Why would I be reading Shakespeare nearly forty years after my teacher, Mr. Smith, publicly ridiculed and humiliated me as being ignorant about him? Even at the age of ten, I was singled out. I still get it today, but then I felt a gut-wrenching fear.
I used to stand apart in the corner of the school yard. I remember watching the reflection of the sun shining on my face in a window pane, as clear as if it were today, though I must have been about seven then. Where the sun shone on my nose it produced a myriad of tiny multi-coloured spangles as it was reflected from my skin. I was fascinated by this.
It wasn't that I didn't want to mix with the other kids, it was just that I didn't know how, just as I don't know how to mix with adults now. Maybe it's the result of being an only child from a broken home. They think I'm aloof and disdainful, but it's not like that. I don't feel I can join in the conversation. This of course makes me an ideal target for bullying, even now.
I wasn't bullied much in primary school, at least by the other kids, because I was an early developer, being head and shoulders above the rest, but I was taunted cruelly about my size. I used to chase my tormentors round the school yard but seldom caught them and if I did, didn't really hurt them. But I was bullied by a teacher or two who for some reason only known to themselves who took a dislike to me. Bullies don't need much of an excuse, I found. It could have been because I was different and alone because of it.
One of the few friends I did make turned out to be false. He was a popular lad and soon attached himself to me when he smelt money. My father was earning relatively good money then and he would give me 10p a day, which was a bounteous amount for a child of early years then. With it I bought tickets for the school raffle every day. The prizes were little ornaments, but they meant a lot to me. I would win nearly every day because I spent all my pocket-money on tickets, whereas the other kids just bought a penny's worth or a half-penny's. I was very disappointed and felt cheated when on the odd occasion I didn't win. It was the only time in my life I felt superior to the others. Maybe that was my undoing.
This lad used to come up to me every day and pretend to be my friend until I gave him money, then he went away again. I think I knew what his game was, but I pretended not to. After all, it was better to think I had a popular friend than that I was being taken for a ride when everybody wanted to be his friend. Eventually I told my father about it and he told me to put a stop to it. So I did. I told him that I wasn't going to give him any more of my pocket-money. He accepted this and went away as usual but didn't come back the next day, or the day after. He just ignored me after that and went off to play with his real friends. So I was alone again.
My father was having problems and so was my mother. My mother often left. This must have been telling on me, because one day after school, sitting on my father's knee, I just broke down in tears and I couldn't explain why. I remember a love-tug going on for me between them and watching my father coming up the school yard looking for me and me being concealed from him by the nuns who taught me and me wanting to tell him I was there, but couldn't and it broke my heart. I think my mother had been speaking to the nuns.
Once a week the class I was in went to the public baths. There was an instructor there who also took a dislike to me. He shared the same fore-name as my father, but there the similarity ends. He chastised me in front of everybody for bringing in a dirty towel. It wasn't dirty, it was threadbare and the black of the cloth underneath was showing through the fibres, making it look dirty. When I told my father, he blamed my mother for not being there as well as the instructor. His reasoning was that he was trying to hold down a full-time job and look after me, whilst the other kids had mothers to look after them.
When she was there, my mother used to come and stand at the school-yard railings at play-time and ask for me. In my last couple of years at primary school I had taken to standing in my corner behind the school-house, where I watched my reflection in the glass panes. A kid would come up to me to tell me that my mother wanted to see me and I would go to her and she would ask me how I was doing through the school railings or over the low wall. Parents mustn't have been allowed to come in to see their children at play-time, I assume.
One day my father told me that my mother had tried to abort me. Being only of tender years, I did not fully understand what that meant, so I asked her about it at her next visit and was surprised that she ran away in tears and didn't return the next day, or the day after. I thought I had said something I shouldn't have, but couldn't then appreciate why it should upset her so and blamed myself for saying it and upsetting her.
The only other children I had any sort of rapport with were also social misfits. There was one silly kid I regularly used to march to the Head Mistress's office, because he thought I was a prefect, but let him go just before we got there. I enjoyed being seen as having an authority over him. There was a girl everybody used to make fun of because they said she was so ugly. I didn't think she was ugly, just weird. It was she whom I had to sit beside as penance.
It started when the girl who was by common opinion the most beautiful in the class surreptitiously swept some pencil sharpening under my desk during a clean-up that Mr. Smith made us perform. He didn't see it but I did and I stood up from under the desk and complained about it to her. Mr. Smith caned me for it. It was the first and only time I had the cane and it wasn't my fault. For days after that, kids would come up to me and ask me if it was true I'd been caned. They couldn't believe it.
