Rebel Without a Clue
“Good” schools are supposed to lead to something – university in particular.
But why did it seem to come as a surprise? The school reports had been appalling. Apart from English and, to a lesser extent in history, I had hardly passed an exam since 1963. Year after year the school sent back the reports showing me with 20% for German or 32% for physics and clearly marooned in the relegation zone. And it got steadily worse. Surely my parents could have sued the school for taking money under false pretences when the institute charged with educating me could finally send out reports showing seven per cent for geometry or four per cent for algebra?
The headmaster – oops, sorry, this is the Royal High School with its traditions, the Rector, was a new man before new men were created, certainly in education. He was for breaking barriers and understanding his charges; for educating the inner child rather than chasing the paper qualifications. That’s fine – as long as you get the paper too. He’d been appointed only a year after my arrival at the school when the incumbent – a traditional, distant, apparently austere, mortar-boarded caricature – had keeled over at his desk one fine day to open up a much sought after vacancy and give the boys an unexpected half day as the school staff rocked on their heels and wondered what to do.
The Baillie from Banff
Baillie T Ruthven came from Banff with – if my selective memory holds – a reputation for reform. He may have talked a good reform, but nothing much seemed to show at the school. He took an interest in the boys and especially the troublemakers. For Neil he tried to get special needs treatment to get to the heart of that boy’s growing violence and anti-social behaviour. When that failed, so it was said, he paid for psychiatric treatment out of school funds [or from his own pocket depending which rumour you heard – Ed.]. Me, he just talked at. When I fought and kicked and screamed at the prefects and frightened them into believing that I was really prepared to die than be slippered ever again by them, he talked to me. When, out of hours, a teacher spotted me and Neil smashing up street signs, he talked to me. When several of us set fire to a box of rubbish – and incidentally the janitor’s office – he talked to me. When I refused to call the teachers “Sir” he talked to me. When I was caught cutting classes or smoking in the lavatories, he talked to me. It was Inspector Whitehead all over again (but that’s another story). I’d got away with it. But with Whitehead I knew if there had been a next time there would have been a punishment. With Baillie T I knew it would just be another talking to.
It didn’t work. It backfired on him. Other potential delinquents saw what I got away with, mimicked and mirrored me. He tried to form a “School Council” of 5th and 6th formers, voted on by their peers. He encouraged me to stand. He knew I had the support and would have walked on without any need for him to rig the results. But I wouldn’t stand. None of the malcontents would. The council formed and flopped within a term.
He had a last throw and reformed the prefect system. Until then about 25 – or around a quarter of the sixth form – would earn the plain black tie of authority. For our year – the class of 1968/69 – he wanted to demonstrate the responsibility that comes to all with seniority. Every one of us was to be a prefect. In truth he would have been hard pushed to find the 25 upright souls a normal system would have demanded. We loved the new system. A spacious common room where masters came by invitation only, the right to jump the queue in the dining hall, the power to hand out lines (use of the slipper had been abolished for prefects) to any youngsters who annoyed us. He too seemed surprised that we who had suffered from an arbitrary system of discipline should ourselves relish abusing it. Who says educationalists understand education? At our now only occasional talks he sometimes seemed disheartened.
My final exams at school were the fiasco they were always going to be. Not that the fates hadn’t given me every opportunity. Somehow, in the 5th year exams, I had picked up Highers in English – an “A”, and a good one at that, I was told – and a “C” in History. My pride was somewhat dented at failing Modern Studies – the subject of any in all the world I was qualified to do well in as it seemed to demand nothing more than a little knowledge of current events and a capacity for bullshit. Perhaps, it finally began to occur to me, I didn’t really know it all. But how could I scrape into a university – any university?
Is it possible to fail Modern Studies?
I filled up the UCCA – the Universities Central Council for Admissions – form fatalistically. For everyone else, of course, it seemed that with what they had so far and the reasonable predictions for the final year the world would be their oyster.
Clunk, clunk, clunk came the letters on to our doormat as Edinburgh and St Andrews, Keele and Birmingham stifled their laughter in formal rejection slips. Then amazement. The new university of Stirling would take me for Social Science (whatever that meant; it seemed a sufficiently nebulous “science” to make actual work an unlikely prospect) if I could add a Modern Studies Higher to my pathetic collection and get at least an “O” grade in a language. By then I had allegedly studied German for 5 years and had already failed the “O” – by some distance.
