At eleven, again photographed in school uniform – now a navy tunic, red and white striped blouse, school tie – my eyes are downcast, and there is the faintest trace of a smile on my face. I have long hair, and a fringe, dark blond. I am holding a little white dog, clinging on to it for dear life. This time I have no illusions about going to a new school.
Because of my failure to shine at primary school, and their native suspicion of posh places, my parents had not put me down for the Girls’ High School. Instead they selected our town’s comprehensive school, one of the first in the country. I was put in form 1D. My mother assumed that the streaming was alphabetical, and that I was in the fourth class out of six, but in fact the school’s system was more subtle. Each year a secret word was chosen: in ours ‘dix ans’, reflecting the age of the school. So I was in the top stream, to my parents’ amazement. My ‘11 plus’ results had apparently surprised everyone. My mother thought I would not last long in the top class, and when I struggled with my first maths homework, she assumed it was the start of my descent to my rightful place.
But my teachers were idealists, who believed that education could bring about social equality. They seemed to think that like everyone else in 1D I could benefit from a grammar school style education, and because they believed that, I thrived. I began to learn French. The teacher, Miss Lewer, gave us all French names; mine was Lucille, who I imagined as a more confident, prettier version of myself. Miss Lewer said I had a good accent and asked if I had ever been to France. She was surprised when I replied in the negative. At the end of term there were exams. I had no idea how to prepare for them, but taking them taught me that you just had to learn stuff off by heart. Once I realised this I had more or less cracked it. My marks got better and better.
My success was still tinged with terror. My cousin Peter had died, when he was six, and I was nine. I grieved alone. In those days in my kind of family children did not go to funerals, and nobody talked to them about the loss. A few weeks before his death, on one of their visits to us, his mother recounted a new set of ailments that had befallen my poor cousin. Peter and I were playing in the vicinity and I heard every word. Perhaps he did too. I remember very distinctly thinking ‘it’s too much, he can’t get better now’. Perhaps when he died I thought I was in some way responsible, because I had given up on him. In the final instance I had given up, despite all those times when I had tried to distract him from his sufferings with fairy stories and games.
When Peter died I gave up ballet and begged to be allowed to stay at home on Saturday mornings. I dropped out of the Christmas show, giving up my role as one of the ponies pulling Cinderella’s coach. The other pony just had to do it on her own. Even though this was very awkward, no-one could persuade me to go back to rehearsals.
Then I became convinced that I was going to die too. I read a story in the Readers’ Digest magazine about a little girl dying of liver cancer. I was sure I had the same symptoms. At night I would run into my parents’ room, because my heart was beating too fast. My father would say wearily, ‘tell me when it stops!’ My mother took me to the doctor’s and told him I was ‘suffering with my nerves’. A light sleeping medication was prescribed to stop the night terrors. My parents got the little white dog for me, and took my picture in my new school uniform, as if the dog and my education might save me, and perhaps they did.
Regis School Uniform, 1964. The old coal bunker has been replaced by a ‘verandah’, ideal for drying washing….
Christina Daniels says
There was a girl lived just up our street that did go to the Girls High because our headmaster put her in for it. Mr Parks didn’t seem to notice I was top of the class in Maths though .Living under the Borough of Tettenhall down in Castlecroft The Regis was were we were expected to go. Another girl who I thought was just as clever in English, as the one he did inspire for though, made it in to S and our name was Sangfroid year…1961
Lyn Thomas says
Thank you Christina. I like the idea of sangfroid! I think they went for Latin sometimes too. And it was supposed to be a secret but we had all worked it out by break on the first day!!
Christina Daniels says
Yes 9 classes each year until they built a new school at Castlecroft . Opened Easter 1964…then half of the first year 1963 starters moved there….no more need for all those temporary class rooms…
Christina Daniels says
I so identify with your feelings about Peter and his death when you were 9 because I was 9 when my daddy died in 1959 closely followed by his dad 6 months later and then my mom’s dad just over 12 months after him. Children were not allowed to funerals so they were there one day and gone the next and you very much just had to get on with it….hence I am never older than 9 when I think of my dad and can still feel the tears roll down my cheeks when I do…… I also worried I was going to die. I also would hope I would wake up and find it wasn’t true……Miss Lewer never taught me it was the gorgeous Mr Gent for my first year who gave us names and called me Claire. Oh I hated it then..it was an old name before it made a 70’s come back. I would love it now though..Miss Lewer was lovely though I know because she came with us Easter 1964 on the school holiday to Annecy with Mrs Till and Mr Kench. Miss Lewer looked very French with her long plait and smoking. You lucky girl to have her for French. I love the way you are writing this book around your memories of your clothes. Photographs are great for bringing the memories back xxx
Lyn Thomas says
Thank you Christina – I appreciate your comments very much, and it is good to share these memories of family, the times and the teachers we knew….
Imogen Taylor says
Passing the 11 plus from our working class village primary was huge, and
taking the bus to Ashford Grammar School was a big journey – going to purchase the Grammar School uniform symbolised this rite of passage. I remember being amazed at how much uniform there was as it included clothes for gym and games, as well as indoor and outdoor clothing. I had no idea there would be so much. I was really pleased with all this new clothing and I liked the grey colour – but I was also worried about the cost of it all, and felt quite responsible for this. Furthermore, every item had to have a name tape sewn in, more work for my Mother. My baby brother had only recently
arrived and now there were. 3 children, my Mother wanted to build her career as an artist but not making it and we children were holding her back.
I loved that first year of Grammar School and thrived in that world. I discovered a talent for netball – formal gym or games had not been part of primary school. I loved learning Italic handwriting and I was so proud of my Osmiroid pen that when we had a fire drill it was the one item I took with me in case it was a real fire! I was devastated when at the end of the year my parents told me that we were moving to Sussex and I was to start at another Grammar School. I strongly resisted this move and stayed in bed for 2 days refusing to go to my new school. The next set of uniform did not hold the same magic. As I became older my main mission was to subtly adapt and personalise the uniform, pushing at the school rules. I was called in by the Headmistress on one occasion as my navy blue jumper was not the correct blue, and on another occasion as I wasn’t wearing regulation shoes ( mine were too pointed). My velour hat was the biggest in the school cloakroom and I detested it, spending a lot of time trying to subtly re-shape it. It was important to me to try and carve out my own identity in a sea of girls – and to be attractive to certain boys on the school bus, travelling to their Grammar School in the same town.
Lyn Thomas says
Ah the Osmiroid pen and learning Italic! I think we started that in the final year of Primary School.
Your post underlines the importance of this transition to secondary school and the honour of getting into a Grammar. And the struggle for identity in the face of, literally, uniformity. The guilt in relation to your mother who had ambitions other than mothering is a different version of the struggle between mother and daughter to my own case, but there are resonances….
Andrea Giarraputo says
I recall when my Grandmother died, my family treated it as a non-event, my parents just mentioned it, almost in passing. I was not close to my grandmother because we rarely visited her & I remember feeling guilty that I was not devastated by the loss, I thought that I should be, I was slightly disturbed by parent’s lack of response, especially my dad, she was his mother. Obviously my dad must have cared but didn’t show it. And we children weren’t included in the funeral. When I went to school grammar schools had been abolished & I felt a tinge of regret at the time as if it was a lost opportunity for me, from a family that was not well off, maybe I could have had a better education. Now I hear the ‘education experts’ are saying they were not so bad after all because they gave an educational opportunity to kids who’d never have it otherwise.