New boy

30th September 2005 at 01:00
South London, a morning in September, 1965. I am standing in the hall of the flat where I live with my mum and big sister. I am about to leave for my first day at grammar school. I am wearing a new red blazer, an itchy white shirt, a school tie and shiny new shoes. I have a satchel in one hand, a sports bag over my shoulder. I am 11 years and nine months old.

I feel very small, and I am terrified.

"Right, you off ?" says Mum. I nod, and she brushes something from my lapel. She has tears in her eyes, and looks as if she's saying goodbye to me forever. My sister has left for her school, the girls' secondary.

"Remember, if they hit you, then you hit them back," Mum adds.

"I'll be fine, Mum," I mutter, and leave.

I don't want her to fret, although I know she will. She's always been a worrier, but since she and my dad were divorced she seems to be on edge all the time, upset about things that have happened and frightened about what might happen next. And the truth is that I don't think I'll be fine. In fact, as I trudge downstairs to the street outside, I feel totally doomed.

I'm not worried about the lessons, the new stuff I'm going to have to deal with, like Latin and Science. I'm looking forward to all that - I enjoy learning. I was one of the brightest pupils in my year at primary school.

Only John Cooper got better marks than me, and his father is a teacher at the posh private school where John himself is starting this September.

No, it's the other pupils that worry me. The grammar is an all-boys school, and from the moment I knew I was going there I seem to have been hearing disturbing stories about it. My mum's heard the stories too, and believes every word. Bullying and beatings, new boys being dangled by their ankles from third-storey windows or having their heads shoved down the loo, teachers wielding the cane at every opportunity... All that's bad enough, but the school sport this term is rugby, and we've been told to bring our rugby kit today. I've never been interested in sport, not even playground football. I suppose that's because I don't have a dad around to take me to football matches or to the park for a kick-about. I certainly don't know anything about rugby, except what I've seen on our fuzzy black and white TV. It looks like a mad, violent game in which big blokes chase a strangely shaped ball and crash into each other.

I stop at my mate Mark's house. He passed his 11-Plus and is starting at the grammar too, and we've decided to walk there together on the first day.

Mark has an older brother at the grammar who is the source of most of the disturbing stories. Although somehow they don't seem to bother Mark that much. We set off down his road and turn into the High Street.

Soon we begin to see other boys in red blazers, and the school gates looming before us. I swallow hard as we go through and stand in the playground behind the redbrick Victorian building. Around us are lots of older boys in groups, laughing and pushing each other. There are also plenty of nervous-looking boys of my age, although some seem relaxed.

I tell myself they must have dads or older brothers. Probably both.

And then it begins. A teacher comes out, rings a great clanging hand bell, and we are summoned in to meet our fate. The morning flies by - a special assembly, a blur of classrooms and corridors full of jostling boys and roaring teachers in medieval gowns, pandemonium in the dining hall at lunch. At last it's time to head for the playing fields, and Games.

We change into our stiff new kit and boots in a smelly old pavilion. Then we trot out on to the pitches, a gaggle of eleven-year-old boys of varying shapes and sizes. We stand there bemused while the PE teacher - who seems to be all muscles and hairy legs and loud voice - yells the rules of the game at us. He divides us into teams, and we start playing.

The sun is shining and the grass feels soft and spongy beneath my boots. I have no idea what I'm doing. But suddenly the ball bobbles towards me and I pick it up. I set off running in sheer terror, dodging the boys who try to tackle me, and I fall over the line at the opposite end of the pitch. I have scored a try, although I'm not sure what that means.

'Well done, lad,' yells the PE teacher, slapping me on the shoulder.

I realise I want to hear him say that again. So I go after the ball, I run, I make some tackles, and the PE teacher praises me several more times. I decide that rugby is indeed a mad, violent game. But also that I love it.

As I walk home after school, I feel ten feet tall.

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