I recently discovered a folder full of my old school reports – literally from reception right up to my final year of sixth form. My Mum kept them all over the years and gave me the folder a few years ago, and I only just came across it again. One evening, I got a bit drunk (obviously, it’s me), and decided to have a good rifle through them to find out – well, what the hell went wrong. When did that funny looking, wonky toothed and later bespectacled little girl who was actually pretty good at school become…this still funny looking, slightly less but still a bit wonky toothed and bespectacled now only half the time adult who has no idea what the actual fuck she wants to do with her life?
Okay, not really. Well sort of. But also not really. Reading through my old school stuff, I was reminded of some of the utter batshit lessons I was taught back in the day, and how, even now I believe, kids don’t get taught about stuff that matters. I wasn’t taught about mortgages, taxes, credit cards or any of that other stuff we’re just supposed to know as we become adults – I’d be interested to know if they teach any of this shit nowadays in secondary schools.
Anyway, I eventually came up with a content idea – go with me on this, I’m still not convinced it’ll work – a new series of posts, where I reminisce on certain school subjects from way back when, along with any other random memories that pop up. I don’t want to make it too self indulgent or anything, but I’d maybe like to share some of that nostalgia from school and some of the lessons that we were taught in place of actual useful life skills, and maybe you can share with me some of your school memories in the comments. You can expect my critiques of things that went down, maybe some insight into how certain school events shaped my personality today, and of course, a lot of nostalgia.
I’m going to take it one subject at a time, starting with good old English. So, in this post I’ll be looking back over what’s largely my secondary school experiences of English, including the books we were forced to read that I can still recite passages from, my hatred of reading as a class, and how I physically cannot watch a film anymore without over analysing it.
I mentioned in my World Book Day post that I was always one of those kids with their head in a book. Even in reception I was reading at an advanced age – that may sound like I’m bragging, but fuck me, we all have to hold on to our achievements and I swear to god if it were acceptable it’d be on my CV – and as a result, I always loved English. At primary school, I loved writing stories and reading Jacqueline Wilson books, and the smugness I’d feel getting full marks on a spelling test was better than crack (I assume). Check out this smug little comment I wrote in my “self report” at age 9:
What an absolute little dickhead.
One thing I liked about the primary school years was that they often let you choose what to read. It was like it didn’t matter what you read, they just wanted to encourage you to read. Those were the days. I don’t want to offend anyone, but the vast majority of what we read in secondary school and sixth form… fuck me. It’s no wonder I stopped reading for a good few years.
The Secondary School Years
I still enjoyed English at secondary school, although I’ll be honest, I really bloody struggled with some of the things we had to read. It wasn’t that I found them difficult or anything, it was just that they didn’t interest me. I get that certain books had been picked for a reason, and there’s no denying that some of them are books that everyone should read at least once, but at the same time they felt like they were a great way at putting kids off reading. Like maybe now, I’d enjoy reading Lord of the Flies and the themes that featured in it. However, it’s not the sort of thing you want to be reading when you’re fourteen – reading about a bunch of barbaric kids who all end up turning on one another and targeting the weaker kid was far too reminiscent of PE. I distinctly remember Lord of the Flies being one of those books we read “as a class.” Ugh. Just let me read the book at my own pace.
Film & TV
I remember one of the main features of year 9 English was looking at World War One. Initially, we started by reading In Flanders Fields by John McCrae, followed by watching a documentary on the Battle of the Somme, and then the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, where the episode ended with all of the main characters going “over the top,” resulting in the iconic ending of the field of poppies. I remember we had to “compare and contrast” all three of these mediums, looking at the different ways in which WWI was portrayed, and looking back, this was probably one of the assignments I was most interested in. As someone who was interested in comedy from such a young age, I instantly was fascinated by the Blackadder episode, and comparing that with the more sombre pieces of media we’d looked at was really interesting to explore. As an adult, the fourth series of That Mitchell and Webb Look referenced this particular scene, and I was instantly taken back to the classroom where we watched the episode on the brand new smart-board, and it was then that I really understood what that scene portrayed, and the overall impact of it.
For GCSE English, we also spent a lot of time on Saving Private Ryan, the 1998 film with Tom Hanks and Matt Damon. I cannot count the amount of times I’ve watched the opening scenes of that film – I could probably recite them frame by frame. I don’t really remember why it was this film in particular that we focused on, but I remember we had to write an essay on it and the tropes that were used. This particular block of work is the reason why I now overthink every single film I watch.
