Wednesday, 24th October
Keyword for the Day: Old School
The cover is silky smooth beneath my fingers. The sight of my name as an author gives me a thrill, akin to that of a small child about to to on holiday, or running down the stairs on Christmas morning to find a huge sack-load of presents. My heart is thumping in my throat at the culmination of thousands of hours of night-time writing, endless rewriting and editing. I open up the cover and test the thickness of the loose pages – brand new beneath my fingers. I suddenly feel very scared – as if I am about to run naked down the A14. Every single word is so precious to me, and now they are about to be committed to history forever, a permanent marker across my life, like a grading on a exam paper.
Yep – that was me yesterday. I just didn’t have the time to write in my diary just how I felt when the proof of the paperback arrived. I didn’t want to put it down. I even took it to the Planning Policy meeting with me!
Anyway, enough of book talk.
On my drive to work at least four days in the week, I pass by my old secondary school, which is incrementally disappearing into a huge pile of rubble that looks like the Twin Towers after 9/11. I have been wondering for days how they will shift all the debris. A road sign appeared today: Road Closed for 3 days 29th October. It conjured up images in my imagination that are not pretty! There is only one arterial road to the massive Ise/Lodge estate, and guess where the school is located? Yes, on Deeble Road, right at the top of one of the busiest junctions in the town.
I posted on FB that I was sad to see the old school go, because I loved Henry Gotch school and have some very happy memories of the good times I shared with with classmates in 1A, 2A, 3A and 4AD before I left at fifteen to start a two-year course of ‘O’ Levels with Secretarial Studies at Kettering Technical College.
At my junior school, Park Road School in Kettering, I suffered terribly because we had moved to the very remote Lodge Farm Estate at the beginning of my final year. We were still in Kettering, but on the very outskirts of the town and a long way from my school. At the age of ten, I had never before experienced bullying, but the few girls I had thought were my friends turned against me when we moved and made my final year at junior school absolute hell, which was made worse by the gasps of adult shock and recriminations that I hadn’t made it through the eleven-plus. I was very miserable and unhappy when I was ten. It was no wonder I didn’t want to go to any of the secondary schools the bullies were attending. I wanted to go to Henry Gotch, despite its terrible reputation as the worst school in the town. Luckily, my parents let me have my own way and I was the only child from my junior school to go there!
I wasn’t so brave come the first day, though. I was absolutely terrified because I didn’t know anyone. I needn’t have worried. At the end of the first week I had made loads of new friends and the days of junior school bullying were just a distant nasty memory.
So it was quite a shock to me to find that one of my closest friends in 3A and 4AD was still suffering the after-effects of the bullying she had suffered in 1B= and 2B=. Each year two pupils moved up to the ‘A’ stream and two from the ‘A’ stream were put down to the ‘B’ stream. There was a ‘C’ stream, but I didn’t know anyone from that class. We did have some limited contact with the ‘B’ stream but not much. My English teacher, Mary Kelly, once told me as an adult that they tried to keep the ‘A’ stream isolated from the rest of the school, because we followed the same syllabus as the High School and Grammar Schools. Unlike the other secondary schools in the town, where you were pretty much assigned to the scrapheap after failing your eleven-plus, at Henry Gotch they were very proactive with their ‘A’ stream and had high hopes for us. It wasn’t until I was an adult I realised that was probably pretty much why lots of my classmates at Henry Gotch had achieved more as adults than many of our counterparts who went to the High School and Grammar School. I am now actually glad I failed my eleven-plus and not just scraped through. I know I wouldn’t have survived at the all-girls High School. In my final year, Henry Gotch became a ‘Comprehensive’ and the politically incorrect streaming was abolished – but we still weren’t allowed to take ‘O’ levels unless our parents paid for them.
I remember hugging my friend Karen Slough, who got moved down from 2A at the end of the school year. I used to sit with Karen and she was inconsolable and in floods of tears at having to leave our lovely class. I had tried to tell her that the end-of-year exams were important, but she had got in with the wrong crowd out of school and hadn’t done a single minute of revision. Actually, Karen is another tragic story altogether. She died when we were in our twenties, but I won’t go into all that today.
Eileen, who moved up in Karen’s place, was very nervous on her first day in the A Stream Our form tutor in the third year was the music teacher, Harry Briggs, AKA ‘Baldy’. Someone had told us girls in 3A she had been bullied in her old class, so we all made a point of making a fuss of her and tried to make her welcome. I can remember her lovely smile and bubbly personality (and also how clever she was and how hard she worked!) and from that day we have been friends, not seeing as much of each other as adults as we would like, because life and working full-time gets in the way, but I have no doubt that all us Henry Gotch girls will reconnect where we left off all those years ago when we retire.
I can remember there was lots of teasing and laughter in our class, but it was laughing ‘with’, rather than ‘at’. When I posted on my FB page today that I was sad the old school was being knocked down, Eileen commented that she still suffers from the after effects of the bullying she endured at school and it still affects her confidence 40 years later. Not only that, but my own daughter, Emily, commiserated with Eileen (who incidentally is Emily’s Godmother) because she feels the same. Emily went to Henry Gotch too.
At the time, Emily suffered mostly in silence. I knew there were pupils at Henry Gotch who were nasty about her Coeliac Disease and terrible acne, and some of the girls were very bitchy, but she did have some good friends there – one of whom was her eventual husband. Did I do enough? Did I fail her because I didn’t intervene when I should have done? Should I have let her transfer to Latimer School when she had pestered me instead of telling her to just get on with it and ignore the bullies?
Probably because I had been encased in the ‘A’ Stream bubble at Henry Gotch, I think I might have been blinkered to what was going on outside the bubble. I hadn’t realised just how badly affected by bullying Eileen had been at the time. I hope I didn’t add to her pain unwittingly by an insensitive comment or laughing at something that caused her discomfort. Next time I see her I am going to ask her.
I am also going to apologise to Emily for not being sympathetic enough when she was bullied as a teenager. I should have at least have gone into the school and talked to someone.
But the comment that shocked me most today was my son-in-law’s comment on my FB post that I was sad to see the old school being knocked down. He simply said: ”No, I enjoyed signing the demolition notice’.
Who would have thought that it would be an ex-pupil who got to sign such a notice – and one who had hated the school, too! How satisfying would that be?