High School

From one of the blogs I follow, I was led to the blog of somebody else – that’s the advantage of wordpress.com, you can go on a voyage of discovery if you so choose. She was talking about school, gave me the idea to post a bit about my high school days. I’ve posted a bit about schooldays a long time ago, here, but I wanted to flesh it out a bit.

For those of you with a keen eye for dates, I attended high school from 1979-86. Seven years was normal in the UK at that time, though you could quit after five. I was lucky enough to go to a prestigious school in the city where I lived. Only years later did I appreciate all the trouble my mum went to, to get me in there, which at the time I took for granted.

One of the first observations I have from there is that because it was a prestigious school, pupils were expected to do well. We sent some up to Oxbridge each year, so it was certainly the norm to progress, rather than the exception. Looking back, this is probably the strongest effect that the school had on me, it’s something I’ve carried through life.

The school was grammar – it selected its intake of 90 boys per year from across the city. Academically I was around the top quarter of pupils. Subjects like Art were counted as academic, so the tables got skewed – certainly if I’d had my way, art would most certainly not have been included! So I was off the pace a little bit – some kids effortlessly scored A’s in every subject – but I excelled in maths and physics in particular. In fact, they were my specialities when I went on to higher education.

I don’t really have any overriding impression of the teachers in general. Specific teachers, especially later on, were brilliant. Others were bastards. Exactly the mix I’ve since encountered in real-life.

I was one of those people who was passionate about sport, but not much good at it. I represented the school in niche sports such as baseball (a UK version of) and (field) hockey – not your typical British sports. The school played football, we were in a very football city, after all, and some former pupils went on to play professionally for local teams. There were attempts to play rugby, but never more than a sideline, and even when I was later immersed in the rugby-mad atmosphere of Cardiff, I had no interest. Because the school had such a long and proud sporty traditions, people who were in the sporty clique (and there were naturally sporty kids who tended to walk into the school team for any sport they chose) tended to receive preferential treatment over those of us who weren’t. Often in intangible ways – there might be rapport between a teacher and a sporty person, which was otherwise absent, for example. Small things, but enough to pick up on.

Rather than in sport, my biggest extra-curricular achievement was in quizzing. I captained the school’s team in the annual Library Quiz, aged about fourteen. Each library in the city held such a quiz in its catchment area, and we won ours. Prizes were presented at our beautiful Central Library in the city centre. I later got to know the place well, as I became a bookworm. It was the only time I ever really felt adulation related to education – from teachers at least, I’d been a part of something that helped raise the school’s profile (and in a good way 😊). Most pupils weren’t interested. But I was always good at General Knowledge, it is something I enjoy even now.

There were troubles as well. I was made to feel like I was a mass-murderer for some of the infractions, though looking back, I laugh because they were all trivial. No more than a school wanting to uphold certain traditional levels of discipline, in a changing world.

In fact, this desire on their part to have “old-fashioned discipline” drove a wedge between us. Plus, I was an “awkward” student. I happened to notice that the tuition I was receiving each week was below the government’s threshold for benefit, so started claiming it. That was unusual – most eighteen-year-olds weren’t so savvy – but it raised my head above the parapet. Teachers weren’t happy at the extra workload generated on my behalf – dealing with letters from the benefits agency which must’ve taken all of five minutes. Several times I received the comment, “you either want to be here as a full-time student, or not at all”. I had the law on my side, though, and in the end I received my benefit. In fairness to them, I used to push things too. We were obliged to do some form of sport right the way through – I told them that my “sport” was snooker, and I disappeared to the local (licensed) snooker hall every Wednesday afternoon!

As I got older, I could see the nonsense of it. Things “for the sake of”. Sometimes the school allowed people to stay and resit failed final exams (‘A’ levels), but they made it clear to me that if I failed, that was it and I would be looking for somewhere else to study. They needn’t have worried – I passed my ‘A’ levels and duly headed off to university a few months later. And I thrived at university – when I finally left, I had all sorts of offers to stay on, so I could fit in nicely, given the right surroundings.

Things soured sufficiently with the school that I never even attempted to keep in touch. Never bothered with “old boys” events. It’s difficult when you move to another city, anyway, and they gave me every impression that they were glad to see the back of me so I was never going to be pally, pally with the teachers. I do wonder about how some of my old schoolmates, and my old teachers, got on with the rest of their lives, though I’ve never seriously tried to track anybody down. I’m public enough on the internet, if any of them ever feel the need… I hope they all did well for themselves.

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