Every day’s a school day! Well, you’d hope not in most ways, but it’s good to learn and a couple of the worst teachers I had – against some stiff opposition – taught me one of the most important things I ever learned in school.
I was of a generation that wore short trousers to what was then called Infants’ School: the first two or three years. Long socks, just below the knee. We’d have got away with time travelling thirty years back in time without changing clothes. Some wore them into Primary and through Junior school, but I didn’t. I did at Infants’ though.
I was in Mrs Teal’s class and she did her best to mask her contempt for me, hapless twat as I was. I was bottom of the class for everything except English, at which I was about halfway up and that was only because I could read fluently and had to go to Miss Hawke’s classroom to get reading books. Every single year, except the last one, I had to go to the class above to get my books. In the last year, I could bring in whatever I liked.
I can claim to have achieved a high level of consistency in my abilities and effort, both of which were negligible. I was constantly surprised by things my classmates appeared to already know and process. I’ve written at length about how I just accepted things that people told me and that’s true. At school, where they wanted you to actually do things, I tended to need more information. My question was generally along the lines of ‘Why though?’
Mrs Teal didn’t know why or, if she did, didn’t care to explain it to a seven year old, so I was difficult.
Maths was the worst. At least things like Geography were in English. You had to move numbers from here to there, but only if it divides by two and carry this there, and… It was like listening to directions. I looked for sense, but found none. Eventually I just accepted it.
Every Friday we had a Maths test, counting Janet’s handbags or something. This week I’d got none out of ten again and Mrs Teal was distinctly unimpressed and gave me an earful which culminated in a demand that I pull my socks up.
Wanting to avoid the unwanted glare of everyone laughing at me because I was an idiot and because Mrs Teal was giving me the hairdryer treatment again, I tried to make amends by doing as she said. My socks were, as they tended to be, down by my ankles so I pulled them up.
Mrs Teal immediately blew up again to my astonishment.
“How dare you be so insolent, child?” She screamed at me. Next to her, Bryony Sayers, who was Teacher’s Pet was doing that head moving side to side thing because she loved dropping me in it.
I said, “I don’t know,” because I didn’t know what insolent meant, but I didn’t want to start listing all the things I didn’t know because everybody would laugh at me and we didn’t have that long anyway.
That made things even worse and I got sent to the Headmaster.
When you got sent to the Headmaster, you always had to sit at this chair outside his office to soften you up with a bit of waiting and letting you stir yourself up about it. I didn’t know that then, and it worked because I was worried about it. I was also worried about my mother’s reaction if, more likely when, school rang up and told them.
Eventually I was ushered in and had to stand in front of Mr Peach who, in my estimation, was a prick. He’d pace around and stretch up and down, his hands behind his back, giving you these long monologues that didm’t really seem to go anywhere. This is my tribute to him. It’s not my tribute to him, but I am mildly concerned, having just made the comparison.
I’d been in there twice before. The first time was obviously on a rota system of the teacher finding a good piece of work you’d done and you went and got a pat on the head. I knew it was tokenism because my chosen piece of work was crap even by my standards. The second time, I’d been in trouble.
Ian Hookham’s mother was a teacher at the Primary and he was a right tell-tale. If he felt like it, he’d occasionally make something up and tell his mam and then you’d be kept in all break, writing lines because Ian Hookham thought you deserved it. I wasn’t a fan although – and this is a bit peculiar – we’d bonded over a line from a Charles Dickens adaptation that we both must have watched one Saturday. We’d see each other and say, “Et cetera! Et cetera! Et cetera!” Well, at one point, he and I fell out and had a fight in the playground which I won and ended up going a bit far, really. I didn’t kick him, but I knelt on his arms and kept hitting him in the face.
Anyway, I was stood in front of Mr Peach, waiting for whatever ludicrous, abstract babble was about to come out of him and he didn’t disappoint.
