My school experience is dominated by memories of humiliation. I went to a primary school in a suburb of London. It was white (apart from William Azapardi and Falguni Basu) with a mixed working, middle and professional class intake. Outstanding memories of my time there focus on injustice and humiliation. The teacher I had in the final two years – ‘Nobby’ Clark – was a slipper-wielding Welshman. We sat in rows facing the front. The position we had was determined by the maths test we sat each week – I was always somewhere in the middle.
I remember having the slipper twice. The first time was because in answer to a maths question, I said ‘times’ instead of ‘multiplication’. I was brought to the front of the class, made to bend over the desk and smacked resoundingly on my bottom. I don’t remember if it hurt, the humiliation was far too painful. The second time was in 1959; it had been one of those rare, hot summers. My family and I had been to North Wales on a caravan holiday and spent the week playing on the beach and swimming in the sea. First week back to school we had to write a story, ‘My Holiday’. I wrote about how we played in the sun. My brother, I said, had a back ‘the colour of mahogany’. I don’t think I really knew what mahogany was, but it was how my mother described it, ‘Oh David, your back is the colour of mahogany’. Mr. Clark always chose extracts from particularly good stories to read out to the class. I remember the pride I felt when he picked up my book and began to read from it, ‘my brother’s back turned the colour of mahogany’. Feelings of pride soon turned to horror. Mr. Clark sent John Waterton down to the infants to get my six-year old brother. He was brought to the class and asked to remove his shirt – pointing to his back and turning to the class Mr. Clark told them, ‘this back is not the colour of mahogany, Marilyn Pole is a liar’ (I no longer use my first name having swopped to my middle name at 16). My brother was sent back to his class. I replaced him at the front and received the slipper for ‘lying’. I remember stammering, ‘but Sir, my mum said it was mahogany’. He wasn’t listening. My brother has never forgiven me for that incident of humiliation and I have never forgotten it.