The text below was my entry in the ‘Why I write’ essay-writing competition for Editor Unleashed. Which failed to win anything…
In the back of my book
Nowadays it would be called Year Four. Back then, in my school on the south coast of England, it was simply Class Nine. Our teacher was Mr Dixon, a man short of both stature and temper. At the age of nine or ten I was already nearly as tall as he was. Thirty years later I still burn with a sense of injustice about that time when he kept me in at break and made me write twenty-five lines because I had helpfully asked Louise Campbell if she wanted the glue. We were supposed to be working in silence at the time. But still.
Occasionally we had another teacher called Mrs Songhurst. She was nearing retirement age and I found her more frightening than Mr Dixon. She once laughed at me because I somehow thought that black people had dark skins as a consequence of living in places where they were exposed to strong sunshine. Which is true, evolutionarily speaking, but at that time I also believed that they would gradually fade into paleness if they moved to cooler climates (and vice versa). There were no black children at my school or in that small seaside town during the 1970s, so perhaps my ignorance was excusable. My embarrassment at being mocked by a teacher in front of the whole class for giving voice to my theory was acute.
Class Nine sat in pairs at small tables, all facing forwards. At the beginning of the year we could choose whom we sat next to, but Mr Dixon soon changed us around, as a punishment for talking too much, so that every girl was partnered by a boy. I was paired with Adrian Speck. I remember little about him, except that Adrian wrote the capital A of his forename with a rounded top. We had been taught to form our As with a point and I admired Adrian’s alternative, immediately adopting it for the A at the beginning of my own name. I had little else in common with him (or any of the boys), but was grateful that at least I did not have to sit next to Roy Godfrey, who liked to shock the rest of the class by regurgitating parts of his lunch into his mouth.
We all had lined spelling books that were about three by six inches in size (although by then we were being taught to measure things in centimetres). On each folio we wrote a letter of the alphabet. If we were uncertain of the spelling of a word, we had to look it up in a dictionary and write it down in our spelling books in the appropriate place. The folio headed with the letter S was always the first to be filled with my badly-formed handwriting (unwilling to be constrained by lines). The ungovernable nature of my script was something else for which Mrs Songhurst would publicly chastise me.
In the back of those slim volumes Mr. Dixon told us to write down the name of the job that we thought we would be doing in the future. I wonder what my fellow classmates wrote down in the back of their books. How many future astronauts, teachers, pilots, movie stars and police officers were going to be graduating from that one small group of children? And how many of us have fulfilled the ambitions of our nine- and ten-year-old selves?
Adrian Speck is now a lawyer, practising in London and specialising in intellectual property rights. I wonder if he wrote that down in his spelling book. Perhaps these days he would sue me for copying that particular form of his letter A. Poor Roy Godfrey died in a road accident at the age of eighteen. However realistic or outrageous his aspiration might have been, it remains unfulfilled.
In my book? I wrote down ‘authoress’. It is not a word that I would choose now. Who would? To me, aged nine, there could be nothing better than being able to share my stories with other people. Speaking out loud might bring forth punishment and ridicule but through writing I could express myself however I chose and create the world that I wanted to see. With my untidy handwriting magically converted into printed words there would be fewer barriers to understanding or causes for rebuke and I would be able to connect with similar spirits all around the world.
That is always in the back of my mind.