Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Mr. Newman, my headmaster at Rowland Road School, embarrassingly, took a special interest in me, whom he viewed as his star pupil. Mind, to set this in context, a good fair portion of my classmates only spoke English as a second language, and an even higher proportion there barely attended school at all. Reluctant as I am to admit it, I swam in a very tiny pool.
I hadn’t a clue whom these fancy folk he’d brought in to evaluate me were. I’d always enjoyed a good puzzle, and the tests they set me were fun. Seems I did well enough to move on to the second stage.
Ma was real proud when I won a scholarship into the posh school, ‘specially as it gave her bragging rights of me being the first one from our neighbourhood known to gain entrance there.
“You might have skin like porridge, and hair you can near read through, but least you weren’t at the back of the queue when God dished out the brains, eh?”
High praise, indeed.
Da was a bit more pragmatic, he sensed trouble ahead. Knowing most of the kids there would come from “money”, his first concern lay at how to fund the elaborate school uniform required to enter this prestigious establishment.
Ma, God love her, must have lavishly set herself into a good two years worth of debt, kitting me out with all the necessities. From the required brown Gabardine McIntosh, right down to my polished, buckled leather brief-case, she was determined I would enter the gates looking every bit as grand as my soon-to-be peers.
At age eleven, having already five times switched schools, the prospect of starting over again didn’t much faze me. Being a confident little bugger, not to a mention a skilled chameleon, I took it in stride I’d soon enough fit in. Unaware of the huge cultural shock ahead, and ignorance proving bliss, I felt nothing short of chuffed to pieces at this up-turn in my good fortune.
Used to 45 pupils to a class, with a discipline enforced by a brutally Draconian regime, (I jest you not, offending kids were usually dispensed correction either by a casual kick, a no-holds-barred punch, or, as in most often, a firm back-hand slap upside the head. Repeat culprits frequently returned home bruised and bleeding. I am not aware of any parents complaining, but if they were anything like my own, I guess they viewed the teachers there as figures of authority, ones they were far too in awe of to ever challenge. Well, t'was either that, or they didn't care.) I guess I sensed things for me were set to improve, and I liked that thought.
I liked it a lot.
See, bright as I may have been, I’ve always had this mouth on me, one I’ve never known when best to zip. Perversely, I did actually LIKE going to school, and I loved acing every test, it made me feel special. But I was truly a nightmare to teach. Always seeking a short-cut to the answer, I simply didn’t GET why we needed to do the long-haul. It pissed me off, and bored me no-end. Although the Head may have believed the sun shone out of my arse, precious few of my actual teachers did.
There was barely a week I didn't come home without acquiring a mark or two on me.
Sensing my welcome at my present school long over-stayed, I liked this call from fresh pastures new.
I caught the bus on my first day to Cockburn High Grammar (we didn't have a car), but thereafter I walked, pocketing the fare to spend at the school tuck-shop, instead. This opened me up to no small danger, as my uniform singled me out as a "snob", and running the gauntlet of all the regular schools which lay en-route to mine, I very often had to duck down a side-street to avoid being beaten up.
Oddly enough, I never did meet with any violence.. though it came very close on one occassion. Two of the "hardest" girls on my estate ambushed me one day. They were a couple of years older than me. Shit scared as I was, I knew better than to run, any sign of weakness and I'd surely be lost. So I met their challenge, eyeball to eyeball, threw my briefcase to one side, and said, "Fine." Quickly adding, "But let's take you on one at a time," And inserting my best, gape-jawed, eerie smile, "..Or is that too scary for you?"
(I'd never been in a fight in my life, I knew I'd be murdered.)
There was a long pause. Finally Lorraine (as I later found out) asked, "So, um, what's your name, then?"
Another long pause, followed by a sniff, "Carol, what's yours?"
They knew where I lived, that's how they'd managed to ambush me. Apparently, we lived on the same street. My big mouth got me out of a hiding that day, and an invitation to later meet up with them after school. I didn't really want to go, but the alternative seemed worse. I hung out with them once in a while, but I never really felt easy in their presence. Keeping my enemies close seemed an easy price to pay for a safe walk home.
It was a whole new world, and a very steep learning curve, but sure enough, I soon settled in. The halls were vast, the classes small, and no one hit me.
However, back in the day when people should know their place, to some folk, someone like me could be seen as a “chancer”, and although I was quick enough to make friends, the parents of some of these new pals of mine weren't always so happy to welcome me aboard.
With hindsight, I hardly blame them.
Certainly, my personal hygiene left much to be desired.
Plus, I did have this tendency of inviting myself round for tea.
Thankfully, being a fast learner, my grooming soon extended to demanding I have a toothbrush and paste at home. Maybe 'cos Ma and Da soaked their teeth in matching glasses overnight, they just automatically assumed the general order of things was to wait for your natural teeth to rot out first, before graduating on to dentures? I even took to changing and washing my knickers out more than once in every couple of weeks.
Da called it "being uppity", I called it "adapting", something that came natural.
That said, all the adapting in the world couldn't have prepared me for the shocking discovery I was no longer a genius. Even if I worked HARD, I barely appeared average. This seriously dented my self-esteem, big time. I had little to be proud of, I wasn't pretty, certainly not rich, but up until then, it truly didn't matter because the one thing that I always had, something I cherished and so gleefully basked in as exclusively mine - my cleverness - mattered hugely to me.
With my cleverness lost and swallowed whole, I started to flounder, someone had shifted the compass without telling me, and no longer having faith in my ability, I gave up even trying to shine. .
Then entered the heroine, Christine Brown, a most wonderful teacher, the one who saw me struggle, and who cared enough to invest her ear, and her books, as well as a good deal of her own personal time in deciding to befriend me.
I loved Ms. Brown, as much today as I ever did then. She proved my saving grace.