24.7.12

The Art of Being Different: It's not easy being green...



1 Green Days, Green Daze: Land that is lost now

Glorious. And green.
(This is the third part of a story called The Art of Being Different. The first two parts are here and here.)

There is something inherently wrong with secondary school, as it has tended to be. Just when hormones turn into internal fireworks, when a need to express an individual self clashes head-on with an absolute dependence on The Tribe, we are required to suppress all natural instincts, quash all rebellion, and sit in neat rows, accepting the unquestionable authority of a handful of sometimes questionable figures standing at the front of the room on raised platforms from which they look down on us. The idea of maturing from child to adult thus mutates into one of enforced regimentation and regulation. I suppose we do the same to plants – rather than let them grow higgledy-piggledy, we plant them in rows, water and fertilise them and bind them to canes to mature, unbending and unblemished. But that's not the only reason secondary school casts a distinctly green shadow over my past.

Secondary school. Yes... I have to admit mine was different from all but those to be found in novels and the autobiographies of, say, Stephen Fry and John Peel - but in tunics. I had sat the two-day entrance exam in the dead part of that mid-seventies winter and, having only particularly embarrassed myself in the P.E.test, I was accepted. My parents were proud, relieved (I might actually get an education at this school) and shocked. They would only have to pay part of my fees, but scrutiny of the list of uniform items to be purchased at a reputable establishment in Reading resulted in the summer holiday budget for that year being rethought. Le Continent would have to wait.
In fact, the uniform list, as a means of predicting my immediate and mid-term future, was far more revealing than a palm-reading, the Financial Times and the entire I Ching put together, and far more terrifying even than a blind dentist. Beige socks in winter, white in summer, green for Games. Regulation shoes: one pair for outdoors (two models to choose from), one pair for indoors (two models to choose from), T-bar sandals for summer (two models to ...), black hockey boots, white sports shoes. Two mint green airtex shirts and a green, pleated P.E.skirt. One dark green tunic to measure 3 inches from the floor when kneeling (believe me, they checked). A dark green, V-neck jersey. One emerald green 'girdle', a belt or sash worn around the waist and knotted like a tie. One emerald green tie, which was compulsory with the white shirt, optional with the green and white checked one (not to be worn on special occasions). There was a Mac or a cape both dark green with a baize bowler hat for winter, a white straw hat (think St Trinians) or a boater (think Eton) to be worn with the dark green blazer for summer (you could wear your blazer under your coat and over your tunic and dark green jersey for extra warmth in winter). The tunic disappeared in favour of a mint green and white nurse's uniform style dress in the warmer months. The uniform list was accompanied by a letter indicating which house we were to be in (alas, no Sorting Hat): Paget (yellow), Carrington (purple), Kensington (blue) or Ducat (orange). This was vital information for hat, swimming hat and tunic badge purchase, as the hat-band was a compulsory item and indicated your house, as did swimming hat colour and the badge embroidered on your tunic. Hogwarts, here we come. Not.
Of all the items on the uniform list, none was scarier than the garment that was to enter my school lexis as 'Abbey Nationals' - large, thick, dark green, cotton knickers. With termly, unannounced knicker-check to ensure adhesion to this particular rule. Believe it. (We soon learned to keep a pair in our gym bags and wear them over more 'appealing' underwear on PE and Games days, the most likely to hide a knicker-check ambush).

Hair had to be its natural colour - not an issue in 1975, but '76 and '77 were a different story – and short, off the shoulder or tied back. Bobbles and ribbon were to be bottle green or brown. No jewellery. Tattoos, of course, were for merchant sailors, army-types and The All Blacks only. These were the rules we were informed of before starting school and there were also regulations relating to leotards, hockey sticks, overalls, satchels, name labels, embroidered names and so on and so forth, so that, in combination with the number of items to be purchased, the subjects on the syllabus, and the distance to be travelled daily by car, train and on foot … well, I was overwhelmed before I even got there. Particularly as I didn't know anyone else who was going. My Best Out-of-School Buddy had also passed the entrance exam, but was (and is) a year younger and so would be going to the Junior School. In The Annex.
Regimented, regulated green......

The school itself occupied an old, red brick building, and it had been there for 70 years prior to my arrival. It was a labyrinth of musty corridors, high ceilings, uneven cream paint, creaky floors, stained glass windows and narrow staircases up and down, and a gallery allowed for two tiers of classrooms to lead off the side of the Old School Hall, three up, three down. Water pipes churned, radiators clunked, the stairs to the staffroom creaked wildly and the Deputy Head's office nestled in an attic-like study. The Headmistress, Miss Hardcastle (honest!) - in appearance a stand-in for the Queen, a fact which explained one of her nicknames – had a large study at the front of the school, above the front door and away from the scum and wretches that were the staff and students. When she did deign to mingle with the commoners, she protected her Chanel-like suits with a black robe, not dissimilar to that favoured by Severus Snape. She was aloof and 'ungenerous' to all alike but she did manage to keep the school in the top 2 on the 'league table'.

