School Days

Uniforms, showers and not fingering girls.

School Days
Photo by Robin Worrall on Unsplash

I wish I'd have been one of those children that excelled at school, or even enjoyed it. As it turned out I was destined to mediocrity.

At primary school I was always the smart kid, the one who would eventually do well, though how you recognise that in a seven year old I couldn't say. My grandpa used to say to me, "When you get a place at Oxford I shall pop up from my grave and cheer!" As it turned out I never went to university and thankfully grandpa did not rise from the grave.

In order to facilitate my success my parents began by turning into masochists. They did this by insisting on my brothers and I wearing a school uniform at junior school despite there not being one. Uniforms, in their opinion, were the key to academic accomplishment so they forged ahead and invented their own uniform for us - black shoes, grey slacks & jumper and blue shirt. The other kids wore jeans or cords, tee shirts, wildly coloured sweat shirts with the A Team on them or a random year emblazoned across the chest. We wore polycotton knitted jumpers from Tesco with flannel trousers and because of that stood out like the proverbial sore thumb. Thus began the lifelong labelling of being posh and a snob - words that still linger now through no fault of my own.

I rebelled against the invented uniform in the only way I could at the time - with DayGlo socks. One pink and one blue, or maybe one orange and one sulphur yellow. I'd secretly put them on under my regulation grey socks when I got dressed in the morning then, once at school, whip the grey ones off revealing my true personalty through the medium of hosiery.

When I think about Greenacres County Primary School there are a handful of things that spring to mind. The odd embarrassing moment such as getting overexcited in a school assembly and making a show of myself by shrieking "Let's sing Lord of the Dance Miss Wilson!"; taking a year out after a car crash when we lived with my grandparents and went to a school near Preston instead; the scandal when we got in trouble with Miss Wilson, the head mistress, after Michelle Henshaw accused me of fingering my friend Rebecca; and the thrilling moment when Rebecca and I told our mums about it and, taking umbrage, they stormed into school to give Miss Wilson what for.

My mum's irrational hatred of Miss Sutton, the snotty school secretary; a school trip to Castleton when chicken soup leaked into my bag and made it stink forevermore; and the time Lisa Jackson smashed all her teeth out on the ice in the playground - an event which led to the banning of slippy curries. A slippy curry was a patch of ice polished to a high sheen with the soles of trainers and, in my case, sensible black lace-up shoes, which children would hurtle towards and slide across the concrete on, for no other reason than it was fun. Health and safety didn't exist in the eighties.

Primary school whizzed by in a blur of Wham!, Christmas parties, scandal and milk bottle tops and was reasonable I suppose. Neither sensational nor unexciting, just ordinary. I didn't really pay much attention to it until the end bit when all talk turned to secondary school.

My contemporaries were mostly headed for the local comprehensive, Breeze Hill, a school which had troubled times ahead but in the late 80s was merely just a bit rubbish.

Some tried earnestly to get into Blue Coat, the church school with the good reputation in the centre of town. Often their parents would begin taking them to church on a regular basis a few months before decisions were due to be made in order to get a letter from God and ensure a prosperous future.

One poor girl ended up at Grange School whose good reputation was a hangover from the sixties, and by the late eighties was undeserved. No matter, Cheryl, her brother and their parents did the only sensible thing when faced with the fallout from such a calamitous decision, and moved to Australia after her first year there.

We'd moved house by the time it came to choosing schools and left behind Greenacres' neighbour, the deteriorating Clarksfield. Like most of Oldham it was made up of street after street of red brick terraced mill houses, built when that's what the town was known for. As my parents both drove and had cars, a rarity in those days in that part of town, they'd had the fortune to be able to move us to Strinesdale on the edge of Saddleworth. The house was essentially the same - two bedroom, red brick terrace, but the outlook was completely different as we were surrounded by fields rather than rooftops and people playing the trumpet a la Coronation Street.

