Next week all the local children will return to school for the new term and a new set of rules and regulations to keep them and the staff as safe as possible in these times of pandemic. My Granddaughter, Ellie, is amongst the children who are transferring from primary school to secondary school – from being big fish in small ponds to very small fish indeed. It had me thinking about my own experience of arriving at Harborne Hill School in Birmingham. My prayers this week are for all those 11 year olds!
Times were rather different of course and it seemed sanctioned ritual humiliation of new children was the order of the day rather than the taster days and close consultations of today. So there follows some of my recollections of secondary school leaving out the clips round the ear from the rugby playing history teacher, the dumping in the stinging nettles on the way home and the cunning ways I developed to stay out of ham’s way….
At the age of eleven, in new green blazer (all other years wore black blazers) and shorts (compulsory for first years so the older ones knew who to humiliate) I set off for Harborne Hill School –the secondary modern with the best reputation in the area. The head was Daisy Hill, a remarkable lady who knew everyone’s name by magic and had secret powers that would make bullies weep and the cock-sure tremble. She was also very caring; when I had a bout of asthma and was unwell at school she took me home in her own car because Dad was away and couldn’t collect me.
The deputy head was Miss Bonham, a strangely carved figure-head of a woman with a wedge shaped bosom that could have provided a safe platform for a three course meal were she to be leaning backwards against a wall. Her mouth was a short, thin, deep red smear. Her tiny lips protruded slightly in amongst the flesh of her face. Her tiny eyes stared out from beneath furrowed brows with an extra-sensory detection of wrong-doing. She was formidable. When her huge frame began to pick up sped towards the latest student crime her flat back brogues would clomp the corridors with increasing pace as her muscular calves as thick as footballers thighs trundled her huge frame onwards. Crowds of children would part in her wake, corridors would clear, fights break up as if by magic and heads would be held still. Some were bowed in supplication, or pleading, some held high with pride or daring, some pretended that nothing was untoward, but Miss Bonham knew. With deadly accuracy, names were spat across the room and children summoned to meet their doom. She taught geography.
I hated all school but I particularly hated secondary school. I hated the uniform, I hated the bullies, I hated the playtimes and I hated school dinners. I hated the journey to school and the journey home but there were a few redeeming features such as Miss Mole my form tutor who spotted my passion for the stage and got me involved in drama and dance productions. Amazingly for someone who claims two left feet I danced the part of “The Firebird” in the first year adaptation! In later years I played the Genie of the Lamp in Aladdin in the year we all had our TB jabs which we were supposed to not get wet. My top half was stained brown each night (no thoughts about racial stereotyping in those days), and each night I had to shower TB jab or no TB jab… as a result the spot is still visible. My biggest role, Willy in “Hobson’s Choice” was directed by Mr Harrison (who later signed my autograph book as ‘George, not the Beatle, Harrison’) and finally I got some “cred” and some confidence. In the singing o “o Jesus I have promised” in assembly the boys would chorus “My hope to follow Julie is in Thy strength alone,” Julie was unattainable, mature beyond her years and had the sort of smile that withered the boys in the class- they just were not old enough, mature enough or handsome enough for Julie. She and I were cast opposite one another in Hobson’s choice which had to finish with a kiss, not a peck on the cheek job but a bend over backwards, full on the lips snog. We rehearsed, lips brushing the air, never believing that we would actually have to touch, let alone kiss. The dress rehearsal arrived and George (not the Beatle) Harrison said it was time we did the kiss properly. I was beside myself with embarrassment- not only was it a kiss, not just in public but it was with Julie the femme fatale of the fourth form but as the show must go on… I went for it.
I am sure the experience was a formative one. I remember little about the kiss or even the performance except for the next day. First and second years stopping me in the corridor demanding to know “Did yer really kiss ‘er”?” and “what was it like?” I just grinned and glided on to the next lesson several inches above the floor and safe in the knowledge that I had indeed kissed Julie and now that the spell was broken I was free to follow in the steps of someone else!
There were some other people of note at Harborne Hill who stick out in the mind for one reason or another such as Geoffrey Malkin who had ribs like a xylophone and could suck his stomach in so far you could almost see his backbone. He also had a huge dent in his chest and shoulder blades that he could make stand out at right angles to his back. His Brilcream plastered blonde hair and pristine brief case should have made him a bigger target than me but maybe he was not so opinionated!
I soon learned that joining clubs and societies in school was a good way to keep warm and hide from life in the playgrounds so with the arrival of my first guitar I convinced the music teacher that my ‘group’ (no bands then) should practice in the music rooms to which she surprisingly agreed and gave us a pass. The only music I remember from her lesson was a study of Shubert’s “Trout” and singing a song to it. When she left we are afraid that the group, or rather the pass would carry on but I was far from disappointed. The new man was Mr Morely who decided that my ideas should be widened if I was going to play guitar and over the next couple of years he landed me countless records of legends such as Leadbelly and Fats Waller. I have never been an exceptionally good musician but the fact that I carried on playing and developed such eclectic tastes was largely down to him.
Mr Morton was the tall, angular, fiery Religious Education Teacher with a slight stoop and a goitre on the back of his neck which used the throb when he was angry, which seemed to be quite often. The class would provoke him mercilessly in later years and one day after I left I was told that he cracked and stormed out of the school never to return.
From all these folk I learned much, not always what they intended, but I learned and they also inspired me to be a teacher – in order that at least some children should not hate school as much as me 🙂 Good luck to all the new year 7s we are praying for you .
My form c 1964 –I am in the second row on the far right. Centre is Miss Anne Mole, Geoffrey Malkin, sadly is not in the picture