Thursday, 29 December 2016
The Eleven Plus - A Tale of Woe.
The Eleven Plus examination loomed large in my young life from the beginning of 1951. It was talked about all the time at school as the staff began to prepare those of us who might conceivably pass this terrifying hurdle with `mock’ tests. Passing this examination was in those days all important because `it sorted the wheat from the chaff’, we were informed, those who were `intellectually able’ would have the opportunity to go on to greater things via Gravesend Grammar School For Girls (or Boys) where we would be taught French, German and Latin as well as Classics and Calculus. The world would open up to us, we would get excellent jobs upon leaving the Grammar School and an elite few might perhaps even go on to a University where we could work towards a Degree! The rest of us were destined for the Secondary Modern and jobs on the factory floor or behind the counter in Woolworths followed by simple lives amongst the decent poor. As I was still years away from a job of any description, an excellent one was not an objective high on my agenda of things I must strive for. I had absolutely no idea what a University or a Degree was. My father talked to me very seriously about the upcoming examination. `You have to do your very best to pass and then you’ll get into the Grammar School and have a whole raft of opportunities in life – so you must try as hard as possible and if you do pass, I’ll buy you a bike!’ I was impressed. I was not used to being promised expensive gifts. My parents were not in the habit of buying toys for me and where other children regularly had sweets and comics such as `Dandy’, `Beano’, `Comic Cuts’ and `Film Fun’ I rarely had access to these delights. It was quite unusual for me to be given pocket money and I was very envious of others who were given money regularly on a weekly basis. Owning a bike was certainly something worth aiming for. For months my father practised times tables and capitals of countries with me and told my mother he was confident I would pass. I became positive about it myself and more and more convinced of certain success. Ruby Benfield told me she was not going to even try to pass because if you did happen to succeed then it meant years of effort ahead of you in the form of homework such as French and German. Why would any sane person, Ruby maintained, put themselves in that position? I was impressed and repeated the conversation to my father who looked alarmed - `Don’t you be influenced by what she says – you try hard to pass, d’you hear me? Then you’ll get a brand new bike.’ I fervently agreed to try my very hardest. On the day of the examination I sat between Ruby Benfield and Betty Haddon, throat dry, palms sweaty and ready to give it my all. `I’m not going to even try,’ Ruby still maintained loudly, `I really don’t want to pass because I don’t want all that homework.’ `Neither do I,’ Betty echoed, `I’m not going to try either.’ The terrifying examination turned out to be much easier than I had expected although some of the mathematics section was tricky and seemed to revolve around engine drivers whose trains passed each other at different speeds. All this was incomprehensible to me but I loved the story writing section where we had half an hour to write something creative. I wrote a highly fanciful story, mostly lifted directly from my latest library book about a girl who was fortunate enough to be shipwrecked on a Pacific Island with her dog and had to exist on coconuts and pineapples until rescued. I was very pleased with this story and thought it was certain to impress the examiners. My father met me from the exam room and asked if I had tried my hardest and if any of it had been too difficult for me. I reassured him, dismissing the event as `so EASY!’ He was obviously relieved and uncharacteristically bought me a chocolate ice cream on the way home. It seemed months before we heard the outcome of the exam. The new Headmaster handed out envelopes for us to give to our parents. I was given mine without comment and ran home to joyfully hand it to my mother, telling her I thought it was the eleven plus result. I had failed. My mother seemed as surprised as I was, `You didn’t pass….oh dear your poor father…. You didn’t pass.’ I was totally taken aback. I would not be a bicycle owner after all. I wondered if I might even be punished. My mother seemed very apprehensive about my father’s reaction and after a while turned on me accusingly. `I told you NOT to listen to that Ruby Benfield didn’t I? When she said she wasn’t going to try. That’s your trouble, you’re easily led by others – you just follow on like a silly sheep – you were TOLD not to take no notice of Ruby Benfield, but you never bloody listen do you?’ But I had not taken any notice of Ruby or Betty either. I had tried as hard as I could. When my father came home later that evening I was already in bed and strained nervously to hear their conversation. I heard him saying that he had been sure I would pass and wondering if you could still pay to send a child to the Grammar school. But even she knew that you couldn’t and even if it was found to be possible they were not in any position to do so. Next day he told me he was very disappointed and feared that now I would probably have to go to the Secondary Modern in September unless he could think of a viable alternative. At school the next day I learned that only two children from our school had passed that year; those two were Ruby Benfield and Betty Haddon. `I thought you two said you weren’t going to even try,’ I commented reproachfully to Ruby. `Well I didn’t try,’ Ruby maintained, somewhat smugly, `Mummy said I didn’t have to try because she doesn’t believe in pushing me. I just passed