somewhat surprised that no one else seemed to have noticed this obvious truth. It seems that as a five-year old in my father’s garden, I had been more observant than normal. The silence in the rest of the class was as thick as the accent of the teacher.
Lunch time was the worst kind of affair. I took the arm of a well-developed girl who assured me that her tenant farmer mother had given birth to her unexpectedly whilst sitting on the toilet, “An ‘and came out and waved around, and that were I.” She had several much older sisters and there was nothing she did not know, which was very important to an innocent such as myself, who clearly spent her days with her nose inside flowers. Sophia, for that was her name, shepherded a group of us around the playground, fearlessly, as she had two older brothers also running around the tarmac. There was always a fight before the bell went, involving a group of bullet-headed boys with crew cuts, as they were not long out of somewhere called Borstal.
It was cold. It was wet. We were not allowed inside. I had not long since returned from living in Singapore, and it was necessary to wear vastly more underclothes than the other kids. Hard-nosed Prefects stood at the doors, refusing to let us through, even to go to the toilet.
Being in Secondary School in those days meant that the girls did Needle Work and Domestic Science, always taught by snippy women in Dame Edna glasses, who lectured you about hygiene and how to iron a shirt. The needlework teacher was especially spiteful. She would regularly call the whole class around to humiliate you about your too-long tacking stitches, brutally pulling out your handiwork under your nose. Only the boys got to learn the mysteries of the lathe and soldering iron. Still, I did not envy them, lined up outside the changing room for PE. The teacher would walk past, whacking their bare legs with his plimsoll, just because he could.
They were a strange set of teachers, those who had all been something during the war. The Geography teacher must have died of a stroke before he retired, as well as the high blood-pressured maths teacher, who would go off on one for no reason, screaming at a kid like Basil Fawlty. The Science teacher was rumoured to have snogged a “B” stream girl in the cupboard. She was a knowing minx from a family of advanced young sisters with a glamorous mother. She happily left school at 15 and was set on a rock star life, in her opinion. Still, “old Greener” as he was known, was definitely a pervert. And then there was Clarence the Chemistry teacher, called so after the cross-eyed lion in the popular TV series, “Daktari”. He could tell two people off at once, and each trembled until he physically homed in on the true offender.
My remaining friend from those days, refuses to believe it was a bad school. I suppose we both did well for ourselves, although it was against all the odds. Just four years later, the majority of the “D” “E” and “F” girls appeared in full bridal regalia in the “Wiltshire Times”, many already pregnant, set for their own council houses and middle age. In later years, when I returned to visit my parents, I used to imagine I saw them walking down town, only to realise that these were probably their children, or even their grandchildren. A couple of girls in my class had babies when they were 13. One even had twins. It wasn’t much of an education, and it was a miracle that I went to University, the first girl from that school to do so, and only because the vile 11 plus had been abolished and the school changed its name and became Comprehensive. Then, even the sons and daughters of doctors came into the new buildings, and took Latin and a second language as well as woodwork, metal work domestic science and needlework. These comprehensive luxuries were denied to me. But I did manage to benefit from the sixth form. Such experiences, growing up, probably set me on my path, wandering as far away as possible from Rural and Domestic Science, taking refuge in the city.
Heather Gatley was born in Cyprus to British parents and has lived and worked all over the world as an English teacher. She has had poetry, prose and photographs published in Proximity Magazine, Scarlet Leaf Review, Ariel Chart, Centered on Taipei and the Carmarthen Journal. Her chapbook of poems, entitled “Indigo Sky” about her ancestral village in West Wales is available on Amazon