Strinesdale fell into the catchment area of Counthill School but also, at a push, Saddleworth School - even then you'd have to assume the admissions board were in a very good mood, or high, if they were to let you study there when it was a half hour drive away compared to a fifteen minute walk to the other.

My parents however had other plans. Across town, about as far away from where we lived as was possible, was a two hundred year old grammar school called Hulme and they had this set firmly in their sights, after all I was clever and they couldn't possibly waste all my brainpower on a comprehensive.

Hulme Grammar School

Hulme had an entrance exam for pupils, the equivalent of the old eleven plus, which tested verbal reasoning, maths and English, and ensured they only took on the kids most likely to succeed in this old fashioned, highly academic, university focused school. It was important, it seemed, that pupils knew at what speed the train on the southbound track would pass the train on the northbound track if it was going at fifty miles per hour with a headwind of two miles per hour.

In order to brush up on these skills I embarked on a series of excruciating private tuition sessions with Mr Abrahams. My folks clubbed together with a bunch of other high sighted parents to afford group classes and we'd get together on a Saturday afternoon to cram like our lives depended on it.

I hated every second; why couldn't I just go to Saddleworth school with my next door neighbour Damian? I'd be happy there, it would be easier for everyone and I wouldn't have to waste my weekends sitting in someone's dining room with a slightly inappropriate private tutor with a wandering eye and an unseemly turn of phrase.

On the morning of the exam I trod in dog shit - an omen if ever there was one. Someone called out 'Muck for luck!' and after scraping the worst of it off my sole I trudged into the school, stinking. I passed the exam with flying colours, earning a scholarship and saving my grandparents (who'd kindly offered to pay the fees) a bunch of money.

And so my fate was sealed and my resentment began. Hulme Grammar School for Boys beckoned with a curly finger and a crooked eyebrow.

The trouble with being a high flyer as a young kid is that when your pushy parents send you to a school full of clever children you're suddenly not so special any more. I'd been taken down a peg or two and I did not like it one bit. Practically overnight I'd gone from the golden child to a bit of a disappointment, and feeling like a letdown is not conducive to academic excellence.

I was still good at stuff it's just there was always someone much better than me. In a maths class my fellow students might be working out what X squared plus Y squared equaled, while I was left mulling over what 'my resentment' plus 'their disappointment' was and how I would describe it as a quadratic equation.

These were different times though and you weren't encouraged to talk about things, let alone how you felt about something. Emotions were best left to Americans.

I'd sometimes find myself walking down a corridor between classes and, upon spying a teacher walking towards me, breaking into a maniacal, wide eyed grin, only to revert to a sullen frown and protruding bottom lip the second they walked past me. I must have looked mental.

I didn't have a gang or group at school that I hung out with more than another and I floated between friends. Some of them clever and destined to a gleaming career, others like me, bobbing along with the flotsam and jetsam of academia, desperately trying to make it through school without fucking up completely and incurring the wrath of out of pocket parents keen for a return on their investment.

I didn't hang out with the cool kids but that was never a source of regret - they weren't half as cool as they thought they were anyway. I'd usually find myself with the interesting boys. The weirdos, the ones with something to say, and the funny ones. Granted I might have to dodge the odd Dungeons and Dragons game and put up with some out-there music but on the whole I chose good friends.

Going to an all boys school had it's own specific set of obstacles to manoeuvre. Hulme Grammar had a girls school too but I rarely saw any of the girls in question. The two schools occupied the same building and were separated by an enormous wooden door, across which hung a heavy piece of fabric. The purpose of this was to stop horny teenage eyes from spying their quarry in the other school, through the door's glass panes. I have no doubt whatsoever that the iron curtain, as it was known, was solely responsible for significantly reducing teenage pregnancy rates in the school. That sort of thing didn't happen at this sort of school you see.

