A moment that changed me: refusing a place at private school

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In the headmaster’s office of Emanuel school, Battersea, in 1980, I felt like my life was already spiralling away from me. I was only 10 but I knew instinctively that what happened in the next 30 minutes would be life-defining.

A few weeks earlier, my mum had forced me to take the entrance exam for this ancient private school in the hope I’d earn a scholarship. I’d protested that I didn’t want to go to Emanuel, with its rugby fields and properly resourced classrooms, but Mum was having none of it.

Coming from Jamaica, Mum was all about education. She had left just after the country gained independence from Britain, in 1962, and so had grown up in a school system that very much aped the British one, with smart uniforms, discipline and rote learning. When we first walked into Emanuel her eyes lit up, and I could tell that if I got into this school it would be a moment of personal triumph for her.

I had no such romantic views of British private school. On the council estates where I’d grown up and in the shopping centres where I’d hung out, there were few things worse than to be “a snob”. It wasn’t the money (everyone wants money), it was about a perceived sense of superiority and a lack of social freedom. Even doing your school shirt up properly might get you labelled a “tbs” (top button snob).

Some of my friends teased me when they heard I was taking the test for Emanuel. “You’re gonna be their butler,” one said, and so my nickname was Benson, after the sitcom character, for the next few weeks.

The only interaction the schools had was whenever one of the Emanuel boys had their violins nicked and they’d come in

When I sat the exam, my aim was to fail. I deliberately changed some answers, gazed out of the window and doodled in the margins. Even then I was conflicted, though. I didn’t want them to think I was stupid, but I didn’t want to get in to the school. My result was a “borderline pass”, and I was called in for an interview with the headmaster.

I remember having a conversation about Edmund Hillary, but not much else, and before I knew it, he seemed to be suggesting that I would be offered a place.

As a child I’d been taught to be deferential to all adults and I’ve never really been overburdened with confidence, but I knew I had to do something at this exact moment.

“I don’t want to come here,” I snapped suddenly.

Slightly taken aback, the headmaster asked why and I said, “I want to go to Spencer Park next door. All my friends are going there and it will be full of normal people. This school is for snobs.”

I was a well-behaved 10 year old, and this was probably the most rebellious thing I’d ever done. The interview ended, and the headmaster later told my mum he thought I should go to Spencer Park. Emanuel held the place open for me and said they’d look at it again when I was 13. By then I was doing well at Spencer Park so I stayed.

Despite being neighbours, the two schools couldn’t have been more different. The only interaction they seemed to have was whenever one of the Emanuel boys had their violins nicked and they’d come into our assembly to identify the culprits.

Spencer Park was a very rough comprehensive. On our first day, the police had to be called in because a group of boys who had left the school the year before had come in to beat up one of the teachers. Emanuel was established in 1594 and is still going strong. Spencer Park is now luxury flats and a restaurant.

In the many years since that interview, I’ve often thought about how different my life could have been if I’d gone to Emanuel.

I had a great time at Spencer Park. The school included people with such a wide range of talents and abilities that it prepared me for the real world when I left. It also left me more convinced that the elitism of grammar schools and selection has no place in our school system.

I did reasonably well and was accepted at Middlesex polytechnic. The year before, Spencer Park had its first ever Oxbridge entrant (his parents both worked in education, his father as a lecturer). I made life-long friendships and found myself as a person, but I sometimes wonder what life would be like if I’d been able to go on to a better university or had a more influential network of old school chums.

Would I have flourished with better teachers, resources and more diligent classmates, or would I have wilted under the pressure of being one of the poorer boys? There’s no way of knowing, but I’m pretty certain my relationship with money and the moneyed would be significantly different.

My network was great for scoring weed or knowing where to find the next underground party, but hasn’t offered a lot in terms of shining job opportunities.

Over the years, I’ve learned to live and love with the middle classes. I marvel at the confidence of some of my peers and am constantly shocked by how small the world seems to be at “the top”.

But I still never do up my top button.

This article was sourced from http://squidnews.com