(Post by Andrea Grace Burn of East Yorkshire – February 2021)
Born and raised in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the early 1960s, I was on course to to live an all-American, Appalchian, apple-pie life with high school, hot dogs and homecoming queens; catching lightening bugs and eating watermellon on the back porch steps on humid, languid summer evenings and dodging icicles under the eaves that could take your eye out in winter. At the age of ten I knew that I would become a cheerleader with the high school football team, the Virginia Bearcats, and that one day my prom date would ‘look sharp’ in a plaid jacket, tan slacks with a crease, Brylcreem-ed hair and be called Brad.
My older brothers and I had idyllic, secure, happy childhoods with Mom and Dad, Friends, Good Neighbours, School, Church and the Great Outdoors; where we played with our ‘dawg’, climbed trees, skinned our knees and didn’t come home until Mother called, “Suppertime!” Life was good.
A bizarre twist of fate catapulted us into a grey 1930s semi in a cul-de-sac on the edge of the Black Country in Birmingham – Britian’s industrial heartland – in the autumn of 1970; just in time for three-day weeks, a national bread shortage and homework by candlelight. Like Dorothy Gale, I knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore.
I failed the Eleven Plus as soon as we landed and was thus despatched to the God Awful School. Where I came from, money was in decimal units of ten, which made perfect ‘cents’. I sat at my wooden school desk in Maths at the ‘thick’ table faced with counting apparatus in units of twelve; pounds, shillings and pence. It was completely alien – what on earth a Threepenny-Bit? Halfpenny? Farthing? Half-a-crown? Ten-Bob? Two-and-six?
I was an alien in every sense – culturally and linguistically. I also had an exaggerated squint, which didn’t help the kids take to me straight away.
“Oi! What ch’ow lookin’ at Scarbra – me or the f***ing wall? (A regular playground chant as my surname was Scarboro.)
The Brummy accent and local idyioms were confounding, as exemplified by a large boy who farted a lot and sat with one foot under his backside on his classroom chair:
‘Sir! Sir! Can I goo? Can I goo to the toylit? Sir! Oi’m des –p – rit!”’
My mother would have said he was ‘vulgar’, for back in Virginia I was only allowed to use toilet words in the bathroom. If caught short in public, it was referred to in hushed tones as the restroom.
A group of boys with short trousers would regularly form a circle around me in the playground:
“Naw yam not – not loike on the tele. Goo on – I dare yer.”
“Who d’yow support?”
“Who d’yow support?”
“What d’ya mean? My dad supports me.”
“Am yow yampee Bab? Yow know, loike the Villa”?
“Villa? What’s a Villa?”
“The Villa football tame! Villa! Villa! Villa!”
I wondered whether the Villa had cheerleaders?
I was an instant hit with the gang of girls who terrorised the Lower School playground and corridors, led by Lisa Wentworth and Cheryl Cross:
“Yam dead, Scarbra!”
“Yea, dead! Yam gunna get it afta school!”
“Why d’ yow sit with yam knees apart? Slag.”
(I’m sure I kept my knees together at all times like my Southern Mama had taught me – and what was that word again?)
“Oi! Teacher’s Pet! Yam a scrubber, yam am!” I ran the gauntlet between lessons, ducking in and out of classroom doorways.
Miss Fanshaw, my French teacher, had a terrible time with Form 3B. The kids couldn’t care less about learning French (always useful on the cusp between Halesowen and Dudley). They would stand on their desks throwing rulers, shouting and swearing. Miss Fanshaw had no control over the class and no hope of ever achieving any. Sometimes she refused to enter the classroom at all, as missiles were launched towards the black board. It became sport to goad her until we could see the veins in her neck bulge in the (vain) hope that one might actually pop. We watched her run along the corridor in tears to fetch the Head Master, who would come down to our form room with his cane. The same boys and girls were hauled out and thrashed daily but it had no effect. These were tough kids, from tough backgrounds who didn’t expect to finish school anyway. To be fair, all I remember of Science was singing the ‘Monster Mash’ around the Bunsen burner with Caz and Julie,
“I was working in the lab, late one night.”
I witnessed a school fight once between Rachel and Jack on our way to Geography in the Fourth Year. They were flirting and playfully pushing each other until Rachel got accidentally pushed down a flight of concrete steps and broke her front tooth; whereupon her mother filed a complaint with the police against Jack and it ended up in the Juvenile Court. I had witnessed the whole thing and was prepared to say that it was not entirely Jack’s fault; they were as bad as each other.
My statement at the Juvenile Court prevented Jack from being sent to Borstal. His parents held my hand with tears streaming down their faces. Rachel’s mother sent me to Coventry. While Dad and I were at the Court House we were evacuated by an IRA bomb threat. Dad was proud of me for “standing up for the truth, justice and the American way”.
“But Dad – we’re in the West Midlands.”
“What the hell difference does that matter, kid?”
Sitting on the upper deck of the Number Nine bus on the way home, as we swung past the Bull Ring Market and the Rotunda, Dad wiped away tears of pride mingled with relief that we hadn’t been blown up.
Most of the kids at school left at fifteen to work because they could. Jobs were plentiful in Birmingham’s car factories so most of the boys walked straight into apprenticeships, where they donned ovealls over their flares and traded platform shoes for steel-cap boots. Caz and Julie traipsed into typing pools with Farrah Fawcette flicks perfected on their mum’s Carmen Rollers and a hint of Charlie. I wanted an education and had the audacity to think that I could get one. I got three O’Levels: two in English and one in History. Well, Dad was a History teacher!
The most impressive thing I learnt at school was that my Spanish teacher was friends with Ralph McTell. And I will never again wear big brown knickers after years of torment from the boys on the hockey pitch:
“Oi Scarbra! Did yow fall in a cow pat or ‘ave yam shat yamself?”
A few years ago I saw a headline splashed across a tabloid newspaper about my old God Awful School; its reputation had finally hit the headlines:
‘SEX, DRUGS AND ALCHOHOL’
… the only thing missing was Rock n’ Roll.
Ironically, thirty years later when I was teaching Primary School, I became the Sex Education and Drug Awareness Co-Ordinator.
Oh yeah – here’s one for the boys in the playground: a few years later, when I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar, I met Villa football player Andy Gray.
Villa! Villa! Villa!
(Copyright: Andrea Burn 27/02.21)