The Art of Being Different: Part Two

Part two: Your wee bit hill and glen

England. School and teachers in Southern England in the 1970s. Where to start? I arrived in Bray, in South East England with four years of primary school still to go, those years stretching out (and up) in front of me like a slippery ladder to be climbed a rung at a time, with Mr Bennett and his Top Class hovering way above me. Most of the things I learned in the first two years were not on the syllabus, and began with the discovery that nearly all my classmates either sounded remarkably like the gentleman who announced the football results before tea on Saturdays, or as if they had a mouthful of gobstopper-like vowels crashing together and pulverising the consonants. Even my name was no longer familiar, becoming something akin to the noise emitted by a cat yowling in the night.

Say my name, go on, say my name...  Image by @cerirhiannon at eltpics

 Braywick, my new house of learning, was a red-brick building which had presumably been home to the village school since the early Victorian era, and so was a clutter of overspill huts and bicycle sheds by the early 1970s, with one of the original classrooms doubling as the two-sitting dinner-hall with “food” delivered by the Council in large stainless steel tins, pails and urns which was consumed with noses held to aid swallowing. I'm still unsure as to whether school lunches or school toilets were the worst aspect of the day-to-day at Braywick...

The playground was small and hampered by its makeshift classrooms, but it was on the edge of Braywick Park, with the forbidden 'Dell', and expanses of grass that doubled as the rounders pitch (God-forsaken game that could only have been invented by the English to torture poor wee, waif-like lassies like myself). The park was full of fairies, elves, witches, trolls, vikings and unicorns; there were monkeys in the monkey-puzzle trees, galloping around on the stallions that lived amongst the leaves of the horse-chestnut trees. The fairies rode on sycamore propellers and wore magnolia flowers edged with the seed fluff that came from the plane trees. You could lie in the long grass under the willow and weep, while catkins jumped down from the pussy-willow to spit at the bullies and Chipper-riders and keep them at bay.

The Chipper. A Chopper for midgets. In Scotland we'd had sensible bikes and trikes sporting the Raleigh coat of arms – a blue trike had cast me as Lieutenant Blue in neighbourhood games, and had been succeeded by a red bike (with just one stabiliser), crowning me Captain Scarlet just too late to enjoy my reign back in Mosshead Road. But here, the children had Chippers and Choppers, bright yellow or orange, with streamers on the handlebars, and they seemed to be for showing off, making ruts in the park grass or spraying gravel at rivals, rather than for playing. It didn't look promising.

It was in the park that I learned to shut up, and my awareness of being different suddenly took on Gargantuan dimensions. To this day I spend most of my time silent, then overwhelming people with incessant blah when the valve on the pressure cooker pops. I learned to be silent thanks to technology, just for the record. Our teacher, Mrs. Weatherall, was a fine teacher in true 70s style - and believe me, the 70s were far more educationally sound than the present day, as creative writing, projects and art seemed to dominate the curriculum, or at least in Mrs. W's classes (though as I write I wonder if this was her way of dealing with me, bird of a different plumage, who could already read and write well, unlike most of her charges).

Mrs. W. decided we were going to do a class project on trees, possibly inspired by an educational radio programme we listened to weekly, so she took us to the park with drawing paper, pencils and a new fangled, battery-operated box which was fitted with a handle at one end, a spring-loaded lid and a microphone, and as we walked through the park in a group, each child was invited to describe a tree to this box. My turn came as we stood under a mighty lime tree. “It looks like a spook dancing.”

Image by Diarmuid Fogarty at eltpics

Back in our hut-class, the tape was played back to eager ears and most of our delight – none of us had ever heard our own voices before – and...well. Imagine plummeting off a cliff. I can still hear it, so utterly different from my classmates' voices, starting high and rolling downhill to the inevitable bounce on “dance-sing”, every vowel foreign, every syllable drawn out. I disappeared.

Shortly afterwards, it was decided that I was in the wrong class, as my years in Scotland had armed me with literacy skills and a general knowledge that were sinking me into the mulch of boredom as I waited for my new chums to plough through their Ladybird books and sums. Consequently, I was moved up a rung, across the playground and into Hell. Or at least Purgatory. Most of my new classmates were not at all amused by my arrival, young upstart who obviously didn't know my place, hardly spoke, seriously needed to grow to be on their level and wore bobbles, rather than the more mature 'Alice band'. I was a tadpole, they were frogs – how could I possibly be as clever as them? I sat in the back corner, by the window, which quickly became my escape route from tedium and harshness, and I did manage to make a friend or two, but then there was the matter of Miss Robertson* (*name changed).

