Year 9 of school approached. The summer went by as they always do – very quickly – and sooner or later the dreaded “Back to School” promotions go up in shops around the country, filling school children everywhere with a sense of foreboding. It wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t go up immediately after the school term ends in July, but because they do it somehow makes the holidays feel shorter.
After the usual endless trips to shops getting school uniforms that are often too big so that you can “grow into them”, it was time to get the show on the road. I knew the classes were going to get mixed up for Year 9, so I was a little concerned that I was going to end up in classes with some of the people from my year who I wasn’t particularly keen on. On the other hand, it would get rid of some of those in my current class who I didn’t like.
There was also the chance I would be in a different form “name”. First year I was in 1C, then 2C the year after. Surely I wouldn’t be in 3C when there were three other classes it could have been?
Alas, it did turn into 3C. But the mix of people was largely to my benefit. Unfortunately I was split apart from my friends in my class, but in came some people who I had got to know from other classes, and several annoying people were dumped. My new form teacher was another Irishman… but he wasn’t quite as friendly as the last one. He would often stand at the top of the stairs which led to the Year 9 corridor and shout things like “Shirt!” to people who hadn’t tucked their shirt in. Yes, it was Year 9, and suddenly people tend to get a little rebellious in their own special way.
I detested the whole of this year though for the simple fact that I knew what I wanted to do. I was ready to make my GCSE selections now, but I would have to wait another tedious year doing terrible lessons like Art, with an utterly miserable teacher who I just couldn’t wait to see the back of. The usual drawings of “view from a window” were set for homework, and it was very tempting to draw the view from the window which simply looks at the shed wall. That would have been very easy, but chances are it would have got me a detention.
Another excellent reason to hate Year 9 was provided in the fact that the poncey private school I was in decided it would be a good idea if everyone did Latin for one year. This lesson was taken with yet another Irish teacher, and as far as I’m aware were based on a book that apparently many other Latin students use at this leve, detailing the trials and tribulations of a man named Caecilius. “Canus est in via dormit” is possibly the only phrase I remember from Latin. The boredom level was exceptionally high, and the disruption in the class was at rather unimaginable levels for a school like this. I recall the Irish teacher shouting at the same people all the time in exactly the same way. At this age what you need as a kid is inspiration from your teachers to keep the morale going into GCSEs. Instead we learned very little and enjoyed it even less.
There was one other choice we could make, and that involved taking a second language. Having already had more than enough of Spanish, I didn’t want to do French or German, for fear it would only confuse me. So there was another option, to do a City & Guilds course in IT. This option was generally on the table for the thickies who were failing languages miserably so they didn’t have to suffer any more punishment. So the teachers resisted my choice of IT considerably. It was not really an easy choice, since it would mean going back to do IT with the moronic teacher who “taught” me in Year 7. But I had enough to cope with with Spanish. Things had started so well in that subject, but they were now becoming rather challenging.
So Year 9 got underway. There was the usual shuffle of teachers as well, which made some subjects more interesting and others more boring. It’s hard to imagine the scale on which this must have influenced the choices I would eventually make for GCSE at the end of the academic year because the effects mostly go under the radar. But when I look back the subjects I picked were either because the teacher was good or because the course was genuinely interesting. For example, I had enjoyed History, and the teacher was very good in Year 9, but the course itself was deathly boring, and seemed much harder than others. Then there was Music, which I was starting to take a keen interest in, but the fact that I had endless bad teacher after bad teacher meant that I just didn’t get excited about the subject. If I had done GCSE Music, I’m sure I would have done A-Level, and I might have even started learning the guitar earlier. I then couldn’t be so sure that I wouldn’t have done a degree in it… which would have totally changed my life as I am now. Intriguing…
But everyone knows school isn’t for the teaching. It’s for the socialising. Well, that was the theory. I was quite a fussy person in terms of who I “fancied” in school. In fact, I was so restrictive that by the end of the year, while all around were engaging in fake relationships, I had not taken part in any. I struggled with the notion that I should try to remain individual and not fall into the usual teenage traps of going out with someone just to prove that I wasn’t gay (since “gay” was still a common insult at the age of 13). At the same time, however, the hormones were starting to flow, so it was tempting regardless of peer pressure.
