Saturday, February 19, 2005

Lost In The Desert

I return to The Happiest Days of Your Life Season (brought to you in association with Naked Blog) with memories of the 11-Plus, the examination that sorted the sheep from the goats and frequently determined the course of the rest of your life. Of course, many grammar schools still survive but their entrance exams can't hold quite the same terror as the 11-Plus used to because there are no Secondary Modern Schools now and some of those had a fearsome reputation.

Depending on your birthday, you could sometimes take this exam at the age of 10 and that was the case for me. My problem was that I was brilliant at English but hopeless at maths. This produced an inconclusive result. If you were 'borderline' as it was called (half sheep, half goat) you faced an interview with the Headmasters of the local grammar schools.

Thus it was that I faced three middle-aged men across a table who were leafing through my school exercise books and making tutting noises. In my memory they are wearing gowns and mortar boards that half covered the horns protruding from their heads. But they were probably just wearing dark suits.
One of them leaned forward and said "If you were lost in the desert, how would you find your way home?"
Now there weren't many deserts in the vicinity of my small middle England town and my main challenge so far in life had been getting on the right bus. I closed my eyes and thought hard.
I'd once got lost on the beach at Weston-Super-Mare. That had been sandy and very hot. I'd stood and wailed until someone led me back to my parents. I've stayed away from beaches ever since. But somehow that didn't sound a very satisfactory answer to give them.

Maybe a passing Arab would come to my rescue - in the fictional desert, not in that classroom - emerging from the heat haze on a camel like Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia. But my mother had warned me not to get on a camel with a strange Arab. Well actually she'd told me not to get into an Austin A40 with a man I didn't know, especially if it was Mr Jones from Number 32. (I was later to spend many years looking for such a person, but that's another story).

Those were some of the longest minutes of my life. I mumbled and fidgeted and tried to do a pathetic mime of a 10 year old Einstein struggling with some over-arching Theory of Everything. Eventually, one of them took pity on me and said "what about the sun?" Ah yes, the sun. What about the bloody sun, I thought. If I couldn't hitch a ride on a passing camel soon it would burn me to a cinder. And if we sat in this classroom staring at each other much longer, I wouldn't be home in time for Jimmy Edwards in Whacko!

Not surprisingly, those three Grammar Schools decided they couldn't risk their reputations by admitting a cretin who didn't know you could navigate by the sun or the stars. And my parents decided that expensive set of encyclopaedias they'd bought me had been a waste of money.
But all was not lost. I was allowed to go through a similar ordeal with the Heads of Grammar Schools in the surrounding area. One of them leaned forward and said "Which is more graceful, a dog or a cat?"
Ah, this was more like it. Easy-peasy.
"A dog!" I replied. Well after all, a guide dog could lead you safely out of the desert if you were lost.
As it happened, that Headmaster shared my dislike of cats and saw this shared view of animal aesthetics as good enough reason to welcome me into his school. I wasn't a 10 year old failure after all. On the other hand, if I'd gone to the Secondary Modern I might have had a lucrative career as a plumber and have paid the mortgage off by now.


At 4:30 PM, Blogger Steve said...

I passed my eleven+ and went to the local grammar - along with most of my mates. We all left with nothing but O levels and all struggled to earn a decent living. All the rest went to the local Secondary Modern and left to take apprenticeships. They all earn a bloody fortune now as plumbers, electricians and carpenters.

It wasn't until years later and a degree that I could get a salary anywhere comparable.

At 7:01 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

We could do with some vocational training in secondary schools today for the non-academic. The TV programme 'That'll Teach 'Em' showed how effective that can be, but without trying to categorise people at the age of 11 of course.


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