Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Orangefield Secondary School

1976-1980 - After being expelled from Grosvenor Grammar School in 1976, I was sent to Orangefield Boys' Secondary School. The term ‘Secondary School' seemed to openly declare itself as a lower form of institution. Less than half a mile away loomed a building that was a towering, shadowy institution of supposed finer education, class and children – my old school Grosvenor Grammar, the arch-nemesis of Orangefield Boy's High. Was Grosvenor Grammar the thing Orangefield was stating it was secondary to?

In Orangefield there was very little educating carried out - the pupils were not up for that. They wanted to play football, have a laugh, smoke cigarettes and then go home. I think the teachers within the school were satisfied as long as the kids weren't killing each other or wrecking the place. The school playground consisted of various groups of kids. The quiet kids would be chatting together while several football matches would be happening simultaneously. Some would be gathered in corners playing games of pitch and toss, and the smokers would be behind the games hall in groups sharing one cigarette between six or seven kids. Their activities would be occasionally disturbed by a fight breaking out which everyone rushed to see.

Most of the teaching staff in Orangefield gave off an air of apathy as if there was no point in educating their little ingrates. Our music teacher tried unsuccessfully many times to give our class some culture through his love of music. Our maths teacher was a depressive type who would stand in front of us looking as if he had given up on life altogether and declare "Listen boys, you just DON'T understand! Mathematics is BEAUTIFUL!" Muffled replies of "Dickhead!" and "Wanker!" could be heard around the classroom. I liked my English teacher. Many times he told us the story of seeing Led Zeppelin play live and his classroom walls were adorned with posters of the punk-rock star, Siouxsie Sioux. That made him cool in our books. The PE teacher was a really shady looking character with a bulbous red nose who insisted that all boys must have a shower after PE. He would oversee the showering proceedings from a corner of the changing room. It always unnerved me how he watched a line of young boys standing in a communal shower.

What intrigued me most about the teachers of Orangefield Boy's is how they all had their own unique styles of punishment. The maths teacher used a wooden T-square to hit the unruly ones across the bottom. He would brace himself like a golfer about to tee off and then give a full swing to deliver an agonising whack to a pupil who had forgotten to do his homework. The metal-work teacher would lock boys in a steel cage in which he kept his spare lengths of metal. He would hurl chunks of metal at the cage while shouting "WHAT ARE YOU?" at the pupil. The reply had to be "I'm a waste of space Sir!" He wasn't called ‘Wild Bill’ for nothing. The geography teacher had a thin bamboo cane to which he had fitted a metal tip for further enhanced pain. He was a fanatic Manchester United supporter and named his cane ‘Stuart Pearson’ after the centre-forward of his beloved ‘United’. His ‘joke’ being that Stuart Pearson was a striker, just like his cane. What devastating wit.

The most creative and original punishment came from the Economics teacher known as ‘wee Bart’. He was an extreme socialist who hated Grosvenor Grammar. To him it was the symbol of affluence and middle-class aspirations. Wee Bart despised Grosvenor so much he wouldn't even say its name, simply referring to it as "the institution at the gates". If you misbehaved in wee Bart's class he would order you to "go to the window and watch for the great Soviet army coming over the hill!". