From the age of about thirteen I entered the most turbulent period of my life to the present date. Mid 1960s was a time of upheaval anyway. 1966 had just seen England win the World Cup and I managed to get some stamps with England Winners on them, which I still have. Sgt Pepper’s and The Piper at the Gates of Dawn were released in 1967 and I was just finishing the first year at Roundhay School and in September was in the second year. The change from primary to secondary was quite marked and it took most of that first year to settle in.
I had heard terrible tales of bullying that happened to new boys, but apart from the first day christening of my cap, (the removal by an older boy and the smashing of the enamel badge on the ground,) I can’t say I ever really experienced any, personally. I am sure that it did take place, but being quite tall at that time, fairly sturdy and, due to growing testosterone levels, quite feisty, I was left alone. One thing that was very true was that I, and probably most boys, received no preparation for the physical and emotional upheaval that was about to hit us. We weren’t totally stupid and did note that older Sixth Formers looked very different. To First Years they appeared like men: facial hair, deep voices, long hair and arrogance. The teachers dealt with them in a totally different way and physically, at least, they were young men. I was unaware how child-like they still were mentally, or in many ways men remain so.
I had thought it very unjust that prefects were able to put you in detention and set lines or similar punishments. I had railed about this injustice to my Mum, but she just said that everything would be fine, and in most instances it was. I think school detention was still on Saturday mornings in that first year, but it was changed to Wednesday afternoons by the time I ever got one. There were all sorts of rituals and organisational procedures so it took time to settle into Roundhay. One of the first was that we were allocated a desk in ‘Holy Joe’ Pullen’s classroom over the boiler house. He instructed us that we could purchase a padlock hasp latch from the workshops and we could fit it to the desk, buy a padlock and keep our books and belongings in them. These were wooden desks and they were quite old. They had a hinged wooden lid and, as this was long before lockers, it was the only way of avoiding carrying a hundred- weight of books and equipment backwards and forwards to school. The desks were well worn and it appeared the history of every boy who had sat at mine was carved into its solid surface. The previous owners had removed their hasp and padlock to fit onto their new desk. After getting some money from home I went to buy a hasp and padlock and, with the help of a trusty screwdriver, managed to fit it. Luckily, there were plenty of old screw holes to utilise amongst initials and years carved deeply. It felt quite grown up having your own locked desk and within a couple of days everyone had managed to secure their own. Text books were issued on a loan basis and there was the threat of being charged if the book was damaged, which was a bit of a laugh as most were old, well-used and defiled copies, but they were stamped with their date of issue and our names recorded along with the book number of each text.
I have not considered it before, but there appears to be something in at least masculine nature that wants to mark their territory and so initials were carved into almost everything: desks, cliff surfaces, tree trunks, plaster. Now it is spray cans and marker pens, but then it was carving. I must say that there were accomplished carvers and names in fine Roman script were left for posterity. I was never that good, but it helped to pass a boring lesson to pull out the compass and get to work adding or improving an earlier piece I had started. When we ran out of desk space we would start on wooden pencil cases, mathematical drawing instrument cases or our rulers. As we became more interested in music and bands their names would appear and the ex-military rucksacks that were the fashion at the time were emblazoned with bands of the time. The more obscure the band, or avant-garde, the greater the kudos. I still remember someone having The Doors emblazoned on their bag and I was impressed, even though I hadn’t heard of them at the time.
The teachers didn’t seem to notice the desks, or if they did, didn’t care. They would sit perched on their dais, resplendent like black crows in the academic gown, ready to hurl the blackboard rubber at any unfortunate boy who drew their attention. On a number of occasions I saw the intended target missed, but some unfortunate neighbour took the full force of the eraser as it struck them an almost lethal blow.
Most rooms were devoid of decoration and few had any posters and I never saw school work displayed. Most rooms were a pale green or blue and the corridor was faded green, I believe. Even the blackboards were green. They were green ground glass and the theory we were told was that they were more restful on the eye. The exception was in the science labs where moveable roller boards were used. Notes were written and when the teacher got towards the bottom they would slide the board up, hiding their notes from any student slouch who had not kept up. Some lessons were spent just copying notes or, even worse, just copying homework instructions. Many teachers took great delight in rubbing out the top of the board when they got to the bottom and protests were met with a snide comment and a smirk.
