Through a Class Darkly.
The digital world took a long time to enter my personal world. I opened a Hotmail account in 2006, set up on LinkedIn by 2014 and started with Facebook sometime in 2015. Twitter and Instagram get a token nod but see limited activity and I am way too long in the tooth to be trying to get myself involved on Snapchat or TikTok.
As someone who has changed countries almost as often as underwear the decision to get involved with Facebook was driven by the dead people my mother kept telling me about. At the start of every phone call back home she would regale me with the update on the most recently deceased citizen of the small Highland village that I grew up in. Sometimes the place sounds more dangerous than Midsomer. These conversations always followed the same arc:
Mum. ‘Jack has died it was his funeral on Tuesday. He’d been sick with (insert illness here) for ages and had really gone downhill the last time I saw him.’
Me. ‘Don’t think I know him. I have been gone a long time you know.’
Mum. ‘Ah you do. His daughter was in the same class as our Helen and I worked with his wife for a couple of years at the bottled porridge factory.’
Me. No! Ringing no bells. Don’t remember him at all.
Mum. You must remember him. He did that song at Sharon’s wedding and then had to be poured home in a taxi.
Me. Nope. No idea. I wasn’t even at Sharon’s wedding. I was living in Seattle at the time. Remember hearing about it though.
And so on for another few rounds. . .
Also Me. ‘Is there any news about the few remaining survivors alive in Aviemore today?’
Following the umpteenth reprisal of this I decided that I should probably do something to keep in touch with the friends I had made over the years and be a bit more up to date with what was going on in the lives of the various people that meant something to me. Like an awful lot of men, I was utterly useless at sending letters, cards or even text messages to my friends. ‘Out of sight out of mind’ could have been tattooed on both arms. Birthdays and anniversaries went unmarked and major life events were missed. Not through malice just everyday bland negligence. So, I started a Facebook account and surrendered to the algorithm. I got prompts about birthdays. People posted about anniversaries and births and big nights out and every damn thing. Overnight I was a guy with his finger on the pulse. I offered congratulations and commiserations and didn’t miss a thing. I still had no idea who the dead people were, because my mother would often assume that the people she knew, were the same as the people I knew but apart from that it all seemed great.
One thing that started happening is that I began to re-connect with a fair few classmates from my schooldays and, as this network grew, I slowly started learning about how a large group of people in the same place at the same time can have very different experiences and views of that place. Sometimes there would be news about a teacher and the comments would be full of replies saying how great he or she had been, how helpful or how interesting their lessons had been. This bemused me as I often couldn’t connect the saintly Mr. Chips being described to the abusive incompetent of my memory. I hated school. I hated it from a young age until the day I left. I considered the majority of the teachers I met to be lazy, poor on their subjects, poor at communication and shit hot on enjoying the power they had over children. From my position the rosy nostalgia was impossible to comprehend and I began to question my memories, to look back not only through FB posts but also through old school reports and notebooks, as kept by my mum. Over time I started reaching out to other contemporaries. Those who were less feted as pupils or less popular in the playground. It didn’t take long for a picture to form. On the one hand people who had no hassles, who mostly remember their schooldays as enjoyable. Over on the other hand though we have a rag tag group of misfits. People who now would be recognised as having learning difficulties or who had serious problems at home or who were perhaps just young and socially awkward. The latter group, unsurprisingly, don’t do reunions. They don’t tend to praise their old teachers on social media and they certainly don’t remember the school ones as being ‘the best years of their lives.’
My school reports were a hoot to read as an adult. From the age of four until seventeen my parents were sent a sheet of paper which repeatedly stated that; ‘Neil has ability but could do better.’ At no point did any report say that the teacher had done a pretty mediocre job of generating enthusiasm or passing on knowledge about a subject. ‘Could do better’ should be banned as a report phrase. Apart from being a supreme cliché there is no-one better placed than the teacher to bring about the desired change. The parents may or may not care. They may or may not have the skills to do something about it and they may be working two jobs to try to pay the rent and make ends meet. Driving instructors can’t get away with passing the buck like that. If a student struggles to learn to drive it’s the instructor’s job to find a way to get through.
