On A Life History - Part 2

Last week, I started writing about how I got where I am in order to let at least some students and school pupils know that you don't need to come from even a middle-class background let alone privilege to achieve something in your life. I don't claim to be any better than I should be but I've had a few moments in my life (good and bad) that have changed things (eventually) for the better, even if they were a struggle at the time. Often it's not until many years later that you realise that a difficult patch in life gave you enormous strength.

I left off last week about to visit a private school to see if I could get a Government Assisted Place to study there for my A-levels but I've not really said a lot about my 11-16 education. In Year 7, I got my (NHS) glasses stamped on and I went home crying (to be fair, I deserved this, I had told someone he had carnal knowledge of his mother in front of the whole French class - I got what I deserved!); I had my clothes thrown in the shower after PE and spent the rest of the day soaking wet; I got pinned down in the back of a Maths lesson (in full view of the teacher, who ignored it) and had my face coloured in with two permanent markers and had to go home like it as they would not come off with water and the carbolic soap they gave us in the toilets. In Year 10, I had my face slammed into a set of lockers and was spat on by 5 people. Early in Year 11, I was punched in the face in the street (same person, as it happens)... Why? Not fitting in. Being bookish, being gay (though I wasn't entirely certain of it myself back then), caring about my studies, wanting to be at school...the list goes on. Why did I want to be at school? Aside from my thirst for knowledge there was a much more pragmatic reason - I hated watching my parents struggling and I didn't want better or more per se, but I did want to be able to not have to struggle and to enable them not to struggle. I knew my best hope of this was to get as far away from the poverty of the area as I could and to do this, I knew I had to do well at school and so it was not just a form of escapism (as was reading, as I said last time), it was a means to an escape. An escape from violence and crime and poverty I had seen so much of in my childhood and the struggles of the early 1980s. It's worth noting that in Year 11, I punched one of the school bullies smack in the face in a Home Economics lesson and he left me alone from that moment onwards. I don't condone violence but he'd driven me to it over 5 years!

So, there I was. Off to visit this private school - I didn't really even know where it was, but I knew the name. That was about it. Turns out, it was quite well known in the right circles but I didn't exist in one of them. I had to go to school as normal but leave straight after Registration and I would not get back until after home-time but the school had given me special permission to miss everything in order to go. I was wearing what I considered my best clothes - the polyester black slacks I wore to school, Dr Martens shoes (with the stitching coloured in with a black felt tip because we weren't allowed to wear DMs owing to the violent connotations!) and my best shirt which was from C&A and was made of very rough, cheap silk - but silk no less - and was knock-off attempt at the voluminous early/mid-1990s height of "fashion" and was I  think dark green. I was also wearing my (torn) coat from the Kay's Catelogue, which my Mum had spread the payments for the summer before over about 3 years so I could have a good winter coat and which I'd torn the last time I ever rode a bike when I had a close encounter with a lorry in the middle of November. It was by now February I think and we could not afford for me to have a new coat as it had to last years (as coats did). Money was tighter than normal as my Father had had a brain haemorrhage just before Christmas and dozens of return trips to Stoke-On-Trent by train for myself and my mother to visit him had frittered away all of the Christmas money and their savings - my Father was then off work sick for over 6 months and things weren't easy - but I had to forget it for a day to visit this school I had no hope of getting into.

