When I look back on my schooldays, my overwhelming sense is one of wasted opportunity coupled with the intense sensation of crushing disappointment and the faintest scent of Mycil Foot Powder…
I was a bright kid in my early school days and I cruised through my eleven plus* without any real idea that I had ever even taken it. This is the pattern of my life: I am successful at things only when I don’t realise I am doing them. In retrospect, that is the point at which everything started to go wrong. Those of us who ‘went up’ to the grammar school from the council estate became class traitors, the enemy of some of those we had grown up with and, although I’m pretty certain that it never even occurred to any of my new school friends, I felt keenly a class structure that I had never encountered before and, most particularly, my own place at the bottom of it. Worse, I had always been one of the brainboxes at my junior school, but here I was in the midst of an intake of about a hundred kids, all of whom I felt were considerably brighter than me. (They were.) I knew that I was going to find school a challenge, but I was not prepared for the misery that a walk home through the streets of my formative years was to bring me, bedecked in the reviled Billy Bunter cap and blazer** I was forced to wear, facing the hatred of those whom I had formally thought of as friends. A daily trip from school gate to Dante’s abandoned tenth level of Hell. It was alarming how quickly I cracked.
I buckled down for a while, tried to work my way through it – in class I had my hand up more often than a trainee vet – and at the end of my second year I was awarded the prize (a book about Tutenkhamen that I still have to this day) for ‘Progress and Industry’ which, even then I understood was a euphemism for ‘stupid, but tries hard’. Armed with this knowledge, I immediately stopped trying hard and became a full-time pain in the arse instead.
I scraped a handful of GCSE passes by whatever means, I am not sure, having reached a point where I did not even attempt to offer an excuse for not doing my homework. My low point being an assault on an English Literature exam having made no attempt whatsoever to read any of the three set texts: Twelfth Night a play that I thoroughly enjoyed seeing live, but could make neither head nor tail of on paper; Far from the Madding Crowd the coma-inducing text of which I hoped to bypass by reading about a quarter of a revision guide, and The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales which I saw no point whatsoever in even pretending to have read since I was so out of my depth by the foot of the first page that I would have required rescue by the RNLI***. Never-the-less, for reasons I can only begin to imagine, I was offered a place in Sixth Form – a future-life enhancing gift that I gratefully accepted by making no effort at all to study during the two years I was granted. For whomever it was who saw something in me back then, and for all of those who had to put up with me during those two years – most especially those who had to try and ‘teach’ me – I can only offer my sincere apologies. I do, at least, now have the maturity to know how badly I behaved towards you, and the self-awareness to understand that I completely blew a chance that I didn’t really deserve in the first place.
An opportunity wasted on an almost Oliver Reed scale…
*A basic IQ test, taken at age eleven, and the means of determining whether one went to Grammar School and took ‘O’ levels or went to Comprehensive School and learned to smoke. That the most successful people I know failed the eleven plus, and most of those with emotional difficulties passed it, probably tells you all you need to know.
**God knows how my parents afforded it. It cannot have been easy for them and, as my gratitude levels were below zero, not terribly fulfilling. They never complained. I wish they had.
***The Royal National Lifeboat Institute