The Uniform

He stood at the school gate. Above him the sign read Pear Tree Junior School, City of Derby Education Committee. He had just returned from a May holiday with his parents. They had travelled to the South coast in a hired VW Camper Van, visiting his Dad’s war memories. It had been a difficult time. His teenage sister had been in one of her moods and had sulked for the whole fortnight. He had also burned the roof of the van with a match as he tested the air vents. He had always been a clumsy boy.
He was glad to be back at school. He was full of excitement and pent up energy. As usual this burst out in the first lesson and he was sent out for talking too much by the student teacher. The headmaster walked by and told him to stand outside his room. He seemed to be waiting for hours until the Head called him in. He said that the 11plus results had been announced while he had been away. He told him that he had passed to go to the grammar school but that because of his persistent disruption of classes he had doubts about allowing him to go. He was told to return at 4pm for a final decision.
The rest of the day passed very slowly. He was on his best behaviour anxious not to cause further trouble. He had heard the phrase to be on tenterhooks. He knew now what it meant. The time finally arrived and he climbed the stair to the headmaster’s room. He waited for another 15 minutes before he was called. The head was seated next to his class teacher. They both looked very stern. The head broke the silence. He handed him a letter and said that they had decided to recommend that he go to the grammar school on the condition that there were no further incidents. He felt his heart leap and his head felt strange as if he was swimming.
He remembers walking out into the school yard and giving a yell of release. He ran to the gates. On the floor was a small ball. He picked it up and kicked it into the air with all of his might. It soared into the May blue sky and cut an arc across the playground. He watched it as it reached its full height and began to fall to earth. He traced the fall and felt that familiar fear. The student teacher whose lesson he had disrupted in the morning was packing his car. It was his final day. The ball was flying towards him. He knew that he could do nothing to stop it. He tried to shout but no noise came from his throat. He wanted to run but he could only stand and stare as the ball fell. At the last second the teacher stood back from the car and the ball missed his head. He heard the breaking of wood as it crashed to the ground. He ran towards the teacher. There at his feet was the ball and the remains of the wooden model of an anemometer that the class had made during the term as part of their weather project. The teacher looked up at him and sighed. The silence was deafening. He had always been a clumsy boy.
He walked home and gave the letter to his parents. They were so proud of him. No one in the family had ever been to grammar school. The letter contained all the details of the new school including the uniform. The only problem was how to raise the money to pay for it?
1963 had not been a good year. In January they had been evicted from the pub where his dad had been the landlord. It was the coldest winter in living memory. They had found shelter in an empty house nearby. It was so cold the boiler was frozen solid. His Dad worked hard to make it habitable and to keep it warm. He soon got another job working nights at the local foundry. The spring and early summer seem to bring fresh hope for the family and now their oldest son was going to grammar school. The uniform, sports equipment and a brand new leather satchel were purchased from the specialist outfitters with a club cheque which they paid for in weekly instalments to the tally man. He felt strange in the shop as he tried on the new clothes. The feel was unfamiliar and he knew he was different from the other boys whose parents paid with cash.
Every morning during the summer holidays he went to the wardrobe to check that the uniform was still there. The room was full of the smell of leather from his new satchel. His excitement grew as the summer wore on. The uniform was so strange to him. It belonged to a different world. He still went to the park each day to play with the other boys and sometimes with the girls. He got into fights protecting his younger brother. He walked for miles in the bright sun. He was happy but as the time drew near to go to the new school he became more tense and anxious.
One day towards the end of the holiday his Mam told him that he was going to Leicester to visit his eldest sister. He travelled alone by train. His sister was waiting for him at the platform. She did not recognise him. He was wearing his new uniform for the first time. She swore when she realised it was him and backed away slightly. Over the years this distance between him and his family would grow. They caught the bus to her flat and spent the day together. In the evening when she left him at the station she said that she would see him soon. He did not understand. He rarely saw his sister and he had not visited Leicester since the family had moved to Derby two years before.
