At the weekend, I was talking to one of the mums from church about her son’s first day at big school, and it made me think of my first day. Me being me, I’ve remembered quite a lot about that day, so I thought I’d share some of it..
Big school was not that big. We actually went to a prep school for two years after primary school, meaning big school proper didn’t happen until we were 13- by which time it wouldn’t have been so scary. This was a big advantage, since it meant you were never the youngest in the school and were never treated as such. Plus, with my older brother having started the year before, I had a vague idea what to expect.
The day before was a non-uniform gentle introduction morning, though not everyone got the non-uniform memo, so it fell to Richard Moody to become ingrained in everyone’s conscience as the guy that turned up in uniform. I would figure that if that’s the only thing he got grief for, he’d be doing well. I met some of the boys who would be in my class, including Ian Bleakley, who, despite my insistence, was not related to my older brother’s friend Jonathan (but there remains the possibility of him being related to Christine, but he’d left school by the time Town Challenge started).
It was a good start, but I wasn’t really looking forward to starting properly. Any time I had some kind of sartorial mishap when I was younger, my mum would say “you’ll never get away from that in Cabin Hill” which only served to make me scared of the place. When my older brother started, I read the uniform regulations, which alone took up three sides of A4. I didn’t understand why there had to be a different blazer for winer and summer, or why it mattered that a belt couldn’t be brown or why juniors had to wear shorts, but I comforted myself knowing that the latter wasn’t my problem.
On the first day proper, having made a disaster of my tie (see pic) I will admit there was some shock at seeing kids get dropped off by their parents in Porsches and Bentleys, and the endless list of names on the noticeboards in the main corridor. These were where you noted “pluses” and “minuses” (rewards for doing well which went towards a cup given out to the houses at the end of term). You’ll also notice my older brother wearing his bag by one strap, where I am wearing mine by two: it was made known to me quite soon after starting that carrying your bag on two shoulders, for some reason, was a massive faux pas. This was a shame as it meant your inevitably heavy books broke the strap and you had to carry your bag on the wrong shoulder for the rest of the school year or until that strap broke (one of the first things I did when I came to uni was to buy a rucksack precisely to carry on both shoulders. It felt like a liberation).
The list of names brought many surprises, not least the boys with an inordinate number of initials (Sloan, DJML and Nurse, DGPCE come to mind) but also the appearance of a name next to Stothers, AJ: Stothers, PS (Paul). This was a bit of a surprise because I didn’t know there were people with my name that I wasn’t related to. I would sit beside him in the first few weeks as the teachers insisted we sit in alphabetical order, and I wanted to make friends with him, if only to bond over the “Strothers” situation, but unfortunately he didn’t seem to like me. In any case, he dropped out midway through the first term to go to another school.
Our teacher, Mrs Gildea (who was perennially late for registration), took the register. Baker, Barr, Bleakley, Bogan,…, Stothers AJ, Stothers PS, 25 boys in the class, none of them really knowing what to expect. We weren’t any the wiser when we got our timetables, noting with alarm two (non-consecutive) hours of maths on a Friday, and … Saturdays? The teacher broke the news we had to come in on Saturday mornings for Latin and French, to catch up with the boys who’d gone through prep school. This wasn’t so bad as I liked languages far better than the alternative (which was rugby, a sport I didn’t care to learn the rules for until I was 18) but I can see why the other boys weren’t so keen on the idea.
The lessons that day were mostly introductions (My name is Mr/Mrs/Miss blah blah, no talking in class, refer to male teachers as “Sir”, refer to female teachers as Miss or Mrs so-and-so, your homework book is different from your notes book etc etc). Some of the teachers were scary, some were nice. Mr Farr (History) had a reputation for taking no prisoners, Mrs Rowan (English) was nice but firm, and Mr Paton (Geography) was… not to be seen until the next day as I mixed up my timetable and went to Technology a period early, meaning I missed that class, causing me much distress. Still, he was gracious enough about it.
In the afternoon, we had our first PE lesson, which involved rugby and lots of running about- probably my two least favourite things at that time. What I’ll remember from that is being told to break up into groups of 3 to practice rugby passing. Unfortunately there were 25 of us in the class (8 x 3 +1, you see, that double maths on Fridays really helped…). I wanted to go with Ben and Gary, the two boys who’d come up from Primary school, but they went with Paul Stothers instead. Struggling for assertiveness, and being told in no uncertain terms “He said groups of 3!”, I ended up being the odd man out, being given an odd look by Mr Styles (to this day the only Crystal Palace fan I’ve ever met), which I could not tell was scorn or pity. He didn’t say anything to me, but again he would always show a great deal of grace in his reports, acknowledging that I had physical limitations and was probably undone by shyness and peer pressure when it came to physical activity rather than laziness (whether he was right is another question).
After getting changed and having the mandatory freezing shower, the day finished on the right tone as I missed the first bus home by a whisker. But I got home eventually and things settled down thereafter.
Two years later, I started the big school proper by rolling my ankle on my way in and getting told off for saying “yep” instead of “yes”. Plus ça change…