One of my model spaceships. A bit battered now.
When you’re 9 the summer holidays are about two years in length. They are so long that by the end you almost can’t remember the beginning. As it draws to a close there’s that feeling of rejuvenation and excitement as the weather changes from sunny and hot, to sunny and cold, to dark and cold in just a few days. But 1980 was different. I had an overwhelming feeling of dread that I couldn’t shake off.
They say everyone remembers a good teacher. Perhaps you remember the bad ones too.
We’d left behind the most magical year with Mrs Edwards, before the summer. It had been a great year that had started that previous 1st of September with the Daleks back on TV in Doctor Who. The last time that had happened was 1975, half my life ago. The excitement was unparalleled. From Doctor Who Weekly I’d become aware that the programme had started in 1963. I worked out in my head that that meant it was now 17 years old and in three years time it would be 20 years old. Something to look forward to.
Then we had the second Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back, out in the summer. We’d waited three long years for that. Our heads were filled with the concepts of strange worlds, powerful starships, bounty hunters, the mysterious Force and good verses evil. Mrs Edwards said the entire class could build a space station. We all collected bottles and boxes from home and brought them in. We all worked together, boys and girls, gluing them together to fill the entire classroom floor with our space base.
But most of all, what caught my imagination that year was the concept of stories. Everything I was interested in was a story. Stories of adventure, of self-sacrifice, of traitors and heroes, of greed and of hope.
I thought we should re-enact The Empire Strikes Back in the bike shed. It was a large covered area that would serve perfectly as the cloud city of Bespin. I needed more players so recruited friends, then more joined. A group of younger children wanted to be stormtroopers (headed up by my brother). Another batch were bounty hunters, guards and Ugnaughts. We had the Princess and Han. Sean was Chewie. We had a Luke (I think that honour fell to Alex Chakrabarti) and I played Darth Vader and Boba Fett (which was tricky as they were required in the same scene). We did it and it worked, with twenty or so 8 and 9 years olds, during a damp breaktime, with no planning or explanation necessary. We just acted it out. Then the bell rang and we all went back to our separate classes.
When you have enough data, on any topic, your creativity starts to play with it. If you listen constructively to enough songs, you want to write your own and if you play out enough stories, you want to create you own. In 1979, that’s what Barry and I started to do.
We set it in the near future. Earth was at peace and was exploring the stars. It was about two brothers who had been assigned to an exploratory mission. They had fallen through a time vortex portal just outside our solar system and crashed their ship on a strange hostile world populated by robotic people who lived in a giant dome. They had been captured, but eventually escaped with the help of their clever but annoying small robot and managed to be rescued, but not before the leader of the robot people learned of Earth and planned an invasion to fly through the portal and attack all that we held dear. We acted the story out in the yard at playtime and developed the characters. But there was more to it than that. Everything in the story had original names and designs. We designed the uniforms and insignia. We designed and built spaceships and robots. Perhaps the actual story may not sound that original to you now, we’d thrown in elements from all that we’d known, but for two 8 year olds in 1979 I think it stills sounds pretty good. (This was 20 years before things like Deep Space Nine and the like that later made use of similar plot devices.)
Barry’s family were in the military so he added his knowledge of that into the detail. We’d seen the creepy Sapphire and Steel on television and added in psychological twists and depth that we picked up from that. We drew plans of the battle Armada, the bases on Mars and created the family trees of all the characters. We explored the political system of the robot creatures who lived like worker bees under their cyborg leader whose mind was now pure computer. We worked out how the impending invasion caused Earth governments to have to declare martial law and create a coalition, headed up by a right-wing leader from Britain called Eliot Joseph Livingston who had seized the opportunity. We were aware of the dangers of such emergency politics and built that into the story. There were threats from within as well as from outer space.
Mrs Edwards said we could stay in at lunchtime to work on the story more. She suggested we use larger bits of paper and stick them on the classroom wall to have more space to work out the detail.