Beyond the nooks and crannies of the old building, housing the first two years of secondary and some of the staff, and just round the corner from Sick Bay and the Ink Fountain, the school lost some of its mothball 'odeur' and was transformed into wide, partially glassed, lino-floored corridors, and large, airy classrooms, with the building holding the language labs, language classrooms and the science labs wedged between the two classroom blocks. The science labs were filled with row upon row of wooden science benches where Bunsen burners and agar jelly in specimen dishes were part and parcel of daily lessons, along with transparent plastic protective glasses and an increased concern for hair-elastic-use. This language-and-science block marked the grey area between pre-pubescent and full-blown adolescence and we dreamt of leaving the wood, clanking pipes and leaded windows behind in favour of the shades of yellow modernity beyond The Glass Corridor (flash memory from second year – an entire class of older girls crawling on the floor in the Glass Corridor looking for our Latin teacher's missing contact lens...). The modern building also held the lunch-room with its variations on liver and onions and bacon suet, and the huge new assembly hall named after some generous parents whose name I have forgotten in the interim. Richards. Richardson. This was the vast, parquet-floored hall where Dance was scheduled once a week, and where the floors were kind, nay soothing, on the bare dancing feet, and we aspired to sing in a school opera and stand on THAT stage rather than the smaller one in the Old School Hall. Ah, dreams come true, say they do, say they do, say they do.

Back to the rules. The number of rules was overwhelming and virtually impossible to learn, short term. To speak in class, we raised a hand until invited to stand. Once standing, anything uttered had to be prefixed with the phrase “Please Miss/Mrs....., “. Dropping your pencil could set you back five minutes if your teacher was mid flow, and woe befall the girl who bent down to pick up her pencil without going through the ritual. In the corridors, no more than two abreast, no running and under no circumstances overtaking teachers or sixth formers. We didn't have to curtsey to prefects but that was probably an oversight. Exercise books were colour-coded by subject and replaced at the Stationery Cupboard (inhabited by Miss Beard, our Maths teacher) when you only had two clean pages remaining. You handed in your exercise book (which was labelled with your stationery number as well as your name and class, so I was Fiona M..., IIIW, Nº64), Miss Beard checked it for wastage, torn out pages etc, your stationery number and the subject were noted (in case you were collecting brown jotters on the side), and your form mistress brought you both your old book and the new one to afternoon registration.

Green acorns become great oaks. Sometimes.
Apart from the flood of regulation-information at the start of the year, other shocks or surprises included the subjects we were to consume, like piggy banks collecting for the future: Music, for example, was to be divided into three – History, Practice and the totally unfathomable Theory. There was Biology, Chemistry, English Language, English Literature, Maths, French, History, Geography, Art, Cookery.... over15 in total and including Latin and two mysteries: Scripture and Physics. What were Scripture and Physics? Who knew? Scripture, as it turned out, was my old pal Religion and consequently a doddle, and Physics – I remember half the class having no idea what that was – turned out to be rainbows and cannonballs, magnets and batteries. So that was alright.

In terms of teachers, my first year at The Green School was gentle. Some teachers stood out. The repressed, prim Miss Packer with her tweed skirts and twin-sets, who taught us to parse, spell and punctuate with surgical accuracy – I never saw her smile. Ever. And the word 'dictation' (and a large number of grammatical terms such as demonstrative adjective) still unfailingly bring her to mind. Miss Beard, guardian of The Stationery Cupboard and teacher of Mathematics. Slightly masculine in that sensible brown lace-ups sort of way that some women were in those days without anyone even pondering their sexuality (did we care? no), a good, caring teacher who taught us memory tricks that are still firmly embedded and who had the knack of explaining her subject in a way everyone understood (maths teachers were, without exception, brilliant at the Green School – in fact, certainly in my first year there, most teachers were). I am sure there are hundreds of women of around my age who smile when their children ask 'Mum, what's a polygon?'....
There was Miss Kendrick, a truly inspired Scripture teacher who told us to personalise our exercise books, and taught us the etymology of the days of the week. Miss Whittle, our form teacher, who had a tick we were just too young to ridicule and whose 'Ecce, in pictura est puella' and tales of stuffed dormouse at supine banquets I still remember vividly. There was Miss Wilkinson who taught us Art and Games and who was later ordained and, last I heard, reached some of the highest échelons of the Church of England, Miss Wilkinson, who reminded me of a whip-sharp willow tree, and consistently called me 'Mc-Cough-Lynn-with-an-E' but was inspiring as an Art teacher. Many faces, many names. I also remember an extremely attractive History teacher from my first year at the Green School with long, straight, fair hair which she tossed artfully, a penchant for mini skirts and a tendency to sit cross-legged on the edge of the teacher's desk up on the platform at the front of the classroom. She was quite a good teacher, I think, and taught me the difference between 'pacifically' and 'specifically' (I really WAS green...) but what would have been a schoolboy's wet dream was simply off-putting in our all-girls environment and we didn't warm to her.

