Youth Review: 9-11

Now aged 9, the world was starting to look a little bigger. And I was taller as well. Now going into Year 5, I was one of the tallest, if not the tallest, children in my year group. This was good. Being tall had its benefits. It was around about now that I started to realise that some people are not as nice to me as others. There were no bullies in my school, but there were kids who should obviously be avoided because they were either getting into trouble a lot, or were just too obnoxious to me to bother with. So it was a great benefit to be taller than those who may have picked on me… it just carried an extra edge of strength.

In many ways, I was an easy target. By now I’d abandoned playing football altogether on the yard, and I hated PE and Games because… well, I was quite self-conscious and didn’t like the fact that we had to get changed into our PE kits inside the classroom with everyone else looking (although I’m sure they all felt the same way)… and I just wasn’t very good at it. Meanwhile, years 5 and 6 involved a new sport – swimming – which was something I wasn’t particularly good at. My parents used to take me to swimming lessons in the hope that I’d learn before the school went swimming, but I just couldn’t get the hang of it. I didn’t actually mind swimming that much, but the problem was, just like PE and Games, getting changed. And swimming was much worse for the fact that you obviously had to take off your underwear to put on swimming shorts. And then there was the daft swimming instructor who told us that swimming shorts were not allowed; she insisted that we wore swimming trunks. And trunks were very bad. I hated getting changed so much that I would put them on before I went to school and I would then often not take them off after swimming. Instead, I’d just put my trousers on over them, ensuring a wet arse for the whole rest of the day. I guess I left wet patches everywhere I went. But communal changing rooms are one thing for PE, but they are even worse for swimming.

So sport was not one of my favoured activities. There was one notable school day when I was told that the next day the boys of Years 5 and 6 were going to be playing a football game against another school the next day. Horrified by this prospect, I decided I simply had to stay off school the next day. My parents wouldn’t let me, so I chose to sleep underneath my bed in the hope that I wouldn’t be found and would stay off school anyway.

It’s weird the way your mind works when you’re 9 years old. I remember hatching my plan and deeming it to be utterly foolproof. Yet, just a few hours later I woke up and was sleeping in my own bed again. Only last year my mum told me that she’d panicked when I wasn’t there, but it obviously only took them minutes to find me under the bed and my dad managed to put me back into bed without waking me up. Upon waking I was in despair. I just couldn’t play football the next day. No way.

In the event, I didn’t. It baffled me for years the reason why suddenly my prayers were answered. Again, it was only last year that I remembered this event and when I asked my mum she told me that she had a very aggressive conversation with the Evil Headmaster who had promised me that I wouldn’t play. This was an amazing discovery to me. The things parents do for you, eh. Regardless, it was a massive relief to not play. I simply had a pathological hatred of this level of aggressive, contact sport. The tears did flow, and I didn’t care that I was crying in front of all the other boys at the time. I just wanted out. My headteacher used to shout “Don’t turn on the waterworks!”… which was obviously not a successful demand since the ominousness of his statement would only make me cry even more. Absolutely horrible times. When I look back on my school life, all the problems have almost always revolved around PE and Games.

It’s put me in a rather strange mood now I’m thinking about it. I still think my behaviour was totally justified… the teachers couldn’t force me to do anything, no matter how hard they tried. If I was going to change my opinion on this matter, I would have to do it myself. Needless to say, I have by now. I enjoy playing football now, but that’s probably because I’ve accepted how crap I am at it. It’s very difficult when you’re a child to get over these issues of suddenly realising you’re one of the worst players in something, and knowing there is no possible way of getting back to equality with the average. I was learning some of the first lessons of life – that sometimes you just can’t defy genetics – at a very early age. I don’t know for sure if this damaged my natural, childlike enthusiasm for trying new things, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it has.

I got into this point because I was talking about how I kind of made myself an easy target for the semi-bullies of the school. But as I said, I was never picked on. I still don’t really understand how, because it was also around about now that I became obsessed with The Big Breakfast on Channel 4. Other kids would get up in the morning to watch cartoons and The Power Rangers… but I would get up to watch The Big Breakfast, despite not really knowing what the hell they were talking about on the programme.

The problem was that I liked the programme so much that I would chronicle it endlessly. I would record it onto tape and work out at what time of the show each segment started. Then I would remake the boards which they used to display on the show which would show the phone numbers for the competitions, or the show’s address, or questions for the competitions, etc. I ended up with a whole folder full.

But then I took it further. Somehow I managed to convince a large number of other people in my year that we should spend vast swathes of our break and dinner time reenacting the show. I appointed camera men, sound men, a co-presenter, and lots of lackies who seemed to just stand around during the show. I’m sure there was also a Keith Chegwin. I can’t remember who it was, but I hope they don’t feel too insulted now. Like I said, this was surprisingly popular, and I must have wasted a couple of weeks of my school life doing this. At one embarassing point I managed to drop my “Big Breakfast” folder which contained all the material I would use to “make” the show. So there were paper teapots flying around everywhere and tonnes of paper which most people were reading and finding highly amusing. An embarrassing moment, but one I’d brought on myself. Still, it began to teach me the value of individualism – being myself… again, one of life’s lessons that I feel like I learned much earlier than others.

Once that project met its demise, but with the drudgery of schoolwork now getting quite intense, it was becoming more important that I had a good enough distraction at break times to help me get through the day. My new teacher, Miss Sullivan, was excellent… and, being around about the age where girls were starting to figure into my equations, Miss Sullivan, being a very young, blonde teacher, was mildly attractive. I was also told be several people that I had a couple of girlfriends during this era, but to be honest I can’t actually remember that. Questions such as “Are you a fridge?” – meaning: have you snogged a girl? – became prevalent amongst my peer group, and so it was becoming more and more dangerous to answer no. Regardless, I did, because I don’t believe I ever did… but like I said, rumours spread of me having a couple of girlfriends at the time. Maybe it’s just as well or it could have sealed my fate.

But I was still a mildly popular person, and things were about to improve drastically. I can’t remember where I got it from, but I somehow acquired a soft, small ball. In the last post I mentioned how I had started to like cricket, and this came to be my new favourite sport. It seemed perfect… there was competition, sure, but it wasn’t “in your face”… and it was quite a leisurely pace. Awesome. I got a cricket bat (and got smashed just below the eye with it) to further my interest… and me and my dad would go play cricket with a tennis ball in the entry/alleyway.

But back to the sponge ball… this gave me an idea. How about we play “cricket” on the school yard? It was simple. One person would bowl underarm at another person (the batter) who would be standing in front of a drainpipe. The batter had to hit the ball with his hand and run from the drainpipe to a pile of coats and bags a small distance away. Each crossing added one run to the team’s total. It was more like baseball, to be honest, but without the bat, and with only two bases. But we called it cricket. If the bowler hit the drainpipe with the ball while bowling, then the batsman would be out, like in cricket.

This simple game became the hit of the schoolyard. It started off just 6 people playing it – my friends – three on each side. But the popularity soon spread, and the girls ended up playing, and at one point even the Year 5 football game on the yard was cancelled so that all the football players could join in (or maybe it was because the girls were playing!). It ended up 12 a side at one point, maybe even more.

I was one of the few who enjoyed bowling, and I was rather good at it. It’s not that there was much to it, but I could outwit the batsman with great ease. The object for the batsman was obviously to hit it hard and hit it far, and better still, hit it high because it looks impressive. Of course, hitting it high is also a danger since you can be caught out, and with 10 or more fielders, you had to be cagey in where you hit the ball.

But we weren’t that clever. Most people would get a few lucky shots and then hit it direct to a fielder. But I realised that if I bowled the ball slightly lower and more into the body, there was an excellent chance the batsman was going to hit it only a short distance and straight up. Either that or it would get whacked far, but very high, giving plenty of time to catch it. This technique worked endlessly. I was the Bowling King!

A couple of people managed to get the better of me though, especially a handful who had come over from football. They were pretty strong, so they could whack the ball a very long distance. It was always galling when one particular kid, Daniel, came up to bat, and it was obviously a joy to watch if he was on your side. Somehow I was always opposing him, and so a rivalry began. Yet I could handle this rivalry. It was a friendly one, just played out in the game of “cricket” and not spilling over into the classroom. But I will never forget the time of my finest catch.

Daniel was laying waste to my team. He had worked out how to beat my bowling (just hit it so it hits the ground first and then goes a long way)… so I gave someone else a go and retired to the far field. He was also then clever by hitting the ball only a short distance where the fielders had moved away from in a hope of catching a very long hit. But eventually he couldn’t resist and gave one a good belt.

I spotted it was coming in my direction. It would be with me in about 3 seconds, and I made the decision I should chase after it. If I got this I would finally get him out and we would have a chance of winning. I ran.

I wasn’t going to make it. Yet it would be so marginal. There was no choice.

I jumped at a diagonal. The ball hit my hand. I’d overjumped it. How did I manage that? I thought I wasn’t going to make it. Well, I’d better close my hand.

It fell. But not enough.

I had managed to catch the edge of the ball with tip of my fingers. I’d done it.

Celebrations went up. I got the kudos for a fine catch, and we went on to win the game. Suddenly, sport was feeling a little more interesting to me.

Year 5 was one of ups and downs. I turned 10, and shortly after the school year ended. It felt like a huge milestone. I would soon, at last, be one of the big boys in school. I was also into double figures.