But by September 1980 all that was a distant memory. The sun had gone out. Now we were lined up to have a new teacher, the dreaded Mr H. It was like heading for the gallows. Sean and I knew we didn’t like him and we knew he didn’t care for us. Sean said it would be alright though, things always turned out ok. But I couldn’t shake the foreboding. Doctor Who Weekly turned into Doctor Who Monthly so at least I had a good magazine to read and take my mind off it.
Mr H employed the ‘dark sarcasm in the classroom’ that had been highlighted by Pink Floyd’s number one single the previous year. He drove a bottle green Ford Cortina mark III. He didn’t let me and Sean sit together. He put Barry by the sink by the window so he could “dry his hands on his long hair”, or so he said.
We had to do a role play. We had to pretend to take a broken toy back to a shop. Darren was bringing it back and I was the shopkeeper. Darren explained that it had exploded and was a dangerous toy and demanded his money back.
“So what are you going to do?” asked Mr H.
“Give him his money back?” I said.
“No you idiot” said Mr H.
“He should have asked to see the receipt” said Darren.
“That’s right” said Mr H, “useless. Sit down”.
That’s how Mr H worked. He taught by humiliation. I didn’t think about asking for a receipt. Why would I? Darren’s family ran the VG shop. He’d worked there. Of course he’d know what to say. It all seemed terribly unfair.
I got depressed, although I didn’t have that word in my vocabulary then. I started thinking about death and felt as though I was going to die, that I didn’t have much time left. I dreamt that I’d asked my parents they could cancel Christmas, anything, to let me not go back to school. But in my waking life I said nothing.
Then it was Maths. Mr H explained about the budget and how prices go up. I wondered if the price of Star Wars figures would be going up. They did, from 99p to £1.49 putting them outside my purchasing power so I had to rely on the single beacon Christmas and my birthday (which are only 5 days apart) to get new toys.
Then Mr H had us all standing up. He asked us various quick-fire maths questions. If you got it right you sat down. Joanne Killian sat down straight away. I got it wrong and had to stay standing. Sean sats down. I got another one wrong again and had to stand on my chair. Kevin Tall sat down. Alison Ball sat down. I got it wrong and had to stand on my desk. Barry was standing on his chair but he too soon sat down. Then it was just me and John Moody left. Everyone else was sitting down.
“7 and 6” said Mr H.
“13” said John earning him his seat. Mr H starts having fun now. Multiplication, division, subtraction, the questions kept coming at me while the others laughed. I though I was going to die, or that I wanted to die, I didn’t know which. Mr Hall toyed with making me sit on the wardrobe but settled for having me sit at the front of the class, facing the blackboard for the rest of the session with a pointed card hat with a large ‘D’ on it.
My confidence had gone. There was a hole where it had been. From then on I struggled with maths. I had to stay behind at breaktime to watch David Shed do long division on the backboard just for fun, just to rub it in how useless I was at it.
Mr Jackson, the headmaster heard me talking to some kids one lunchtime about the Space Shuttle which was about to launch for the first time. He called me over and asked me to explain it to him. I told him all about it, how the boosters worked, how it would take off like a rocket, the duration of the mission, how it would land like an aeroplane, protected by the heat-resistance tiles and how it opened a new age in space exploration. He thanked me and went back to his office. I felt different, excited. There was no hole. When I got home I drew pictures of the Shuttle and compared the scale to the shuttles Barry and I had invented for our story. We were back on.
Barry and I continued our story for decades afterwards. They turned into comic strips and then into short stories and finally novels, adding more and more to the mythos we’d started back in Mrs Edwards’ class.
Mr H went on to be headmaster two years later after both Mr Jackson and I had moved on. He would never know that I would go on to get a degree in Physics and to study maths to a far higher level than he ever did. But I don’t do mental arithmetic.
If you liked this theme of childhood and school memories you may like:
I own the only surviving copy of time
My headmaster still owes me £50
Why do we remember what we remember?
Where does our ‘right and wrong’ come from?
The Creative Troublemaker
Don’t Talk to Strangers
The End of a Friendship
(This is an adapted extract from my forthcoming book, ‘The Thinking Cap Experiment’)
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