Beware.....   Image by @amandalanguage at eltpics

I had been lucky with my teachers until then, starting with my own mother and Miss Campbell and leading up to Mrs Weatherall. They had all been kind but firm, no-nonsense, wholesome, creative, supportive and calm figures. Even the colours they had worn were indicative of a professional togetherness, through pale blues and warm rusts to gentle greens and heather tones. Women who had spent Friday afternoons in the hairdresser under a heated space helmet and Sunday evenings watching The Onedin Line. Women who probably ate boiled potatoes during the week but experimented with Robert Carrier at weekends. Miss Robertson was a different kind of fish. She was young, with long, dark hair scraped back into a ponytail, large dark eyes and would have been attractive I imagine, had she not been so intensely angry. All the time. At something only she could see. Dressed in black, white and a bitter shade of green, she shrieked, she shouted, she threw pencils and chalk, and she scared the living daylights out of me. I had been moved from my new class with my new friends, including the wonderful, beautiful Ally, an American who had introduced me to the word ketchup, maple syrup, strawberry-flavoured chewing gum, Sesame Street and Catholics, to a room with bigger, disdainful children (the boys particularly scary and huge) and a screaming, almost-pretty harpy at the front. One day, while attempting to stick the peeling sticky-back plastic back onto a story card, I was lifted from my seat by my fringe and told I would spend lunch-time wiping and repairing all the story cards. I was aghast. No questions, just yank the hair and punish. My trust in teachers began to disintegrate, despite an apology after several classmates waylaid Miss R at playtime and explained to her that I had been mending not destroying. From then on, I felt on edge, in the same room as a wildcat; you never knew when it would strike. My silence deepened along with my distrust, I rarely answered questions and became accustomed to the sharpness of her tongue. When we did fun activities, interesting topics, when she tried to be friendly – which she did, particularly after a second eye operation saw me sporting an adhesive fabric eye patch on my 'good eye' once again, a patch which my classmates begged turns to rip off at 12 o'clock every day, making me instantly popular for as long as the patches lasted, at least as a play-thing – when Miss R tried to smile and show me she was indeed human, I raised an unpatched eyebrow and burrowed further into myself. Still waters.

That summer, after a year at Braywick, the council sold our school to a prep school for wealthy Chaps in grey blazers and caps, and we upped and moved, lock, stock and two smoking etcs to Oldfield County Primary, about two miles down the road on the furthest edge of Bray. Oldfield was a brand spanking new place (though spanking was not allowed) with not a hut or mature tree in sight, but kitted with an outdoor swimming-pool, a separate playground for infants, a kiln, a proper art-room, an assembly hall and kitchens. The windows were big, the reading areas book-lined and carpeted and the tables semi-hexagons to allow for a variety of groupings. There were big open-plan areas and quiet rooms, 'seed-tray racks' instead of desks, and the toilets were for humans. In this open, see-all layout, although we had class teachers – me with the dreaded Miss Robertson again – hair-pulling was eliminated from our day and shrieking was limited to lessons in the quiet room... (pause for the irony to catch). We also had lessons with the other teachers in our area, so the much-loved Mrs Weatherall came back into my life. I fell in love with art, pottery and reading, we could sit on the floor or lie on our tummies during reading time, a time for hiding in stories uninterrupted, and story-time at the end of the day with a teacher reading to us was a delight.

A happy place to be.   Image by @mkofab at eltpics
Only a few lessons were of the teacher-and-blackboard-fronted sort – generally those showing us how to do something, as information came from cards or books and was read and copied or drawn – and creativity, experiments, stories and hands-on learning dominated. We progressed at our own pace, ticking off work on a chart as we completed it, and the teachers were free to monitor and help. As I moved into Upper Juniors a year later, things changed again. All the children in the two year groups were mixed and divided between three classes, so that each had a mix of ages, instantly eliminating my 'difference' on that front. Oh joy. I spent a year with Mrs Chown, who was nice but often ill, so we had several supply teachers and teacher trainees, most of whom were either wonderfully arty, sciency, musical and innovative, or someone's mum. We drew, we wrote poems, we painted, we made things from coloured crepe and tissue paper, we wrote stories and plays, we sang, we read, and our work turned the school walls into a myriad splurge of rainbow. In assembly on Mondays, every child with a birthday that week was called to the front and the entire school sang to them; exceptionally good poems or stories were read out from time to time and to date one of my only moments of literary glory was having an exceedingly long story I'd written and illustrated read out by the Headmaster, the appropriately named Mr Bray.

