A Yank Goes to Oxford (secondary school version, 1971)

By Peter Mandler

While my colleagues on this project were both wholly educated in the UK, my own schooling took place entirely in Canada and the US – except for one year, 1971-2, when I was 13 turning 14.  In that year my academic parents took a sabbatical year in Oxford and I was unceremoniously translated from my relaxed, coed Southern California junior high school into a British secondary school of an entirely different stripe.  What follows is based entirely on my no doubt jaundiced memories, heavily coloured by my subsequent academic understandings – no documents were consulted in the course of writing!

Mine was a direct-grant grammar school, all male, and with the full panoply of uniform, cricket and rugby, forms and houses, masters with sticks, Latin and Greek, termly examinations and ranking in every subject, fountain pens only and chapel with hymns every morning.  Though I attempted to take a distanced anthropological view of the experience, I had strong views about everything, often positive, mostly shocked and horrified.

First, the positive – as an academic child, I did like the highly specified and structured curriculum.  I liked the Latin – I had already taken two years of Latin, among the last California state school students to have that opportunity, so I was reasonably well abreast – and even the Greek – which I began with the others in the Lower 4th;  unfortunately, after the first term, I was put up to the Upper 4th and had to drop Greek as I was too far behind.  I struggled on with the more advanced Latin and got a poor but passing grade in the O level I took at the end of the year.  I loved my History masters who were young and enthusiastic, and I wrote very long essays on Gladstone and Disraeli and the exploration of Africa which lingered long in the memory.

I was astonished by the British appetite for sweets and the tuck shop which opened specially in school during generous breaks and lunchtime, lest we have to go more than a few hours without sugar.  (My school in California had even got rid of its vending machines and only big, tasteless apples were on sale during school hours.)  We had a lot of freedom during those breaks – at lunchtime, many students wandered off campus to the ‘Muni’, the municipal canteen not far away (a descendant I think of the wartime British Restaurants which the local authority had kept open after the war to subsidise certain groups’ meals).

I walked down to the river with some friends (when I had friends – see below) and enjoyed idyllic lunches of sandwiches and more sweets in the most gorgeous surroundings.  Our cross-country runs delivered even more freedom as absolutely nothing stopped us from deviating from the course and bunking off, so long as we draggled back to school at a roughly appropriate time.  All of this – and even the uniform, the schoolbag, the neatly-ruled workbooks – made me feel like more of a grown-up than I had ever felt in my very adolescent California school.

But ah, the negatives!  I was particularly appalled by what I now know to have been the ‘counter-school culture’ of the early ‘70s.  This label is usually applied to working-class kids of the period, especially those who ‘suffered’ from the raising of the school-leaving age to 16 in 1972, who were taking advantage of the loosened standards of behaviour of the ‘Sixties’ and a last burst of good manual employment prospects to spend their last years of school kicking out against the authorities and the confinements of school.

But the loosened standards of behaviour, if not the manual employment prospects, applied as well to the well-heeled pupils of my direct-grant school.  (I don’t think I was aware of it at the time, but a good proportion of those pupils were feepayers, and the rest were likely to have been of similarly prosperous backgrounds, who had qualified for free places because they had attended state primary schools.)  These nice middle-class boys were on a tear.  They spent as much time in class as they could reading comics, throwing spitballs, passing notes, playing semi-covert games, chatting and cursing and mock-fighting until the noise levels reached intolerable levels.  There was one particularly disliked maths teacher, a local Conservative councillor near retirement, whose class deliberately played him like a fish on a line, precisely because he responded so splendidly with red-faced spleen and shouting and spittle-flecked promises of eternal damnation.  If there was a ‘discipline’ problem in ‘70s schools, it was quite as evident in this very socially and academically selective environment as in many ‘bog-standard comps’.  I found it incredible.

This ‘counter-school culture’ was of course exacerbated by single-sex education.  13 year old boys, massed together in large numbers, are probably never an edifying sight.  To me, a sensitive boy who had loved the girls in his California school, they were terrifying – on the cricket and rugby field, of course, but in the classroom, the canteen, the tuck shop and all points in between as well.  I had fared not too badly in the Lower 4th, and made a few friends, but when I was put up into the Upper 4th the boys were older and rowdier, their resentment at the swot pushed up a form palpable, and my old friends were left behind.  I also had to sit out Greek (in addition to RE, from which I’d been exempted on grounds of conscience), which further identified me as a loner.

I did spend the rest of the year very isolated and very badly bullied.  Actually I was bullied the next year in my California school as well, so I was obviously an easy target for adolescent boys everywhere, but in California I also had a peer group, whereas here I was truly in a foreign land.  I spent a good deal of the rest of that year in the library, reading all sorts of things I would never have discovered otherwise, but still I would have gladly traded all the books in Oxford for some companionship, preferably female.

In between, there were lots of experiences that were just strange, and educational:  chapel and Anglican hymns;  the very poor heating, which drove me to claim a seat on one of the red-hot radiators in our form room whenever I could;  the rituals of house cricket and buying kit and the swishing gowns and canes;  and did I mention the sweets?  At least I got an education in British education, of a certain kind, and a keener cross-cultural appreciation of the manners and habits of my own land.  I did return to California the following summer with immense relief, and fell into the arms of my friends, and enjoyed my first kiss within a few weeks of my return.  What is amazing to me is that only two years later, when my mind began to turn to university, my father suggested applying to Oxford (then unthinkable for any other California teenager), and I did.  But that is another story.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Dave Postles

    Aspirations and the working class: most of the teachers were from middle-class backgrounds and did not understand or empathise with working-class kids. They expected us to be rogues and fail. Fortunately, a few of them recognized and fostered ability.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.