For the last two years I’ve joined in the #atozchallenge, namely to post every weekday in April using each letter of the alphabet in turn. In 2015 it was places I’d been to, in 2016 it was London themed. This year it is a dictionary of my family, recounting incidents small and large that have taught me lessons down the years, caused me consternation or generally seared themselves into my memory. I hope you enjoy them. To find other bloggers doing the challenge and maybe be inspired yourself, check out the A to Z Blogging Challenge Blog, here.
I’m a changed man from the large boy who started at his primary school in September 1961. Back then I feared getting into trouble with anyone who could conceivably be considered to be ‘in authority’. These days, not so much. I also thrived on praise and still do. In truth I react well to criticism in the sense that I want to correct any wrong impressions, and not in the sense that I welcome it. Well, maybe that’s less true than once it was.
But back then, this led to a conundrum of sorts for 4 year old me. On the one hand, the best way to avoid trouble was not to be noticed. On the other to receive praise needed putting one’s head above the parapet.
Initially philosophy A held sway and I did the absolute minimum to ensure I avoided the teacher singling me out in any way. But by the time I was into my third year of school and a still nervous 7 year old, I was just about robust enough to feel philosophy B might now be given an airing.
And this became the first ‘be careful what you wish for’ moment in my school life. I was indeed large for my age – my parents had this thing that calculated your adult height from your height aged 7 or so. Both the Archaeologist and I were destined for 6 foot 2 and yet have resolutely stuck at 5 foot 10 or thereabouts. So much for experts. And this meant it was assumed I was strong. Ha, what rot. I couldn’t even forward roll – even if I taught myself to do a cartwheel of sorts in later life.
And yet so it was that I was nominated ‘bench monitor’.
Oh the kudos. Being appointed to a monitor role was the primary equivalent of getting a gong. Everyday, after morning lessons ended and all the children were ushered into the playground I and one other (name forgotten with the years) were told to go to the dining room and help ‘get out the benches’. These six foot long seats had flip up legs at each end. We collected a bench, flipped the legs and placed them by the table. So long as you concentrated and avoided catching your fingers as the legs sprung into place it was a doddle. And weirdly, now I think about it, even though it meant we missed a few minutes of precious playtime we gloried in our role. We were the Business.
And then came the Shepherd’s Pie Debacle. It still sends chills through me. The monitor role had the reverse element too as we had to put the benches away. One day – a Wednesday, Shepherd’s pie was always Wednesday – this inedible plaster board and meat sauce was placed on my plate and I was doomed. I’d been having difficulty with the increasingly dry potato topping but just about managing to swallow it. This particular day I failed.
Not to finish your school dinner was a crime of gargantuan proportions. I mean if I had gone to the Head’s study, sung the Red Flag, farted on the Queen’s portrait and written ‘Mr Amos is a wally’ on his novelty tea cup I couldn’t have been in more trouble. And the punishment was severe and instant – I was made to go and stand in the corner of the dining hall facing the wall while everyone else filed out. No one said a word. As a result I wasn’t available to put the benches away so one of the catering staff had to help and word got back to my form mistress, Mrs Pritchard who asked me why, in front of the whole class. I had to relive the humiliation once more for her benefit only to be told that, if there was a recurrence she would have to find someone else to be monitor in my place ‘as I couldn’t be trusted to be reliable’.
They certainly knew how to kick a man when he’s already down. What was I to do? I lived, in a pained silence as the week ended and the weekend slipped away. By Monday the upcoming Wednesday dinner began to loom large in my view.
Desperate times required desperate measures. There was nothing for it but to throw myself at the mercy of a notoriously immovable object when it came to me trying to quisling my way out of trouble. I had to ask mum to write a note.
The Writing of a Note was a huge thing. It had much the same impact as a Royal Pardon when you’ve received a death sentence. And the classic note ‘Please can Geoffrey be excused games’ needed at a minimum a leg amputation or strategically placed verruca to stand any chance of success. So the idea of a note asking to be excused Shepherd’s pie was beyond any precedent.
Maybe that’s what swung it; it was such an odd thing to want to avoid. But mum wasn’t unaware when I really really needed something. My terror must have been apparent because, bless her, she sat down and found some form of words to ask that because I had had real difficulty the previous week could I just have the vegetables? I have no idea what went into the note but I took it with me and, at the allotted time – when the register was being completed – I handed it to Mrs Pritchard.
Don’t think I was home free or that I even thought I was. She was a gorgon and a law unto herself. We’d all seen her dismiss notes from gullible parents before. So I laid it on her blotter and scuttled back to my seat. I watched, barely breathing as she read it and slipped it under the register. This had to be good news. Didn’t it? I mean she’d have called me out otherwise for some front-of-class humiliation if she was going to deny my plea.
At 12.10, my colleague and I waited while the class filed out so we could go and sort out the benches. Still nothing had been said. We finished and went to wait where the queues formed before going into the Hall. Still no word. It suddenly occurred to me that I needed someone in authority to tell the serving staff ‘not’ to give me Shepherd’s pie. If I said I was let off it, they’d just laugh and give me a bigger portion. Was this her way of denying me? Why hadn’t I seen that coming?
We snaked forward with no sign of anyone prepared to interject on my behalf. How could this be happening?
Then two things occurred. The queue I was in entered the dining room and I could see, for the first time, those children who had collected their meals. It was meat pie, with lots of gravy and not a scintilla of crusty mash to be seen. I liked meat pie; I loved the pastry soaked in gravy.
Oh frabjous day, Callooh, Callay!!
As I stepped across the threshold Mrs Taylor, on duty that day stopped me. ‘So you don’t want the dinner, Geoffrey? Come with me and we will get you some vegetables.’
What could I say? It’s all a mistake? The problem doesn’t extend to meat pie? Ok, so I was 7 but I knew better than to try and unpick what I’d started. I went with the vegan option and maybe that’s one reason why I still eat meat, because I can.
I suppose it was a fair exchange; I kept the monitor job, I didn’t have to eat that godawful MDF masquerading as food and I’d learnt that, in extremis, mothers are always there for you and they understand when it REALLY matters.
Later when I was 10, I took on the heavy and terrifying role of milk monitor but that, well, that’s for another time…