As my recent posts (beginning here) amply demonstrate, I didn’t take to Exhall Grange, the boarding school I attended when I was eleven. After the summer, I returned to school where my family lived in Sheffield. However, the partially sighted (P.S.) unit I’d attended at a place called Bents Green had since moved to a school for “normal” children named Brook.
Back at Bents Green, the man I call Mr. Frasier had taught the P.S. unit’s older children. I think of him as the most formative teacher in my childhood. His P.S. class had consisted of a dozen students, our ages ranging between ten (me and one other) and sixteen. He taught geography, history and other subjects that we learned together, despite the gaps in our ages, and he explained everything from how post-war smokeless zoning laws had put an end to fog in Sheffield to how soap acted on water.
The following three paragraphs from my unpublished memoir, Spiral to Edinburgh, go back to that time at Bents Green in order to describe how Mr. Frasier brought about my first tangible academic achievement:
After the Christmas break, he urged me to prepare for the eleven-plus examination, the results of which determined whether an eleven-year-old went to university-bound grammar school or trade-bound secondary modern school. During winter play times, he sat at the next desk in the empty classroom and coached me. He went over problems, explained, tested my memory, prodded and corrected.
He gave me a weighty volume of general knowledge with a blue cross on the cover that I carried everywhere I went, in and out of school. I absorbed scientific formulae and the names of capital cities, grammatical rules and algebraic laws. In outpatient waiting rooms, Mum and I tested each other on gaggles of geese, schools of whales, coveys of quail and the collective nouns for other animals I hadn’t even heard of, never mind known what they were called collectively. I came to know the book with the blue cross as thoroughly as the statistics in that year’s cricket handbook.
I passed the exam. My reward was to be sent to Exhall Grange.
The rest of this post is an abridged account of my first two years at Brook, where I began after my term at Exhall Grange. Brook was for children who hadn’t passed the eleven-plus exam, but as I was to learn, it hardly meant they were failures. On the contrary. The school maintained the hierarchy based on those same eleven-plus results, with 1A1 being the top class in the first year.
I was told the P.S. unit’s move to Brook was to be England’s first attempt to educate partially sighted children in a regular school. I was assigned to Class 1A1, and other P.S. students were assigned to other regular classes, depending on age and academic aptitude. Mr. Frasier, who went with the P.S. unit to Brook, continued to teach those who were deemed less likely to prosper in a regular classroom. But we all had him for homeroom. Also, since we P.S. students lived far from the school, the city paid for taxis to pick us up one by one at our homes and drive us there, as well as back home. For me, it was a forty-minute ride.
I opened the door partway to Class 1A1 and peeked inside at an array of navy blue boys’ blazers and royal blue girls’ jerseys, three dozen eleven-year-olds sitting in silence at desks for two. This was my first day at the school called Brook Secondary Modern. It was also theirs, but they had all come from one of two junior schools and so had friends here.
Pushing the door all the way open, I stepped inside. The gray-haired teacher walked over from his desk by the windows and introduced himself as Mr. Berry. I assumed he’d already explained to the class that I was partially sighted and that I was joining Class 1A1 as an experiment. Although my homeroom would be with Mr. Frasier, the rest of each day I’d be with this class.
“I suggest you sit here,” he said, pointing to the two empty chairs at the double desk in the middle of the front row. “You should be able to see the blackboard, I think.” He returned to his desk.
I pulled out a chair and opened a fresh exercise book. I heard “Hello” whispered from behind and turned to see a wiry boy with curly black hair. “Hello,” he repeated, leaning forward, “I’m Keith.” Then his face assumed a mask and he sat back. Mr. Berry was ready to start the lesson.
Producing the fountain pen my parents had given me, I was glad I’d thought to load it ahead of time. Splashing ink while filling the pen from my desk’s inkwell would have been a catastrophe in the silence wrapped around Mr. Berry’s meandering lecture.
“I never got over that election,” he said. “Here was Mr. Churchill, who had steered this country through a terrible war, who had won a great victory, and what did the voters do? Threw him out.”
That had been the election of 1945, all of twenty years ago. He was still upset about that? Yet I, too, was obsessed with the World War II era.
