Knocks that make a mockery of opportunity

Andrew Granath's Talkback on how the rift at 11-plus still smarts for those who attended secondary moderns (Friday, May 3) has prompted me to illustrate that the other side had its drawbacks too.

At 60, I have just retired after 36 inspiring and fulfilling years as a teacher. As an 11-plus "success" I went to an old direct grant independent school because, naively, I fancied myself in a purple uniform. I did profit from the educational opportunity, but the social dislocation was a shock; the memory still makes me cringe after nearly 50 years.

My father made the odd bit of money hawking hankies, plastic beads and home-made laundry bags in markets, or unsuccessfully ticket-touting. He was a gambler, so most of his profit, such as it was, evaporated in the bookies or bingo halls. While he waited for his "ship to come in", I went to school inill-fitting hand-me-downs and shoes with the toes cut out to allow for my growing feet. My mother charred for two shillings an hour. We lived in a crumbling council house with no bathroom and an outside lavatory, where the toilet paper was pieces of cut-up newsprint hung from a hook by a length of string.

Imagine how I ran the gauntlet of my co-pupils' condescension. "My father's in British Oxygen. How about yours?" "But how can one ever keep clean without a bath?" I spent hours in detention for having no plimsolls for PE. My task was to write as many times as I could in an hour: "Correct uniform must be worn at all times." Plimsolls cost three shillings a pair. My spine still tingles when I recall the relief of acquiring a pair.

When I got an exhibition - a university place with special funding - to Oxford, my bewildered parents let me go. Retrieving my father's possessions from the hospital after his death, when I was 41, I found in his breast pocket a carefully folded, yellowing excerpt from The Times with the notice of my degree. How proud he must have been in secret but how angry and inarticulate in public because he felt diminished by my achievement.

He'd left school at 12 and could barely write. Oxford was another world, particularly the college I attended; a magnet for the daughters of the rich and famous, where there existed not a flicker of pastoral care; a place where you could have been dead for weeks before anyone would bother. The only contact with an adult was a one-hour weekly tutorial.

The strain of adjustment to such an environment was enormous. The crunch came in a tutorial with a fearsome female don, who flung a piece of incomprehensible Latin down before me. "Translate," she ordered, poking her coal fire while I struggled with the description of a ship, full of parts for which I would have been hard-pressed to summon the English vocabulary, let alone the Latin. As I struggled she waved her poker in exasperation until I wept.

She called the doctor, who recommended the local mental hospital, (it was packed with university students) and electric shock treatment. My mother was summoned to the principal to give permission. How brave and sensible she was. "All she needs is care and understanding. I'll take her home with me." As we left, the tutor shook my hand with the valediction: "One rotten apple spoils the barrel. We can't allow weakness to taint the ranks."

At home I recovered my dignity with a determination not to be ground down by the class divide and the bizarre life of an all-women's college. The dons were desiccated beings out of touch with the real world and more interested in research than the wellbeing of the people in their care. I went back and ended up with a good degree - plus an enduring obsession to stick up for the underprivileged and inarticulate. I hope similar situations could not arise today. They couldn't, could they?

Gill Tweed

Gill Tweed recently retired as a nursery teacher in south London

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