Little clusters of green form
Friends were made as friends are always made, more or less the same way as sand dunes are made, shifting and reshaping as the wind pushes one way or another – but then those dunes once formed turn to rock, the rock which Petra was cut into, at least in the case of the friendships at the Green School. Initially I think we teamed up with those sitting nearest us, and as we were in alphabetical order (my class went from Latter to Reed), my first friends bore the surnames Marshall, Millington, Mills and Morton. This system was added to by the fact that half of the girls in the class had been together in the Junior School for the previous six years or so, so Mills was already friends with Manning and so on. Marshall and Millward were the tallest in the class, so that was another point in common, and then there were those who all travelled on the same train or bus, thus The Henley Set gelled. Obviously, over the year, interests, maturity, worldliness (we were 11 and 12 at this stage), background, character and other such concerns influenced and the groups congealed. The Henley Set expanded to include the wealthy, worldly girls, whose parents had trendy professions and chic friends, some were divorced and had boyfriends/girlfriends and (in my mind's eye) they drank G&Ts, walked barefoot, ate lasagne, smoked joints and played with ouija boards. These were parents who didn't just like Fleetwood Mac, the Beatles and Genesis, they KNEW George Harrison and Peter Gabriel and went to the pub with them. The girls in that group were into hair and music and being clever although they actually occupied the middle to lower half of the class in terms of results. They excelled in sport, art and music, though, or they had elder sisters who always won the school drama prize, all of which was totally cool.

We were beautiful, no matter what they say...
My little group ultimately consisted of 9 girls – 10 until Morton left school and moved house – who were nice, perhaps slightly eccentric, non-trendy and on the whole from stable backgrounds with 'regular' parents who actually got on with each other. This turned out not to be quite the case for two girls, but by the time that emerged our group was fixed. Academically, we were a bit of a mixed bag but on the whole in the upper half of the class results-wise, in some or all of our subjects. We were more naïve than some of our classmates, but we enjoyed each other's company and put up with those of us who enjoyed French skipping and cats' cradle without complaint. We didn't pick on other girls, we were not good at sport, apart from swimming and dance, and we came to be fans of Spike Milligan, reading and 'music in general', but that was later. We were slightly misshapen at that age: we had bright red hair, a big nose, wonky eyes, big teeth, huge feet, we were overweight or underweight, unusually tall or on the short side (note: none of us had ALL of these features!) – but we wore it well and I don't actually think we consciously realised that we had this in common, as I've only just realised while writing myself, but that first year at the Green School, none of my little group was average height, weight, hair colour and more or less pretty. We were all Different. And I could say we were all sharp-minded, but that was a shared characteristic of 97% of the girls in the school; whatever it was that glued us together, it worked, it stuck and I'm sure we could still get together and enjoy each other's company, these several decades later.

As I write, I wonder how, why and when it all started to go wrong. I'm not at all sure I know the answers to those questions, but go wrong it did. And Big Time. My second year of Being Green was a disaster to the extent I've been putting off.......no, AM putting off... writing about it because my memories bring back all those feelings – and my stomach turns. I got lost in my second year at secondary school, the year that made me what I am, for good and for bad. I got lost. And I'm not entirely convinced I got found again. 

Green images all taken from the Colours set at eltpics http://www.flickr.com/photos/eltpics/sets/72157630608863638/, contributed by @elt_pics, Victoria Boobyer, @AliCe_M, @ij64 and @sandymillin and used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial licence, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/”


4 comments:

naomi epstein - editor said...

Wow! That sounds like something straight out of books! No wonder so many British writers have written about their school years!
Still, you came out a really great person and teacher so they must have done something right!
Naomi (@naomishema)

Isa F. Munn said...

Hi Naomi,

:) my school wasn't exactly typical of its time - or perhaps of any time! In some ways it was way ahead of the rest (in science, languages, some of its teaching...) but in others, oh my goodness!
:) More to come....

Candy said...

I was there - but blue and in South Africa and with lots of hymns. Will probably spend the rest of the day sitting (without fidgeting)in Memory Lane, accompanied by feelings of a gentle but somewhat lugubrious aspect.

Isa F. Munn said...

Ah yes, Candy. He who would valley unt be, gainst all disaster... (or similar). Hymns every morning. And a totally unmemorable amount of monotonous blah from a black-robed, Liz II lookalike headmistress, or her pink tweed suited side-kick. I nicked my hymn book when I left (forthcoming instalment)and still have it, for some strange, sentimental reason (that's a song, isn't?).
One of these days, I'll have time to write the next bit...
Thanks for taking the time to read my 'stuff' - honoured :)
Fiona