He drifted back to the subject of composition, which I had to admit was less interesting.
A few days later, I asked Keith, the boy who sat behind me, to tell me about our other classmates in 1A1. We were standing in the playground, gazing across asphalt toward a grass field and another of Sheffield’s valleys.
“Everyone knows Christie is the brightest,” he said. “She comes in first on every test.”
I wasn’t surprised. Sitting in the middle of the back row, fair-haired Christie was eager to answer teachers’ questions, which she did in a strong voice.
“How about Paula?” I said. Dark-haired, she shared the desk with Christie and was as quiet as Christie was outgoing.
“She’s really nice is our Paula, but she only talks to Christie. Now then, the funniest fellow is Nigel. Do you know who he is? He sits near the back by the windows.”
The one course in which Christie didn’t sit at the back was science, where she was assigned a place at the front bench next to me.
“What does your dad do?” she said one day before class started.
“He’s an accountant.”
I didn’t like her tone, but said, “What about yours?”
“An engineer.” She spoke in an offhand way, as if the gulf between our two fathers was too great to mention them in the same breath.
Shedding the passivity I’d taught myself at Exhall Grange, I said, “My dad’s a manager at two industrial plants.”
“My dad builds plants. He probably built those, too.”
Science class was horrible even without this senseless competitiveness and even beyond the room’s sulfuric and metallic smells. Our humorless teacher, Mrs. Rattle, relied on the blackboard. Although the front bench was farther away from the blackboard than where I sat in my other classes, I was confident I could follow her lessons, between what she said and what I could make out of her chalk writing. But before each lecture, she summoned me to her table to be close to the board. Each time I held back at my place and she stared. The class fell silent, perhaps in embarrassment for me or perhaps simply because our routine confrontation signaled the start of a lecture.
I picked up my exercise book and pen and trudged forward. Mrs. Rattle placed a chair for me next to hers. It meant facing the class, though I looked down to avoid seeing them and pretend they weren’t seeing me. To copy what she wrote on the blackboard, I had to turn back and forth in my seat. Even if I could see the board more clearly, it was harder to take notes. Sitting with the other children, I would have had a better chance of absorbing what Mrs. Rattle taught. Sitting here, I took in nothing.
Partial sight wasn’t the only reason I stood out at Brook. I walked with my feet turned inward, despite several operations, night-time braces and my off-and-on conscious efforts to walk “straight.” One afternoon Mr. Berry took us to the other end of the school to a room with a piano to demonstrate a piece he’d mentioned in a lesson. When he was done, he told us to return to his classroom. He stayed behind to talk to the religion teacher, and he hadn’t caught up with us by the time we got back. We sat at our desks, chatted and waited.
At last he strode in. “I thought I’d lost you. Then I saw a group from the back at this end of the hall and recognized him,” he said, pointing at me, “by the way he walks.”
The school term drifted into winter. Days grew short, the taxi drove both ways through the dark, the fluorescent lighting in the classrooms felt suffocating, and damp, gray mist obscured the windows. But Exhall Grange was behind me. Nothing else mattered.
On a day when a cold rain kept us milling around Stairwell A, Nigel, the class comedian, introduced himself. Even his appearance was comical. He had a big face, wide mouth and dark hair that fell down from a center part.
Over several play times, phrases such as “dead body” and “tarantula” somehow crept into our conversation. We worked them into the tune of a popular song:
Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside
Where I can jump off the pier
And land into a pile of tarantulas
And become a dead body.
One day Nigel announced, “I’ll sit next to you.” I hadn’t even had to ask. Now I would no longer sit alone in my double desk at the front of the classroom.
Nigel had a trick of saying something funny while looking at me with an amazed smirk, then running his spread hand from forehead to chin to reveal the picture of a solemn rector. He pulled a solemn rector one day when Mr. Berry was going on about morality. By way of illustration, Mr. Berry said, “And no one would find the idea of a dog with a firework on its tail funny.”
Nigel turned to me with a look that lied, “Not I.” Caught off-guard, I giggled.
