I am, just about, a member of a Facebook group about my old school, Brislington Comprehensive, or Briz as both the school and the area – but not Bristol – Bristol has never been known as Briz – are known. I am ‘just about’ a member because the group, at least to me, paints a picture I don’t recognise. I know that time loves a hero and that summers were always hot and sunny when we were children, apart from when they weren’t, which was most years, but my memories of Briz School are generally grim.
It is entirely possible that my memories of Briz school are not happy ones because I came out of the place with a grand total of one ‘O’ level. I didn’t think I was a dimwit with almost zero intelligence at the time, but results suggested I was. Maths, all the sciences, practical subjects like woodwork and even sport I was no good at anything.
I read stories about how good the teachers were. I never recognised that picture although I could have been because I was placed in the lower sets where poor performers could fail to perform on a regular basis, unencumbered by inspirational or even half-decent teachers.
I certainly made lots of friends at school and a few of them have remained friends to this day. I still see some of them, although the vast majority I have not seen since I left in 1974 and some not before then.
There have been opportunities to see friends from the early 1970s at occasional school reunions but I have always chosen not to attend. Not because I particularly dislike anyone from my school days, more that we probably don’t have much to say to each other beyond, ‘What have you been up to these last 40-odd years?’ or ‘remember that hilarious day when X (he is dead now so I’d best not use his real name) through a fork at you and it stuck in your finger and stayed there until a passing teacher yanked it out, causing you to bleed all over the table?’ (Full disclosure: I didn’t ‘grass-up’ the person who did it because he and his mates would have made my life a misery, probably forever.)
It’s entirely possible that Briz was a very good school and the issues were all mine. My mother, a Dutch woman with virtually no social network at all, did her best whilst her ex husband, my father, obviously, had long been living in Canada. My support network was virtually non-existent and I suppose it didn’t help when I went slightly mad with panic attacks, night terrors and the start of a lifetime of depression and anxieties which of course were things that didn’t exist in the 1970s.
A truly low point occurred in a woodwork lesson conducted by a teacher whose anonymity I shall protect by referring to him only as Mr ‘J’. I’d been a few years with a child psychiatrist, seeing him every Tuesday afternoon, not knowing he was a child psychiatrist for at least a year before my mum spilled the beans when I kept asking her who he was and why I was going to see him. I was permanently upset after attending lessons I couldn’t understand a thing about and this one day I was in woodwork.
In terms of inability, woodwork was probably my top subject. I literally did not understand a thing, whether it was the written stuff or the practical stuff. I absolutely dreaded woodwork and then it came to a head. Mr ‘J’ had already taken me into his cubbyhole of an office to read the riot act about my hopeless inability to follow his instructions on absolutely everything. He was very aggressive, glaring into my eyes, as he accused me of being a ‘bad influence’ on other pupils, telling me to pull my socks up ‘or else!’
Mr ‘J’ was showing us how to carry out some kind of woodwork manoeuvre when he suddenly blew his top with me for reasons I do not, to this day, understand. As he marched towards me, he caught the pocket of his white coat on a vice and the buttons popped off and flew into the air one by one. It was extremely funny and everyone laughed. Except Mr ‘J’. Somehow, it was my fault and he sent me out of the woodwork room, whereupon I simply carried on walking, out through the schoolmates and home, crying – sobbing, actually – all the way.
Anyway, the deputy head summoned my mum to see him and, to all intents and purposes, read out the riot act to her, too. If I carried on like this, I’d be kicked out of school. Looking back, I always thought, ‘Carried on like what? Carried on being mentally ill? Carried on struggling desperately in virtually all subjects with no support from any of the teachers? And all these years on, I am supposed to look back with fond nostalgia at a time when my life was a car crash? Really? For the rest of that school year, I was almost sick with fear as the weekly lesson with Mr ‘J’ came along.
So, when there is a school reunion, I look the other way. My memories are almost all negative, apart from the genial and wonderful Mrs Defonseca, the Portuguese English teacher who encouraged and inspired me to write and without whom you would not be reading this self-pitying nonsense today.
I liked most of the people I was at school with. There were very few wrong ‘uns in my year and, from what I can tell, most of them went on to better and brighter days. When I walked out of Briz school for the last time in 1974, it was with a mixture of relief, fear and foreboding, because I knew I was not well prepared for the real world of work.
Luckily, I survived Briz and the largely unsuccessful career that followed. I consider myself a product of a dysfunctional upbringing, that almost certainly created half a century of poor mental health, poor schooling and a lifelong inability to work out what I wanted to do in life.
School certainly set me up for life, but not in a good way. I’d rather put it that school set me up to fail. And that’s why I don’t look at school days as being happy days, because they weren’t. They were among the worst days of my life.