When I was a girl, I attended King Edwards V1 Camp Hill School for girls. The school was once situated just a few minutes from Birmingham city centre but in 1958, it was relocated to a new build in Vicarage Road in Kings Heath. Yesterday the girls` school celebrated its 60th anniversary and I decided to go for old time`s sake. I wasn`t quite sure what to expect but when I arrived the place was already buzzing with about 200 old gals turning up to see what changes had taken place over the decades, many of them using zimmer frames, walking sticks and wheelchairs as their mode of transport.
In the assembly hall, the impressive sliding doors that used to open up every morning while we took our seats, had gone and been replaced by solid walls. Echoes of `Friday Songs` rang in my head and memories of the sixth form girls up on the balcony singing `Ring Out Ye Crystal Spheres` and all of us assembled singing `The Night Song` as a round from The Little Sweep, came flooding in to my mind. Our music teacher Miss Flowers would be on the stage in one of her enormous variety of home-made dresses, every one created from an identical pattern to show off her rather curvaceous figure, swinging her baton and stamping her kitten heeled foot on the parquet flooring.
We eventually sat down for a dinner which was served to us in the old dining hall by ladies who looked like Mrs. Overall, after which I had a good old explore. The gym and changing rooms area hadn`t altered much. I recalled the gym teacher Miss Howard who some girls loved but I loathed, reading a letter I had written excusing me from hockey because of period pains. I would tell any lie to get out of hockey. She examined it and said, “Are you sure your mother wrote this Helen?” and I responded with all the haughtiness that I could muster, “Are you insinuating that my mother is a liar Miss Howard?” Oh the cheek of me!
King Edwards was and remains, a terribly privileged place to be. In those days we had to sit the Eleven Plus exam and if your marks were high enough it secured your scholarship which is what happened in my case. My father who was a socialist was horrified, my mother, always a true blue, was over the moon. I think she was proud because King Edwards boasted at the time that their pupils represented the top two percent of the country`s intellects, the crème de la creme. However I struggled there for all kinds of reasons and at dinner I sat opposite a woman who had also struggled. Our parents had never been wealthy, the majority of King Edwards` pupils that I went to school with came from wealthy to extremely wealthy backgrounds. We shared how we had never really fitted in and how the uniform cost our parents an arm and a leg. I never went on school trips abroad, it would have been impossible for my mother and father to find the money. I always felt on the outside and I could not wait to leave.
I was thought of as a bit of a rebel and I think this was because I often questioned the teachers and challenged their views, something that was not encouraged at King Edwards in those days of pupil subservience. In spite of this, I made some good friends there, two of whom have been my lifelong friends so if I can take anything from school, that would be the most valuable thing for me. Many of the teachers did not like me, I still don`t really understand why. Perhaps some of them were jealous, I was pretty and popular with the boys who were schooled next door, I was vocal and I liked to entertain my schoolfriends by being amusing (no change there then.) Perhaps I made them feel ancient. I especially loathed Miss crump the art teacher who was a midget with cropped ginger hair. It was a mutual loathing. She wore tweed jackets and skirts with woollen ankle socks and brogues and always smelt of old fags. She wrote notes on packets of Park Drive, she was vile and she always marked me down in art, even though I was very good at pencil sketching particularly. She described me as lazy which I am not and she said so frequently to the art class. I was so happy when I finally got a new and handsome art teacher, what was his name? He had a beard and he was lovely and in my fourth year my Crump days were finally over!
For any of my old pals reading this, you may recall Miss Lacy (geography) who had an enormous tumour in her stomach, she looked permanently nine months pregnant and initially would not have it removed as she was a Christian Scientist. I am reliably informed in the end, Miss Lacy underwent the knife so that must have been quite an operation.
Miss Howard (sports) developed bone cancer and lost her battle for life. When I found out in my adulthood I regretted how horrible I had been to her as a kid. Especially at shower time after sports when I always refused to take my kit off in front of her and only ever washed my feet as Miss Howard was reputed to be a lesbian and as a result, many of us judgmental and extremely naïve young girls, kept a wide berth. Poor Miss Howard! I would probably like her now.
Mr. Letch who used to sit on the desk and write on the board with his feet because he had no hands, moved to become Lord Mayor down on the south coast somewhere.
Miss Miller, the terribly upper class and scarily intimidating head mistress who spoke with a plum in her mouth, retired and was replaced by Miss Manderville who was the exact opposite apparently and was incredibly loved from all the accounts I heard yesterday. There were also many tales of raising money for the swimming pool. The penny races up the school drive and other fund-raising activities went on for years. I left the year it was being built and went there to swim a few times after I had left school, but it was a disappointing pool, very small after all that effort.
I left the reunion during the after-dinner speeches. I was getting to the point where I remembered all the reasons why I was so unhappy at grammar school and why I left the moment I was legally allowed to. I looked around the assembly hall at the audience gathered there yesterday. The entire audience was white and I would hazard most of the women there were quite well off judging from the designer dresses and handbags evident all over the shop. I am happy to report that from walking around the corridors it is also very evident from photographs everywhere that the school now reflects the diversity of Birmingham`s BAME communities but I wonder how it supports those pupils who do not come from wealthy backgrounds and how it makes them feel included and valued.
Oh! The old stagnant pond is still there at the front of the school. As I drove away I recalled us being instructed to get a water snail for a biology lesson and I brought mine in and placed it in clean tap water where, during the course of the lesson the poor thing died. The teacher spoke to me as though I were the most imbecilic person she had ever met because I had not understood that this major change to the snail`s environment would finish it off.
So! Cheers King Edwards. My time there taught me to broaden my view of the world and eventually took my politics to the left. It made me realise that you can be as intelligent as Pythagoras however, this does not necessarily mean you have emotional intelligence. Most of all it has taught me how important inclusion is, it would be a sad, dull and deprived world without it.
So take that and shove it up your jacksy Donald.