I just read Martha McPhee’s story, “Magic City,” in which with no forewarning, a mother leaves her two young daughters on a train in the care of a group of nuns arriving at that moment in their railcar. It brought to mind my own sense of desertion my first evening at Exhall Grange when my parents’ white Victor Vauxhall sped away as I watched from the entrance to Canterbury House. (Exhall Grange, then a boarding school for partially sighted and physically handicapped students, has been the subject of three recent posts.)
Just as Tolstoy’s happy families are all happy in much the same way but unhappy ones each unhappy in their own way, unhappy school children are each unhappy in theirs. My parents had entrusted me to Exhall Grange after being persuaded that this school for relatively advanced students was best for me. However, the expert advice they’d been given hadn’t taken into account my psychological fragility after several long hospitalizations, our family’s moves among three very different regions of England, and other factors too hard to recount except in a full-length memoir. The only place I felt secure and happy was where Mum and Dad lived.
Although Exhall Grange wasn’t right for me, it wasn’t an inherently evil institution. I’ve been told that had we stayed in our northern hometown of Darlington, I would have been placed in a classroom where children with physical, visual, hearing, cognitive and emotional handicaps were all lumped together. I’ve never been able to verify this claim, but some version of it is undoubtedly true. Things changed dramatically after that, and as it turned out, I was fortunate to find myself in the vanguard of the change, first in England and later in America. A passage below hints at these developments.
Still, if nothing else, the following excerpts might suggest how not to treat an unhappy child. Once again, it is the spring of 1965, and I have been assigned to the house called Canterbury. Three more notes:
First, the “eleven-plus” was an exam administered to determine whether an eleven-year-old would go to a school for advanced students.
Second, the man I call Mr. Frasier taught the students at the school for the partially sighted in Sheffield, where my family lived.
Finally, I call Mr. Marshall, Exhall Grange’s headmaster, by his real name because he was the one adult there who didn’t take my unhappiness as an insult. The Wikipedia entry here about him is informative. See also a scene late in my post, “Riding the Rails.” It seems he was the first to take constructive action on the recognition that partially sighted and physically handicapped children could nevertheless handle a relatively demanding school.
Now for seven pages of excerpts from my unpublished memoir, Spiral to Edinburgh:
The portly Scotsman who had stopped me from taking a book to recreation supervised Canterbury several evenings a week. His jocularity drew boys to his big armchair in the lounge, which I had to pass through between the recreation field and the stairs to my dorm room. Each time I appeared, he inquired, “Are you planning an escape today?” and his fan club snickered.
The children understood I was fair game. When I lined up for meals, shoes, morning services or Saturday morning tuck, one boy or another would sidle up and ask, “Is there someone in front of you?” then push me back, saying, “There is now.” Other boys and girls put their faces in mine and sneered, “Are you the one who escaped?” in a tone befitting, “Are you the murderer?”
* * *
I had a new plan. I’d get such bad marks that Exhall Grange would have to expel me. Instead of writing compositions or multiplying numbers, I drew pictures and scribbled nonsense on scraps of paper that I crumpled up and deposited inside my desk. I purposely daydreamed to prevent myself from listening to Mrs. Pennington, our teacher, as she lectured to us.
The day before the midterm break, the school administered its own eleven-plus. When Mrs. Pennington told us to start, I sat at my back desk and stared at the first page of questions. One way to fail the exam would be to fill in the wrong answer every time I knew the right one. But I hated to be wrong, even for a good cause. Another was to keep staring, but Mrs. Pennington was bound to notice.
Then I thought of the scraps of scribble I’d buried inside my desk and set about drawing decorations next to the questions. When the other children turned pages, I turned mine.
At last Mrs. Pennington, who had been busily writing, looked up and announced that time was up and instructed us to bring the papers to her desk. I joined the crowd and placed mine under someone else’s so she wouldn’t see what I’d done before I left the room.
* * *
Dad and I drove through the summer evening. We stopped at a bridge and got out to gaze at an unhurried river, its surface glistening in the waning light. Leaning on the stone wall and directing my voice to the river, I talked about the Scottish teacher’s taunts, the ill-fitting shoes, the empty hours on the recreation field. I didn’t mention how I’d arranged to fail the school’s eleven-plus. Dad asked questions that showed he was taking in what I said. I stole a glance at him and saw concern in his expression.
On Tuesday, when I was expected back at Exhall Grange, Dad and I drove, instead, to my old school, Bents Green. He left me in the car for a conference about my fate while I studied the main building’s unkempt, ivy-tufted wall.
Later in the week Mum and Dad attended a second conference at Sheffield’s Education Office while I sat in the waiting room. Because the walls didn’t meet the ceiling, I overheard one of the two woman administrators say, “We have decided that it would be in everyone’s best interests for your son to return to Mr. Frasier’s class in September.” It happened that Mr. Frasier and the older P.S. children were moving to a regular school. “Sheffield is going to conduct the country’s first experiment in the integration of partially sighted children,” she said.
