In the physics lab, iron filings took on sinister shapes. There were positives and negatives but I was never going to be drawn towards physics. Or chemistry. I remember growing a crystal in copper sulphate solution but I wasn’t going to be enticed by the blue lagoon either. And I was terrified of Bunsen burners; my fear of fire started after two boys burned down the school staffroom and library. They were sent off to Borstal. So I opted for biology, soft option. Little did I know how soft; the teacher had a heart attack and never returned. It was a mixed ability group with some of the most notorious delinquents in the school. Lessons were spent doing anything but biology, only the texts books and the appearance once every half an hour from the head of department dressed in a white coat would give any outsider a clue as to the purpose of the gathering.
The English teacher gave us Shakespeare to read which we did in silence and without discussion whilst he sat at his desk with a pipe hanging out of his mouth. His bald head , sideburns and narrow frame were dated, even for the seventies. He wore rubber soled lace-ups and sat cross legged. When he did utter a word, it was inaudible. I tried to get through my exams by reading Brodie’s notes alone.
The art teacher had bushy, black, winged eyebrows and almost white hair swept to one side. He reminded me of an owl, so piercing were his eyes. He wore neat pale grey suits, spoke in a deep voice with precision. His room was bare, almost sterile. I stopped painting exotic jungles when I arrived in his class and picked up a technical drawing pen, drew a punk pierced all over with safety pins joined by chains and handed it in for my O’Level. No one sensed the change in my work.
I was terrified of not learning to conjugate my French verbs. Moved out of a lower set to the top one, I was in a state of shock; the previous teacher had been off sick more than he’d been there, belonged to the National Front, drove a camouflaged vintage car and called some of the children ‘wogs’. My new teacher upheld grammar school standards, clearly flouting the prevailing laws of comprehensive culture and actually taught me French. He did this with a heavy Polish accent and it was only after I’d left school when I realised that the emphasis in ‘imperative’ should be on the second syllable and not the third. He was way past retirement age and dried runs of black dye were always visible on his neck. He called the girls ‘pretty ones’ and the boys ‘ugly ones’. He would make a chopping motion with his arm when anyone got their tenses mixed up and earned himself the nickname Chopper Kayley.
Maths was hard. I had worked my way up to the top set and hung in there by the skin of my teeth, trying not to be distracted by the teacher who would put his hand on his hip when writing on the blackboard. ‘Teapot’, that’s what they called him. But I was too frightened of maths to call him anything and concentrated on my calculus. Don’t ask me to do it now.
Most people keep one or two of their exercise books from school. But not me. I keep files from my days as a mature student in a special cupboard. They might be useful one day or I might want to reminisce about my days at university.
Cupboards were important places at school too. The humanities teacher drank whisky in his, the art teacher drank real coffee in the history teacher’s cupboard, probably because she was very refined, drove an Italian car and was the spitting image of Lady Penelope. They always shut the door but the aroma of the coffee and her perfume wafted around the nearby corridors. I can still smell the filth, even now.