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From caterpillar to headteacher: episode four secondary modern and an introduction to the belt!

I arrived at Western Boys Secondary Modern School with low aspirations and lower self-esteem, as far as school was concerned. I had failed my 11+ exam in primary school and here I was in a school full of the system's failures. Western Boys was attached to Western Girls, and Western Infants, but all were separate and there would certainly be no mixing of secondary boys and secondary girls. We wouldn't be able to deal with that distraction. What we needed was discipline, especially now National Service was no more, and plenty of it. The system had decided we were going to be the mine workers, shipyard workers, factory workers and labourers of the future and we would be prepared accordingly. The boys and girls who had gone off to the Grammar School or the Technical School could obviously cope with being mixed together, after all they were going to be the managers, the senior civil servants, the academics and the business owners of the future and already knew how to behave. They had a lot of self-discipline and when they forgot this or lost it, they were reminded through extra learning opportunities and support. We, on the other hand, would have it beaten into us! The awful thing was that this scenario was accepted by all. Parents, pupils, and most teachers didn't know any better, and so it was I came face to face with corporal punishment and the low expectations of my teachers, who seemed tasked more with breaking our spirits and stopping us from having any independent thoughts. We were to be the factory-fodder of the system. This is how it felt to me from day one, there was going to be no way this system and I were going to be comfortable bedfellows. If I had been disruptive before,well now I was about to take this to a whole new level,  and would revel in doing this, until I found another way to channel my energies.

I can vaguely remember my first day. I remember being nervous, not excited. Wallsend was a tough place even then, and there were some very tough boys in the school. They smoked, they had tattoos, they had been in trouble with the police and they had reputations. How much of their reputations were exaggerated I didn't  know, but I did know I wanted to keep on their good side. We had all heard the stories of what happened to new first years and, true or not, I didn't want any of those rather unpleasant things to happen to me. I was small for my age and this could make me an easy target for some. My strategy was to head to the roughest toughest boy, and his gang, and try and make him laugh and dismiss me as just a little pain in the backside and no threat to his standing at all. It worked. I survived and didn't think too much about the hard time given to others less fortunate in the playground. It was very 'Lord of The Flies' in that playground. There were adults around but they seemed to do little to tackle the bullies and protect the weak. Some of the boys had a lot worse experiences than I did and, even then, I could see they were damaged by it.

The first difference to primary was brought home when the bell was rung for the start of that first day. All classes lined up in crocodile fashion, from the oldest to the youngest, which was us. The Headmaster came out with his deputy, followed the class teachers. The Headmaster actually wore a university gown and I had never seen anyone like him before. The teachers went to the head of their respective classes and the Head and his deputy stood on the steps, by the door we would enter through. There were no words of welcome, we were told to follow the other classes into school and our teacher would show us where to go. The oldest class filed in, in silence, first as the Head and his deputy stood either side of the entrance. They then proceeded to inspect the shoes and hands of the boys as they entered. It turned out that if you had dirty hands or dirty shoes you were in trouble and had to wait to one side of the door. I was already spitting on my hands and rubbing my shoes on the back of my trouser leg as I watched. The Headmaster was a small man with glasses, he looked very serious and very studious. His deputy was bald, had glasses and just had a demeanour that said 'mess with me at your peril, boy.' Both were scary and there was no way I or anyone else wanted to get on their wrong side on the first day. For me, that would come later. I don't remember anyone being belted on the first day for dirty shoes or hands, but that was what certainly happened during the rest of my school career. If you entered school dirty you were told to stand to one side and either the Head or his deputy would administer the requisite corporal punishment, two belts one on each hand. Not the most positive start to the day for many, and all of us recognised that it was often the same boys, from the same families, that suffered each morning. I fell foul of this draconian inspection regime a few times. It is amazing what mess you could get in on the way to school, no matter how clean you were when you left home. I noticed the belting was harder and hurt more when administered by the Head than by his deputy who's heart just wasn't in it. He turned out to be one of the best teachers at the school, and I like to think he could see even then in the early 1960s that what he was doing was wrong. He actually went on to be a Head himself in another school and ended up giving me a reference to get into Teacher Training College some nine years later. But, we are getting ahead of ourselves.

