Describing a story as ‘semi-autobiographical’ can be misleading. People think you must be exaggerating as you convert possibly boring fact into hopefully entertaining fiction. However, there are certain cases where the opposite is true; such as in the following tale, based on a certain string of events in my own schooldays:
From Insults to Injury
Rise and Fall of a School-age Rebel
As a blond and blue-eyed toddler, I looked wide-eyed and innocent, some said positively angelic. In my defence, this was probably because I was already suffering from a short-sightedness which was not properly diagnosed until I was about seven. To everyone’s delight, my behaviour and disposition seemed generally appropriate to my looks. Presumably, if you can’t see the target, there’s no point in throwing your dinner at it. Life, it seems had cast me in the role of a perfect paragon, possessed of all the virtues.
Such a reputation is hard to maintain, especially for an inexperienced child. I became defensive, repressing my growing bent for mischief and where that proved impossible, learned the politics of deceptive innocence. Thus, crafty in the extreme, heavily armoured against misguided compliment and thinking this was the worst that life could do, I was unprepared for the discovery of disparagement and insult.
My first engagement with these new foes, was at the age of four and a half. At the time, I was attending a small private kindergarten, confident in my bright red uniform. It was towards the end of the spring term. My favourite teacher, Miss Marjorie, the headmistresses' daughter, had organised a school play to impress the parents. Her own adaptation of one of Enid Blyton's classics, in which my part was Mr Plod, the policeman.
It was during our first wallow through, what is now often considered the mire of Noddy's affront to political correctness, that the unexpected insult struck. I had two lines and a dramatic gesture during the arrest scene. I delivered my first line, tapped the Golly on the shoulder, paused for dramatic effect - and was prompted!
That was it! Gone were my precocious fantasies of painting water-colour flowers on the beautifully rounded cheeks of Miss Marjorie's twenty-two year old bottom. Since the other female teachers, at my tender years, seemed irredeemable wrinklies, my only course of action was to transfer my interests to girls of my own age. I came to the conclusion that teachers stunk, an opinion only slightly mollified by later experiences. In metaphorical contrast, I rapidly discovered that my female contemporaries were really rather fragrant. Although, to the misfortune of my innocently artistic ambitions, they failed to be fragrant enough to provide me with the necessary soft pink canvasses.
Insult number two took a vicious bite at my ego a couple of years later. I had bade farewell to those desolate scenes of my broken and disappointingly one-sided relationship with Miss Marjorie. I was wallowing in yet another mire, that of my first year at prep-school. The school was ‘Mono-posto’ as my best friend’s father, a motor-racing enthusiast, put it, that is boys-only, so my attempts at imaginative artistry had to be confined to paper. Once I had been persuaded that backgrounds did not necessarily have to be skin-toned, my paintings improved sufficiently to gain a regular spot on the art-room wall. The floral subjects disappeared, their places taken by galleons, tanks and motorcars, my transformation from romantic dreamer to rampant warmonger was complete. Soon gold stars were adorning the corners and when it came to representing the school, I was promised that my work would gain me a place on the team.
Eventually that moment arrived; the local council had announced a painting competition. The subject was to be a road safety poster, there were various age ranges and it was open to all the neighbourhood schools, both fee and free. The prize, apart from the dubious honour of taking part, was some small unspecified gift, plus attendance at an awesome event billed as ‘Tea with the Lord Mayor.’
Unlike the council schools, where every pupil in a class was allowed to enter, only we chosen few at the top of the art-group were given that privilege. At the time I was too young to appreciate this for the ploy it was; an attempt by the headmaster to keep the average quality of his school’s entries above that of the rest. So, the select team performed and a batch of carefully vetted submissions were made. My offering came third in its age group, from my point of view, a satisfying result for a first attempt at public recognition.
In due course, the day of the much anticipated ‘Tea with the Lord Mayor’ arrived. Proud parents delivered their winning offspring to the outsize bronze doors of the hallowed art-deco pile that was our City Hall. As they left, us kids, shepherded by vague officials from the Education Department, were taken up the processional staircase. I remember wondering, in all innocence, why they hadn’t trusted us to the lift.
We crowded at the grand entrance to the banqueting hall, the front ranks suitably hushed but with the usual rearguard still chattering and testing the echoes of the stairwell. Through the doors we could see the long table covered in starched white linen. The ‘Tea’, or rather its substitute, huge jugs of incredibly weak orange squash, were spaced infrequently along the vast expanse of tablecloth. Between the jugs were huge gilt edged china plates, their diameter quite dwarfing the neat heaps of tiny triangular sandwiches. To the right of the doorway was a group of adults, presumably teachers, councillors and officials involved in the road safety promotion. I assumed from the heavy gold chains, which we had been told to watch for, that the boring looking leader of this group and the nondescript woman standing at his side, were the Mayor and Mayoress.
