Give us back our school – a short story
A group of pensioners is excluded and gets its own back with a grey rave
There would be no prefects on the gate this morning to record our tardiness, no moments spent wondering what punishment Doctor Dickson might impose. We had met up on the green, most of us emerging from the Tube as we no longer had friends living just around the corner whose driveways would have made room for our cars. The school’s car park was full in any case; there was an Ofsted inspection in full swing.
Who, we had asked, who did these outsiders, these official snoopers think they were? Some of us had met them ourselves in our teaching lives, had spent precious hours preparing paperwork, tried to guess what it was that might satisfy them, giving up offices and working space, reassuring children and their parents, trying to encourage colleagues to keep a school’s real work with its students on course.
One of our number had offered a little help with a proposed anniversary celebration but had then been informed about its cancellation:
Unfortunately we will not now be in a position to organise an event or opening of the school to celebrate the 90th anniversary.
With an OFSTED inspection due in the autumn, and an outstanding effort being made by both our staff and students to raise levels of attainment this term, the management team and governors feel that we would not have the time to organise an event of sufficient quality to mark the anniversary.
We tried to remember someone urging us on to raise standards and wondered whether the school’s present students had received some sort of explanation; if you improve our results demand for places at the school will grow, there will be an expansion programme and larger salaries for the head and the deputies.
Once there had been honours boards, reminders of our predecessors’ achievements, and announcements from time to time in assembly, and a life outside the classroom. This provided a different sort of engagement with teachers, if you cared to join in: chess with Mr Ball, athletics standards with Mr Pickering, Herons on Fridays, drama productions with Mrs Rigby and cadets with Squadron Leader Quick and Lieutenants Harris and Smethurst.
But we were not urged. That would have given the game away and ruined the productive drama of our compliance in our prisoner-like status. The school did not insist upon our total commitment to it and appreciated our activity away from school. When a classmate gained her Queen’s Guide badge she was warmly congratulated in front of the whole school.
Now our school had rejected our pleas, our urge to relive for a matter of a few hours the chemistry that bound us fifty years back. And so it was that the notion of a grey rave came about, nothing unseemly, rowdy and uncontrolled – more like the establishment on the march, on its way to the palace or some memorial service for a long-dead friend. Surely the school would not reject the establishment, even should it arrive on foot, leaning on sticks perhaps, or dragging itself along behind zimmer frames.
Morning dress – military uniform and academic dress, enormous hats of course and some of us armed with umbrellas and hip flasks and sandwich boxes – we had decided that we would march, whatever the weather, but the prospects were good. Some of the ladies carried bright plastic bags with the top of a bottle peering forth, or clinking with the sound of glass. For a moment we stood still while an attempt was made to count us and we set off, in twos and threes and sometimes fours, from the top of the road, steadying ourselves as the slope steepened.
Traffic coming up the hill slowed and we waved. From behind there was the sound of impatience and then one or two cars managed to roar past. A few faces peered from the main building, little changed in its red brickwork, and then we reached the lower entrance and the brick piers on which the last of our school caps had smouldered in the summer of 1962.
It was break time. Our column swung round in an arc across the road and into the playground where students were wandering back and forth. They stopped and we filed in between them until we filled the space along the lower side of the building, where we used to find woodwork and cookery below the chemistry labs. From above there were more faces and from the doorways a trickle of young people turned into a flow as we stood ready to be inspected.
The students were unsure at first but then one of our ladies had clasped a hand to her hat and stepped towards a group of boys, just into their teens.
“Come on lads.” They watched her and she continued. “You’re not afraid of a bunch of old pensioners are you?” They smiled, unsure. They found a spokesman.
“What are you lot doing here?”
“We’ve come back to school, to see our mates, to see our old school.”
“What did you want to do that for?”
“Remember some good times – meet up with old friends.”
The group of youngsters was growing. Along the playground other conversations were breaking out and the groups of young people were beginning to surround sections of our column.
Someone produced a black and white photo; Miss Christie, standing near the lower entrance, waving us back into the classroom. Behind her we could see the black bonnet of that car and someone had produced another picture of it some three years later at rest on the lower field.
“Just over there, near that doorway. Can you see? That’s where she was standing. And about there,” and the visitor pointed to where they had been waving to this teacher who had been but a few years their senior, “Ian, Derek, Mike, Roger, Robert. John and Bob.”
“What were they doing there?”
“Waiting for the teacher, Miss Christie. We came out to meet her while the girls stayed behind in the classroom.”
“A classroom, just over there?”
Two teachers had arrived. The students looked up.