My first form teacher was to be Mr Sanderson (name changed) and our class was to be in an annexe in the playground. He was about six foot, probably in his fifties and had a definitely military bearing. I believe he had been in the forces during the Second World War and had entered teaching when he left the service. I don't know what training he had to equip him as a teacher, if any, but he always struck me as someone not particularly happy with his lot, later I thought that he probably wanted to teach in a Grammar  School and was a bit disappointed he'd ended up in a boys secondary modern. He ruled his classes through fear. He liked belting unruly boys or those who struggled to learn, which just about meant us all. Each Monday morning started with a tables test and a spelling test. Three mistakes in either and you were belted. I knew my tables, but struggled with spelling so I regularly started my week by being belted. If the inspection didn't get me the spelling probably would. If you spoke out of turn or made too much noise, you got belted. I think he must have been classics trained because he used to enjoy using the Roman punishment of decimation. If someone had made a noise behind his back or something had happened and he wasn't sure who it was, he would start randomly somewhere in the class and belt every tenth boy! Some of us were belted several times a day by the lovely Mr Sanderson or some of the other teachers who were equally severe, as they fought to bring us in to line. I hated this and reacted by becoming the class clown and a bit of an anarchist who sought to stir my classmates up and to kick back at this repressive system. So for teachers like Sanderson, I became a right pain. I was belted more than others but grew immune to it, almost welcoming it at times. Once or twice I moved my hand just as the belt was about to land resulting in a few teachers hitting themselves painfully on the leg. This always got a laugh from my classmates and always annoyed the teachers, leading to an even harder belting. It never stopped me from acting up though and I was sent quite a few times to see  the Head by exasperated teaching staff, all men by the way. He started by belting me again, then he tried to reason with me and tried to understand my behaviour. But I never gave him any answers, as I was not really sure at the time why I was behaving like I did. All I knew was I wasn't happy and I didn't like the school or a lot of the teachers. There was actually a black book, which I presume was a discipline book, where the Headmaster recorded your name, offence and punishment, after he belted you, and I probably had a chapter all to myself.

Although my first class was based in the annexe, we visited lots of other classrooms for different subjects. We went to other rooms for art, science, geography, technical drawing, woodwork and religious education. Maths and english we had in our own class with Mr Sanderson. I enjoyed art, though I was a pain for the poor art teacher. I remember him dragging me by my ear from the classroom to the depute's room one day after I had pushed him just too far. Mr Burns, the depute, listened to the art teacher's rant about my behaviour as his class of older boys looked on sniggering. I was belted and put in Mr Burn's class to sit at the back looking at the wall. I still always managed to finish in the top three for art in the class, we were ranked for every subject, despite my fallouts with the teacher. Today, I still feel guilty about how I was with him, but I feel no guilt about others I upset. Science was good. We had a formidable teacher, but he was into sport and especially football. I was reasonable at most sports and was soon playing for school teams, which he coached. In science they let us loose with chemicals and Bunsen burners and pipettes. We loved it, though I am not sure how much learning happened. I remember impressing with a story I wrote from the point of view an amoeba  in a fish tank. It was supposed to be science but I loved writing stories and using my imagination, so I wrote pages, while everyone else struggled for a few paragraphs.

By the way, we were all writing using pens and ink, we all had ink wells in our desks and blotting paper.  My right index finger was always blue at the end and it was quite an art to keep your writing tidy and legible using such implements. If your writing got too messy, the page would be ripped from your jotter and you would have to start again. It was pen and ink for every subject. 

The early years of secondary school were filled with confrontations with teachers, silly and annoying behaviour and trying to find a way of fitting in. I found one or two subjects I enjoyed, or perhaps it was more to do with the teachers who tried to connect, make their subjects interesting and wanted us to learn. I loved football, and played whenever I could. My fits had stopped suddenly, but some teachers were still nervous of me doing anything physical, despite all the evidence in front of them that I had boundless energy which needed channelling productively. I played for school football teams and cricket teams. I was to discover the joys of cross-country running later in my school career, but early on it was just a chance to skive and hang around at the back of the field. After the first year we moved into the main school building and we were streamed or set. Each year group was split into two classes. Everyone knew that one was filled with boys with higher levels of ability than the other. No-one was too bothered about this. I was put in the higher level group for my year, which had no impact on my attitude and little on my performance. I was rid of Mr Sanderson and experienced some different teachers, all of whom were better than him. In my next post, I will tell you about my time in the upper years, the introduction of CSEs to our school and the move away from the pretty worthless Northern Counties Exam that it replaced for some. I discover I was pretty good at running, we go on a never to be forgotten residential, I build a canoe, find some super teachers who could see my potential, and who were not prepared to give up or set low expectations.


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