More interested in the grandness of the building and the disappointing contrast of the so called ‘Tea,’ I managed to accidentally ignore the Lord Mayor’s outstretched hand, this time an insult offered rather than received. In fact, I was several paces past his paunch before he realised that one of his guests had alluded him. I was called back and playfully accused of flouting authority, while at the same time having cigarette smoke puffed over me by his wife and my hand vigorously pumped by both of them in turn.
With the politics of the occasion over, we were ushered rapidly to our seats and encouraged to investigate the food. I soon discovered that the sandwiches had been made with slightly soggy, thin white bread and filled with an almost invisible pink layer of paste accompanied by thick, hard flakes of bright yellow margarine. Having been brought up as a vegetarian, I did not recognise the taste and had to ask the second-prize winner sitting up-table of me. ‘Crab paste!’ I was horrified to learn.
For a moment, I considered refusing to eat any more, but having already embarrassed myself over the handshaking, I continued cautiously. A decision I was later to regret, when, some hours later, I discovered I shared my mother’s acute allergy to seafood. To this day I am convinced that I owe my survival to the meanness of the council's caterers, when their generosity might have killed me.
Once our ‘banqueting’ was properly under way, the Mayor and his cohorts rose from their distant thrones to batter us with patronising speeches and dole out the prizes. My turn came at last and I trekked round to the head of the table, expecting great things.
The Mayoress' palm again enclosed my hand while she repeated the same speech she had used for all the others and pushed a garishly coloured cardboard box into my chest. Dropping the lady's clammy hand, I took my eagerly anticipated prize, muttered a briefly rehearsed thank-you and began the long walk back to my seat. I daren’t look at the prize. Would it be a full set of professional quality water-colours, the sort that come in tubes? Something I had hoped might be the appropriate official acknowledgement of my artistic originality. I reached my chair, sat down and gazed at the box.... It was a Paint-by-Numbers Kit! I was horrified, I had never imagined that such abominations existed. When later, I recovered from the combination of the insult, the shock to my artistic sensibilities and the crab sandwiches, I complained to my parents. The uncomforting reply was simple, ‘You can't trust City-Hall.’
I threw away the canvasses with their stultifying discipline of blue lines, but kept the tiny plastic pots of numbered paints. My fantasies of decorating female rumps upgraded from delicate water-colouring to brash invigorating oils.
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With these two major assaults on my respect for authority and many minor ones too numerous to mention, I became immersed in the appropriate opportunities for learning provided by the prep-school.
The major theme of my personal education at this time, consisted of discovering how to bait the prefects without getting caught. My gang of like minded contemporaries were good at that and I was pleased to be able to take a leading role in their machinations. Educational satisfaction was coming my way at last. Mischief took over from painting as my ambition in life. With my chosen learning process well in hand and enough native wit to cope with the school’s curriculum as some sort of annoying but necessary sideline, I sailed happily from term to term. Then we gained a new form-master, not a cheerful, pleasant humorist, as we were used to, but a dour, sour disciplinarian. Our original had led from the front, teaching for him was an invigorating swim in the sea of knowledge, a pursuit in which we gladly joined. The new one was no leader, he drove from behind and rapidly lost our confidence.
After the first end-of-term exams, we discovered his entirely different attitude to marking and his popularity dropped from poor to abysmal. A good try was no longer good enough, the answers had to be perfect and not just correct, but exactly worded as previously specified. Our reports reflected a failure to achieve this and made trouble for us at home as well as in the eyes of the headmaster. During the following term, the class was bent on vengeance, the foolhardy tried all the various standard ploys, mostly stupidly obvious frontal assaults, like wolf-whistling, dropping desk-lids with a crash and wanting to visit the toilet at the most inopportune moments. These failed, as they deserved to, fizzling to nothing under the rapid and accurate responses from his irresistible firepower. The queues outside the headmaster’s study began to grow, Saturday afternoon detentions became overcrowded.
With all that flack about, I had to cut back on my secret torturing of prefects. In the classroom conflict, I remained aloof, uninvolved, maintaining my long-term policy of avoiding trouble with the teaching staff, but there were insults in the pipeline which would change that.
Despite my obvious neutrality in the crusade against the form-master, I was summoned to the headmaster's study. Curiously there was no queue of miscreants, I wondered if I had come to the right place. I knocked and was ushered in to be told I was to receive one stroke of the cane. Coming from a family of lawyers, I politely asked for a list of specific charges. The answer was simple, but not to the point, ‘Boy,’ he grunted, failing to remember my name, ‘This has been coming to you for a long time!’