Six months – nearly two terms – to get my act together. A modest target. Surely within the scope of all but the dullest candidates. Was it perhaps too modest? Did I somewhere in my idler’s soul realise that a prize to be won for such trivial achievement was already tarnished? Or had whatever self-discipline I had simply evaporated? The call of the card schools and the chit-chat, the posing and the juvenile attitude striking of the common room were all I heard.
Shirking and Dodging
True to form the Royal High gave me every opportunity to shirk and dodge. Even I couldn’t get away with a timetable of German and Modern Studies alone. To these were added another doomed attempt on “O” grade mathematics, a bit of further English – grandly called Sixth Year studies – and a re-run of the History syllabus with the aim of improving the “C” grade next time round. We all had lots of free periods – oops, sorry “private study” periods – but a number of classroom periods were scheduled so that different subjects clashed. As responsible young men on the verge of adulthood we were assumed to take rational decisions about which classes we would miss and make our own arrangements to catch up on the work missed. “Sorry sir, I missed history yesterday (and the day before, and the week before and the week before that) because it clashed with German – and that has to be my priority.” And, “Sorry sir, I missed German yesterday (and the day before etc) because I had to go to history – it’s essential I improve my grade in the exam”. The teachers didn’t know what targets you had been set. Perhaps they thought we told them the truth; perhaps they didn’t care.
Poker and Brag
Day in, day out I sat in the sixth form common room, the one virtually constant face in a three card brag or poker school that grew and shrank as boys came and went, most just investing their free periods, along with their shillings and sixpences, many cutting the occasional class. But I had to do more. I had to blow my entire future on the constantly turning cards. The common room was my world for a whole term.
Then the exams were a couple of months away. It was time to put away childish things and do some work. I graced Mr Cochrane’s German class with my presence.
“What are you doing here? You’re not in this class” So old red-nosed Cocky was not quite as brain dead as he looked, sounded and acted. He did have some awareness of what happened around him.
“Yes I am, sir. I’m re-sitting “O” grade. I know I’ve missed some classes but that’s because it clashes with…”
“Oh no it doesn’t. Get out of here. If you couldn’t be bothered coming before, then I’m not having you now. Get out”
And that was it. Back to the three card brag. I wondered if my parents were getting value for their fees.
Goodbye Royal High
Heaven knows how or why but I sat the German exam. The Modern Studies Higher was assured – I simply read “The Times” occasionally – and a German pass would guarantee that place at Stirling. They couldn’t really stop me taking the exam. The paper was a nightmare. What else could it be? The last section was a short essay in German. I blundered away at it, tearing up tenses, inventing vocabulary, guessing at genders until the sheer nonsense of it all became overwhelming. My pen broke into English in the middle of the tortured Teutonic: “What is the point,” I wrote “even the most lenient examiner couldn’t give me a pass for this. I give up”. I put down the pen and left the exam room and the Royal High forever.
It was my last exam; it was May 1969, the month of my eighteenth birthday and two months before man would walk on the moon for the first time. Term ran on until June and leavers were expected to return to their studies after exams for a gentle wind down culminating in the end of year ceremony in the main hall.
The Royal High had moved from its ancient but cramped eminence on Calton Hill the previous year to a purpose built Lego-land at Barnton in the West. We’d traded in the Doric pillars and the great oval school hall for pre-stressed concrete and ample parking. But we’d taken the school doors with us.
The heavy panelled double doors, flanked by pillars, had stood a hundred years and more at the south end of the sunken hall modelled on some ancient Greek debating chamber. Only once a year were they opened as, on the last day, leavers would line up for a handshake and words of good wishes from the Rector and, with crushing symbolism, step out of school onto the smoke grimed balcony with its views towards Holyrood and the future.
Photos would be taken against the pillared background, profound words exchanged, quiet thoughts nursed. The symbolism took only a slight knock as the assembled company then shuffled back through the mighty doors, into the hall and out the exit they had used every day of their school life; there was no way down from that splendid balcony. I’m blowed if I can remember where the doors led to in their new Barnton setting.
Good luck, Robert
I never went through these doors. I probably missed something. It was a quarter of a century and more later that my namesake (a cleverer, harder working boy in the class above who looked no more like me than the Dalai Lama) William Dunnett told me that as he had filed through, the Rector had squeezed his hand firmly and said “Good luck, Robert”. So dear old Baillie T never even knew I had snubbed him. Like every loser before, I’d said I wanted to do it my way. And they had let me. Happy days.