The fourth year of secondary school is a challenging one. You will recall that because of the intensive schooling of Keble, the first two years at Goffs are pretty much covering things I have already studied. That starts to change in the third year, but because I have been able to coast academically until now actually having some work to do proves a bit of a shock.
At around the same time, my parents’ relationship deteriorates further. There is talk of divorce from my mother at various stages in my teens (not from my father, but then he always plays his cards close to his chest). Any teenager at this age is struggling with their identity, but of course I am struggling more than most, and don’t feel I can talk to them about it. As I have mentioned there are a couple of occasions where I come close to being discovered experimenting with clothes and make-up, but when, many many years later, I tell my mother of my trans status she professes complete astonishment and says she has never suspected. I talk about this to my counsellor who says that if the incidents were relatively few and far between and I became better at covering my tracks, my parents may simply have dismissed it as a “phase” which had now “passed”.
Academically, by the fourth year I start to struggle. Not because of the content, but because of lack of motivation. The domestic situation at home is often dreadful, so my bedroom feels like the only safe refuge there – although of course I continue to bury myself in my books, comics, increasingly music and of course TV. The seventies is a golden age for kids TV in the UK – I could do a second blog just on that, but just bloody watch The Owl Service and Carrie’s War and see the kind of stuff you missed. Unless you’re my age of course, in which case you probably didn’t miss it unless you were outside keeping fit and healthy. And in fact Carrie’s War is not on DVD. And why on earth has no-one released Here Come the Double Deckers? It’s star-studded, for God’s sake.
My friendships with Nigel and Michael continue to deepen and I start to make other friends, although as some of those friends manage to make what appears to me the cataclysmic and utterly bewildering leap of starting to go out with girls, I find myself increasinly having to interact with girls as well, most of whom generally find me amusing, but not in a good way. There is almost no prospect of a girl going out with me, as I will recount next time.
So my academic performance continues to deteriorate, and one morning the Headmaster, the august Dr Colin G Hadley, summons me to his office. Dr Hadley likes to run the school as if it is steeped in public school tradition (although the school is, in fact, a mere ten years old) and adopts language and mannerisms accordingly. He is extremely tall, willowy, pipe-smoking and a Francophile (in particular asserting that Madame Bovary is the greatest novel of all time and singing the praises of Georges Simenon at every opportunity). Mind you Madame Bovary is good. And so is Posy Simmonds updated comics version Gemma Bovery. And Posy is also an extremely nice woman, so there.
CGH wears an academic gown at assembly and possesses a dry sense of humour (some would say dessicated). He has obviously detected that my academic performance has gone off the rails, but it doesn’t occur to him that there may be reasons for this – he simply concludes I have a “bad attitude”. So when he sits me down in his office – which is the first time I have sat there since he interviewed me for the school – his measured opening phrase is “When are you leaving us Curson?”
CGH then goes elaborates on this pithy phrase, whose ellipsis is worthy of a spymaster talking to his agent in some sixties movie (“Go on Bond/Palmer, just bloody guess what the hell I’m on about and then get on and do it!”), by explaining that he is proposing to expel me from the school. The prospect of course terrifies me, both the shame of it and the mounting dread that I might, perhaps, be sent to Riversmead School. There are three secondary schools close to each other in the area, Goffs, then St Mary’s, then Riversmead, each successively a little closer to the town centre of Cheshunt, and each successively tougher and more unruly, or so it seems to me. If I have to go to Riversmead, I reason, I will be dead within the week. They already threaten the tough kids from our school. It would be like that moment in Tom and Jerry cartoons when they throw a steak to the bulldog and he devours it in seconds flat. Me being the steak.
Having first duly terrified me CGH then writes to my parents, causing my Dad to take a brief, and incandescently angry interest in my schooling. The normal degree of his interaction is to read my termly reports, which up until recently have been fine. He is clearly concerned about how an expelled son will make him look, and interrogates me as to why this his happening. How can I tell him? I don’t fit in there, my body’s weird, I feel like a girl, you scare the shit out of me, you tell my mum and me we don’t live in the real world, you hate the stuff I’m interested in, I think I’m ugly and freakish, you’re probably going to divorce, I don’t know what’s going to become of me. Enough to be going on with? Of course I am too much of a coward to say any of that stuff, so I mumble cravenly about trying harder. And I do try a bit harder – and subsequently I am reprieved from the threat of expulsion and do well at my O-levels the following year. But my behaviour and achievement at school remains erratic throughout my time there, except for one final extra “golden” year which I will write about in due course.