Author: By Jonathan Sale
I vividly remember walking from the pub (it wasn’t a pre-school drink ? we
lived above it) on the first day at Northbury Infants and Juniors in
Barking, Essex. When I went into the classroom I remember running my finger
along the dado rail, a row of tiling three feet off the ground. This was
still there when I went back recently to open a new wing; I got emotional.
I got my first award, a badge for reading, which my mum still has; she
deserves it, as she taught me to read. School felt like playtime with an
informational element. History was my favourite subject. Being told about
Romans and Saxons was a new concept: things had happened before the Second
World War. Now I buy old coins: tactile history. I like beat-up ones. Billy
Bragg gave me a coin (he got two for the price of three) from 800BC, with a
crude eagle on the back.
We moved to Stanford-le-Hope and I went to the junior school. I assume I
didn’t pass the 11-plus, as I went on to the local comprehensive,
Hassenbrook. I floundered. If a teacher flattered me, I’d do anything for
them, but otherwise it was discipline and detention. I abhorred the whole
concept of doing homework for these people.
After a year I went to Woolverstone Hall, an Inner London Education Authority
boarding school near Ipswich. Called “the poor man’s Eton”, it was
for the sons of well-to-do businessmen ? grocers or garage owners ? and the
sons of the military. It was four miserable years. There was corporal
punishment and not a year when I wasn’t in detention every Saturday morning.
The guy who taught history destroyed my enthusiasm. I fell behind in French.
Phil Taylor was the reason I got English language O-level a year early. He
used to make us write and perform poetry and I wouldn’t have become a
performance poet without Phil. He was wrong in one way; when he saw I was
incredibly unhappy, he said I would look back fondly at the school.
I got O-level physics, maths, biology and art, all Cs; I failed history,
French, geography ? and English literature, even though I had been in one of
the exam’s set plays. (I think I had someone marking on a Friday afternoon.)
At Palmer’s sixth-form college in Grays, I thought, “What A-levels will
be useful in getting ahead?” It was a stupid idea. Had I played to my
strengths and done art and English literature, I would have gone to
university; I have a great sense of loss. I have no idea where I would have
ended up ? but I wouldn’t be about to go on in Hairspray! My university was
when I quit my day job in the civil service and went on the road with Billy
I dropped out of the maths A-level. In geography I swapped the A-level course
for an O-level and got my only B. In economics, too, I just did it at
O-level. My friend and I were slackers but borrowed the exercise books of
our girlfriends who had done the course in the previous year. (I only stayed
at the sixth-form college because of my girlfriend.) We were the only two
people to pass.
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