Knock, then enter, close the door, and wait to be addressed.
That was Mr. Harold Llewellyn-Smith’s protocol rule whenever a boy was called to the headmaster’s office. Whether he was already punishing me for my truancy by ignoring me or just relishing his position as the head of the school, it was lost on my fourteen-year-old brain. I knew what the upcoming punishment had in store for me, so I quietly and fidgetily tried desperately to come up with a reason for him not to go through with it.
The minutes dragged on as Llewellyn-Smith continued to write something onto an official-looking sheet of paper. From my viewpoint, I could see he held in his hand, a majestic cobalt-blue fountain pen. It had a thick stem and must have been full of ink in its inner well, because he continued to write what I interpreted to be one thousand lines of “I must cane this boy, I must cane this boy,” before finally replacing the cap, then neatly setting it down next to his manuscript.
“Campbell,” he addressed me. This was the year 1971, formalities in a London Grammar school were to be maintained at all times. Even my classmates and I addressed each other by our surnames. To this day, I can’t remember more than a handful of their first names. The truth is, I can’t remember most of their faces, let alone their surnames.
“Do you know why you are here?” The headmaster rhetorically asked.
I defeatedly nodded my head.
“Speak up, boy!”
“Yes,” I mumbled.
“Yes, Mr. Headmaster, Sir,” I replied in the manner that the respect of his position demanded.
“Approach and stand in front of the desk,” he commanded. I gingerly obeyed and took seven steps forward.
“This is your third year with us, is it not?”
“And how do you think you are getting on?” That was another rhetorical question impatient for an answer. Not that I had one to present. I had become apathetic towards school and its parade of strict teachers.
“I’ll tell you how you are getting along. Not very well, it seems.”
I chose silence as my only defence. It seemed that I been slacking at school. It seemed I was failing classes. It seemed that I didn’t give a flying…
“And we had such high hopes for you when you started here,” he dug the dagger deep.
Nearly three years prior to this admonishment, I had come second overall in my primary school class. It was such a great achievement and a celebration, because I displaced Caroline McDonald – who cried her eyes out at dropping down a position in the class ranking system. I was there when she cried. Up to that point, she had always finished second to Denise Wolf at the completion of each school year. Denise was so clever; she was beyond catching. Not that I realised it was a race. Coming runner-up in my final year was as much a surprise to me as it was to Caroline McDonald’s ego. So, I sympathetically told her not to worry, because there was always next year. In retrospect, that was rather callous of me, as next year all of us would have moved on to the next school level.
I had wanted to go to a regular secondary school with all my mates from my neighbourhood, but my mother insisted that in the interview with the headmaster of the preferred school, I should remember to call him sir. I was born stubborn, so I purposely omitted that accolade, limiting my responses to single syllable yes and no answers. The fallout was a rejection by the egotistical prig, probably on the grounds of lack of respect. Following a recommendation from Mr. Edwards – my Primary school headmaster, my mother applied to a Grammar school in the heart of St. Marylebone, London. I remembered to call Mr. Llewellyn-Smith “Sir,” resulting in me being accepted into a school founded in 1792, boasting an Old Boys list of writers, actors, statesmen, famous athletes, a slew of dead and living war heroes, and a couple of Prime Ministers.
“I have here a report from your truant officer,” Llewellyn-Smith continued. “You have been absent from school for almost three months. What on Earth have you been doing?”
I didn’t think it would help my case if I told him I had been loitering each day in my local park and adjoining cemetery with my mates until school finished, so we could go home without suspicions being raised otherwise.
“You’re throwing away an opportunity that many boys your age would give their right arm for,” he rabbited on. “Why would you waste this chance to excel?”
I wanted to answer but thought otherwise and remained non-responsive. I hadn’t been idle in my absence. I had learned an important skill in the world of delinquent schoolboys. I had learned to forge the signature of several parents on hastily drawn absence notes to the school. I had also taught myself the power of the written word in the form of requests for bereavement leave and doctor appointments. My creativity even stretched to writing signed doctor’s notes. In turn, they did the same for me. Our only fear was someone questioning our parents’ real signatures on day trip forms needing their approval, so we intercepted them as well. In the end, we just couldn’t write enough lies to prolong our disappearances from school assemblies each morning, so the suspicious Inner London School Authority assigned Detective Poirot - otherwise known as the truant officer – to diligently track us all down one by one, then report his findings to parents and headmasters alike.
“Is there a logical explanation for your lack of effort in attending classes?” Llewellyn-Smith continued his oratorical questioning.
