Here is a third episode from my term at Exhall Grange, the boarding school I attended at the age of eleven in the spring of 1965. (For the previous two episodes, see “Beyond the Gate” and “Riding the Rails.”) Just as Exhall Grange was for P.S. (partially sighted) but not blind children, it was also for P.H., (physically handicapped) children, but not those in wheelchairs. I was deemed to fit both categories, being partially sighted and having clubfeet. The school was divided into “houses.” Mine was Canterbury, and I call our housemaster Mr. Rodney.
Now the three-page excerpt from my unpublished memoir, Spiral to Edinburgh:
The school’s four boys’ houses were to compete against each other at the annual sports day, for which Mr. Rodney entered me in the P.H. walking race.
The year before, at Bents Green, my previous school for partially sighted children who were not physically handicapped, I’d been entered in the one hundred yard dash on sports day. The moment the whistle blew, I’d found myself looking at the backs of my competitors. Pushing my legs and rotating my arms like feeble pistons, I thought of the machines Dad had explained to me at the Kensington Science Museum. Parents cheered along the edge of the track, their enthusiasm rising as the leaders ran toward them, then subsiding to a conversational hum after they’d passed by. That was when I appeared, glad to feel unnoticed. Railing against the refusal of my limbs to cooperate with my will, I wondered why I’d been made to participate. The old saying, “It’s the effort that counts,” came to mind like a poor joke. I picked out Mum’s happy face in the crowd. What was there to smile about? But as I lumbered across the finish line, I bathed in her welcome.
In preparation for the Exhall Grange walking race, a ruggedly handsome fourteen-year-old housemate named Ted agreed to coach me. He had me practice nightly on the oval quarter-mile track where the event was to take place.
“Don’t run,” he admonished. It seemed that when I walked fast, it looked like running. “Keep your legs straight.” He also exhorted, “Don’t burn yourself out early. Start slow.”
The idea of a walking race sounded silly to me, but Ted took it seriously. I was the only Canterbury entrant, and he went on furtive expeditions to spy on the competition and returned with detailed reports. “Yes,” he said, after one such mission, “I do believe you have a chance.”
Sports day arrived, then the walking race, and we competitors met for the first time at the starting line. I was hoping for the inside lane, but was assigned a place four or five spots farther out. I acted as if loitering around, but stayed right at my spot.
At last the official came to our side. “Get ready.”
Ted had emphasized the importance of starting precisely when the whistle blew, not a moment before, not a moment after. Eagerness pushing against willed restraint, I felt as though I’d fall flat on my face.
The whistle blew. I strode forward, checked to my left, saw the walkers on that side had already fallen behind, and angled for the inside lane. I made it at the first turn. Though recalling Ted’s warning about burnout, I felt too strong to slow down. At the next turn, I looked back and saw I was already far ahead.
Halfway around the circuit, away from the spectators, a boy from Lancaster House ran up and yelled, “You’re disqualified! You’re disqualified!”
I stopped and asked, “Why?”
How could it be? With Ted’s warnings in mind, I’d kept my legs as rigid as possible.
I decided to finish anyway. Legs straighter than ever, I marched around the last two turns and down the home stretch. From the buzzing crowd I made out Ted cheering me on. Perhaps I hadn’t been disqualified after all. I picked up speed. When I crossed the finish line, I’d set the school record for the event: two minutes and nineteen seconds, which I later worked out was just over six miles an hour.
Ted came over to congratulate me. Between deep breaths, I said, “A boy from Lancaster said I was disqualified.”
“I wondered why you stopped out there. He was trying to con you.”
But my euphoria soon evaporated. My so-called competitors had lost only because they had more difficulty walking. Six miles an hour hardly justified my classification as physically handicapped, and yet Bents Green had demonstrated I couldn’t compete against “normal” boys. All my victory showed was that I didn’t belong in either camp.