Thursday 31 October 2013

School Daze (Part Three) - Shapes of Things

I often wondered whether I fully exploited the subjects I did at school. To be honest, unless you really know what you want to do, deciding your career based on subject matter at an age where raging hormones and, in my case, rebellious confusion can make you decide on the path of life for the next 50 or so years is quite daunting.

I know that I had little clue about what I wanted to do and if I could go back I would change it all. Sadly, between the ages of 11 and 18 I made my choice based on the subjects I was good at, rather than the subjects that were more of a challenge.

I thought, for a laugh, and for a bit of nostalgia and to give you an idea of the person I was and how my schooling shaped me into this grumpy old pseudo Mancunian IT geek in his early 50s, who hates his career and yearns to be a travel writer.

Let me guide you through the various subjects I had to endure and how I coped.


I was useless at art.

I suffered this for two years before I could safely kick it into touch. Surely the teacher must have had a bit of a clue about my ineptitude when he asked me to draw a bowl of fruit and found himself staring in shock at an alien nightmare. Mind you, my efforts could probably have been seized by pseudo –intellectual art critics as an abstract masterpiece.

My attempts at pottery were equally appalling and resulted in clay being thrown at the walls and other kids, not because I was a rapscallion; I just couldn’t control the bloody stuff as it flew in all directions. And you should have seen the result.


I am rubbish when it comes to DIY and I blame my woodwork teacher. He was a man who tried to encourage me with dulcet words as I destroyed half a tree trying to turn wood into something useful. I have never been able to mould wood since and I have no intention of ever trying again. Everything I constructed either fell apart or ended up in the bin. Another subject dumped after two years of wasted effort .


French was compulsory for five years and I had several run-ins with a rather maniacal French teacher who had the ability to make kids cry with a mixture of stern authority and menacing threat. My problem was that I could see through his fa├žade and actually used to laugh at his attempts to belittle me in front of the class.

Despite this, he was a very good teacher who immediately sussed out who the class villains were and made them all sit directly in front of him at the front. Nobody answered back – including me – yet I struggled to stifle guffaws when he started on a poor victim. Consequently he would pick on me – yet all I did was laugh.

“What is so funny?” he would ask, growling.

“You are,”  I said truthfully.

I would of course end up having to see him after class for a stern telling off and detention (or jug as we used to call it) – but I simply couldn’t help it.

 I was actually very good at languages and I still remember a lot of French thanks to this rather eccentric teacher. French is one of those subjects I regret not mastering; I would dearly love to be able to speak French fluently.


I found history totally boring and in the three years I had to suffer it, I had to endure tedious facts and, eventually, I found that it was drifting towards politics, a subject I despised even then.

My history teacher was an absent-minded old man who actually wrote a book about the history of my school, a rather grand grammar school in Walsall.

We just used to joke about him, saying that his knowledge was so deep because he was old enough to experience it personally.  These days I find myself being drawn towards history again and I sort of regret not being enthusiastic about it at school, choosing instead to draw moustaches on pictures of Henry VIII's wives.


For someone who wants to travel, this should have been a key subject for me.

It wasn’t.

I have the glorious distinction of coming bottom of my entire year in my final year of studying the subject. I was not going to continue, I figured, so I would do absolutely no work in the subject.

It worked; I simply couldn’t answer any of the questions or write any meaningful essays.

I didn’t care. To be honest, I don’t really care now because travelling for work and pleasure I am learning it all again – this time in a fun way.


Here is a major regret. I really should have learned to play a guitar and/or piano and paid absolute attention to musical theory.

My music teacher was another eccentric maniac whose mannerisms and warped enthusiasm helped to fuel my rebellious nature.

Unlike the French teacher he wasn’t funny – he was just an obnoxious arsehole. And because I was also an obnoxious arsehole, we clashed in magnificent fashion.

When I gave up the trombone he was angry unlike the man who actually taught me how to play the instrument, a jazz trombonist whose skill with this brass monstrosity was amazing - he was very disappointed.

 Looking back, I feel ashamed that I had let my trombone teacher down – and maybe I could have been as good as he was had I pursued it.

I really should have chosen a guitar!

English Language

My English teacher didn’t like me.