School lunches were edible and cooked on site, engraving the smell of boiled cabbage and gravy on my memory forever, and on special days we had lime milkshake and shortbread as an extra. There were dinner dances, cheese and wine dos and jumble-sales for the grown-ups, and we jiggled and jumped to The Kenny, Mud, The Sweet, Showaddywaddy, Suzy Quattro, Slade and Slik at school discos and made hats and masks for competitions.

Of course, as a thin, freckly, funny-sounding kid with a squint and a tendency to silent dreaming, whose Mum cut her fringe and made her clothes despite living in Bray with neighbours such as Gerry Anderson, the Boughs, Parkinsons and Wogans, life was not all roses. Particularly as I played with brainy boys rather than any variety of girl, wrote plays rather than learn the mind-boggling complexity of French skipping, and just wasn't interested in being like the rest. But life beside the Thames had its charm and cycling home at top speed through the Fisheries, no homework, birthday parties, and playing like wild children with the few co-oddball friends I did have made up for everything else.

My last year at primary was ruled over by the stern but fair Mrs Everton (quick to point out that if anything, she was a West Ham fan), a slightly anachronistic, angular, beige-haired lady who smelled of soap and maiden aunts, and was charged with revealing to us the secrets of joined-up handwriting, cartridge pens and long division, the intricacies of the five senses and the capital cities of European countries – Paris, Rome, Bonn... Mrs Everton was not too tolerant of my tendency to live in a dream world and seemed to treat me with extra sharpness. However, it turned out there was a reason for this, and one that was going to change my whole world big-time. She had decided that I was Intelligent and that a privileged brain like mine should not go to waste at the local comprehensive, well-known only for its poor academic standards and for being all girls.

So it was decided. I was to have private classes at Mrs Everton's house to train me for the 11-Plus and the entrance exam I was destined to take, in the hope that I would attend THAT secondary school which was deemed more appropriate to my intellect. Private classes in Mrs Everton's home! With tea and biscuits and endless IQ tests, comprehension exercises and arithmetic problems. Suddenly I was a hero, brave enough to enter the dragon's lair and still turn up for school the next day! And popularity tasted good.

The winter before I left Oldfield and the care of Mrs Everton, who I'd actually grown to like and who had turned my love of stories into an addiction, taking me from The Magic Flowerpot and The Kingdom of Carbonell to the more mature The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Elidor, Stig of the Dump and others, I took the entrance exam to a school in Reading – a promising name for a town, I thought at the time, haha. A school without boys, male teachers or freedom. A school with a green uniform, as many rules for teachers as for students, a reputation for academic excellence (as well as for lesser gifted girls whose parents could donate library buildings and assembly halls) and a Headmistress called Hardcastle.
Oh boy.

Bird of a different plumage (tho more duckling than swan, perhaps?)   Image by @naomishema at eltpics


Anonymous said...

The range of teachers you had in those few short years is amazing - it really shows how much the personality of a teacher can impact on you for life, and makes you wonder what your students will remember of you in the future ;)
Looking forward to the next instalment,

Mieke Kenis said...

You have the talent to paint such a detailed picture of people and places, which makes it so easy for the reader to empathise and identify with that special little girl you were.
What a wonderful story of those important years…
Although many things were of course different for me, living in a different country and culture, the atmosphere you create, the tone you set in your story is somehow so familiar…
That must be the mark of excellent writing I guess…
Thanks for taking the time to write your story, knowing that we are only going to beg for more:-)
And thanks for making me laugh out loud when I was reminded of Showaddywaddy:-)
I was honoured you used the picture of the little me. I loved reading then and tonight you could have seen a much older me, but engrossed in your story in just the same way.


Clive said...

You write a great story, Fiona! A moment of literary glory to add to your list!

I can relate to parts of this, being an expat sort-of-Scot myself, but there are differences and your imagination was, and memory is, so much better than mine. Robert Carrier is absolutely spot-on!

I look forward to part 3 :-)

Vicky Loras said...

Dear Fiona,

Sorry for my late reply - I keep coming back to this post...something about it, the reminiscing, the details and images you bring forward for us, the way you write - one cannot stop reading.

Thank you so much for sharing the story of the little girl who became the wonderful woman and educator we are so fortunate to know.

As everyone else mentioned, I too am looking forward to Part 3 : )

Thank you so much,