As further punishment, he made me sit beside the ugly girl. Remembering what I do of his sardonic egocentric "humour" that seems to afflict so many small-minded teachers of his ilk, I think I can understand, though not condone, why he did it. I think people like him like to big themselves up in front of kids because they're failed showmen.
But I got one over on him. This girl who was outcast by everyone else I found quite entertaining and we used to share jokes in class. I used to point to a picture of a Moray eel and tell her she looked like that. Then she would come back at me with something I resembled and we used to laugh. This used to infuriate Mr. Smith even more and eventually he moved to to sit beside a boy.
But he had to get even with me and he did so in grand, showmanship-like style. His chance came when we were given a project to do. Regular schoolwork didn't bother me because I was good at it and we were told what to do, but big projects intimidated the hell out of me. There were no hard and fast rules and plenty of scope for failure. We had to do some research and write an essay on a topic. Mr. Smith was keen on the Tudor era and our project topics reflected this. I didn't have a clue where to start. What was all this talk of crisps and bars of chocolate, Topics and Tudors? A visit to the local lending library turned up nothing, even when I asked the librarian. My father took me to the big library but we couldn't find anything there either, or at least nothing more substantial to fill out more than half a page in my small exercise book. I was worried. I knew from previous projects that Mr. Smith liked bonny pictures to be sketched in and the text to be written on either side of it, or even through it, even though it made it difficult to read. I found a good picture of Hampton Court and drew that, but not before I had practised it many times. I remember it was very difficult to sketch. Worse was to come. Either I or my father accidentally spilled fat on the only page I had managed to produce about the subject in my exercise book. It was when I was having my tea. It went right through it and made a big translucent stain on it. I couldn't just tear it out, as it was part of another page with writing on it, which would have also dropped out. I worried all week before the hand-in and finally handed in what I had, which wasn't much, with the note.
To my horror, Mr. Smith was livid. He made me stand up in front of the whole class. Then he read out the note from my father. I had never known or felt fear or shame like it. I felt myself becoming hot in the face and was slack-jawed with terror, gnawing fear eviscerating me to the pit of my stomach, much to the amusement of my class mates. The note began with "Dear Sir," and asked for me to be excused on the multiple misdemeanours of not being bothered to look for any reference material for the project, not having seriously attempted it, having "soiled" my exercise book in an obvious attempt to cover it up and gone pleading to my father for a note to cover that up. Had this been the case, it would have demanded of me a deviousness and cunning of which I was not possessed at the time. As it was, after these accusations I just felt dirty and ashamed. Mr. Smith delighted in it. He rolled the word "soiled" round on his tongue and every time he said it the class went into hysterics. He and the class were lapping it up. To me, then about ten, it was an unforgettable hell. He didn't believe me. Apart from everything else, I was being shamed in front of my peers as a liar. He said the others had all managed to find stuff, though God knows where. To make it worse, what he was saying about me was completely untrue. I had tried and had worried myself sick about it for days. I was anything but lazy and it was my father's idea to write the note, not mine. He should have been the one Mr. Smith took issue with about it, not me. But of course, fear tied my tongue and reached into the pit of my stomach during this tirade and wouldn't have allowed me to correct him, so I took it. I knew that if I told my father what had happened, he would confront Mr. Smith and that would only make things worse for me in the long run.
Mr. Smith had set some of his favourites on a project of building a plywood model of the Globe theatre. I have to admit that although I was not amongst them, I was impressed when I saw it taking shape and being painted in Tudor black and white, while I was getting on with more mundane schoolwork.
During my memorable inquisition in front of the class, he asked me who the greatest writer was. I didn't know what to say. After a long embarrassing pause, with he and the whole class waiting expectantly for me to come up with an answer, I blurted out, "Dickens, Sir". This produced a few sniggers which grew to immediate uproarious hilarity by the audience when he corrected me by saying it was Shakespeare. Authority has the power to turn right into wrong and black into white, I discovered then.
The irony of this story is that it was when reading the writer whose name then in my panic escaped me as the required answer, nearly forty years' later, a fragment of a line in King Henry VIII jogged my memory of this sad episode and era in my life. It was simply this:
-- Whose honour shield from soil.
Act 1, Scene 2.
12 September 08
You're at the bottom!