As far as I was concerned, from the ages of twelve to seventeen, girls only existed behind glass panels. Other than Rebecca, who, despite Michelle Henshaw's protestations, I did not finger, and my family, girls just didn't feature in my life for at least five years. I'd see them sometimes, pressing their noses up against classroom windows or squashed inside a bus near the school gates, while I waited to be collected by my mum after school, but there was never any reason for our paths to cross and they didn't.

The biggest problem about attending a boys school in the late 80s and early 90s was the potential to labelled gay. You could throw bleach in the eyes of a beloved pet, dismember a popular sibling or burn a busy orphanage to the ground and still expect to be forgiven at some point in the future but to be gay, or even suspected of it, meant absolute and swift excommunication, followed by relentless bullying and quite possibly the risk of being hanged, drawn and quartered on the steps of the town hall.

This made it tricky when, like me, you weren't really sure who you fancied, and more so when you were curious to see what some of you teenaged classmates looked like with no clothes on.

The easiest way of diverting suspicion was to accuse other poor lads of being deviants, thus pointing the finger away from yourself, which shamefully I did on occasion. Mostly though I just kept my head down and every now and again make lewd comments about female celebrities that I'd definitely 'do'. Michelle Pfeiffer and Julia Roberts were my best friends.

This worked well for a long time and it wasn't until I was fifteen that my school world almost came tumbling down. I spent a weekend at my best friend's house while his dad was away, we got drunk, and one thing led to another. The first time I'd ever done anything sexual with anyone and it was with a lad - I did not expect that.

I won't go into detail about what happened. Suffice it to say we didn't go all the way and, with neither of us having any experience, we weren't very good. I learned at an early age that oral sex and fixed orthodontic braces were not a marriage made in heaven.

The next day my best friend stopped speaking to me, obviously regretting what had happened. He clearly didn't know how to handle it (bad choice of words) and, as emotions were for Americans, he opted for silence instead. I left his house, with mixed feelings. I was thrilled that it had happened, but I was confused too, and upset that he'd blanked me all morning. I didn't know it then but our friendship, which had been a close one, was over. An experience that went on to influence decisions for years to come.

Back at school after the weekend, trouble began to brew when a mutual friend of ours told me, "Bob* says you get a bit gay when you're drunk. What's that all about?"

With such incendiary suggestions I knew I had to take decisive action so I tracked down Bob*, put on my best threatening voice, and told him in no uncertain terms that if I go down (again, there's probably a better choice of words) then I'm taking him with me.

It did the trick. The rumour was stopped in its tracks, Julia Roberts helped reestablish my heterosexual credentials, and Bob* and I had no more contact till we'd left school. He is now happily married with children - or something, I can't really tell from Facebook.

(* name changed to protect the not so innocent.)

Photo by Zhang Kenny on Unsplash

I hated sports when I was at school. I've never been competitive and didn't see the point of chasing balls simply for the sake of it. Despite my earlier mentioned curiosity to see some of my classmates with no clothes on, the absolute worst part of Wednesday afternoon games was the changing room.

I would go to any lengths so as not have to undress in front of other people. I wore my sports kit under my school uniform all day to make sure my precious body was kept hidden from prying eyes when it came to getting ready for football, then as soon as the class was finished I'd dash back to the changing rooms, stick my head under running water to make it look as if I'd showered, and be back in my flannel trousers and blazer before anyone else appeared.

I disliked games and the changing room experience so much that later in my school career, when I had the opportunity, I swapped games for what was termed Community Action.

Community Action was similar in many ways to Community Service. It wasn't exactly voluntary, more of a trade off, and you'd often find yourself in a humiliating situation for the benefit of others.

It could vary from spending one afternoon a week in the school library filing books in the Dewey Decimal System, to going out to the actual community to offer a helping hand.

I volunteered at a local primary school to begin with, rocking up one afternoon with no idea what I was supposed to be doing. I soon found myself sitting in a room full of toddlers helping them jam different coloured plastic shapes into the wrong holes and point at books with very thick pages.