“Time you were going back inside – break’s nearly over.”
The teachers, one a sort of early middle-age, no tie, no belt and with little dress sense turned back to us. Beside him another man, taller and kitted out with trainers, t-shirt and baggy shorts waited. He was holding a clip-board and for a few seconds I hoped he was going to take our names; lying to him would have been so much easier than trying to lie to the prefects all those years ago. I had almost completed a false identity when his companion addressed us once more.
“What on earth’s going on? You can’t come in here like this.”
The man looked back to the group of youngsters which was growing rapidly now, children who sense that something interesting has turned up.
“I thought I told you to go back inside.”
From the inside of the building there came the sound of a bell ringing. More students appeared in doorways, saw us, called to others behind and came over towards us. Soon there were teachers too, trying to attach themselves to groups of children to shepherd them away from us and back into the buildings, but the groups of youngsters did what groups of youngsters do instinctively when adults attempt to deflect them from objects of curiosity and the more they were shooed away from us the more interesting we become. I was reminded of my attempts to organise fire drills in a similar large school, but at least then there had only been the distraction of a fire engine which had kept away from the children.
“I don’t know who you are and what you want, but you must leave immediately. We have a school inspection going on – goodness knows what the inspectors will make of all this.”
To one side the students looked on; an adult who is unsure whether to insist or plead can be a wonderful source of entertainment. The teacher turned to the children and the teachers who were swimming as it were, amongst them. The teacher called out again.
“Colleagues, you will have to get the students away from these trespassers.”
One of the visitors stepped forward. He was dressed in the uniform of an RAF officer, complete with an impressive array of medals. He reached out with a gloved hand, gently. It came to rest on the teacher’s bare arm and was worth a million words.
“Can’t you see, your pupils are only doing what any good children should do, extending the hand of welcome to their guests.” He paused before he went on. “And they are doing a splendid job. We are having a wonderful time.”
The students around us cheered. Next to him a man in an academic gown stepped forwards. One of the students called out.
“What’s all that you’ve got on mate?”
“It’s an academic gown – the teachers used to where them when we were here.”
“To keep warm in the winter, and the chalk they used – it made lots of dust – the gowns kept it out of their clothes.”
“Can I try it on?”
The boy was just tall enough for the gown not to drag on the ground. He turned round a couple of times, long enough for his friends to inspect him then wriggled out if it and handed it back.
“Not my style. Thanks.”
A woman teacher appeared this time, power-dressed with the tension of someone who knows that one item of apparel is not quite right, as if there is a stone somewhere in one of her shoes, but to stop and bend down and tug the shoe from her foot to search for the stone would undermine her presence. As she approaches we feel sorry for her, like watching one of your own children anticipating an embarrassing struggle with difficult offspring.
“I’m the deputy head teacher. The head has asked to me to tell you to remove yourselves immediately. He has already called the police. And you students, you know where you should be now.”
For the first time there was a low murmur from the young people gathered around us, almost protectively now. Then there were mutterings and several of the youngsters started to boo and catcall. One of them called out.
“Leave them alone miss. They’re all right.” Another voice added its support. “It’s their school too miss.”
There were further calls of “They’re all right,” and back in the hall all those years ago many of us watched Mr Ingham very still on the stage as we took over his assembly and the school chant rolled out across the rows in which we sat – “She’s all right, you bet your life….”
It was not easy for the police. Three of them emerged from the small car which they parked carefully just inside the entrance. It was the group-captain who reached them first.
“Good afternoon gentlemen, Ma’am. They said you’d be here soon.”
“Supposed to be a riot somewhere, squatters or something.”
From somewhere nearby a woman was screeching at them and the four of them turned.
“Don’t talk to him. He’s one of them.”
It was the deputy head trying desperately to run as only a woman in a tight skirt can run. Before she reached them one of the police officers turned to the group captain.
“Says that she’s the deputy head teacher, but she just keeps shouting at us and trying to disrupt our visit – we all came here, years ago. I’m not sure who she really is, but the kids don’t take any notice of her, nor do the other teachers.”
Beyond the poor distracted woman the police officers could now see a vast crowd, not an ugly one, not one on the verge of breaking out in some manner likely to cause a breach of the peace but the sort of crowd where the officers’ only function would be to make sure that their gloves were really white and to nod and smile politely whenever a guest caught their eye.
The crowd filled the space in front of the officers, pressing away from doorways. There was a polka-dot quality about it, light and dark, the women’s hats each surrounded by an urgent crowd of uniformed youngsters.
