So, what was school good for?

This post first published on January 6, 2017

(From Pink Floyd’s classic music video)

It turns out several Web friends also still have their old school reports… so I have quietly refiled mine. (Better not tell Alison.) But that blog post about why I kept mine? and speculating that it was because being Top of the Class was the only thing I was any good at, the only thing that made me feel I was any good at anything… it all looks a bit bleak, doesn’t it? It looks as if I had a miserable, unhappy childhood?

And yes, I don’t remember being a child, still less a teenager, with any sense of joy or real happiness. My school days are not a time I look back on as ‘the best years of my life’. I can understand why teachers and adults generally try to perpetuate that myth. It could be the only thing they think they can be good at, is making children’s lives happy and worthwhile. I feel sorry for them too. But that’s another problem.

The things I remember about school days, are predominantly fear and boredom. I wasn’t afraid of the teachers; mostly I trusted them because I learned how to cope (obedience – at least when they were looking – and jumping through the academic hoops). But I was afraid of just about everything else: playtime, games, other children, being made fun of, looking foolish in the eyes of my peers… Often, being afraid of going to and from school. This was the dangerous place where you could easily become the prey of teachers if you weren’t wearing your school cap, or of other pupils if you were. Or, you ran the risk of meeting pupils from one of the other schools in town, especially the boys from Huxley Secondary Modern who were said to hate us, be constantly lying in ambush to attack us, taunt us with their hate song:

“Latymer loonies
Smell like cheese;
D’you wanna go to Huxley?
YES, PLEASE!”

Should I mention, at this point, that I never met any of them in seven years, and was never attacked – by them – on my way to school? Perhaps they had their own myths and fears about our hatred and ferocity, and ran for hiding when they saw me coming? Though with hindsight I have every sympathy with them. Why shouldn’t they feel aggrieved, who had been told at 11 that they had failed, and were second-rate scholars? The grammar school system, much vaunted as the great post-war engine of social mobility – and certainly it was what got me to university, as one of the first generation in my family to do so – was also the great divider of society, relegating the overwhelming majority of children to that stigma of ‘failed the 11-plus’.

And boredom. Hours and hours of boredom in dull dull lessons. I used to think in my arrogance that it was because I was bright, and had to spend so many hours waiting for the less bright members of the class to catch up. Who am I kidding? If I had been really intelligent, I would have used those opportunities to learn better, to learn more, to seek more knowledge and abilities than the basics, to aim for outstanding excellence, rather than just to satisfy the exam system and be Top of the Class. True, the teaching styles of the 1960s left much to be desired, based as they were on writing down everything the teacher said, rote-learning, regurgitating class-notes in tests. We didn’t have the inspirational, life-changing teachers you come across in other people’s lives, or in the movies. (Dead Poets Society, anyone?) The ones I loved, and who, yes, did change my life in some way, were relatively few. Lovely Miss Loewenstein who taught English, and scary-edgy Miss Edwards, who started me on Latin, but also gave me my love of German.

And yet. And yet. Miserable though it was and I was, school did make me the person I am, and for whatever is good about that, I am indeed grateful. It’s often said that the commonest and greatest phobia for many people, is the fear of public speaking. Well, my secondary school really worked hard at teaching us how to do that. Can you believe that, in the first year of secondary school, we had a timetabled lesson each week called Speech Training? Perhaps part of the agenda was to get all these North London kids speaking ‘properly’, using correct Received Pronunciation; but it was also a way of spotting and correcting genuine defects in speech. I wasn’t pronouncing my r’s: when they got me to read in house assembly, it came out like, “Pwaise the Lord with the sound of the twumpets.” And actually I’m glad they worked on me to try and change that. Though you can still hear it in my speech quite often, I’m at least glad I don’t sound as bad as Jonathan Ross. But see this video: is it really a speech defect, or is it simply becoming an alternative way of speaking?

Lots of the diaries from my school years (confession time: I still have most of those, too) record my pride but also my embarrassment about speaking in front of the class or the school. And of course I still have nerves about public speaking in unfamiliar settings. But it isn’t the huge terror many say it is: it has, after all, been my life.

Another thing for which I am forever grateful about my school years, is my faith. If I am a Christian, it’s down in large measure to the influence of school. In those days the law about a daily act of worship in schools was still actually observed. (There was none of this modern nonsense about teachers not wanting to lead an act of worship because they – or many of the children – don’t believe. Ritual doesn’t require belief: it requires performance. That is how faith is taught, communicated and nurtured. So probably the teachers’ reluctance to lead corporate worship is a fear that they themselves might ‘catch’ religion? Well, I couldn’t possibly comment.) It wasn’t designed to interest or entertain, like modern school religious assemblies are required to do. In fact I don’t recall anything like a comment or a homily. Assembly consisted of a hymn, a Bible reading, and a prayer read by the headmaster, often one of the BCP collects at Morning Prayer, but also sometimes prayers like the prayer of St Ignatius: Teach us, good Lord, to serve thee as thou deservest… It quietly, modestly, without fuss or perhaps even noticing, puts God there in the start of the school day.

And then there were the Christian teachers, who believed in what they believed, and wanted to share that Good Thing with the children. I was often blissfully unaware of it at the time, but even though I never went to the Christian Union (why would I?) there were other occasions. Like the day our form teacher invited some of us for tea and conversation about our ideas and what we believed. I didn’t realise at the time that there was a faith-sharing Agenda. As a teenager I was always bolshy about people trying to get me to believe as they believed. I was ‘C of E’, for God’s sake, like everyone else – what else did they want? Also a Protestant: I would believe as I chose to believe. It now seems extraordinary that the school even organised a group excursion to Earls Court in 1966, to hear Billy Graham speak during his London crusade. I especially resented his whole style of emotional manipulation and appeal, though it made a big impression on some of my friends… And yet here I am, where I am today. The Spirit works unpredictably, through all our life experiences.

So, yes, in ways that it and I probably never knew or imagined, school helped make me what I am. For sure, I can imagine ways in which it might have made me different. But that is fantasy. For what I am, it was certainly good for something.

(And, pace Pink Floyd, we do need yes education. The best of it is probably not conveyed by the Curriculum, the exams we study for, or the school system. But it may still, often, be somehow imparted by school in spite of itself.)