My First Day At Grammar School

Presentation1I wasn’t at all nervous about my first day at Grammar school, as I had two older brothers already attending. John was in the upper sixth and a school prefect. Tom was in the fifth form. I knew that no-one would mess with me even though I would be a little sprog. I had heard from my brothers how the sprogs would be bullied and teased, especially in the opening weeks of the Autumn term.

As we entered the school main gate, walked up the long driveway, which led into the main front playground, I had never seen so many children in one place. Most were in small groups, probably sharing experiences of their summer holidays. Some of the boys were playing football and others playing a rough looking game, which I later found out to be called ‘sag’.  In future years I was to pick up many bruises from this crazy game.

John went off immediately to join the prefects and arrange the first assembly. Tom stayed with me until he spotted some friends. I stood there alone until I recognised Sue McCarthy. She had been at my junior school.  All together nine of us had passed our eleven plus and chosen Manor Park as our 1st choice grammar school.

“Hi Sue. I am glad to see you. You are the first person that I have seen that I know since I arrived. I hope the others turn up soon. “

Sue looked nervous. “Hello Jim. Do you know what we are supposed to do? I don’t know where we should go.”

“I guess they just call out names or something. Don’t worry. I will stay with you until they call us.”

And so we waited what seemed ages until the bell went and an old man in a black gown stood in the middle of the playground and called all first formers to gather round. I soon spotted the rest from Hartshill Junior School and we huddled together in our group.

The names were called and we were ordered into four lines, one for each class. I was in class 1a and luckily was with three others from my old school. Sue was one of them.

A form teacher led each line off to their classroom. Ours was a middle-aged woman with a huge backside that waddled as she walked along. She spoke in a high pitched voice as people do when they talk to babies.

“Now children. My name is Mrs White. I am your form teacher for this year. Follow me. Stay in line and don’t dawdle.”

We all marched in, chose a desk and sat down. I sat next to Sue. I had a strong feeling of needing to take care of her, a feeling that was completely new to me. Maybe this was how the knights of King Arthur felt when saving the maids in danger. I was Sue’s loyal knight.

Mrs White gave each of us an exercise book and told us to write our name, school and form on the front.

I quickly wrote James Bothwell, Manor Park Grammer School, Form 1a in my best writing.

Mrs White, as I later found out, was not only our form teacher, but also the Head Of Department for English. She walked around to check that we had all finished correctly, took one look at my book and told me to stand up.

“James. Please tell the class how one spells grammar as in Manor Park Grammar School. “

I felt my face reddening. In front of so many unknown faces my shyness took over. I glanced down at Sue. Her lips were trembling in sympathy for me. I thought that she would cry. I also glanced at her note book and realised that she had spelt grammar with an ‘a’ , whereas I had spelt it with an ‘e’.

I knew instinctively that hers was right. That was the reason that I had been singled out.  A cheeky confidence suddenly came over me. “ G R A M M A R,” I said loud and clear.

Mrs White breathed a small sigh of relief. “Thank you. Maybe next time that you write it down you will use the correct spelling.”

“Yes, Miss,” I mumbled and quickly took my seat again.

We spent the complete morning in our form rooms apart from the first assembly, which took place one hour later than normal as it was our first day.

The whole school filed into the school hall every Monday morning for prayers and special announcements. The prefects sat on the stage in their striped jackets. I remember feeling proud to see my brother on the front row and decided there and then that I wanted to be a prefect also when I reached the sixth form.

Back in the classroom we each drew up our timetables. Immediately after lunch we would go to our lessons. I was pleased to see that we had two double lessons of PE each week. I had loved football and was looking forward to begin playing rugby. English would be with Mrs White and would be taken in the form room. Other lessons required the class to split up depending on what disciplines had been chosen. German, for instance, was with Miss Scarlett. I looked forward to my German lessons. I had often helped my brothers with their German homework by testing their memory with new word lists, and had picked up quite a lot. This was one subject where I knew that I could do well.

History was with Colonel Mustard. We all chuckled at the mention of Colonel Mustard and Jack Watkins raised his hand and asked if he was a real Colonel. Mrs White said that he had fought in World War Two and was injured in the Normandy Landings in 1944. She added that the staff was very proud to have such a decorated war hero teaching at our school.

Mr Green or Reverend Green would be taking us for Religious Instruction. My brother Tom had already informed me that Reverend Green was often absent due to illness. He had picked up some strange virus or something when acting as a missionary in Africa in the 1950s. He still has recurring illness where he is bedridden for days on end.

Our music teacher would be Mrs Peacock. I had no idea what we would do in a music lesson. My family were not musical and I could play no instruments. I remember thinking “Do they just play music for the whole lesson?”

Mathematics and Physics would be with Mr Plum. Although he was not a real professor, people called him Professor Plum. When I was to meet him a couple of days later it became very clear why. He looked just like an extremely old professor and taught in his university black gown. In fact many of the older teachers taught in black gowns. Mrs White also did.

We had just over an hour for lunch. It was a beautiful September day with light white clouds scudding over a deep blue sky. Our little group of nine quickly gathered together to share the events of the morning. We had only been talking and eating our sandwiches a few minutes when along came two second year  bullies.

“What have we here? A group of little sprogs waiting for someone to share their food with.  Wow, that looks tasty,” the fatter one said, as he reached out to snatch Sue’s tuna and cucumber sandwich.

