Last day at school
“17” is a production currently at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, which focuses on the last day at school for a group of seventeen year olds. The dramatic twist is provided by the fact that the teenagers are played by actors in their 60s and 70s: the words of those embarking on life spoken by those nearer to leaving it. It caused me to reflect, some 47 years later, on my own last day at school.
Late May 1970. This is my last day at school. There’s no fanfare, no Senior Proms or leavers’ ceremonies. As far as the school is concerned, as long as we’ve returned all our books, we ceased to be pupils when we walked out of our final exam last week.
It’s in keeping with the curiously and emotionally barren approach to education at the time. We expect nothing else.
We are called by our surnames, we are “lazy” if we make poor progress, we are “encouraged to learn” by daily use of corporal punishment, and we are there to pass the exams which will turn our predominantly working class cohort into university qualified members of the middle class.
It is what our parents want, and, because we know no better, it is, mostly, what we want.
As “grammar school pupils” we are told regularly that we comprise “the top 2% of the population” but no thought is ever given to building our personal self confidence. Indeed, individuality or celebration of success – other than for “the school” – is actively discouraged.
In my final year, through some kind of kink in the 60s inspired, minimal “democracy” that’s crept into the place, a head boy is elected who is something of a rebel.
On our grand “Speech Day” at Liverpool’s illustrious Philharmonic Hall, where we sing “Jerusalem” and “Drake’s Drum”, there is the undignified spectacle of the headteacher shepherding the honoured guest through a maze of backstage passages, like a scene out of a Marx Brothers’ film, to ensure there will be no meeting between rebellious Head Boy and Establishment’s Honoured Guest.
I’ve been part of this school, primary and secondary, for ten years. Most days I have been frightened – by the threat of the belt, by the unpredictable sarcasm of some of the teachers, by the spectre of failure, by the subjects I don’t understand and with which I receive minimal help.
But, and here’s the rub, I love this place. I enjoy school, I’m proud to be a pupil, love captaining the cricket and cross country teams, I’m going to miss it all – the comfort of companionship, the solace of routine, the good teachers – the ones I got on with, who appeared to see me as an individual.
I’ve called in to see them, to thank them – much to their surprise I suspect. Out of my group of friends there might only be two or three of us who feel like this – the others detest the place.
Phone calls have been made and perhaps a dozen of us have agreed to be in school this morning, and we bump into each other as we tour the corridors for the last time, passing the locations of highs and lows, the daft and the portentous, the wayposts through an education which would lead us mostly to university, and to degrees and careers which would give us the comfortable lives which met our parents’ aspirations for us.
We don’t know what to do, and neither do the school. There are no formal goodbyes or emotional hugs, no invitations to visit again in the future, just a kind of silence of embarrassment.
I walk past the classrooms in which I have spent my teenage years, the same voices teaching the same lessons, half afraid a door will open and I’ll be punished for being somewhere I have no right to be.
When I next pass along these corridors, some thirty years later, I wilI feel I might meet my teenage self round every corner. The familiar scratch on the locker that had been mine, the pervasive smell of floor polish, the way the light falls on a certain staircase, the echo of my feet on a stone floor – they will all seem near to me and resonant. But on the day I leave school I am far too close to it all to have such feelings.
I can have no idea that my ten years here will remain so large in my memory, so vivid in my thoughts.
In May 1970, I know nothing but this time and place – and I have no clear idea of where I am going.
This is true factually, as I have to wait for exam results to see if I will be going to Edinburgh University, but it is also true in a far wider sense.
There has been no preparation at all for the next stage in our lives, other than an expectation that we will “go to university” For all the post facto media view of the sixties, most of us are compliant, and never question this.
Our music and our politics is radical, but our schooling is repressive and conservative. When our inspirational English teacher, Ernie Spencer, tells us we can bring in “LPs” so we can discuss the lyrics in poetry classes, it is seen as apocalyptically progressive by some staff.
I have applied to Edinburgh to read English because I want to return to my birthplace. I have chosen to read English because, latterly, Ernie has introduced me to the idea that literature can be inspiring. I know nothing about the course or, indeed, what university education entails. When I told our peripatetic “careers teacher” of my ambition to go to Edinburgh, she snorted with derision and left it at that.
We are mostly first generation university applicants so our parents know as little as we do.
So the future is somewhat blank and I think the overwhelming sensation this May morning is one of tiredness. I have done a minimum of two hours homework, five nights a week, for ten years. I have coped with the emotional stress of a fairly inhumane regime and the personal pressure not to let down my family.
In addition, I have sung in the choir, played the cello, and represented the school at cricket and cross country most weekends.
School has taken up 70% of my waking hours.
I have run my entire academic race for other people and their expectations – and now I am shattered. Too tired, certainly, to look beyond the long summer holidays – at my ambitions and hopes for the future.
It seems a pity, rather a diminishment of the proper aims of an education.
My school has failed to give me a sense of who I am or what I can accomplish. It has highlighted our failings without praising our abilities. It is the way of the times, but even in our ignorance we are somehow aware of this.
Yes, we have had the best of this type of Education; we will make it to universities, gain our degrees and step on to the rungs of the professional ladder -but it will take us much longer to know who we are and what we are worth.
Gradually we drift to the area in front of the school outside of the Headteacher’s office. He must see us there, but there is no response. He must know a dozen of his senior pupils are gathering in school for the last time, but he fails to make any gesture of recognition.
We look at each other and then, quite bizarrely, we begin to sing the current England World Cup song. ” Back home- they’ll be thinking about us when we are far away…”.
We are not rowdy, we sing in tune and quite solemnly. It’s nothing to do with football – I don’t even support England, it’s an attempt to fill a vacuum – in a faux amused, half defiant, manner.
It’s carried out with typical teenage brio and swagger, but, as I will later reflect, it’s a very sad way to end your schooldays. It’s like an abused child telling desperate jokes in an attempt to show their bravery and make their abuser smile.
Then we go our separate ways, still unacknowledged.
I will go on to be a teacher and eventually a Depute Head. I’ll commit my career to guidance and pupil support. My consistent theme over nearly forty years will be that each child is precious and unique and deserves the best possible chance in life. I will not be embarrassed to tell the pupils that to their faces, and I will foster relationships with their families.
I will love my job and the pupils I teach. I will have similar affection for the colleagues I lead.
It seems my school taught me this by omission. In my own teaching, I will try to supply all that was missing in my own education.
Our school taught us how to succeed academically, but not who we were. The idea that learning could be joyful and empowering was completely absent. They gave us examination passes and emotional failures. Our sense of self, for the most part, was ignored.
Still, I have to thank it for my academic success and the road upon which it set me – to a fulfilling career and a happy life.
That’s why, despite all I have written, I still look back with great fondness on my schooldays, the friends I made, the sports I learned to play, and the knowledge with which I was imbued. My love of school clearly led to my ambition to become a teacher.
But when I think of those gangly youths boldly singing an irrelevant song – because they had not been taught, or offered, any better means of leaving school, I really do wonder at those who promote the grammar school system.
Yes it can be successful in its way for a minority — but what of all the others? Why should the few be pushed to success at the expense of the many left behind?
And who will support those whose exam results have been achieved at the cost of their own emotional intelligence – qualified for external success, whilst prone to internal failure?
Thomas Paine suggested those who believe in a cruel God make a cruel world.
You could say the same for an education system.