anyhow – without trying’ `So did I,’ Betty agreed. `Well I didn’t try either,’ I lied. Once I got used to the fact that I would not shortly be the proud owner of a new bicycle and I would not be wearing the dark blue uniform after all, I began to feel more cheerful. After all Milly had failed the eleven plus in the previous year and had been attending the Secondary Modern for several months. She loved it and during her first week had excitedly told me just how much it was like going to Boarding School. `There are lots of rules and you have to walk on the left in the corridors at all times – you don’t stay with the same teacher all day – you go to different rooms for different subjects. There are PREFECTS – can you imagine? It’s just like boarding school only without the sleeping there. There are school dinners and you have to eat everything on your plate or you sit there until you do – BUT you can ask for a small portion if you like….and if you are really well behaved and set a good example you have the chance to become a prefect yourself! There’s a Head Girl! Her name is Elspeth! Isn’t that a lovely boarding school kind of name?’ Milly, it seemed, felt just as if she was part of an Angela Brazil school story or at the very least an Enid Blyton school story. School was fun when you went to the Secondary Modern and now I would be able to join in that fun. I was particularly interested in the idea of prefects and head girls, and school dinners sounded like much more fun, even for a fussy eater like me, than going home for midday dinner as we primary school children did. Things were looking up! He did try not to show it but my failure had been a huge disappointment to my father although my mother soon adjusted to it once she had discussed it with Aunt Mag, Aunt Martha and Nan. Aunt Mag thought that you couldn’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear and I clearly wasn’t `up to it’ academically and after all Secondary Modern had been perfectly alright for her Harold, Leslie and Margaret and she didn’t expect for one moment that her Ann would pass. Harold and Leslie both had good jobs at Vickers where there was plenty of overtime if they wanted it and Margaret had a lovely little job in Dolcis Shoes in Dartford. Aunt Martha’s Pat had just failed also and it had been a relief to both of them because once you start getting involved with fancy schools there were never ending demands for uniforms not to mention the extra bus fares. Nan was frankly incredulous that anybody would be upset about such matters - `Never `ad a day’s schooling in me life an` look at me – I’m right as rain! When Little Violet gets to that exam age I’ll keep `er `ome that day – bugger them! ’ The latter was not an empty threat because Nan was already in the habit of withdrawing Little Violet from school on a whim, and most especially when she needed her to run errands on the days when she felt a little under the weather herself. As a group they viewed my father’s reaction as unnecessarily emotional and certainly unhealthy and so my mother’s initial attitude changed to one of watchful cheerfulness as she waited confidently for the fuss to die down. Aunt Martha came to visit with Pat when my father was on an afternoon Sunday shift and Pat told me she was `gobsmacked’ to hear that I had actually tried to pass the eleven plus. `Only the dopey brain boxes go to Grammar and they don’t get no time to do nothing after school with all that homework. They don’t have no mates at all for years.’ She assured me that Secondary Modern was a much better option and when I offered that I thought a lot of the problem was due to the fact that everybody thought I had been influenced by Ruby Benfield she suggested we write Ruby a letter to `pay her back rotten’ outlining what a bitch she was and perhaps even threatening her with some kind of retribution via violence. I had never really liked Ruby and Pat’s plan sounded reasonable so paper and pen in hand I settled down to write at her dictation. `Dear Friend,’ she began, pausing now and again to find the best possible word, and to check with me for spelling conventions, `I write this for your own good. You are a real bitch and yet you think you are somebody special just because you can pass exams. You will have no mates at the Grammar when you go there and you will soon regret it. Be careful that you don’t get hurt because we are watching you – from a well meaning friend.’ She confided that her Mum had sometimes been forced to write similar letters to neighbours because they put their rubbish bins in the wrong place for instance or had late night male visitors. Without a qualm I followed her up York Road and, giggling, we pushed the note under the Benfield door and before the eyes of the Benfield grandmother who lived opposite and was on her doorstep idling away the Sunday afternoon and eyeing us curiously. The explosive reaction over the next day or two was bigger by far than anything I had previously experienced. Exchanging my brother for Judy Stewart was a mere token in comparison. First the two Mrs. Benfields, the older and the younger, at the garden gate waving the `Dear Friend’ letter in the air and ranting in unison. The younger stopping for breath, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief, the older repeating again and again, `Under my very eyes, right in front of me she was – bold as brass – no shame at all in her!’ Then my mother, grimly grey-faced in front of me her head shaking in disbelief, `Why?’ Even I, who had a habit of denying most misdemeanours, knew that there was no point in refuting the fact. Perhaps I could moderate the crime a little. I explained that it had been Pat’s idea. `Don’t go blaming Pat. You just do what anyone tells you to don’t you? If Pat told you to eat shit would you do it? Just you wait til your father gets home!’ His fury matched my mother’s embarrassment and he outlined a list of penalties involving early bedtimes, withdrawal of any food treats like canned peaches with Sunday tea, certainly no sweets or ice cream ever again, no playing out in the street with Milly for what seemed like a year or two, and I might have to be `put away’.Putting Away was serious because sometimes it actually happened, although I was unclear where children were actually put when they were `put away’. I knew that two of the older Smith boys had been `put away’ for two years for offences that involved stealing and episodes of violence, and according to my mother it was not overlooked that they had also been `mouthy’ to their mother. They had been rather more subdued when they returned but even so all the `decent’ local children were advised to `steer clear’ of them. Then the Benfields descended again, this time Ruby’s father in place of her grandmother and they were actually asked into our front room! The front room with the best mats in that my mother did not hold with others walking all over. This time the meeting took place without anger or raised voices and, sitting on the stairs in the dark with my ear close to the wall, I could hear nothing at all. Next day I was told that I would have to write Ruby a letter of apology and that her family had forbidden her to have anything further to do with me. They had warned other families about me it seemed and intended to continue to do so. They, like Mrs. Stewart before them, felt something ought to be done about me. I might still have to be Put Away. For a week or two very little was said to me. We sat totally taciturn at the meal table, my brother looking curiously and fearfully at each of the strained faces around him and not daring to say anything but wondering if he could have jam on his bread. I was sent to bed with no books to read immediately after my plain bread and butter tea where I lay feeling sorry for myself and planning revenge. It was summertime and over several lonely hours I could hear the voices of other children playing. Never the Benfields of course because Donald and Ruby were rarely allowed to play on the street with other children but always in their own back yard where from time to time the privileged few might be allowed to join them. I had never been among the few and neither had Milly. We knew that the Dawson children had sometimes been there to play and had once actually been invited to tea, just like in a book. As late afternoon turned to evening mothers began calling the children from the street one after the other. First the cosseted children. Mrs. Stewart always leading the charge at seven o’clock on the dot calling for Brenda and Judy who responded obediently, immediately. Mrs. Bedford seeking Joan, Mrs. Draper for Katy and Brian, Mrs. Berryman for Jennifer. None of these with such impressive, instant result. A lull as shadows lengthened along the wall of my room and the less protected and confined played on for another hour. Then both Mrs. Brents began to gather their offspring, Vera and Audrey to York Road, Kenny, Alan and Colin, the latter now dutifully joining the football game, to Buckingham Road. It would be nearly ten o’clock by the time Milly and Georgie Foreman would be called and well and truly dark before Mrs. Robbins ventured to the door to recall her brood even though Sonja-Kim and Jeremy were still pre-schoolers. And then only the Smiths of Shepherd Street remained, the younger ones still fighting Indians on The Old Green, the adolescents lolling against the wall of Troke’s shop practising smoking Woodbine `dog-ends’ retrieved from the gutter and laughing a lot. And as the British Volunteer tipped its clientele noisily into Buckingham Road at eleven, even they would have to `go in’ and help their mother put their father to bed. At last the final human sound of the summer night would be George Foreman senior wending his way home from The Prince Albert singing `Nellie Dean’. And only then could I fall uneasily asleep. During the long summer holiday where I was to go to school next was from time to time debated between my parents with my father still maintaining that I should have passed that examination. He went to Maidstone on one occasion to the Kent Country Education Offices to see if he could look at my examination paper but this he found to be out of the question. As September neared I was thankful to find that after all I was going to be allowed to go to the Secondary Modern where most of the local girls would also be going and I began to look forward to it with excitement. My mother even took me to Danby’s Uniform Shop and at first I thought I was going to get a brand new uniform but to my disappointment it was to the `Used Uniforms’ section she firmly steered me. My father spent any spare pound or two on his precious motor bike and we were not accustomed to new clothes but I had hoped that this would be one of the rare occasions when the strict fiscal rules would be broken. Never mind, on the first day of school I headed off with Milly, by now a seasoned second year, dressed like everyone else in green gymslip, white blouse and green and yellow striped tie. I was filled with excited anticipation. I took to the Secondary Modern like a duck to water and could not have been happier. On the first day we all went into the Hall and were lectured by Miss Dennis the Headmistress who was tall, thin and angular and looked as if she had just stepped from one of Angela Brazil’s pages and would fold herself up cosily into the book again at three thirty. She talked of being happy at work and at play, striving for success, looking to a bright future and