It’s that time of year when the schools start up again and children are off to school for the first time or making the transition from one school to another. Life’s full of transitions, change is constant, but moving from my junior school into what we called ‘big school’ was one of the most daunting experiences of my life. I dreaded it for months and when it happened it lived up to my dread for a while. Everything was so different. It was a whole new world.
My school was made up of boarders and day boys. I was a day boy and day boys were treated like crap – or at least I felt that I was. On my first day I was greeted at the school gates by a group of boarders demanding to know if I was an 'x' or a 'y'. I had no idea, but turns out I was a 'y'. I was in New House, the lowliest of the low, we wore grey suits, our masters wore caps and gowns, the prefects sported brocade waistcoats and army greatcoats and the matron wore a nurse's uniform straight out of a carry on film.
The head (Stosh as he was known colloquially) played croquet on the lawn with the prefects in the summer and on Founders Day (founded 1575) there was an ‘old boy’ v ‘school’ cricket match and a speaker in the morning. Some I remember are Lord Longford, Robert Morley, David Tomlinson (whose two sons were boarders) and Jan Pieńkowski the illustrator – or did he give a talk in art class?
It was no environment for weaklings, and unfortunately I think that I was. We were addressed by our surnames by the masters, senior boys and other boys in class; nicknames were used by friends. I think that I was always Height, although for a while some boys called me ‘Tank’. We did five mile cross country runs on a Monday morning in the winter, went to school Saturday mornings, had detention in the refectory, kept homework diaries of our three hours homework a night, sang in the school choir, gave our house points in weekly at a meeting in the Chemistry Lab to cheers or jeers, had to carry a prayer book in our satchels, played rugby, learnt Latin, kept cave, had cold showers.
And straight into this from an educational syllabus of ‘All things bright and beautiful’, country dancing in the school hall and making gonks. It was a real shock I can tell you.
There was an
prince boarding, lots of boys from Ghana whose parents lived away, a
viscount, the heir to the Amey building group, the son of an MP, an émigré harmonium
maker’s boy - and me. At least that’s the way it felt.
The prefects used to beat us, the teachers threw things at us, the sports master would make us stand in the rain for hours. One boy was so bullied that he tried to hang himself. It was all very 'If' (the film) when I first went there with ACF and CCF and a shooting range and sixth form boys (men) rebelling and singing the red flag and lighting a fire under the stage (which sent the masters scurrying for safety) on one very memorable end of term assembly. It was great really, a few years (three I think) out of time, stuck in another era where Tom Brown and Flashman would have easily fitted in.
As time went on my school mellowed into blandness; the girls came and the old rituals were replaced by new ones, the boarding house was not as full, the curriculum widened to include less academic subjects, teachers needed to be qualified not just bloody minded, slightly disturbed, ex-servicemen. Yes, it became a place of sanity and education. A school in short.
It's a mixed comprehensive now, or whatever they call schools these days, and a good one I am led to believe. But I will never forget those early schooldays, and these days I look back and see only the good things; the dread has gone and I am left with memories of pranks and curry for school dinner, winning rugby matches, carol concerts in the local church, and walking two miles home on bitterly cold winters evening in the dark. Such is the stuff that dreams are made of despite the tears I shed over my homework and the fear of asking for help as it would always end badly.