Discipline was enforced through the medium of physical assault. The belt or the Tawse as it was known was a two-foot-long leather strap with extra slots cut along it in order to increase the level of pain inflicted. Pupils got the belt for many reasons but I suspect that the main one was that a teacher was just having a bad day. Sometimes kids got away with murder and sometimes the belt was trotted out for pretty minor transgressions. This lack of consistency made it useless as a moderator of behaviour. If nobody knows where the line is then it will be crossed regularly. The other reason it didn’t work to maintain class discipline is that almost no-one was affected by it. The mad wee hard cases were proud of getting the belt. They didn’t care. The more swelling the greater the plaudits from their peers in the playground psychopath society. The timid mice were never going to do anything that would make the belt something they had to face. The well-connected offspring of high-ranking local professionals were never at risk of the belt because the teachers socialised with their families and no one needed the awkwardness. That left a tiny number of kids who were prepared to modify their behaviour in order to avoid corporal punishment.
Our high school headmaster, whom I will call Mr. Bland, was in my biased opinion, a self-righteous, religious blowhard with a sideline in patronising condescension. Robert Burns described him well in the poem ‘Holy Willie’s prayer’. He, uniquely, had a very high opinion of himself but was quietly known to some staff and pupils as being a bit too quick with his hands. One boy, who had a frankly horrific, family and life history was sent to the headmaster’s office for refusing to take the belt. He had been wrongly identified as the cause of disruption and he was damned if he was getting belted for something he didn’t do. In Mr. Bland’s office he continued to not hold out his hands to be strapped. In response, Mr. Bland, the headmaster, a trained professional, pushed the boy to the floor, knelt on his chest and slapped him repeatedly across the face before shooing him out of the office. I heard of this, thirty years after the fact, directly from the victim but when I mentioned it to some family friends afterwards, I was astonished that they already knew that it was no isolated incident. Lots of adults knew because the school secretary and her assistant heard it all from the office next door and word gets around a small village pretty quickly. Nowadays he would be arrested and charged but the biggest sanction back then was a mild ostracism that limited his social life locally.
The last time I saw him was when I needed him to sign a form before entering teacher training college in Glasgow. He lectured me for twenty minutes about how it might be too hard for me and I should perhaps have a think about something less demanding than teaching. Having been away from school for five years though I was in no mood to listen to his pish and we ended up, not for the first time, parting less than amicably and me with the signed form in my pocket. Nobody on FB said much when he retired and I have no idea if he is still alive or just got returned to the wild.
So, thanks to my mother and her stories of dead people I embraced Facebook. Thanks to Facebook and the people I (re-) connected with, I came to understand that there aren’t just multiple points of view. There are multiple realities and they are equally valid. Those who hated school weren’t all just thickos with no hope, nor were they all misunderstood geniuses. The people who remember the time well, do so because it genuinely was a good time for them and they also, cover a wide spectrum of academic ability. Some will enjoy reunions; some will avoid them and some will hover between the two camps; fearful but interested.
The experience makes its own truth.
I will finish this by saying two things. One is that schools are significantly better at looking after children now than they were in the eighties. Corporal punishment, or beating children as it should be called, has been banned in all but the most expensive halls of private education and the duty of care owed to kids has been much better accepted by schools. Better isn’t perfect but perfect should never get in the way of better.
The second thing is that I would like to record my thanks to an English teacher by the name of Trevor Morris. He ran the high school bookshop for no personal reward and I was easily his best customer. He taught me near the end of my school life, for only a single term and it was a revelation. As a teacher he wanted us to enjoy, appreciate and understand the English language, not just remember the approved talking points for the exam. There aren’t enough like him.
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