Some teachers thought they were funny and we learnt those we had to laugh with when they told, what they thought was, a joke. “Please sir? Can I go to the toilet?” “Of course you can!” was the reply and when the boy stood to leave the room, “Where are you going, boy? I said that you could, not that you may!”
By the end of the first year we had got used to the routines. We knew how to get new exercise books when they were full, without being charged for removing pages, knew our way around the school campus, got used to what days we needed which equipment such as woodwork aprons, sports gear and so on. As a result, we started the second year with confidence and welcoming the arrival of the new boys. We were the ones christening the new boys’ caps now that we were no longer the little fish and we moved around the school with a growing swagger.
To add to this was the fact that many of us had changed over the summer holidays. The changes came in a number of ways and they were hair, voice, muscle and height. These could arrive together, individually, in any order and as we were so ill-prepared we were not sure if it was normal or not. Certainly my parents had relied on the school to deal with such issues and it was an area of education that Roundhay School certainly failed at within the curriculum, but within the hidden curriculum there was a lot of information and misinformation passed around by the boys. I must admit I would rather have died than had to have a face to face discussion about the birds and the bees with my parents, but I do know one or two boys who did experience such a talk.
My first recollection of any changes came from going to the pictures with my dad. For some inexplicable reason I found myself getting quite uncomfortable when there were scenes with attractive actresses in the James Bond films, or other films. The feelings would go and I never gave it much thought. The second change I was forewarned about as I was part of the choir at St Wilfrid’s Church. I knew that voices would ‘break’ at about the age of twelve and you had to leave the choir when it happened. Breaking meant that your voice would go deeper and then suddenly higher as your vocal chords began to thicken. This meant you could no longer control your voice and you had to leave until your voice settled down. Some boys suffered very badly, but I don’t think I did. After a short time mine just settled down to the timbre it has now. After saying this, voices still change over time and mine is probably a little deeper than it was. An example is Elton John’s voice. It has changed dramatically over the years.
I did have a growth spurt and I was one of the tallest boys in the Under 13s Rugby team, but alas that was the end and I have remained 5 foot 7 and a half inches ever after and that half inch is very important. My cap size was 6 and seven-eighths, but I don’t really know what that meant. I would have loved to have been a couple of inches taller, but that was not to be. Of course all my four sons are considerably taller than me.
All of these changes I took in my stride, but hair was the one that was a killer. Despite knowing it would come, the arrival of bodily hair was something that you didn’t want to be the first to have, nor the last. Sport was the problem area as we had to have a bath, naked after rugby, or a shower when they became available. These were times when you were vulnerable to the gaze of others of your peers. This was bad enough when you looked just like them, but when you were different that was a problem. Comments would be made, and egos bruised after taunting and ribbing. Luckily I was not the first, but not long after and no attempts to hide evidence would succeed for long. During that second year the balance changed and it was those not yet sporting this new sign of manhood that suffered the jibes and the flicking of the wet towels. Luckily we all grow out of this, but there was considerable eyeing other boys’ development to compare how we had been placed in the pecking order of manhood.
With the changes came the question of hygiene and teenage boys have a strong aroma that any teacher entering a warm classroom towards the end of the day can testify is choking. Teenage girls don’t seem to notice and I can only assume they lose their sense of smell for a few years. Mothers often make the fact that they smell known to their sons and deodorant is introduced. Never doing things by halves, boys take to it with gusto. This is aided and abetted by advertisers who know how to win boys over. The right deodorant copiously applied can attract beautiful ladies, make them uncontrollable with desire and throw themselves at the spottiest, least attractive young man. Teenage boys believe this with a passion and Brut was more than liberally added to the natural bodily smells. For some reason, boys don’t quite get that changing clothes, bathing and showering would have far more beneficial effects, so they drown in the pungent deodorant and sprays.
To add insult to injury, becoming self aware is assailed by the eruption of pimples. I don’t think anyone really avoids the dreaded spots, but some suffer more severely than others. I remember knowing each one as a mark of horror, but I am not sure that other people really noticed.
For many of us this was a difficult time, but a necessary one. No matter how hard it was for us, it was much harder for our parents as they had to suffer us, our moods, irrational behaviour and unkindness towards them. I think most boys, or at least I did, spend the rest of their lives regretting what they said and did to their mothers, but being a boy I can’t speak for girls.