“Do you have a frisbee, Neil?” Wacko, even by his standards. He pronounced frisbee like he was holding it with tweezers. Like he was from the 1920s and frisbees were the latest craze among young people.
“Yes, sir,” I said. I did have a frisbee. A blue Sky Surfer one. Not too shabby. I wasn’t sure where this was going, but so far, it seemed odd.
“And, did you bring this, ah, frisbee to school last week?”
What? “No, sir,” openly confused now and, most importantly, I was in trouble and that meant bad things were about to happen and I was against that, because I didn’t get it and that made lying about things harder.
“And then, having brought this, ahm, frisbee to school, did you throw it at Ian Hookham? Think carefully now,”
The penny dropped.
“No sir, that wasn’t me. That was Stephen Fewster, sir,” Ian Hookham had grassed Plank, as we called him, up for selling sweets in the playground and he’d made Hooky stand there against a wall while he threw his frisbee at his head. Then he made him bring it back, walk back to the wall and he’d start again. We called Plank, Plank because he looked like he was thick as two short planks, even though he wasn’t. His little brother looked more intelligent, but really wasn’t blessed in the brains department. “I was the one who had a fight with him in the playground,”
So I got told off for that, but I wasn’t too fussed because Hooky was a nobhead who would have done better to not have his mother working at his school and, anyway, it seemed that I was far from the only one. Unfortunately my mother didn’t agree with this concept and I got, as usual, in far worse trouble at home.
Anyway, third time lucky…
Mr Peach sat behind his desk and asked me what I’d done. I’d have preferred the psychedelic monologue, because, other than royally pissing Mrs Teal off by my continued insistence on breathing in her vicinity, I had no fucking idea. I went for old faithful in these situations: just repeat the charges.
“I think I was insolent, sir,”
“You think you were insolent, or you were insolent?”
“I don’t know, sir. It depends sir,”
“Upon what does it depend, Middleton?” I’m not kidding, this is how he spoke.
“Well, Mrs Teal would say I was definitely insolent and I’d say I think I was,” I hadn’t heard the phrase, When in Rome, do as the Romans do… but that’s what I was doing.
“And why do you suppose Mrs Teal would say your insolence was definite?”
It sounds ludicrous. I know that. But it’s true. I remember a lot of things in quite a lot of detail, this conversation was so odd, I can still barely believe it happened.
“Well, because she said it, sir?”
“And why do you only think you were insolent, Middleton?”
“Because I don’t know what ‘insolence’ means, sir,”
“Ah. Insolence means being cheeky. Rude.”
“So, Middleton, what was it that you did that was insolent?”
“Nothing, sir. I did what she told me to do,”
“And what was that?”
“Pull my socks up, sir,”
And then he told me that when people told you to pull your socks up, they didn’t mean literally pull your socks up, even though they needed pulling up, they meant try harder next time. It seemed complicated and unlikely to me, but I’d had enough and so I just started agreeing with things so I could leave. My lawyer, had he existed, would have been covering my mouth with his manicured hands.
In the end, he said I had apologise to Mrs Teal for being insolent and get detention and kept in a break and dinner. I protested that I didn’t know what she was getting at and Mr Peach told me he wasn’t about to undermine his staff and to leave.
I didn’t know what ‘undermine’ meant either, but I knew he was a twat, and so was Mrs Teal, so I just sucked it up. What else can you do?
I was pretty slow on the uptake and I thought everybody knew better than I did. I was just a bit wide eyed and naive. Like most kids, I was very bad at recognising bullshit, but the point at which someone really takes the piss is often the moment the light goes on.
So, while I wouldn’t say I was grateful to either Mr Peach or Mrs Teal, I did learn something worth knowing from the pair of them that day. I learned that some grown ups were worse than fucking kids and they were the ones you really had to watch.
Oh, and this time, my mother thought I was unfairly treated. She didn’t complain or anything, but it was a welcome relief, even if I had no idea why.