growing into confident young women. She urged us all not to let her down. I was certainly ready to do my best and anxious indeed never, ever to be the sort of pupil who would be singled out as letting Miss Dennis down. Then we sat what she described as a `Qualifying Test’ which would be used to sort us in streams. Milly had already warned me about the Test and had herself been placed in the A Stream. Anxious to follow in her footsteps, to dazzle my father with my newly acquired brilliance, and above all not let Miss Dennis down, I worked feverishly at my test paper and breathed a hearty sigh of relief when this enthusiastic attack did in fact do the trick. I was now a fully fledged Form One A Stream Student and what was more I was to be in Keller House – just like Milly, and would be allowed to wear the coveted yellow sash during netball games. We First Years were sorted into four houses inspired by Helen Keller, Laura Knight, Marie Curie and Florence Nightingale whose illustrious lives it was presumably hoped were going to continue to inspire us over the next few years. Despite my mother’s gloomy mantra that my behaviour would undoubtedly ensure that I would go through life without any friends: `…the way you behave nobody’s going to want to `ave nothing to do with you…’ I quickly found myself part of a group of the girls who sat importantly in the front row of our form class. Pat, Pamela, Pauline, Marjorie, Shirley and I were the undisputed academic leaders although I fell down badly in all aspects of Mathematics no matter how hard I tried. We spent playtimes together, gossiping about the inadequacies of lesser mortals and shared a table together at lunchtime under the watchful eye of a Table Prefect called Monica. The excitement of School Dinners was enormous as I threw myself frenetically into this school-story period of my life. I was both fascinated and fearful each day as I waited to see what was going to be served, fervently praying to God to ensure it was something I would be able to eat. They followed a predictable, ongoing pattern starting with Irish Stew and Gypsy Tart on Monday and ending with Fish cakes and Banana Custard on Friday, and most of the time caused me no problems in fact proving to be infinitely more edible than most of my mother’s food . Things could only get better. In fact I was quite wrong because my life was about to take a nose dive as my father’s Catholicism got the better of him and he made a decision that would prove to be very traumatic for me. I do not think that he made the decision to again uproot me from a non-Catholic school lightly or that he realised the disturbing effect it would have on me. He acted in my best interests I am sure but when I was told one Friday evening in October 1951 that on Monday morning I would be going to Gravesend to St. John’s Catholic High School instead of Northfleet Secondary Modern I was thrown into total emotional turmoil. `I like it where I am – please don’t make me go – please, please don’t make me,’ I begged, ready to promise almost anything to be left where I was in a school situation I was definitely enjoying. `You’ll have an opportunity to improve your maths,’ He promised, `and learn French – you’ll get a much better education’ I didn’t want a much better education; I wanted to be left alone. I pointed out that at Secondary Modern we would start French in Term Two after Christmas but he was implacable. His mind was made up and he would take me there himself on Monday morning. `You’ll make much nicer friends,’ My mother promised, `And think about it – when those Benfields see you going off up the road to get the Gravesend bus they’ll wonder where on earth you’re going to school – but it won’t be the Secondary Modern so it’ll be one in the eye for them won’t it?’ It was the first time the `Benfield Business’ had been mentioned for weeks and I had put it to the back of my mind ready to be almost forgotten like the baby exchange incident. It was clearly still very much to the forefront of hers. `I don’t care WHAT they think, I just want to stay where I am. I like it there.’ My mother continued to cajole. `It’s a lovely school St. John’s is and all the children have birthday parties. You’ll get invited to all kinds of parties, go to all kinds of places.’ The only birthday party giving family in York Road was the Benfields. I had never attended or been given a birthday party of my own in my life to date and I was sensible enough to realise that this situation was unlikely to change. `I don’t want to go to parties….’ And I didn’t. `You will do what we want,’ my father advised me, `Not what you want. The trouble with you is that you get altogether too much of what YOU want. Now you are going to do what WE want for a change.’ He refused to enter into any more discussion and over the weekend we went back to eating meals in silence and I contemplated running away but was too despondent to do so. He took me to Mass on Sunday and we walked without speaking, our polished Sunday shoes clattering against the paving stones. After Mass one of the Primary School nuns, Sister Camilla, stopped to talk to us and told me that the Holy Sisters at St. John’s were so looking forward to having me at their school and that she was confident I was going to do very well there. Father O’Mara who rarely looked in our direction, nodded toward us approvingly and my father stood a little taller and straightened his tie. I wondered how many of them were party to the conspiracy. On Monday morning I woke very early, before the birds had begun to stir, and lay listening to the sounds of my father snoring, and the thunder of the first Gravesend to London Express as it emerged from the tunnel at Northfleet. I fantasised that I should have got up earlier, crept from the house, through the darkness just before dawn and played one last but fatal game of `First One Across Is a Sissy’ all by myself. I wondered if they would mourn me when they finally found my mangled body on the tracks or if my father would be philosophical and simply say, `Her problem was always that she wouldn’t be told….I knew she’d come to a bad end eventually.’ He took me on the bus to St. John’s which was on the Denton side of Gravesend and in those days quite a walk from the bus stop. We were greeted by a tall, unsmiling Reverend Mother, softly spoken, detached, who did not look at me. My father said he would meet me after school and to cheer up because he was sure I would love it once I gave it a chance. As he walked away I began to cry and Reverend Mother said nothing at all but guided me along corridors, keys jingling on her belt, flat sensible shoes echoing starkly, and pushed me into a classroom filled with alien faces. I sat at the back of the room and continued to cry. The class teacher, plump and jolly, with red curly hair escaping across her face and neck, was called Sister Delphine. She patted me on the shoulder kindly and said I was to cheer up. I shed huge tears down onto my hands until the desk was so wet the piece of paper handed to me to write my composition of three paragraphs on Child Labour In The Nineteenth Century was saturated and unusable. She gave me another piece and said I must cheer up at once or the other children would start crying too. The other girls were looking at me in surprise and a couple of them laughed. I cried harder and my nose began to run. Sister Delphine gave me her hanky and I soaked it in minutes and continued to cry. In fact I wept throughout that class, and the next, all through playtime and I was still crying so hard at lunch time I was told that I would not be allowed into the dining room. A small girl with glasses called Maureen had been detailed to stay with me and be my friend. She collected some food for both of us but mine congealed on the plate as I blubbered on. I was still sobbing when my father collected me and Reverend Mother took him aside and suggested that when we got home he should explain to me firmly that my behaviour was not acceptable for `a great girl of eleven’ and that tomorrow there must be no repeat of it.. The next day Maureen with the glasses was still my official friend but I maintained almost a full day of tears and was unable to manage more than a coherent sentence or two in response to her sympathetic questions. On Day Three Reverend Mother took a much firmer stance and as a punishment for my copious weeping, took me into the Boys’ Department where I was made to sit through two woodwork classes with two different groups of not unfriendly but certainly curious boys, none of whom would sit too close to me presumably because they feared what I might do next. They need not have worried. I had simply come to cry. On Day Four Reverend Mother hauled me into her office roughly by the shoulder and said that until I stopped crying I would have to stay all day every day in the Boys Department and do all my lessons with the boys. I said nothing at all, just stood in front of her, tears tumbling down my face, half nodding. I was put into a class of boys slightly older than myself. I had to sit in the front row between Peter and Michael for Mathematics, History, French and Music. I sobbed quietly throughout each lesson. The young music teacher asked me if I could explain why I was crying so much and there was a hush while the boys waited, wooden recorders half raised, tense, to find out. But by now I could say nothing at all and simply folded my arms across my chest, rocked back and forth and continued whimpering. They learned to play `Greensleeves’ without me. On Day Five we went to Mass in the morning and I was snivelling so noisily I was made to sit at the back of the church between two Sisters. One offered me a toffee but by now the inside of my mouth felt odd, unreal with all the crying so I declined and wept on. My father came earlier than usual that afternoon for a meeting with Reverend Mother. I waited outside her office on a bench sobbing softly. Much of their conversation was muffled. Reverend Mother, it appeared, had never in forty one years of teaching come across a child who did so much crying. I had been quite unco-operative and they had found it totally impossible to ascertain what I could or could not do. They were not even sure if I could read. She had never before, apparently, had to place a girl of my age in with the boys for days on end. Usually half an hour was enough to make a normal girl buck up and buckle down. And in any event, she could not leave me in with the boys ad infinitum could she? She had, she told him, toyed with the idea of caning me for all this nonsense – but then that would have given me something to cry for wouldn’t it? She was rapidly running out of patience. My father had to see it from her point of view and her view was that I was not a suitable pupil for St. Johns. St. Johns, it appeared, had a reputation to uphold. On the bus going home my father did not say a single word to me but seemed to be engrossed in the newspaper. I rocked slightly back and forth and miserably stared out at the late October lights as they came on in the town, a winter darkness already settling over the rainy streets. I had cried so much that week I could barely see out of eyes that were puffed almost beyond recognition. After tea my mother said that since it seemed that I was not getting on as well as everyone had hoped at St. John’s I would be able to return to the Secondary Modern on Monday. My father said nothing at all but continued to study the newspaper he had already read from cover to cover.