Several weeks ago the lovely Angela on You Are Awesome blog wrote about finding herself in the spotlight unexpectedly and how it affected her. Now granted she was propelled into blog superstardom with her “Discovery” and my experience that I mentioned to her was on a somewhat different scale, but it did literally involve a spotlight!
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This year we celebrate the centenary of the first British women getting the vote and my old school celebrates 40 years of co-education – what better theme could there be for a Commemoration Service? Now who would be a “suitable” person to ask to speak to the current pupils? Someone currently heavily involved in, or even Chair of the alumni association, and also one of the very first girls to start at the school? Sounds perfect…except that would be me!! The first girls started in the sixth form in 1978, whilst we “little” girls started in 1979 – all eight of us….Judith, Justine, Joanna, Sandra, Heather, Rosalind, Justine (yes another one) and me, Claire. My brief from the deputy head was to share some memories with the pupils – how hard could this be?
My first point of call had to be some of my previous partners in crime and I set up a Facebook chat with about 15 ladies who had been amongst the original girls in the first couple of years. Wow! We were all transported back and the memories & stories flooded out. Where has the time gone and where did those little girls go? I must say that it has been fantastic to rekindle old friendships – even if an awful lot of the memories were definitely not suitable to share!!! It is really important with certain aspects of my connective tissue disorder – the fainting! – that I don’t allow myself to become too stressed, so I took a leaf out of my adult kids’ books and did a last minute.com with my speech. “I only need to write a few notes” I assured hubby when he reminded me that the service was to take place in the town’s theatre.
We arrived the next morning with instructions to go to the stage door in order to both accommodate my wheelchair and for a sound check. Excuse me? Sound check? This was starting to sound a little different to the services of my day! I was shown where I would be speaking from – that is a lectern at the front of the stage, you know the one where the actors normally do their thing – the heights of the microphone were checked – I wanted to stand, but what I want and what my body does can change in a second – and then hubby and I were shown our seats in the stalls. We would need to unobtrusively find our way to the stage at a particular place in the programme – hang on, is that me down as the final, summing up speech? Coffee was called for.
We took our seats but not before I had a quick glimpse around the theatre and realised that it was crammed with teens reaching far into the gods. How on earth had I originally thought that I was only speaking to a few students? The headmaster took to the stage alongside the head boy and girl and they spoke of equality and diversity – the suffrage movement, the recent #MeToo movement and a changing tide in Hollywood, the Black Panther film, the gender pay gap, equality & diversity within the school’s own history – and I nudged hubby and murmured “I think I might have got the pitch wrong!”.
I snuck out – those of you who know me will laugh at this – with stick in hand and clutching hubby as we negotiated the stairs to the stage whilst being serenaded by a band singing Pink Floyd. Yes, Pink Floyd! I am sure that we only sang very traditional and, to our teen minds, boring hymns at Commemoration Day. Now it was time for me to be quite literally be thrust into the spotlight and whilst I was wheeled on to the stage, I was determined to stand. The thing I had not anticipated was just how bright that light was and how blinded I would feel – I wasn’t nervous when I went on, but the funny thing was that not being able to see the reaction of my audience was actually more unnerving that being greeted by a sea of eyes. But I was able to use my own situation to perfectly continue the themes – a disabled woman speaking about literally growing up in a boys’ world.
I think it went well. I spoke for considerably longer than I had anticipated and with some squinting was able to make eye contact with those in the stalls. Memories were shared, from starting at the school as a 10-year-old – what were our parents thinking? – to learning to cope with the attitudes of certain staff members, to being given opportunities to row, join the cadet force and have high expectations of ourselves. As I said above there were many stories that I couldn’t share – the elderly teacher who wore his PJs under his suit and threw the blackboard rubber at anyone he disliked; the ex para in charge of the cadet force who lost his temper in a geography lesson and jumped up and down on one boy’s back; the student teacher nicknamed mogul and taunted throughout the school; the masked raid on the tuckshop by pupils; the stealing of railway detonators which were thrown from train windows on a certain popular commuter line by pupils – the police came in to the school and we were quizzed. But I could tell them about Heather being the first girl to row at the National Rowing championships and that she wasn’t allowed to camp with the boys – instaed she stayed in a B&B with one of the male teachers. Separate rooms – but can you imagine that today?? They heard about our lack of toilets and changing rooms, about being told when we got questions correct that we were now “honorary chaps” and that “those were the days when men were men and women were proud of it”. We were called by our surnames – one of the girls shared a common surname with one of the boys in her class. A particular teacher referred to them as Evans the superior and Evans the inferior – guess who was who? The gasp that went up from my audience with this story was huge – unimaginable action from a teacher to the pupils of today, but a story used to good effect by the girl involved when she has given sexual equality talks over the years.
I did share the story of the school hall being torched by a disgruntled ex pupil as it made the local paper as an Arson headline, and the prank with the dead cat being nailed on the back of the head’s study door. But I made them promise not to do anything similar! I hope that today’s pupils saw that whilst at times our early education was unconventional and certainly marred with sexism, it set us up for a world in which we would be able to fight our corner and where we shouldn’t let others put us down. This was just the norm for us – and I don’t believe that many of these old school masters thought they were being sexist or misogynistic (in fact would be genuinely upset to read these words associated with them), but actually didn’t know how to approach girls. Of course we did play on this at times – the periods that lasted all month in order to avoid games or certain lessons, awkward questions in biology lessons – the boys did a pretty good job here too!
One girl said that she went into accountancy because she thought it was the type of career “expected” of her. There were jobs that were considered “unsuitable” and I actually think that becoming a nurse rather than a doctor, as I did, was one of them. I told the pupils that one of the original eight left to become a dancer and she high kicked her way across Europe, finishing as a dancer on the Moulin Rouge. This would have had some of our masters turning in their graves – but it was what she wanted to do. She is now a clinical psychologist! Words that came up continually from the group chat were “strength of character” and for many of us we did develop an inner strength that would go on to serve us well in future male dominated environments. For me that would be holding my own as a “mere” nurse in the then still male dominated world of doctors in the London teaching hospitals . But of course this wasn’t the case for all the girls and some found the testerone fuelled school difficult to navigate.
Above all I hope that my moment in the spotlight showed a younger generation a slightly lighter, but nonetheless very sincere glimpse at changes in equality and diversity in very recent times. For me….well I was back in my wheels in the foyer as the youngsters started to leave and I was given lots of thanks, a few of the older pupils and the staff said they would be talking about my stories for months and we were then invited for a drink with the head and other VIPs! Would the head ever speak to me again, let alone allow me back in to the school – he said he was wondering where a couple of stories were headed and will hold me personally responsible for any cats on the school premises!! Several of the sixth form girls said that they couldn’t believe what we girls had gone through – although to us it was just school! We knew no different.
The spotlight effect that Angela spoke of in her piece was different for me. I am proud to have stood up (literally, as was hubby who was offstage with the wheelchair just in case) putting my disability on show, to be the first girl to have gone through the school and to have represented us “trailblazers”, and to now being a female Chair of the alumni – but also to have also done myself proud, overcoming some the demons that recent years have dealt out. The applause when I finished was lovely, but it could have been that the kids were just happy that I had finally shut up!!