Mr. Berry kept his stare on the silent class as he added, “Well, some might.”
Nigel and I tried to redress a historical omission by inventing a new county. Knowing that the county names Essex, Sussex, Middlesex and mythical Wessex meant East Saxons, South Saxons, and so on, we felt history and geography had overlooked the North Saxons. Hence “Nossex.”
Nossex appeared in the addresses of letters we wrote for an exercise in Mr. Berry’s English class. The next morning, while I was downstairs in Mr. Frasier’s homeroom, Mr. Berry stood before the class and scribbled wildly all over the page in Nigel’s exercise book, then tore the page right out of mine. By the time I came upstairs, the explosion was over, but not the nervous silence. Nigel had to wait until after class to explain.
“I suppose he thinks Nossex is short for no sex,” I said.
Nigel put on an expression that said, “How could that be?” It had been in his mind all along.
At the end of the school year, I placed ninth out of 140 first year students, our ranking based on the results of our final exams. On my report card, Mr. Berry wrote, “Has settled down in the class well,” just what the teachers at Exhall Grange wished they could have said.
Mrs. Rattle wrote: “He should look to his science and not be afraid to say when he cannot see the blackboard or the demonstration bench. This is the reason for his low science mark.” She gave me a C.
September had come around again and we were Class 2A1. While our first year science teacher had singled me out for humiliation, our next, Mr. Hoskins, humiliated us all. Despite a boyish grin and neat, fair hair suggesting a pleasant personality, he was sarcastic, even sadistic. He was also funny. When ready to start a lecture but a girl was slow to reach her seat, he barked, “Get thy carcass on that bench right now.” Recognizing that his lapse into broad Yorkshire portended anger, I hid my involuntary smile behind my hand.
My turn came the day he introduced us to ammonia. He liked to stand at the room’s front pair of tables, which meant I sat virtually beneath him. At the beginning of a lecture, he handed me a jar and said, “Take a sniff and pass it around.”
I didn’t just sniff; I inhaled. Tears filled my eyes and I choked. He beamed. Even through the blur, I saw it was funny.
By second year, Nigel’s and my routines had become infectious. Keith would greet me, “Morning, Dead Body,” and even Christie grinned when overhearing us go on about tarantulas and worms.
Nigel and I resumed setting our compositions in Nossex for our new English teacher, a young and earnest Miss Pelham. She played a piece of music to the class and instructed us to write something in response. However, Nigel and I had just dreamed up worms’ sports day in Nossextown, and a detailed account was what came tumbling out into my exercise book.
Once a year (a day to us humans) worms have their international athletics meeting at the Matchstick Arena. Always something goes wrong.
Well, it was a sunny day at the arena. All the worms and slugs were sitting with their dark specs covering the top half of their faces. They were wearing casual shirts (men) and blouses (feminine worms).
The first event was the worms’ 100 yard sprint. The starter, a semi-invalid old worm, fired the pistol and killed all the worms. He had misjudged his height, so he was fired, and the race abandoned.
In the worms’ 440 yards, all the entrants died of exhaustion before they reached the half way mark.
Then the loonie worm came. His name was Rastus Windybottom.
Sand was supposed to be at the end of the long jump, but it wasn’t (Windybottom the Guilty). All the worms and slugs jumped. Nobody noticed them fall until the last worm. But it was too late. Quicksand!
The one competitor for the discuss [sic] hung on to it for too long… it had chewing gum on it, and the worm took off with it. He was squashed.
The javelin thrower (only one) had his implement the wrong way round, and he stabbed himself.
All the other events were abandoned.
I accompanied the composition with a pencil sketch entitled “A Worm in Natural State” that showed a long worm with arms and legs and wearing a little bow tie, shirt and trousers.
Even as I placed my exercise book on the pile on Miss Pelham’s desk, I was horrified to think how disgusted she was bound to be.
The next class, she returned my exercise book with the comment: “Has this any connection with the music, or was it written largely for your own entertainment? If the former, I’ll give you a mark.” She did: B.