I seemed to be able to wind him up just by being in the same room as he was – and this had nothing to do with any ill feeling on my part. During free writing lessons, I wrote weird stories about the Bermuda Triangle, space travel and monsters. He criticised them saying that my warped imagination was leading me completely astray.

Consequently I was forced to write about stuff I hated and my lack of enthusiasm must have shown through. In retrospect, perhaps I should have listened to him more and at least attempted to prove him wrong. Sadly, when my rebellious nature finally did manifest itself we drifted even further apart – which was a problem because he also taught me English Literature.

English Literature

Forcing me to read Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy was a mistake in my opinion. I hated them. I also despised poetry and my abhorrence showed itself in the essays I had to write criticising them. When I say criticising, I don’t mean pouring scorn on them; I mean giving a critical analysis of the work in question.

Sadly my true feelings often came through.

It was only when we had the opportunity to choose our own books that I somehow clawed myself back from the abyss of failure. H.G.Wells, Jules Verne and George Orwell saved me. My passion was evident, even to a teacher who regarded me with contempt and he had to acknowledge that the essays I wrote about authors I liked were actually quite good – a brave admission from the man, in my opinion, despite our differences.


There’s more to come so I will continue opening a door to the past in my next post rather than droning on about other subjects.

In the meantime, dear reader:

Did you enjoy any of the subjects I have mentioned above? 

Have you any regrets about school?

And just how cheeky or obnoxious were you to your teachers? 


River said...

without breaking things down into subjects, I really wish now that I had paid more attention and actually learned stuff at school. The thing is, I knew I was only going until I was old enough to leave, so didn't bother. I enjoyed school, and probably would have done well. It simply never occurred to me to ask if I could stay at school.
Having said that, I was useless at Art too, hated French, especially the teacher, loved Latin but only got to do one term, (our school year was broken into three terms back then), loved History, we only did Geography in Primary school, I don't recall it in High school, Music wasn't part of the curriculum, I was really good at English and Science, but again, didn't bother trying too hard. I would have loved the chance to do Woodwork, but girls had to do Sewing and Home Economics, where we learned to dry clean our school ties, make a bed and cook an apple crisp. Nothing remotely useful.

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi River,

Girls doing home economics; boys doing woodwork!

I wonder whether times are changing?




jeremy north said...

I read your post with great interest, anticipating english lit.
At school I was very good at subjects I liked and hopeless at the rest. Some of which I put down to the teachers, but mostly to my not seeing them as relevant and not bothering.
I went to a grammar school but we weren't taught grammar. Like you, I detested Literature, as we weren't taught to enjoy it, just meaningless repetition of something someone else wrote ( what the heck made you choose Jules Verne? Not much narrative, just pages of description, I lost the will to live! )
History, I loved for three years. All that interesting stuff about ancient britons, anglo saxons, romans, vikings etc. Then having chosen to do it at O level, it was blah blah, politics, acts of parliament, blah blah blah. I could't have cared less!
I would have liked to have gone further with music. The problem was that unless you could already read and play, there was no point. Having that dropped on you two years too late was stupid. Passionate about music, I can play guitar and bass, but my love is classical. I wish I could play the trombone or cello.
Art was my best subject. I ended up with the highest grade in school that year, in spite of the teacher predicting a medium success.
French, I liked but we had a crap teacher apart from the first year, when we had a great teacher. Did badly. Subsequently, I taught myself, the grounding did help of course. Now I am bilingual! Married to a French woman.
Loved physics and maths, stuff I could work out. Principles rather than just remembering stuff. I liked chemistry but it all turned to crap as it was all about remembering stuff I'd not revised.
Metalwork and Technical drawing, again, logical, creative. Not based on reading something written by someone who is totally irrelevant to me.

As you intimated, it is far too young when kids are expected to make such choices. The whole education system though is designed by people who never left school or had a proper job, i.e. teachers
and politicians

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Jeremy,

I liked (and still like) weird science fiction stuff - I only read one Jules Verne book to be honest but my all time favourite was H.G. Wells - the Invisible Man, War of the Worlds, The Time Machine - all masterpieces.

I'll mention the other subjects in my next post but I really do wish I could go back with my current mind and choose the subjects that matter to me now.