Thursday, 16 July 2009

The man who taught me to lie

I've been away a lot the last few weeks, so no posts. Here is something I wrote on a writing course over the last year. I'll put the rest of those pieces up as I get the chance, plus the stuff I write for our local wrting group. I sometimes envy , in a purely writing sort of way, people who've had complicated traumatic lives - they seem so interesting and it gives them so much mateial to work with. This is about the nearest I came to suffering

The Man who Taught me to lie.

When I was six I went to a new school. It was a long walk to get there but in those days small children often walked to school on their own. The first part is down hill, up hill on the way home and then a long straight road to a roundabout and a short stretch to the school drive. Not far.

The first day I was in a big class, many more children than my last school and a nice lady who was the teacher. I was eager to please and tried hard. My dad was a school teacher so I knew that school was important and that’s what you did, you paid attention and tried hard. After a few weeks, or maybe it was a term, we all took a test, the headmaster’s test. For some reason I’ve never understood the headmaster was called Mr Biggs, maybe that was his real name. In my previous school the head mistress was called Miss Thick, an interesting collection of names now I think about it.

I tried hard in the test and did so well that I was promoted into a different class, the teacher was Mr Cork. From then on nothing went right. Mr Cork espoused Fairbanks handwriting - an italic style based on the work of Alfred Fairbanks CBE. We were all issued with special pencils that had square leads in them and you had to sharpen them a special way so that you could write italic. You had to hold the pencil at exactly the right angle so that the letters had the right slant on them. It gave him the chance to make sure that you had got it wrong even when you had all the right letters in all the right order, they could still be the wrong shape. Mine always were.

There was a special place to sharpen pencils, a piece of stone at the front of the classroom with a special knife so that you could place the pencil at the right angle and cut the wood and the lead to just the right shape and then I think you had to be sure that the mess went into the correct rubbish bin. Such was the genius of Mr Cork acting in the name of Mr Fairbanks that he had turned writing from a method of communication into something approaching a religious ritual. Inevitably in a society dominated by ritual there were high priests, teacher’s pets, who could do no wrong and serfs, like me, who could do no right. It didn’t matter what you wrote, what mattered was how you wrote it.

I had no idea why he hated me; I didn’t dare tell my parents what it was like because I could find no sense in it. Every day on the walk home I had fifteen minutes to leave the mad world of slanted writing and take myself back into the sane world that my parents lived it. A world in which reading and writing was there to tell people things and learn things and be entranced by stories. In the sane world people did things, I read about adventures every night with my father, we played on the golf course behind our back garden, we played in the woods, it rained, or snowed or the sun shone. I can’t remember a single thing about school except sharpening pencils, there was no weather, there was no learning.

Each term we did Mr Biggs’ test and there was another opportunity for Mr Cork to humiliate me. I usually came in the top three in the class in those tests and often beat the high priest's of slanting writing. After the tests were were put in groups, I have no idea why. The top eight children were in group one.

‘Oh we can’t have Griffiths in group one can we, go to group two.’

Then the group leaders were appointed, the children with the best marks in each group were appointed group leader. When we came to group two I had the best marks, way better than the others because I’d already been demoted from group one.

‘Oh we can’t have Griffiths as group leader can we.’ So some other child was made group leader. This never happened to anyone else and I had no idea why it was happening to me. For some reason that I could not understand whenever I did anything wrong he didn’t just point it out, he appealed to the whole class to agree with him, and they did, or at least the high priests priests of pencil sharpening did.

And so I learned to lie. There was no way I could explain any of this to my parents, it simply didn’t make sense so I had to tell them a different story. The only thing they ever heard from the school was the result of Mr Biggs’ tests and on that score I was doing well. Two worlds, Mr Biggs’ tests, home, sunshine and snow in one and silly pencils, high priests and Mr Cork in the other. If I could lie well enough the two would never meet. I achieved almost complete separation between the two worlds in my mind. I recall there was supposed to be a school trip and each of us had to bring two shillings to pay for it. Every day we would be asked for the money and every day when I was at school I realised that I had forgotten. I never remembered; the simple task of bringing two shillings from my world at home to the alien one I lived in at school was more than I could do. The worlds were so far apart that it might have been Fairbanks Alaska. Mr Cork threatened that the whole class would not go on the trip if I did not bring the money but still I forgot. Who knows where it would have led if all these children who had paid, whose parents were expecting them to go on a trip found that they hadn’t and all because of me. Would he have talked to my parents, would some external power have questioned his methods? Who knows - another girl brought the money and forced it on my while we were sharpening pencils.

Eventually I went to another school, I took an entrance exam and did well enough to go to a renowned prep school in town. Two other boys in the class passed the exam but when it was announced Mr Cork said to the whole class

‘I’ll be glad when Griffiths leaves’ and one of the high priests said

‘So will I’

‘And so say all of us’ said Mr Cork

It was many years later that I told my father about it and the truth came out, he and Mr Cork had been at school together and dad has often beaten Mr Cork in school work and at sport. Its just as well I learned to lie and never told my father. My father was not a violent man but if he had known what was happening I think he would probably have gone and hit Mr Cork and then there would have been real trouble.

When we were eleven there were more exams, across the whole city, the eleven plus it was called. I did well and went to one of the best schools in Bristol and I remember checking up to see what happened to the high priests. They got no-where, Mr Cork had sold them short as well.