I wanted to blame my absence on the school’s negligence of making learning fun. Apart from the art class teacher, the rest of them painted themselves like superior beings - some haunting the school corridors wearing long, flowing black robes, like they were on their way to prosecute captive innocent minds that had no educated voice to defend themselves. It was not entirely clear that they even enjoyed their vocation in life, but it was apparent to me that teaching young boys was just an interruption in their daily lives. The old adage of “Those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach,” was yet to cross my limited knowledge of the world. However, the lack of enthusiasm on their part, certainly bled blazingly through my material world. Perhaps their sour disposition was a result of their own lost youth spent fighting a world war, so any empathy toward the ungrateful youth of the 1970s needed to be earned.
“Your lack of engaging in this conversation,” the headmaster continued - interrupting my fight or flight apprehensive thoughts. “Leads me to only one possible outcome.”
“Oh, here it comes,” I surmised. “The moment I knocked on your mediaeval-arched, castle-thick, wooden door, there was only going to be one outcome. My silence will be all I engage, so get it over and done with, you old bastard.”
That “Old Bastard” – it turns out, had been a signal officer for a tank battalion in the Scots Guards for the entire six years of the war. He was awarded the Military Cross fighting the Nazis and was mentioned in despatches in The London Gazette. That certainly explains the regimented environment of the school and how some of my generation - born into a world devoid of any major world conflicts – rebelled against military disciplined regulations.
“Is everything copacetic at home, Campbell?” Llewellyn-Smith curiously probed – like he was trying to dig out a piece of embedded shrapnel from my head.
If he had asked if anything was “Ducky” at home, I might have understood the question. However, he recognised my dumb look and simplified his question.
“Are things at home as they should be? Is life normal in your family unit?”
Any measurement of normal in my “Unit” was entirely a one-sided perspective. Growing up without a real father and with only father figures in our household, I never questioned normality. However, if bomb sniffing dogs running loose in your house - after an IRA bomb had exploded in London was normal, then yes, everything was as it should be. If my Uncle Jimmy’s Sinn Fein membership painted a target on our front door for the Flying Squad and the Criminal Investigation Department – the CID, to raid us looking for explosives and bombers in hiding - whenever a car bomb detonated, then life to me was indeed copacetic – and, according to my grandmother, t’was to be swept under the doormat of shame, never to be questioned, dissected, or resolved.
The early 1970s Irish Republican Army bombing campaign targeting London and other British cities, also planted numerous sleeper cells of the IRA into the country, who infiltrated Irish communities to coerce and convince people like my Uncle Jimmy, that passing out their printed propaganda and collecting cash donations in Irish pubs would help their cause. So, during these early morning fruitless raids, I’d sleepily play with the accompanying police dog at the bottom of the stairs, while the house was searched. The posters on my bedroom wall depicting Bruce Lee and Marilyn Monroe, hung beside portraits of some of the football stars of the day, evidently displaying where my loyalties lay. You see, I was the first English born of an Irish family and my allegiances were to Queen, country, family, and Chelsea Football Club – but not necessarily in that order.
Quite honestly, my loyalties at fourteen, were solely and selfishly self-absorbed. The practice of “Bunking Off” from school allowed me time to indulge my self-centered pursuits without boring rules or chastising headmasters spoiling my amusement.
“It gives me no great pleasure to punish a boy in this manner,” the headmaster firmly announced. However, the statues laid out in the educational systems’ recommendations of corporal punishment, clearly dictate a policy of reprimand befitting the infraction.”
“What statues is he talking about?” My mind wandered as it wondered how much hurt lay ahead for me.
“Don’t be glib, Campbell.” His curt reply began to set a serious tone for the impending penalty. “Statutes is what I said. The statutes laid out - that dictate how I should punish you for the offence of continual truancy.”
“He said Statues, I know he did,” my mind repeated to me – beginning its process of distancing me from the rising terror building toward the upcoming onslaught of pain.
By now, my ears were attuned to every little sound. Adrenalin was starting to pump through me. My mind was already in defensive mode. I was due a beating and my body had begun the process of numbing my senses. This fourteen-year-old boy was about to take his punishment like a man. At least that’s what he hoped to do.
“Remove your school blazer and drape it over the chair next to you,” Llewellyn-Smith instructed. “Then, stand at the side of the desk with your palms placed face down on the table, and lean slightly forward.”
Bend over and assume the position is what he meant, as he retrieved a long bamboo stick from his wardrobe. A brief study of the stick reminded me of the cane Charlie Chaplin used to carry with him in his silent comedy movies. It resembled a thin walking stick with a curved handle – like you’d see on an umbrella.
WHACK! The first blow struck. “OW! THAT’S NOT EVEN CLOSE TO BEING FUNNY,” my brain yelled in silence. But don’t give the bastard any pleasure in seeing me react.
WHACK! Jeezus Effin’ Christ! That fucking hurt! Can’t you pull any of these punches?