Mrs B drove me all the way there - which seemed to take forever - and I remember feeling petrified once I saw the place - this was the stuff of Enid Blyton - a boarding school with huge Victorian buildings, endless lawns covered in frost, hydrangeas and rhododendrons in the borders and so on. We got out of the car just at the point that people were piling out of the 1930s chapel, in their neat little uniforms, carrying one ofr two files across their chests, walking politely in lines, most not even speaking. It was like Stepford in school form, looking back. It was a far cry from what I was used to. Mrs B leant over and said "Don't worry - let me do all the talking unless they ask you something". Looking back, this must've all been cleverly engineered to shut up this coarse, gawkish, shy geek whose Black Country accent and mouth like a sewer could easily ruin the school's plan to ship me off there alongside H and get themselves a nice bit of kudos in the local area along the way. I remember thinking the Headmaster's Secretary was terribly posh - she had a double-barrelled surname for fucks sakes! I found out a few years later that she was as common as muck and from a few streets from me originally and put on airs big style but that's another story! We got called into the Headmaster's Study. I was expecting an office. I wasn't expecting a room bigger than our whole house, with an open fire place with crackling logs, leather chesterfields and a huge mahogany desk and oil paintings covering every inch of every wall. He was clearly very good at putting people at ease but I was still petrified! I could hardly speak - I thought I knew it all (all 16 year olds do!). In writing that, I remember, it wasn't February at all - it was January. How do I know? Because it was my birthday. Mrs B did indeed do all the talking - she knew all the things I should've known. "What A-levels do you want to do?" "Chemistry, Biology and Physics" "Oh good, a purist! Now which science GCSE are you doing?" "MEG I think...?" "No, I mean, which award?" "Oh, the Special paper?" "No, no, which award - which sort of science GCSE? Triple award, duel award..?" "He's doing duel award", Mrs B butted in, clearly realising that since our school only offered duel award, I wouldn't know there were options! Just when I was starting to relax on the enormous squeaky leather Chesterfield that was intimidating me somewhat, there was a sharp knock on the door and a very, very tall, very, very thin man who seemed about a million years old burst in, wearing a long navy overcoat and looking like he should work at my imagined Oxford - he was the poshest person I had ever heard speak and I don't think he'd ever met anyone who wasn't at least upper middle class before or since and so treated me exactly the same as everyone else - because he couldn't comprehend that I was finding anything hard/different/expensive - he was oblivious to my background somehow - not through the very modern concept of class-blindness but through just never comprehending that he'd meet anyone poor, I'm sure. I found out years later that he could not have been more than 50 that day but he swept me off to be shown around and Mrs B was to collect me "later on" and was left with the Headmaster to talk about the matters of money and grades. 

Being shown around wasn't a pleasant experience. The two sickeningly well-behaved, well-spoken kids they got to show me around could not have been further from myself in any way and all this did was make me resent the idea of going there. I didn't want to be surrounded by these people. I didn't want to be looked down on like I was now - they weren't doing it on purpose, but they were doing it. I got taken to the science block where I was relieved (and amazed!) to find some of the teachers had regional accents and were clearly not "posh". Again "Oh good, a purist!". Again and again. So there went my plans to drop Physics and do French instead then... Being a "purist" was clearly seen as something good here and I could not change really - not another reason to be looked down upon. The day dragged on and on and I wanted to leave more and more. This wasn't a good idea. H would fit in, I wouldn't. I just could not do this.

Mrs B was full of beans when she came and fetched me - she was very excited about my going here and I started to feel that my parents were excited, she was excited, everyone was excited but not me. Could I let them all down? I knew this would make a crucial part of my escape plans. It would only be two years, after all. Could I really even get in? You needed something like 6 at GCSEs at C or above to get into the 6th Form and I wasn't going to get that, was I? A few weeks later, my science teacher gently pointed out that if I couldn't get 6 C's there was something very wrong with my self-confidence. I guess until then I'd never really thought about grades, just about liking the subjects. And what about what subjects I would study? I knew I had to have Chemistry and Biology for Medical School but I hated Physics. I wanted to do French or maybe English Literature instead. But everyone said Physics was "better" so those plans went to the dogs. We're often asked if we could write a letter to our 16 year old selves, what would we say? I've always said the same "Stop worrying about what other people think of you and wanting to please others. Live your own life.". I say the same to my students now "Don't study because of what your parents want or because you're scared 'dropping out' will let people down - live your life." and most often, they do.

A few weeks went by and then a letter came. Very "posh" hammered paper (the same sort I now use myself, I guess?), written in fountain pen...a letter saying they would be delighted to accept me (grades permitting) but that they knew I could not afford it and so there was a means testing form enclosed to pre-assess if my parents qualified, basically, for the scheme. In the scheme, you were means tested. If your parents earned below £30,000 or so a year combined income (which seemed a fortune to me back then) then you were entitled to something to pay school fees but how much depended on how much they earned. We did a rough estimation of my parents income and sent the form off. A few weeks later it came back - it seemed we could get the full fees paid, uniform paid, transport paid - the lot - package - subject to a more complete means test in the summer.