The same hormones were also responsible for the usual effects of adolescence. I don’t actually remember specifically when my voice broke, but I am sure it happened during Year 9. All around me others were cracking into falsetto, and there were several whose voices were stuck permanently in it, making them the target of much ridicule. Meanwhile, I didn’t seem to notice any difference. Just one day I noticed that my voice was lower, and yet it had been for ages. I find it very annoying that I can’t actually remember it changing… as it’s not really something that suddenly happens. I can’t believe I never noticed my voice going through the transition like everyone else’s did.
In the same way I suddenly noticed that I was quite tall again. Hmmm. There must have been something distracting me during this time for me to never notice at all that I had grown about 10cm in a year. Suddenly I was taller than all my friends and wasn’t too far behind the tallest boys. This came at a good time, as I had begun to make weird calculations that, maybe, given how tall I was in primary school, I had already had a growth spurt. But it was OK. 1.6m became 1.7m… and I hoped there was much more to go.
Into 1999 I went, which was a very tantalising year, numerically. Now exceptionally close to seeing that incredible calendar shift, I was really looking forward to witnessing a moment in history. Maybe it was the impressionism of youth, but it just seemed like a whole new world was waiting to follow the new century. “2000” just looked new and fresh compared to “1999”. The modern world at long last, and it would be something to tell the grandchildren. There were sure to be big parties as well, which are always game for a laugh.
The usual exams occurred in December 1998, and the results came through at the start of January. Another good performance was recorded, and I wasn’t entirely sure how things would go this year with the new class. I’d guessed that the average intelligence had actually gone down… in which case I should move up the class. I did. By 1. 3rd in the class. I was starting to get the message that I could handle school pretty well academically. People would always tell me how intelligent I was… but it was pretty embarrassing. I didn’t like hearing it because I wouldn’t know what to say next. As an inarticulate teenager it’s quite hard to find modest phrases, so I would mostly look to the floor and shuffle around. I didn’t need to be told it. I just wanted to get on with things because I didn’t want to make other people look stupid.
So I tried to be unassuming. Teachers ask questions in class all the time, and I imagine most people know the answers but just won’t put their hand up. But someone would eventually, and in the end it would work out fine. But I mostly knew the answers, and it was best not to say anything. This wasn’t helping build my confidence up, though. It’s important to be able to engage the teacher in a dialogue, especially in subjects like English where there are discussions about character’s opinions to be had, for example. And while other people could do that, I would often have an opinion but just didn’t want to say it.
This was becoming the way in politics as well. At the time there were troubles in Serbia, with NATO bombing the hell out of the place. I didn’t know all the history, but the bombing scared me. I thought about elaborate plans which might eventually see this descend into World War 3, given the opposition of the Russians to the campaign. I could feel solid political opinions beginning to form in my head, but as before I couldn’t quite articulate them yet. I didn’t know much about the event, but the inevitable loss of civilian life – such as the graphic moment when a bomb with a camera attached films a train coming into view just seconds before it hits the bridge the train started to cross – made me question accepted wisdom. Was this really the right thing to do? Questions of morality entered my brain… followed by the politics. I can’t really pinpoint any moment that politics really became truly fascinating to me, as the seeds had already been sown years before… but the cumulative effect was there, and this was just another event that pushed me towards a permanent interest in politics…
So while everyone else was far more interested in the normal channels of teenage life, I had set down a terminal path of something far more sensible. It made me feel a little bit superior, as I knew this was an important part of life that it can take some time for a young person to appreciate. And yet I was beginning to get it, much before everyone else. I could think for myself, while everyone else was being instructed what to do by the media and other fatuous institutions. Maybe that wasn’t quite true, but it was a genuine belief at the time.
This interest was further heightened by the fact that someone new had joined my year… someone else who was very interested in politics, but looking at problems from the opposite end of the political spectrum. Suddenly I had a political enemy, one who it was easy to dismiss as “Tory Boy” because the insult carried such weight. Of course, it was not a good argument, however… so it made me think about politics even more.
