Friday 12 February 2010

Back to school

15st 6lb, 6.0 units. I drove to Newcastle in surprisingly good time for lunch at my old school, to which I had been summoned by kind invitation of the Governors. I have no idea of their motivation, but I guess it was not simply because I have a seven month old son who will be requiring a decade’s worth of education from about 2016.

I had an uncharacteristically easy journey, so much so that I ended up killing time in the car park of Washington motorway services. This enabled me to swing into the “hard play area” of the school on the dot of 12.30, which in any other context I would have deemed to be unfashionably early. However, even 39 years after I left the place, there is still something about going back that induces a sense of uneasiness and foreboding. Will I be slung in detention if I am late? Are my flies done up and my tie straight? Should I be wearing a cap? I was once put in criminal detention (altogether more serious than the one for being late) for being seen in town after school not wearing my sodding cap, even though I only wasn’t wearing it because I had declined a lift home with my father, and had left it and my rucksack in his car at his suggestion.

Did I enjoy my time at school? Yes and no. I liked the junior school, apart from games, gym and the distinctly peculiar nude swimming lessons, enjoyment of which was always marred by a combination of tubby self-consciousness and the fact that I never learned to swim a stroke. I loathed the fourth form, when the then headmaster’s mad policy of making his top performing stream miss a year of their education resulted in classes combining two groups of pupils a year apart in age – and the gap between 13 and 14, in terms of physical and social development, can actually be rather more of a gulf.

The one advantage of this move was it spared me the one year of compulsory biology, where frogs and cow’s eyes had to be dissected, which would almost certainly have caused me to pass out. On the other hand, it did not exempt me from the year of compulsory boxing – though I cunningly managed to get out of this anyway by drafting a letter from my father claiming that he had strong ethical objections to my participation, and getting him to sign it. At least this was a genuine signature, unlike the long succession of increasingly implausible forged letters from my mother excusing me from swimming. The odd thing is that, a few years ago, I had an e-mail from a reader of my newspaper column claiming that he had vivid memories of facing me in the boxing ring at school. Clearly his memory had been affected by a blow to the head, though I can guarantee that it was not me who inflicted it upon him.

And then, eventually, I passed through into the broad, sunlit uplands of the sixth form, where I started enjoying myself again because all the physical activities ceased to be compulsory and I started sneaking off to the Collingwood Arms for a pint or two at lunchtime and after school. With a prudence that set the pattern for my subsequent life, I financed this by running down the Post Office Savings Bank account in which I had been putting birthday presents and other bits of spare cash since I was a toddler. I suppose perfection was reached in the “Third Year Sixth”, that extra term I which candidates for Oxbridge honed their skills for the entrance examination. But I had already been granted a place at the college of my choice on the strength of my A-level results, so truly did not give a stuff how the exam went.

Ah, the joy of swanning in for a class every other day, mainly as an excuse to spend some quality time with my mates in the boozer. Has life ever been so easy since? And could this be colouring my increasing conviction that I have identified the perfect place for The Baby to receive his education? Or could it, more creditably, be because the facilities of the place have been transformed out of all recognition since I left and its ethos rendered a great deal more civilized? Not least by the admission of girls, a move which I naturally opposed with great vigour at the time it was announced, as a simple matter of reactionary principle.

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