“Leave her alone,” I blurted out.

They both turned on me. I thought that I was in for a thrashing.

“Go away or I will call his brother. He’s a prefect,” Sue yelled.

Fatboy looked at me and asked if that was true.

“Yes, John Bothwell , upper sixth. And my other brother is in the fifth.”

I watched as they tried not to lose face but left as quickly as they could. We all chuckled and I made my biggest mistake of the day. As they were walking away I shouted after them, “You are just cowards. All bullies are cowards.” I would pay dearly for those remarks.

After lunch we went directly to our first proper lesson. Mine was German Language in room 32d. We had been given a room map of the school and I found it quickly. It was right next to the swimming pool in the quadrangle. I remember that it was hard to concentrate on learning when children were outside swimming.

Miss Scarlett came in and my jaw dropped open. I sat on the front row, right in front of her desk. I had never seen such a beautiful woman. She was completely different to the other older teachers. She wore a knee length dress and was slim, tall and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She asked us all to introduce ourselves and tell her any German words that we might know.

Lots of the boys knew a few such as ‘achtung’ or ‘Donner und Blitzen’ that they had read in the war comics.

When it came to my turn I blurted out far too much. I wanted to impress her and show her that I had learned a lot from my brothers. It all just came pouring out in a mad, confused rush.

“Die Decker ist Gelb, ein, zwei drei, vier, funf. Guten Tag, Guten Morgen, Ich habe Hunger….”

“Ok James, that will do. Where did you learn that from?” she asked smiling.

“My brothers,” I said. “I can count up to 100 if you like.”

“Erm..that won’t be necessary today”

I spent the rest of the lesson half listening to her and half looking at her legs. When she sat down at her desk, I was right in front of her and could see right up to her knickers. I will remember those scarlet pants for my whole life. I felt some strange feeling in my groin but had no idea what it was at that time. Now that I realise, I suppose I am lucky to know exactly the time when I first began to leave childhood behind. It was my first day at Grammar School. Miss Scarlett and her scarlet… where was I? Ah, yes German lessons.

Next was a double lesson of history with Colonel Mustard.

He did a similar this to Miss Scarlett, by asking each of us to introduce ourselves and give him one date from history that we knew. I gave 1066 the Battle of Hastings. I knew this because my brother, John, who was a really keen stamp collector, had told me that next month a new set of commemorative stamps comes out for 900 years since the Battle Of Hastings. He had ordered a first day cover.

Colonel Mustard was a frightening man. He was enormous and always wore his black gown. His face was lop-sided as he was shot in the cheek during the war and some of the nerves had been damaged. When he smiled, which was extremely seldom, it looked more like a vicious sneer.  We were all afraid of him.

During the very first lesson he introduced us to dictation. He would read some text, which we were to copy down in our notebooks, new ones in which, this time,  I had spelt ‘grammar’ correctly.

He began,” Early imports from the New England Colonies were dried meat, fish, lumber, furs and Heinz baked beans.”

He stopped talking and looked at us all, one by one. We were all silent. A pin drop could be heard in the room. “Who has written Heinz Baked Beans?” he thundered at us. Every child put their hands up.  “And who believes that the early colonies of America actually exported Heinz Baked Beans to England?” No-one raised a hand.

“Aha,” he said, “So you all have written something that you believe to be false. Let this be a lesson to all of you. Dictation is not only for writing, it is also for listening. If you hear something that you find unbelievable or wrong, you raise a hand and ask. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Sir,” we all replied. It was a lesson that I will never forget. Never believe everything that you read or hear.

The last lesson with Reverend Green was gentle and fitting to end the first day. He told us the story of the Good Samaritan and we then discussed it. Afterwards he told us about his time in Africa. He had travelled a lot and I remember thinking how much I was looking forward to his future lessons. Beforehand I had been dreading the subject of RI as I had imagined a repeat of my years attending Sunday school.

When the bell went at 3.30pm I walked out to the small rear gate. Tom had arranged to meet me there after school so that we could walk home together. It was nearly two miles and much better that we go together.

When I arrived at the gate Fatboy and his friend were waiting for me. They had obviously decided that they weren’t so afraid of my big brothers after all, and that they could get me on my own.

First they knocked off my cap into the mud. While I was picking it up one of them kicked me in the backside. I nearly fell over and felt the first wetness of tears welling up into my eyes. They were tears of anger though rather than fear. As I picked up my school cap I gathered also a pile of mud into it and threw it as hard as I could at the fat one. It splattered all over his white shirt and tie. He took one look at the mess I had made and then came at me. I knew that I was in for it.

As he came towards me I turned to run but a hand came out of nowhere and slapped him across the face. “If I catch you after my little brother again I’ll bloody kill you,” Tom growled. He would have scared even me.

We laughed about it on the way home. In hindsight I have never had a close relationship with Tom, but this was one of those rare moments where we were true brothers.

This was my first day at Grammar School. I survived further bullying, had some epic scraps in the playground and was sent to the headmaster on numerous occasions for the cane. I also had a fantastic time learning, playing rugby, and making some lifelong friends.  I dearly wish that some of these elements of schooling, both the good and the bad, were still present in today’s schools. There were hardships, but overall they prepared young people for a world in which one needs to survive.