“However,” the other administrator said, “your son must finish out the term at Exhall Grange.”
I sent telepathic messages to my parents to demand I be released from Exhall Grange immediately. What was the point of my going back? But telepathy was science fiction.
* * *
Mrs. Pennington stood in front of the class and jeered at me in the back. She’d seen my eleven-plus artwork and discovered the crumpled scraps of scribble in my desk. I didn’t deserve the honor of inclusion in such a fine school. I hadn’t given it a chance. The accusations came like a swarm of wasps, humming, appraising, darting in for the sting. All the while I was aware of fifteen other children listening. In vain I searched for a daydream to escape into.
With an end to Exhall Grange in view, I was ready to learn again, but her anger didn’t relent. One day I got stuck on a long division problem and stepped forward to her desk to ask my question.
She looked up. “No wonder you couldn’t pass the eleven-plus.”
She had to know I’d passed it back in Sheffield, but unfairness was an Exhall Grange punishment. Summoning the passivity Exhall Grange had taught me, I retreated without a word.
Another afternoon of silent study, she summoned me forward. For an exercise in English, I’d written a poem about Sheffield’s parks.
“What parks?” she said, staring up from her chair as I stood before her. Her voice, though pitched low, resonated around the room.
“Sheffield has lots of parks. There’s one at the bottom of the hill where I live.” I was glad my voice sounded even.
“I’ve visited Sheffield,” she said, “and it’s all industry and smog.”
“When was that?”
“Just before the war.”
“Oh, but it’s all changed now. During the war Sheffield got bombed just like Coventry. It was all rebuilt. Then they passed smokeless zone laws, and it was cleaned up. There’s still a lot of industry, but no one I know lives in those parts.”
“We’re talking about two different places,” she said, and waved me away.
* * *
With a boarding school’s lack of division between classroom and dorm, there was no avoiding my outcast status, night or day.
One Saturday morning I was wide awake with an hour to go before we were allowed to get up. So was Joe, a boy with a silly smile and unruly hair in the next bed. He’d been the only roommate to show any signs of warmth after my “escape.” To pass the time, we drummed out rhythms on our metal bedsteads.
“Recognize that song?” I whispered.
He listened before saying, “Uh-uh.”
“You try,” I said.
“I don’t do songs,” he said, resuming a complicated rhythm.
The door opened and Joe stopped. The blonde housemother appeared. “Who’s making that racket?”
Joe said, “Him,” and pointed. His voice oozed indignation.
She stepped forward to glare at me, then smacked me on the temple. She stalked out, her rigid back conveying just as much fury as her face had.
* * *
It was the morning of the end-of-term awards assembly. Although I’d earned a certificate for swimming twenty yards, I worried the school would snub me and send it through the post. Or else they’d inflict one last public humiliation, the biggest one of all: not in a classroom or my dorm, but in front of the entire school.
As the other children filed into the assembly hall, I wandered around the grounds. This time three months before, I’d been on the train from Nuneaton to Rugby. Now I absorbed the too-perfect arrangement of buildings and plant life. Dew weighed on leaves and soaked window sills. I recalled Dad’s admiration of the school’s tractor mower. To me, the impeccable grounds were the pretty veneer with which the school won over parents. They said, how could any child be unhappy in such a place?
When I finally entered the assembly hall, Mr. Marshall was issuing certificates. I found a seat and braced myself for the worst. He called out my name, and I walked forward to the podium. Handing me a thick sheet of paper, he said, so softly that no one else could have heard, “Good luck in your future endeavors.”
The words and his expression were formal, but his tone sincere. Exhall Grange’s teachers had taken my unhappiness personally. Only he seemed to know better. I glanced one last time up at that face and moustache. He reached to the side for the next winner’s certificate, and I turned to walk back, head bowed to avoid meeting anyone’s gaze.
* * *
Then it was my last Saturday night. Term ended the following Friday. Saturday was when Canterbury’s older boys went out to buy fish and chips for the entire house. I sat by myself and devoured my favorite meal of the week. Pausing at my table on his tour of the dining hall, Mr. Rodney observed my appetite and remarked, “If only your parents could see you now.” He walked on.
I stared at the spot where he’d stopped. If my parents could see me now, I mouthed, they’d see I was alone.
On the report card that was to arrive in the post at home, Mr. Rodney commented:
He has been quite happy socially, and has been interested in all House activities, being one of the first to demonstrate his ability in any field with evident enjoyment. He eats and sleeps well.
Happy? Enjoyment? Sleeps well?
My efforts in class after the Whit break hadn’t placated Mrs. Pennington. On the report card, she saw fit to blame Mum and Dad:
Since he has only been in this class since May, and has been given to understand by his parents that he will not be returning in September, he has made no attempt to work. It is therefore impossible to give a report on his progress.