All through the following months, I convinced myself more and more that I wanted to go there. I had the prospectus by my bed and I looked at it every day and made myself long for it and eventually the idea of not going there started to hurt and I worked and worked for my GCSEs to make sure I made the grades and didn't "let people down". I had our old dining table from the kitchen (we got a new one a year or so earlier before my Father was ill, and the one they'd had since the mid-1960s went into my bedroom cupboard "just in case") set up as a make-shift desk in my bedroom and I saved up my pocket money to buy the "Letts" revision books (total waste of money, I maintain, as revision is about topping up/polishing knowledge, not first-time-learning, so you don't need any books for it if you learn as you go along - the most important skill there is in education - focus on understanding, not knowing) and those white ruled index cards that libraries used to use but now only seem to be used for revising and I have no idea why - you spend forever trying to fit it all on one side and miss out crucial information. I spent hours - days - making revision timetables and then ignoring them. The exams came and went. I ate so many packets of Polo Mints I've hated them ever since. On the whole, they went ok, pace GCSE Music. The teacher was a bully, I hated him and I got an E to spite the bastard even though I loved playing the cello and still do.

My last exam was in the afternoon, I remember, and I walked home very happy indeed - a whole phase of my life was over. As I walked past our kitchen window I heard my Father (not long home from work) say "Here he is", not sounding best pleased. First thing he said when I walked in was "You can forget going to that place - you're not going and that's final" - I thought he was joking but he screamed at me "They want to know how much I earn! They're going to charge us money so you can't go and that's final!". It eventually transpired that he'd had a letter that contained the means testing paperwork we had been told we would get. Of course, it said you may be required to pay a contribution because those who earned over a certain amount had to pay something but the earlier letter had told us we would not have to pay at all - far from it. Once he eventually went to the pub, my mother and I read the forms and filled them all in and posted it the next day, without him knowing, with a copy of his P60 enclosed. I remember very clearly that their combined income was just under £10,000 - this was before the National Minimum Wage came in, of course - this was pretty typical in terms of how much my friends parents earned - those who had jobs. A few weeks later we got final confirmation - I had a free place to go, uniform paid, travel paid, everything - and the pressure was now on higher than ever before - everyone wanted me to grab this chance and use it to get out of the sink estate and the cycle of generations in poverty, crime and unskilled labour. Any thoughts I'd had about changing my mind and going elsewhere had to go completely now - my mind was made up. I had to go.

I spent the summer months working in factories for an employment agency as a summer temp - my first job was putting teabags into cups on a conveyor belt for those hot drinks machines for a month, then I went to another factory and packed rolls of greaseproof paper and clingfilm, then I went to the warehouse of Fruit Of The Loom, in the end, which was really not a bad job. Very physical but back then I still had muscle tone so it wasn't difficult for me to do  though I was clearly a "wimp" in the eyes of the men who worked there and a bit slow at packing wagons but I was good at picking orders in the warehouse and the money was a lot better than elsewhere I'd worked as it was the twilight shift (must've been about £2 an hour). I spent my wages all summer on clothes from Clockhouse at C&A, CDs and books mostly and I loved it - all of my income was mine, aside from £30 per week I gave to my Mother for board and lodging. Yes, my parents charged me rent from the moment I was legally old enough to work and in work and they did the same in every holiday period that I lived with them - if I was able to work, I should work, was the attitude and I think that's a very healthy one. Their parents had charged them board in the same way back in the 1950s-60s when they got married and left home and so they just did the same thing. I think it's a good thing to do and I would not hestitate charging my own child board at the age of 16, after they had left school. Free rides teach you nothing in life. 

The summer came and went quickly, as all summers do. I didn't see my few "friends" from secondary school much as we were all working in different factories - me just for the summer, the others as their first proper job. I don't say "friends" with any disdain - just that friends at school are just people who'll put up with you 0900-1530h each day and who you might see at weekends. It felt like a living hell when the didn't speak to you or you fell out or they "dropped" you for someone else (and they were thus a "user") as you were lost without them but friends? No. Not by the definition I've come to know anyway. By that definition, they weren't even acquaintances, I guess. I last saw 99.99% of them on GCSE results day. Mother had to go shopping in the Somerfield. She always called it the "Key Market" as that's what it was called in the 1960s. It's been pulled down now, so I'm told. She walked slowly around the supermarket whilst I went to the school to get the flimsy pieces of paper in an envelope that gave grades for my GCSEs. To cut a long story short, I got what I needed to get and then some. I had quite a few A grades and I was over the moon. Seeing everyone else really pleased with G and F grades, even with my lack of social skills back then, I knew I could not be happy too publicly so I rushed off to the supermarket and told my Mother. She was enormously proud of me and managed to find lots of her old friends and tell them on our way home!

So, this was it - off to a new start in just 3 weeks time...

(to be continued...)