After a rain shower, I’d stand with a group of boys in the playground, and we’d chat around the edge of a puddle. The urge would come upon one or the other of us to kick water at the boy talking. The victim responded in kind and the rest briefly joined in, then conversation resumed. I thought we made a funny sight, talking civilly in our formal uniforms and bursting out in fits of lunacy.
Passing me in the hall, the deputy headmaster let me know he took a different view. “I never thought I’d see you splashing in the puddles.” He walked on without waiting for a reply. Between my antics with Nigel and the silly compositions I persisted in writing, I’d have thought kicking puddle water was exactly what he’d expect of me. But I never did it again.
Meanwhile Nigel and I had gone too far with our French teacher, Mrs. Baraniecki. A cheerful, statuesque blond who presided over Stairwell D, she was married to a Polish ex-fighter pilot, and I liked the incongruity between the spelling of her name and its pronunciation, “Baranesky.” She had one very shapely leg and the other very straight, for which Nigel and I nicknamed her “Log Leg.”
We must have tried her patience once too often. Halfway through a lesson she said, “Okay, you two. Nigel, go back to that desk against the wall over there.”
“What?” I said. She was grinning in spite of her annoyance. She couldn’t be serious.
“And that will be your seat for the rest of the year.”
She was serious.
Nigel’s new place was four rows behind and to my right. If I turned around, I was likely to see a solemn rector or its aftermath transforming his face. But I hardly ever dared to with Mrs. Baraniecki teaching the class right in front of my desk.
* * *
Paula, the dark-haired girl who sat next to Christie, was the most beautiful girl I knew. One day I saw her wearing a leotard, standing alone and staring vacantly. She looked sad, as well as all wrong, dressed that way. I wanted to go over to comfort her, but you couldn’t approach a girl wearing a leotard.
I tried to draw her out between classes and in the playground, but though she smiled, I never elicited more than a soft-spoken sentence. Her entire attraction was in her look — that shy smile and black hair waving down to her shoulders — perhaps made more beautiful by her reticence.
Dad had said I was too young to fall in love, but the longing was real, even painful. What would it be like when I was at last old enough to act on it? In my red spiral notebook, centering each line as if for some avant-garde poem, I wrote:
It is so easy when you think about it,
But what about doing it?
You walk past her, and by ‘accident’ you
Spill water over her sleeve.
“Sorry,” you say. And then get on to something else
“Have you seen the film at the Odeon,”
Hoping she won’t say she has.
Then you’ve done what you can about the wet sleeve,
And think of something else to say.
But it doesn’t happen like that.
You do walk past her, and tilt the glass
And nothing comes out. So you try again,
And succeed. But she’s ten yards away now.
But assuming that worked, many other
Things go wrong. “Have you seen the
Film at the local cinema?” “Yes.”
Or the wet sleeve won’t dry: it’s raining.
And you can’t think of a thing to say.
So she walks off, disgusted.
* * *
On the second year final exams, I came second, behind the insuperable Christie. My science mark improved from first year’s C to a B. Without Mrs. Rattle to make partial sight a public ordeal, I’d done what she’d said I refused to: looked to my science. This time it was Mrs. Baraniecki who made a critical comment. Though marking me third in French, she wrote: “At the risk of seeming to lack appreciation of his most creditable achievement in spite of his handicap, I must state my opinion that he is not working to capacity. Next year he must aim higher.” The headmaster, Mr. Johnson, wrote, “I must say that I agree with the above remarks. He is ‘resting on his oars’.”
The “handicap” reference bothered me. It was enough to say I was lazy, which I was.
It happened that Mrs. Baraniecki’s French had been the subject in which I did the most work, driven by my love of lists. I wrote pages of French vocabulary, one word strung after another according to my whimsical associations. But my lists hadn’t been homework, and she’d never seen them.
Mrs. Baraniecki, who liked me in spite of everything, did notice an improvement that had no place in a report. I was at last walking with my feet straight, though it required concentration. Passing me on the path behind the school, she said, “You seem to be walking more easily these days. Are you?”
It had been a while since anyone had said I walked funny, but she was the first to comment on the transformation. It was even better than she could know. Just then I hadn’t even been trying. My feet had decided to point the right way all by themselves.