Thursday 24 October 2013

“Adley, you horrrrrrrible vile little wretch!”

 I can still feel the fear. Terror might be a more appropriate word.

It’s September 1974, and I’m sitting in the back row of my classroom, two in from the window. The least visible place to sit. I’m not on an edge or a corner, and I have a line of heads in front of me sporting dodgy 70s haircuts that further obscure me from the teacher’s view.

Plus I can see out of the window, space out, explore the universe outside.

Today however there is to be no escape. I know it and the reason I’m terrified is that I’m about to do something that I know will cause me tons of strife.

English Public Schools are manufacturing businesses that produce what is known as Oxbridge candidates: students who are likely to be offered a place at either Oxford or Cambridge universities. The more Oxbridge candidates a Public School produces, the higher it is ranked.

At my school, ‘O’ Level Exams start at 14, two years earlier than the national norm. Before choosing which subjects you want to take, you have to decide two things: whether you are inclined to the Arts or Sciences, and to which college at which Oxbridge university you will apply.

At the age of 14 your colyoomnist is very far away from knowing the answer to either of those questions. Boiling inside me is a powerful cocktail of self-pity, lust of both the physical and wander varieties, mingled with a dreamy ambition to be a writer. More than anything, I don’t want to go to university.

That is the problem. Today that’s a very big problem indeed, because as I well know, the first lesson of the year is a session with RAGS.

RAGS is Mr. Stokes, the deputy headmaster, who posts on the TODAY board in the cloister much-dreaded lists of boys’ names; boys who have to report to his office before 9.00am, to be dealt with accordingly. Each list ends with the four typed letters of his initials, R.A.G.S., so obviously he is universally known as RAGS. It is very possible that Mr. Stokes is an honourable and good man. I only know him through the eyes of a teenager, and am quite sure he’d not deny he enjoyed the power he had over us.

So it’s the first lesson of the 5th Form. We’re going round the room, person by person, boy by boy, telling RAGS whether we’re doing Arts or Sciences, and which plans we have for which university. Each boy is also prepared for a possible ‘Why?’, when he’ll have to support his choices with reasoned argument. There are acceptable answers to his questions and ... well, nothing else. This is English Public School. You don’t plead ignorance of the rules and you don’t do any of that American stuff like pleading the fifth. Oh no. Not here.

Getting a better picture why my 14 year-old self is feeling just a tad rebellious?
I’m going to tell him.

The process starts and RAGS is not in any hurry. He starts front row left and goes steadily, predictably, boy by boy, row by row, which means I have to wait for ages.

“Effingham? What has your curious brain decided will be best for you for the rest of your life?”
“I’m doing Arts, sir, focusing on language, and then going to Jesus, Cambridge, sir. To do English Literature.”
“Oh are you? How very uninspired of you. Does the world really need another English Literature student?”
“Don’t know sir.”
“Don’t know sir. Is that really the best you can do? Don’t know sir. Find out. Next. Harris?”
“Sciences, sir. York, sir.”
“YORK? What on EARTH do you mean by YORK, Harris?”
“Maths sir. Want to do maths there, sir. They have a very strong maths department and -”

If you don’t want to go to Oxbridge, Bristol might be acceptable for reading Law, maybe York for reading Classics, but anything that might be construed as a red brick college is out of the question. Trojan horses for Lefties and apparently beneath who we’re supposed to be.

Finally. “Adley?”
“Not going to University, sir.”

A loose spray of convulsive spume flies out of RAGS's mouth. Years later I’ll watch the sweat sweep in slow motion from Robert de Niro’s cheek in ‘Raging Bull’ and think of the time RAGS lost control of his saliva.

“What did you say, BOYYYYYYYY?”
“Not going to university, sir.”

Silence falls for a moment, as 23 teenage boys turn their heads to look at me.
 I’m standing. We all stand when answering RAGS.

“And what do your parents think of this, Adley?”
“Don’t know sir. Thought I’d tell you first, sir.”

RAGS is out of his chair and he’s coming for me. Stretching my neck, I try to lift my hair off my collar. If he sees it hanging over my collar, I’m in big trouble. A heck of lot of stretched necks suddenly appear whenever RAGS is around.

“You haven’t told them? Do you think this is some kind of joke, boy? Are you out of your tiny pea-brained mind? Do you have any idea how hard your parents have worked, both of them I happen to know, sweating and scrimping and saving, making sacrifices, do you UNDERSTAND Adley, SACRIFICES, to send you to this school, so that you might have the chance to in some way repay their efforts? This? Do you have any idea how selfish you are being? Oh Adley, I saw it in you, but I hoped you were better than this. You you you HORRRRRRRIBLE VILE LITTE WRETCH!”

I want to tell him that it’s only the formalising of academia I hate. It’s like the trombone l played in the school orchestra and a jazz band. I loved it, but when they made me do Grade Exams, I stopped playing.

To this day I’m as eager to learn as I am loathe to turn that pleasure into a chore. As a definition of excellent education, what's better than leaving school with a desire to learn?

©Charlie Adley

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