“If you would like to explain to my colleague here, ma’am.” The deputy head had hobbled to a stop and now stood on one foot, as if there was nothing that would please her better than to be able to sit in the police car and take care of her shoe. The officer who had spoken first gestured towards the taller of his fellow officers, turned to the RAF officer and continued, “We’d better take a look at the situation. Perhaps you’d like to join us Sir.”
By now the sandwiches and bucks fizz had come out and were being handed around. There was a moment’s caution. One of the girls hesitated.
“Just say it’s orange juice if anyone asks dear.” The girl giggled, took a mouthful and passed the glass to a friend.
The two police officers and their guide made their way to the centre of the crowd where they found the man wearing the gown. He was talking to a group of teachers who had given up chasing children. As he held out a packet of sandwiches a woman in wide purple hat swept up to them with a tray and some glasses.
“Now come along you teachers – it must be thirsty work out here with all these children, you must join us.”
For a moment we were on the geography trip, somewhere in Kent, and Mr Morris and another geography teacher were sitting outside a village pub while we eyed their pints.
The teachers were reluctant at first.
“Really gentlemen, you can’t want to refuse the hand of friendship, a chance to celebrate all your truly outstanding achievements here.”
One of the teachers moved, almost imperceptibly, but the visitor noticed and nudged the young man with her tray. From under her purple hat she caught him with her eye and the glass was taken. Soon its fellows too had been taken and filled. All around young eyes looked on and smiled approvingly.
“That’s right sir, you deserve that.”
The next arrival was the senior inspector. There was something of Thomas the Tank Engine about him; all he required was a modest top hat and grey gloves. Before he could speak he found himself surrounded by half a dozen old ladies and the schoolgirls who had been interrogating them. The girls were just recovering from learning that in our time a visit to the toilets during lessons had been almost unthinkable.
“Excuse me ladies. We are trying on get on with an inspection of the school and….”
“Oh, you must be one of those inspectors who caused the cancellation of our celebrations.”
“Yes, you must have heard.” Another woman was wagging her finger, and her hat slipped sideways and revealed curls that had caught our eyes as soon as we had arrived at the school all those years ago. “We were going to have a proper reunion, to celebrate ninety years of teaching here, then you inspectors brought it to a halt.”
The man scratched his head; had he remembered his top hat he would have removed it first. Then he set his head at an angle and found a reply.
“We had nothing to do with cancelling any celebration. We could not have cancelled it even if we wanted to. Anyway,” he looked about him, “I must say all this seems to be going fine.” He looked about him again at the sea of joyful chaos and smiled. “As we are inspecting all aspects of the school, I think we should include you all – you seem very keen on the place.”
For a moment he put his hand to his mouth, as if wondering just what he should set a class for homework.
“There’s someone I want to bring out here. Just give me a moment.” And then he was gone.
Some of the inspectors came out into the playground, followed by even more students and eventually, more teachers. Some of the teachers joined in but others stood back, as if reluctant to be seen enjoying the occasion. Some of our number realised that toilet breaks had not featured in our planning and splinter groups formed themselves and then it was as if our young hosts had realised what was up – finding the toilet for all these, grannies and grandads I suppose were the words that came to mind – and parties of pensioners were escorted into the building.
When the inspector returned he brought with him another man in a suit, a man who was reluctant, who paused in the doorway and looked around at the crowds. The inspector patted his shoulder, as you would a substitute coming on at a desperate point in a match, and the man took a few faltering steps towards his students and his staff. To one side he noticed two police officers talking to man in some sort of military uniform. As he was led reassuringly through the crowd, one of the younger children turned and lifted up her hands in surprise,
“Come to join the fun sir?” Another girl heard her friend’s words and looked round.
“It’s the best day ever at school, sir.” She turned to the inspector. “You tell him, mister.”
Around them groups of adults, now made up of teachers, inspectors and visitors were engaged with the students. What did they think of all this? What had their parents and grandparents told them about their schooldays? What did they think was better about the school nowadays? What had we enjoyed about school in our time here? How would they have felt had they been made to take an exam to get into the school? What had our teachers been like?
There had to be a photograph. A line of us stood on the edge of the upper field while below us the students scrambled on the slope down to the lower field and waved to friends who retrieved cameras from pockets and handbags.
To one side the senior inspector spoke to the head teacher and the group captain.
“It’s the kids – they’ve been great, haven’t they.” He smiled at the head. “You must be pleased now, about this invasion. Worrying to start with, perhaps, but it has shown the depth of what could be achieved here.” He thought for a moment. “If I were you I’d do this more often.”