When he arrived home his Dad told him that his Mam was homesick and that they were moving back to Leicester. His first thought was of the uniform and the school which he would never attend. They moved within a few weeks to a flat above an off licence. The walls were green with damp and the only heating was from a paraffin stove. He slept on the landing as there were only two bedrooms.
His Dad went to the local education office and was told that his son could not go to the grammar school in Leicester. He would have to attend a local secondary modern school. At that time the boy did not understand the difference. A school was a school and as long as they played football it did not matter. His Dad walked with him to look at his new school. The building was on the top of a hill overlooking the City. It was a long low building built in the 1950s. At the back were the school yards and the playing fields. He smiled when he saw that there were a number of football pitches.
On the evening before the first day of term he went to bed early. He had arranged his school things neatly at the foot of his bed. New shoes were placed side by side next to the leather satchel. In the satchel were a pen and pencil and a ruler and a geometry set, which he did not know how to use. In pride of place on a wooden hanger was the uniform.
He awoke early the next morning and began to dress. He had clean underwear for a change. Over his feet he pulled the long grey socks with yellow stripes. He buttoned up the crisp white shirt and tied the yellow and black striped tie in the windsor knot his brother in law had taught him. He then put on the short grey trousers that were too big for him and were secured with a belt. He carefully picked up the black blazer and looked at the badge on its pocket. The head of a yellow stag was embroidered on it in bold stitching. He put it on. His Mam had said that he would grow into it when they were in the shop. He tried to guess how long that would take. He tied his shoes and went into his parents’ bedroom to look at his reflection in the mirror. Like his sister, he did not recognise the boy who was staring back at him. He realised there was something missing. The cap was on his pillow. His Mam had put it there. It was black with gold braids with a smaller version of the stag badge on its front. He put it on and went into the kitchen. His Mam and Dad looked up as he entered. There was a tear in her eye. His Dad said that he looked a right Bobby Dazzler. His brother just laughed. He would hear that laugh many times during the day.
He left the house at 9 o clock. He had been told to report to the headmaster at 9 30am. He walked alone. He passed the boot and shoe factories. He passed the Home for the Blind with its beautiful gardens. He passed the Catholic boys school, which he had asked not to go to even though he was a Catholic. He did not know why except he was told that they had a poor football team. He continued on up the hill, on the top of which stood the school. All was quiet. The morning lessons had already begun. He walked down the school drive and entered by the main entrance. He told the woman in the small office that he had come to see the headmaster. She smiled and nodded towards the door. He knocked on the door and waited. The headmaster opened the door. He told the boy that this was also his first day at the school and that he too was a little frightened. He said that he had been placed in 1a, the top form. The teacher was Mrs Edwards. Her room was on the ground floor at the end of the corridor.
The boy left the headmaster’s study and walked slowly down the long corridor. He felt the tension building up in his stomach. The corridor was silent but each room that he passed was full of noise. He arrived at the door to Mrs Edward’s room and stopped. His hand was shaking as he knocked and entered. The room immediately fell silent as all eyes turned to him. There was a collective gasp from the students as they saw his uniform. Some of the bigger boys laughed and the girls giggled. He looked around and saw that they were all smartly dressed in a different uniform the main colours of which were blue, yellow and red. His was yellow and gold and belonged to a different town and a different school. He felt that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. At the back of the class the smallest boy smiled for the first time that morning. He knew that he would no longer be the first to be rolled down the banks or flushed in the toilet bowl at break time.
That evening when he arrived home he asked his Mam take him to town to buy a badge with a crown and a hill on it and the red, blue and yellow tie. She sewed on the new badge that night. The wet cap with the gold braids and the yellow stag was placed at the bottom of the cupboard never to be seen again. When she asked him why the cap was wet and why his trousers were dirty? He told her that he had tripped during break and it had fallen into a puddle. He had always been a clumsy boy.


4 thoughts on “The Uniform

  1. I have a hideous photo of my first day going to my Secondary School in my uniform. (I didn’t achieve academic success until my 40s!) I hated my hat and threw it into various gardens on the way home! I could never understand why it was handed into my Mum who would hit me around the head with it! Loved your blog you really should pull them altogether in a book thanks Tom.

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