We’d emerged from the 11+, “the quawlie”, more or less unscathed. Well I say that, but that wasn’t true for all of us. Some of us were going down. Some of us would not proceed in two months’ time east across the playground from old to new building to start all over again. Some of us would be herded up and force-marched Partick-wards to Hamilton Crescent, “Hammie”, the junior secondary.
Mrs Miller tried to talk Hammie up. “There’s no shame in not being academically minded. You will have plenty of opportunities. In fact, you will enter life faster. Typing for the girls and woodwork for the boys.” It sounded like hell on earth. Hammie had a fearsome reputation. The pupils were all criminals-in-waiting and the teachers their gaolers. It was borstal, thinly disguised. You’d be beaten up in the playground and belted in the classroom. I gave up a prayer of gratitude, not of intercession. Thank God I’m not stupid. Heavenly father I thank thee that I am not as one of these.
Half a lifetime ago Miss Haggart had invited me for a tete-a-tete at her desk in front of the class. She was a terrifying woman but on this occasion she was fawning over me in a way I couldn’t understand. She was like the big bad wolf in a bad red-riding-hood disguise. She was almost obsequious. Apparently I was top of the class. It was news to me. I’d just been trying to keep my head above water, keep my incompetence to myself. Joyce Cooper had had to teach me how to tie my shoes laces and put on my tie. I was backward. There must be some mistake.
But I’d got to like it there, the view from the back of the class. Marjorie sat across the aisle from me, with her lovely long straight red hair. Proxime accessit. I would flash her sickly smiles of meretricious, sycophantic concupiscence. (I really must stop saying that.) The quawlie was no threat to me. Smug little prig.
For seven years we had started the day with The Lord’s Prayer and then moved quickly on to sums. We were drilled mercilessly in number for an hour and a bit, until I could blessedly escape to do the milk run. The exams for this particular “R” of the 3-R triumvirate always took the same form: fifty marks for mechanical, 40 for problems, 10 for “mental”, total: 100. In mechanical, we added, subtracted, multiplied, divided. We manipulated vulgar fractions, and decimals. We did it so often that we did it, indeed, mechanically. We applied the techniques to problems of the sort that used to intrigue the Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock. If it takes 4 men 6 days to dig a hole, 12 feet deep, how long does it take 3 men to dig a hole, 15 feet deep?
Well! You could write an essay! Is this second hole to be of the same width? Are we digging through a similar consistency of substratum? Are the 3 men to be chosen from the original group of 4, and, if so, do we leave out the laziest, or the strongest, or the union man? Which is absurd. It took a certain talent for abstract thought to realize that the problem being posed was not human at all, but that we were merely being introduced to algebra by stealth. You tended to fare rather better at school, if you were a little bit obtuse.
One day Mrs Miller marked our papers and dished them back at us. Ann Munro went out to dispute a mark. I was vaguely aware of raised voices.
“The answer is 1. You have written 100.”
“No I didn’t. I wrote 1.”
I was summoned to adjudicate. Ann had written 100, and then rubbed out the two nothings. But she hadn’t rubbed hard enough. That would have been my ruling, had I not been pressurised to take sides. I said it was 100, and sat down feeling like Pontius Pilate, vaguely conscious that an opportunity had passed me by. I cursed Ann for not using a cleaner eraser. I cursed Mrs Miller, for putting me in that situation. But mostly I cursed myself. I wish I’d said Ann had written a 1. Ann, I’m sorry.
After break we did parsing.
Down south, Mrs May wants to return to this. She reminds me of the last line from The Great Gatsby.
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.