1968 was a big year in my life. I sat the 11 Plus. And failed. I can still see the bitter disappointment etched onto my mother’s face as she opened the letter.
I had been aware of her hatred of the local Secondary Modern for as long as I could remember. My shame was exacerbated by my best school friend at the time because she passed. Her mother was looking after me one day that summer and took us by bus to the local school outfitter so she could buy her uniform. I don’t think back then adults really considered the effect their actions and behaviour had on children.
This trip has been burned into my psyche ever since.
Mother tried to persuade me to go to the local private school; but early experiences in private schools made me determined I’d never set foot in one ever again. Only about 15% of students passed their 11 Plus; less still in villages like ours where there were fewer allocated places so the system was fundamentally flawed.
I enjoyed most of my secondary school days though. Some of the teachers seemed ancient (I think back then 40 seemed ‘old’) and many of the female teachers were already in their fifties and belonged to a bygone era. The times they were a’changing and the poor dears didn’t know what to make of the unrefined batch of girls I insisted on associating with. Our domestic science teacher, when we complained that making cakes with rock hard margarine was too much like hard work, told us we would have to get married and have children one day and therefore we must be able to cook.
Our retort that we’d buy cakes for our family or maybe not get married at all was met with horror. And more lines.
Needlework was not much better. I spent three years making a P.E. skirt that I’d outgrown by the time I’d finished it.. I couldn’t work a needle but I could knit. At home I knitted a lovely koala bear and painstakingly sewed it together. I tried to enter it for a school competition but she blocked it. ‘You didn’t make that!’ She refused to believe me and then wondered why I became rebellious and rude. She certainly got her own back on my school report. ‘Helen’s work is consistently spoilt by bad behaviour’ she wrote. Then underlined it in red. Three times. That was harsh. I wasn’t badly behaved until she destroyed my confidence and self worth.
The first time my parents argued openly in front of me about the way forward rather than closing ranks and fooling no-one was when I had to choose between the ‘Commercial Course’ or ‘O Level’ route. Mother favoured the commercial route, reasoning that I would probably be married by the time I was twenty and secretarial qualifications would be useful for part time work around family life. My father was more ambitious for me and secretly hoped that I’d one day attend university; despite only 5% of girls opting for this route in the 1970s. Eventually I did get there though.
But that came twenty four years later and sadly he died before I even toyed with the idea. More about that and post 14 school life next time!
Read first part here.
Go to Part 3 here.