Children, even as a teenager, were not my bag. I didn't have the patience required for what I regarded as lesser intellects. I was frustrated by how dim witted the kids were and how they prattled on about nonsense all the time. Needless to say I didn't last very long in that part of the community and I don't think the children noticed my absence when I eventually jacked it in.

Faced with a return to the library, or worse, the hockey pitch, I took my final option and volunteered at an old folks' home down the road. It was a grand old Victorian building next to a park on Manchester Road, converted for elderly inmates and imbued with a sense of calm and barely subdued dread.

Nobody wanted to be there, not me, not the staff, and certainly not the residents. I took it upon myself to inject some fun into my weekly visits in an effort to bring the place to life after what appeared to be decades of decay.

"Hey everybody! My name's Richard, let's play bingo!" I announced enthusiastically in the communal lounge on my second visit.

"Get out!" shouted Victorine, a wizened old crone at the back of the room.

This wasn't a response to be taken personally. I'd learned on my first visit that Victorine sincerely believed the residence belonged to her and she had no idea what all these dribbling and mumbling strangers were doing in her house. Furthermore the entire contents of the building were apparently hers, from furniture to flowers, the pictures on the wall to the carpets on the stairs.

Victorine was clearly a skilled seamstress as she claimed too that she had crafted her dress with her own fair hands and knitted her elaborately patterned cardigan to boot.

I persevered and began what was without doubt the longest game of bingo in human history. Every now and again one of the staff would pop into the room and prop up a resident who was slowly but surely sliding out of their high backed, winged chair, or wipe up a bit of drool that was making its way down an unsuspecting chin.

It was evident that none of the contestants gave a shit about bingo and I wrapped it up as quickly as possible resolving to consider something less taxing next time, like a beetle drive.

As I was packing things up after the game of misery-bingo, one of the staff came in to attend to a resident who needed the loo.

"Give us a hand would you love?" she called over to me.

Willingly I stuffed the last of the bingo stuff into the box of sorrow, ready to go into the sideboard of suffering, and went to offer my assistance.

"He needs a poo. Will you help me get him to the lav?"

As we lifted him out of the seat the slack-jawed, elderly gentleman unwittingly let one go. The immediate area was filled with a brown cloud of filth and I gagged.

"Derek! You dirty bugger!" reprimanded Susan cracking a smile at me.

Soldiering on we got him out in the hall, to the nearest toilet. I was fully prepared to relinquish my disgusting charge and escape for the day when Susan said, "I'll just wait here while you sort him out."

"What?"

"You can tek 'im in there, you'll find everything you need."

"What?" I repeated, I was panicking now.

"It's dead easy, just make sure you hold him up under his arms while he's doing it so he dunt fall off the toilet."

"I can't do that!" I exclaimed, "I'm only a schoolchild!" I may as well have fluttered a fan and clutched my pearls.

"Your face!" Susan scoffed, "I'm kiddin' yer!"

With the revelation of her joke a wave of relief flushed my through body. It took every ounce of my being not to say 'You bitch!' but I held it together and escaped for the day.

I continued to visit the old folks' home for a number of weeks. Anything rather than reveal my teenaged body in the changing rooms of the sports hall. I never saw Susan again though; I sincerely hope she met an untimely end.

With the promise of bingo and toilet visits I eventually talked my new best friend into coming along to visit Victorine et al as a way of evading sports classes. The novelty soon wore off though when we realised there was little communication between school and the care home and that by taking your school tie off you could get away with going in some of the local pubs to drink beer.

And so a chunk of my final year of school was spent in a pub near the entrance to Alexandra Park, a long way from the heady heights of invented school uniforms and not fingering my friend Rebecca.

high school
Richard Douglas
Richard Douglas
Read next: The Unconventional College Life
Richard Douglas

I'm a writer based in Manchester, UK. I write plays, I blog, I'm writing my first novel (and looking for representation), I'm the written voice of a chatbot that helps kids understand their cancer treatment and I'll turn my hand to anything

See all posts by Richard Douglas