Shortly after there was another addition to the family – another sister. That made two brothers and two sisters for me. I was hoping for another brother, obviously, but I didn’t mind. So once again the house would be in turmoil. It was also now rather crowded. Seven people in a three bedroomed house. So my mum and dad started considering the options for moving out.

And Year 6 begun. We’re now into late 1995, and things were getting difficult at school again. Lots of homework, lots of schoolwork, lots of boring stuff about the war again and the local canals. But we did have an amusing teacher who would turn all her “ss” sounds into a long snake-like hiss. This provided much hilarity when the teacher once said the word “Bess” and put about 50 extra “s”s on the end of it.

There was also the question coming up about what school I was going to go to next year. I had always assumed I would go straight to the feeder school for my primary, but my parents had other ideas. They decided to put me in for the entrance exams for two private schools, one of which was all boys. I didn’t want to go to either of them. They seemed too up-themselves for my liking. But I did one of the exams very reluctantly, not wanting to do the exam for the all boys school at all, which my parents accepted.

So I spent a whole day (when I look back at this now I think it’s outrageous) answering maths, English and science questions. A whole day. It wasn’t one exam, it was a series of them, culminating in the dreaded “make up a story based on this sentence” exam at the end of the day. I couldn’t wait for it to be over, especially as I was sitting next to a girl who kept letting off the most enormous and annoying sighs I had ever heard every few minutes.

My parents gave me practice papers to do for this day of social engineering, but I refused point blank to prepare. I told them if I was good enough to pass then I would do so. I didn’t want to work to the exam like everyone else in the private primary school version of this secondary school were doing. I suspected I could beat them without help.

And I did. Maybe it was a bit of arrogance over how good I perceived myself to be at this level, but it didn’t seem to affect me. The exams were quite difficult, but I managed to answer almost every question and not only did I pass but I also managed to get high enough to get a scholarship. All without preparing. I would never have been able to go to the school without the scholarship anyway.

In the end I was resigned to going there. My parents told me it would be for the best… which it probably was. I don’t approve of selection for schools at age 11 (and I was still 7 months off being 11 at the time of the exam) and it makes me wonder what has happened to those who didn’t get in because I did. Better education for the many, not the few, seems such a simple concept, but it’s obviously quite difficult to achieve…

Anyway, resigned to leaving all my friends and heading off to pastures new, I sort of settled down again. That was, until the pressures of exams resturned. A few months later, things began to become obvious once more – there were school tests coming. Yep, those Key Stage tests were coming around again for another bash, and this time at Level 2. And this time we knew about it. Our teachers spent endless amounts of time preparing us with essays and practice papers, although there was no BBC Bitesize revision then to help us.

What makes these tests such a travesty is the fact that the teachers could walk around during our maths and science tests, look over your shoulder at what you’d written, and point to one of your answers and shake their head. Now that’s what I call “teaching to the exam” – i.e., they’re still teaching on the day of it. I have it on good authority from teacher friends of mine that this kind of thing is quite common. I don’t particularly blame teachers because of the pressure to achieve in league tables, but when it’s an open secret that these tests are something of a joke, it makes you wonder just how much longer this charade is going to carry on in our schools and when teachers can get back to teaching just for the sake and the love of their profession and the future generations. I have no doubt this “rigging” also happened to me at Key Stage 1, but I can’t remember it clearly.

So it was not much of a surprise when I came out with three level 5’s from my KS2 tests. It wasn’t much after that it was time to pack my bags, say my goodbyes and quit primary school for the last time. The leavers’ assembly was very sad, and then there was a Mass to follow, which was also quite a traumatic experience. I seem to remember us singing a really heart-wrenching song about saying goodbye and moving on, but I cannot remember the words. The memory of it is bringing back some tears as I type… but it was a nice sense of closure to a very important chapter of my life.

I left behind a lot of friends and teachers. It was a very difficult step to take… I had no clue about what was to come in my new school. Now 11 years old, I was also going to move house at the same time, to a bigger four-bedroomed house a mile away from my current location: ironically, closer to my primary school and further away from the school I would be going to. So not only did I have to deal with the trauma of leaving all my friends and some wonderful times behind, I also had to settle in to a new house.

In a way it was a useful dividing line. I started to feel more like a competent, rational individual… and I really wanted to be treated like a young man. I believe I was capable of dealing with most of what life could throw at me; I had quite an old head on my young shoulders. I was still a clever, optimistic kid, with a decent amount of common sense, and was a pretty good communicator. I had my quirks too, some of which I’ve mentioned in here, but they mostly worked in my favour. I wondered how my assessment of myself would change as I met a new band of peers in secondary school. Only time would tell.

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