This new penchant for independent thinking really started to suit me well. I started to snap out of the groupthink of teenagers and rediscovered my lost individualism. This was a crucial starting point to being able to build some confidence, at long last. But that was still some way off. One thing at a time. I really started to feel like an emerging individual being. I took a dislike to anyone calling me “boy”… I was nearly 14, but I thought the tag was too babyish for me. Of course I wasn’t a man either. So who was I? It seems bizarre that we spend all our life assigning ourselves to groups, but it cannot be helped. It seems to be part of the human psyche to want to belong to a group, no matter how small or large.
One of my teachers supplied the answer to this newly emerging question of identity. I was beginning to reassign my identity, and the word “boy” was not part of it. So the solution? “Young man”. That seemed to work nicely. My biology teacher used to call everyone that, regardless of how old they were. He would like to tell us how he was going to treat us all with respect and as maturing adults. No surprise then that he was most people’s favourite teacher. I’ve said this before… but kids really can handle a lot more than people think. A teacher, or any adult, who respects a young person as an individual with conscious and diligent thought processes, perhaps sometimes expressed irrationally (but that is something the adult can help with, as long as they don’t patronise the young person), will get a lot of respect back. And this teacher called all the boys “young men” and the girls “young ladies”. That seemed to work.
So I thought of myself as a young man. I felt I had changed somewhat during the year within myself. Year 9 seemed to be the time of figuring out where I was in the world. I knew it was a big planet, but maybe I had a small role to play somewhere. The question was how to get there. School seemed to be as good a place as any to work this out. I made some new friends because of the group changes, which definitely helped me a few people came into the class who I wanted to be friends with but they were in other classes in previous years. So now my friendship circle had a different twist to it. I was quite happy with that.
Meanwhile, PE and Games were getting a little better. We tried some new sports, meaning we didn’t have to do bloody rugby every week. Hockey and baseball were fun new things to try out, and the changing room antics had begun to become a little bit more restrained as more and more people realised it wasn’t a good idea to draw attention to people’s differences, since it would only be noted very quickly that the original insulter did not exactly have a God-like body either. That aspect of school became easier, at long last… which was an important prerequisite before I could start to feel confident again.
The school year was soon coming to an end, which meant it was decision time for GCSEs. I celebrated the final Art lesson with immense glee, as the moment had eventually arrived which I had been hoping for since I first arrived at the school. Evil Art was gone forever… and into the dustbin of history also followed History, IT, Classics (and Latin, woo!) and even PE. The timetable was too tight for it, so I would only have Games in Year 10. Along with that I chose to do the sciences separately, rather than dual-award, and then added to that Geography and Business Studies. I liked the sound of Business Studies, as it was something different, but I didn’t really know what I was letting myself in for. But that was the extent of my “choice” as the rest of them were made up with core subjects. English, Maths, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Spanish, RE (was compulsory), Geography and Business Studies was the full line up, with English splitting into Language and Literature for the final exams.
Yet I didn’t know where any of this was taking me. They just seemed like good choices for me at the time. I was trusting my intuition to take me in the direction I wanted to. But as I commented at the start of this, maybe that wasn’t such a good idea given that I closed off the option of music, something which I now wish I had at least done, given how much I’m interested in that. At that age, though, there’s no real way of knowing how much impact these decisions were going to make, especially as the teachers would always play down their significance.
Either way, I was glad to see the back of the final “wasted” year. I had one more tedious set of pointless exams to go through, and then next year I would be able to settle down into doing the subjects I (sort of) wanted to do, combined with a feeling I was actually working towards something. Achievement was now actually going to count for something, which could only help with motivation.
The cap was finally put on a good year when I got my exam results back. After my steady rise from 5, 5, 4, 4, 3… in class positions, I finally managed to secure a hallowed 1st in the class. And this was the last time class positions would be worked out. It felt good to “retire” as champion!
My 14th birthday arrived. 14 felt much older than 13 somehow. I’ve already talked about how many changes I felt happened in this year. And I felt I was a young man. But there was still a long way to go, and much was going to keep changing in the final two years for GCSEs. It was also going to keep getting harder. Worse was the fact that having secured 1st in my class, the expectations from teachers were now exceptionally high. I wondered if I could cope with them…