The third stroke of his cane across my rear end, sent me into a reasoning phase debating the severity of my punishment. It hadn’t been that long ago when Moorhouse - my classmate in Form 3S, decided to blow open all the locked doors and pianos in the school with homemade bombs created from gunpowder extracted from fireworks. The charred piano keys displayed the most visible damage; however, Moorhouse only got detention. He didn’t get caned. Nor did he get suspended. How is my offence worse than that?
OW! My mind repeated its inner suffering, preventing my vocal cords from betraying my resolve to resist. I don’t deserve this institutional abuse. What about Pete Rowland? I only remember his first name because there were two Rowlands in my year. Phil and Pete. Pete was much shorter than Phil, but they were both incessant bullies. In one mathematics class, Pete had decided to find out if a drawing compass when opened fully into a spear shape, could fly like a game of darts arrow. So, he lined up his shot and hurled it across the classroom. It came to rest embedded in Gilzean’s temple, right at the very moment that our Pakistani Math teacher entered the room. The ensuing fist fight between teacher and pupil got them both sent to the headmaster’s office, while the rest of us tried pulling the compass from Gilzean’s head. The irony of this impalement was that Gilzean suffered from a hole in the heart condition. Add a hole in his head to that ailment and he became an overnight legend. He survived the flying compass and a year later won a newspaper competition’s prize of a free flight on the Concorde Supersonic passenger jet.
OUCH! That one went straight across the line of an earlier stroke, but I still refused to cry out. It seemed my resistance had increased the adrenalin numbing the shock of the agony.
THE FIFTH STROKE brought Goddard to mind. He used to bring porno magazines into school, hidden in his briefcase, and rented them out by the half-hour to his classmates. The porn eventually got confiscated and disappeared into the teacher’s lounge. Goddard escaped with a ticking off.
IT'S OVER! Six of the headmaster’s best and I’m still dry-eyed and silent. I suddenly felt like a Cold-War captured spy who refused – under torture - to give up his associates. There was a sense of victory in my noble achievement; however, I nearly broke when Llewellyn-Smith extended a handshake to signify my corporal punishment was complete. I shook his hand while quietly cursing him under my breath.
“Put your blazer back on,” he instructed. “Then, re-join your class in session. You will be required each day to fill out a report card by the master in charge of each class you attend. That will be handed in to the deputy head, Mr. Crook, at the end of each school day. Failure to do so, or failure to acquire the proper signature will result in further punishment or expulsion from school – if deemed necessary.”
I returned to my class in pain and a loathing bordering on hostile dissent. Angrily kicking the classroom door open, I briefly interrupted the lesson in session, before sitting down on my raw backside, staring blankly out of the window, impervious to the geography lesson echoing in the empty halls of my distracted consciousness. In my anger, I accused my geriatric jury of being unforgiving dictators, intent on getting their point across with the use of violence.
The corporal punishment was supposed to deter further lapses in my school attendance; however, the two-week long black and blue streaks of abuse across my tender derrière defeated that purpose. Instead, the cruelty of the establishment sowed the sour seed of detestation toward an outdated institution still living in a bygone era. Violence inflicted on me, created resentment and repulsion toward its perpetrators. Under protest, I had tried to conform to the inhibiting restraints placed upon me by the headmaster. Then one day, I inadvertently failed to get a masters’ signature after attending a class and was subsequently punished with “Four of the best,” meted out by the deputy headmaster wearing his twelfth-century religious connotative black robe.
That final act of physical abuse cemented my resolve, spiralling me toward a dedicated practice of the way of the constant truant. After several more months of absconding, the school and I parted ways by mutual agreement. I was sixteen years old.
It took an emigration to the USA two years later, plus a kind letter of recommendation by a more progressive-thinking headmaster – who replaced the old one - to help me land a football scholarship and instil in me the desire to finally seek an education. You see, those months spent playing football instead of going to school, had developed in me a desirable skill that a small university in Indiana coveted – and an American university was a breath of country fresh air to my city attitude stink. College was a source of comprehensive and open education pleasantly taught in a freer-thinking educational environment where learning was finally fun.
Perhaps, the 1970s British approach to teaching was an improvement on schooling in the 1920s, but no-one told me.
“Before you go,” Llewellyn-Smith halted me, as I gripped the brass doorknob tightly - trying not to fidget from the stinging sensation spreading down the back of my legs.
“Be this a lesson about structure,” he lectured. “You think you know about life now, but up to this point, the experience is only fourteen years of being mollycoddled. You will indubitably discover in time, that you know absolutely nothing of the world – and perhaps may never improve on that. Apply structure to your life, or you’ll wake up one day feeling sorry for not embracing the opportunities presented to you. Regret not one moment in your future’s past, but get educated, first. Ignorance is not a virtue. It’s simply just ignorance. Education is the key to life.”
Those words were lost on me in my moment of physical and emotional suffering, but eventually, Mr. Headmaster, Sir, they finally sank in - and fortunately for me, I still love learning…