If that was not enough, the next outrage was to follow close on the heels of the unexplained caning. As well as corporal punishment, it was the policy of the school to indulge itself in intelligence testing. Looking back on it, I am sure their methods were intended to subvert the system, since we were always put through several weeks of intensive training prior to each term's exams. I still have the relevant report. Under the heading ‘Intelligence Quotient’ is the number ‘167’ double underlined, followed by a thick red question-mark and an equally red, biro comment from my hated form-master, ‘To be checked next term!’ it said. Naturally I felt insulted. Did they think I'd cheated in some way?
My honour still smarting from the implications of the red biro comment and my posterior from the decoration, applied not in water-colour, nor even oils, but in shades of bruise blue turning to yelp yellow, I fumed. The mood lasted all through the holidays. Then, just as the new term began, it dawned on me, I was innocent on one count, that of the caning, merely a victim of the school’s undoubted policy to give every pupil at least one taste of rattan. Of course there was still the matter of the IQ test, that other insult to my intelligence.
The prefects gained a respite as my secret campaign focused on the unpopular master. My fellow classmates’ dubious efforts had failed. They too had been caned, but almost certainly for good reasons. I checked and yes, they had been informed at length, just prior to getting the standard six strokes. My conclusions relating to the headmaster’s gift of that single stripe were almost certainly confirmed. Vengeance on the headmaster would have to wait, for the time being he was out of range, but the form-master was a different matter.
Feeling secure in my anonymity, I planned the attack with care. I wanted it to be original and subtle, I racked my brain, then I found a drawing-pin in the sole of my shoe. Have you ever tried walking on a drawing-pin? After a while it gets quite uncomfortable and when the head wears off, the tine works its way through into your foot. That was it. A suitably deceptive torture, particularly if constantly repeated. It also seemed extremely safe from detection, since boxes of drawing-pins are often spilt and as I had discovered, one can walk some distance wondering why the floor has suddenly become uneven, before discovering the truth.
On the fateful day of the prank, I entered the room before class began. This was against school regulations, but easily achieved since my form-room connected directly to the playground. I had already collected my armaments. Every notice in the school was now held in place by only three drawing-pins, each forth one resided in my pencil-case. There were nineteen notices, so I had nineteen pins, mostly the sort made of high quality brass with thick domed heads and sturdy shafts. I placed them like land-mines, point uppermost in front of the blackboard, then returned, unnoticed to the cover of the crowded playground.
The bell rang for classes to begin. We pupils entered first and sat in our usual places. The usual idiots at the back began their usual chatter. My desk was on the central aisle two rows from the front. The master bustled in, clumping down the short flight of red quarry-tiled concrete steps that led into the form-room, a conversion of the semi-basement sculleries of the original Georgian house. His eyes were targeted, as usual, on the back rows. Under his gaze, the conversation faded to silence. He approached the blackboard. His shoes were out of my line of sight, but from his general position, I was confident that he was within the minefield. Expecting him to notice either the pins on the floor, or their presence in the soles of his shoes, I held my breath, but there was no result.
I had failed to appreciate that the well worn floor was already uneven and that this might negate the effect. The pins remained undetected, I became perplexed, was the scheme a failure? Then, having set us the morning’s task, the master took the three paces necessary to reach the chair behind his desk, sat down, opened a textbook and stretched his crossed legs through the kneehole. His feet came into view. Poker-faced, I exalted, there were six of the domed-head pins in the heel of his right shoe and one of the flat-headed ones in his left sole.
During the remainder of the teaching session, I waited for him to make the discovery, but all that happened was that he collected two more of the smaller ones in the same heel as before. A bell sounded, break-time had arrived. The master rose to depart. Surely he should have noticed the unevenness of his tread? But no, he headed for the steps up to the door. He mounted the first step, the second, the third, then on the final broader one, a sort of mini-landing, he turned the handle of the door and stepped back from the door-swing.
Instead of dismissing the class and heading for the staff-room, as both he and we expected, his heel slipped and he took off, in a style unequalled by any comedians since Laurel and Hardy. But his landing, unlike those of such black-and-white heroes, was as bad as it looked.
The whole class sat still, both we and he were silent, nobody moved to aid him. This was not so much because of his unpopularity, but because we were conditioned not to stir until he gave the word. A word which was not likely to come, since it was obvious that he was either unconscious or dead. Eventually the boy nearest the door got up and keeping his back to the wall, warily worked his way past the crumpled body, as if it was some sort of dangerously unpredictable animal.
Matron was called. She phoned for an ambulance. The ambulance men investigated, announced he wasn’t dead and carted him away to the local casualty hospital. We didn't see him for a whole glorious week.
Next day, a notice was sticky-taped to the classroom door. It politely requested everyone to ensure that drawing-pins were kept under proper control and not allowed to fall on the floor.
I gained no pleasure from the undoubted success of the prank, nor from the fact that my guilt would remain undiscovered. I was piqued, it was just like him, the rotter, to spoil it by nearly killing himself. That was when I decided to reform, subversion was much too easy to perform.
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