I guess, fundamentally, we all went to school with the same people: the girl who was brighter than everybody else; the boy who was not; the girl who was always in the threadbare hand-me-downs; the boy with designer socks; the girl who would show you hers for a penny; the boy who ate his own bogeys. The classroom is where we were all introduced to the rich steaming variety that is life. Where we began to understand that we have to rub along with a whole host of other people; help those we can; accept help when we need it, in order to survive. The classroom is where we learned that everybody has a value that should be respected; that everybody has a place.
In my school it was also where we were introduced to head lice and threadworm; conkers and alleys; bruises and grazes; going home in somebody else’s vest after P.E. As a boy, there were other things to learn, chief amongst them the hierarchy of strength. At the summit, the boy who would fight anyone, anytime, whether or not they wanted to fight back. The boy who, it was rumoured, would even take on boys from the year above.
Without doubt, the worst single moment of my primary school life involved a fight in which I did not want to become embroiled. I was goaded into it by a boy whom I suspect was himself being goaded into goading me (a whole lot of goading going on). For whatever reason, he would not let it go, he wouldn’t let me past. I was not then, nor am I now, a fighter. I really do not want to hit anyone. We were surrounded and I couldn’t retreat, so I just tried to walk past. He threw a punch which I ducked and instinctively I hit out, hitting his shoulder. He just cried. He crumpled and I was devastated. I have never felt worse in my life. I see the moment with crystal clarity more than fifty years later and the vision haunts me.
In addition to ‘scrapping’, the milling throng of mini-humanity trapped within that tarmac playground also played football and marbles, skipped and clapped, chased and tagged, screamed and laughed and cried and shouted and ran and ran and ran. Boys and girls seldom played together except for the sporadic, dreaded bouts of kiss chase. Such decisions to make: who do I run away from; how fast do I run; when it becomes my turn, how hard do I chase; who do I chase? I’m guessing it’s not allowed now. I’m sure that the trauma of participating may well live with some until they are old enough to sue. Anyway, if the media is to be believed, most of our children are now too massively bloated to take part unless ferried around by fork-lift. They would only kiss someone if they were controlled by joystick and had just found an Uzi sub-machine gun under a purple rock. They would never interact with anyone face-to-face unless they had a happy meal to share.
I often see the kids trooping off to school in our village. They look much the same as we did. Better dressed perhaps, less scabbed-over, but the same hurriedly clothed look in the morning and the same ‘Oh my God, what happened to you?’ look in the afternoon. Most of them are being chided for running too fast, running too far, not looking where they are going. I know when school has chucked out because of the noise. I don’t see the overweight sloths they show on TV. I don’t see them being pushed home in a wheelbarrow whilst their doting parents feed them pizza and pour Coke down their throats with a funnel.
Meeting the kids from school was always the best of times for me. I learned so much on that ten-minute trek. The opportunity to let them tell you all about their day without having to ask them – by which time they would have forgotten anyway. Priceless moments to lock safely away.
Our kids become what we make them: parents, teachers and society, but they are not a void into which we can pour all of our own hopes, aspirations and prejudices. They are not born with original sin, they are born with original everything. They are our hopes and our aspirations, and fundamentally, they go to school with exactly the same people as we did.
After school is over you’re playing in the park
Don’t be out too late, don’t let it get too dark
They tell you not to hang about and learn what life’s about
And grow up just like them – won’t let you work it out – and you’re full of doubt…
‘School’ – Supertramp (Davies, Hodgson)