Continuing our summer series on adolescence, poet John Hegley tells a tale of love at the school disco.
DURING pubescence, I was never one of the in-crowd. I had skirted all social functions until attraction to one of my fellow pupils led me to attend a school discotheque at which I knew she would be vibrantly present.
Knowing that one ought to dress for the occasion, and having an image of the suit as the thing to be dressed in, I asked my brother if I could borrow one of his. Invitingly he directed me towards his wardrobe - for a fee of two shillings. There I selected the outfit least obviously made for someone else, puffed myself up as big and as best I could and made my way schoolwards.
Arriving in the darkened hall, I found the only other suit-wearer to be the teacher condemned to disco duty. I looked and felt phenomenally out of place; the easiest option was a loss-cutting dash for it but I decided instead to be stubborn, and to stay.
Purchasing a lemonade at the tuck-bar, I located the girl of my ruminations, downed the fizzy, beelined over, and requested a dance. She looked startling and, unfortunately, startled, casting a disbelieving look of disownership to her fellows.
"Go on!" I said. Teasingly they echoed "Go on!" She looked at me blank. Then an interruption. The announcement of the drawing of the raffle. The price, a two shilling voucher for the tuck-bar. I prayed that the prize would be mine. And then hers. I would present her well-deserved trophy. The winning number was called. The number was mine. I climbed the steps of the stage, to much booing, and then mockery - "Where did you get the suit then?" As an act of kindness the teacher said "I got it at Burton's, actually." A misdirective strategy with which I gratefully went along.
I descended the steps, the music recommenced, I re-beelined for the chosen one, handed her the voucher and once more offered her my hand in dance. "Go on!" bayed her entourage. Handing me back the voucher she traipsed with me onto the still empty dance-floor. I tried to get in close and smoochy but sensed it was a little too soon. I was learning fast. I stepped back into a display of improvised solo work and as I took a few moments to monitor the complxities of my foot-work, she slipped away unnoticed. I completed the number alone.
The disco debacle was ultimately to have a beneficial effect. The worst-case scenario had been played out and I survived. Ever since, I have been able to dance my own steps with a partner with confidence. I have been comfortable in a suit which is the wrong size or simply just wrong - this is me, if you don't like it, fair enough but it is how I am.
I took a risk at the disco, it paid off, the hard experience was my lesson, perhaps my destiny. I still go into certain situations, where the obvious choice is to retreat behind the curtains. The disco defeat was a watershed. I wanted to be one of the regular run, I was lucky enough to realise that I wasn't. "You're not normal," my dad used to declare. I was loath to accept his assessment, but he was right. I am abnormal. Praise the Lord!
That year I came 28th out of 29 in my class. I can recall only one instance of pure positivity from the teaching staff. One afternoon the art teacher asked me to come out to the front to have a word with her - when I was ready. When I was ready? What was going on! Responsibility? Rather than orders?
I assumed that I was to be quietly reprimanded for flicking paint at my neighbour, gave it 30 seconds and came to her desk-side. She said she had some art- work upon which she would be grateful of my opinion. Opinion? She wanted my opinion? Did I have opinions about art? Could I have such?
The incident has been a touchstone in my understanding of the benefit of positive expectations. Believe in someone and they're more likely to believe in themselves. Trust them with responsibility and they're more likely to be worthy of trust. Of course there will be failures. Of course there will be betrayals. And there will be lots of them.
The art teacher pulled out a painting from her folder. It was one of her own. A depiction of the suit she'd been wearing on duty at the discotheque. I said I liked the idea of painting clothes. She took out a second image. It was of the boiler suit which I had worn.
A new volume of poems by John
Hegley, Dog, will be published by Methuen in October
Next week: Caitlin Moran on her first crush