I remember a key fixture of GCSE English being poetry – we were all given our very own anthology packed with bangers, and I distinctly remember the work of Carol Ann Duffy being something we focused on a lot. Her poem Education for Leisure is one we analysed the crap out of, and reading it as a fully grown adult I’m thinking how the hell was this appropriate?! Talk of flushing your goldfish down the bog (her words, not mine), picking up a bread knife and touching the arm of a stranger in the street – WHAT?! Not surprisingly, the poem was pulled from the AQA anthology in 2008 due to concerns about knife crime, a move that was subsequently criticised because said poem could have opened up a debate on the subject. I can certainly see both sides of the argument, especially in this day and age, but on the other hand, if I was a parent and my kid came home telling me about this poem, I’d be a little bit concerned.
Sixth Form – English Literature
I knew I wanted to do some form of English for my A-levels, and given the choice of literature and language, I was aiming more towards language. However, because of the other subjects I’d picked, there were timetabling issues which meant I couldn’t do language as well, so I ended up going for literature, and that’s where the phrase “compare and contrast” became etched into my brain and still gives me flashbacks to this very day.
I remember our teachers for English Lit were great – Mr H and Mrs K. Both of them were lovely and they spoke to you like you were their equal, however this meant a lot of the time, the lessons weren’t very structured and there was more general chat than anything else. I don’t hold that against them, as we had some good laughs, and they were both so relaxed and easy-going. Second year was much better than first year, and this was largely down to class sizes. There were only about 12 of us to begin with, but a number of students decided to drop the subject as we went into our second year, and there was talk of merging our group with the other English Lit group. However, myself and one other girl were unable to be merged because of timetable conflicts, so ultimately, the second year was just me and her. While we didn’t get much done because there was a fair bit of chatting that went on, and to be honest, I don’t blame both teachers for not preparing full on lessons for just two students. Despite that, these classes were largely spent reading and discussing the set texts. Some of which were AWFUL, some of which I actually quite enjoyed.
While I feel we both may have done better had we transferred with everyone else to the other group (at no point did it occur to them to leave those that were able to transfer in the same group), I honestly loved how relaxed and lovely both teachers were. I had a shitty day once and where it was visibly obvious I was in a foul mood, Mrs K said to me “You’re not really in the mood for this are you? I’m going to let you go early – go home and have a cup of tea, and then pick up the book when you’re feeling better,” and she let us both go home early. Okay, one could argue she may have not wanted to teach a miserable little bitch, but I had a lot of respect for the fact she called me out on my shitty mood and appreciated I clearly wasn’t in the mood to talk about a book I’d previously admitted that I hated (it’s amazing how much more unfiltered I got when there was just two of us in the class).
The Reading List
So what did we actually read in sixth form? Well, it was quite a mixed bag of plays, poetry and novels. I remember reading Spies, which I absolutely hated and found dull as anything, and we also read Brighton Rock, another one that I majorly struggled to get into. It wasn’t all bad though – here’s some of the stuff we read that I actually quite liked working on:
- Top Girls – A 1982 play written by Caryl Churchill exploring the roles of women in modern society. This was great to read aloud in the class, as there were multiple swears. I don’t care what age you are, being permitted to say the C-word in front of a teacher is like being a kid at Christmas.
- Brokeback Mountain – My ignorant teenage brain never knew that the film was based on this short story by Annie Proulx. We read this as part of the “Love Through the Ages” module. It was however, quite spicy in places, and this made it both awkward and hilarious AF – put it this way, it’s not every day you hear your teacher say the phrase “erect cock,” but when you do, it’s comedy gold.
- Antony & Cleopatra – You can’t do English Lit without some classic Shakespeare thrown. While Shakespeare’s English is an absolute ballache to translate, it actually was quite interesting!
- A Streetcar Named Desire – The 1942 play by Tennessee Williams that featured the iconic characters Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski. We read the play alongside watching the 1951 film starring Marlon Brando, so it was interesting getting the two takes of it alongside one another. All together now – STELLLAAAA!
- Just because a book is iconic, it doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy it.
- It’s actually quite interesting attempting to convert Shakespeare’s English to modern day English.
- I would genuinely try and find any way to try and work quotes that had swearing in them into an essay, even if the point I was making was only vaguely relevant.
- York Notes will forever be your best friends – especially when you bloody hate the book.
So, that’s what is essentially the pilot post of this series done and dusted – I hope you enjoyed it and maybe it even got you thinking about your own school memories. I have a few stories in my pocket to tell you from other subjects, so with a bit of luck this series will get better as things go on!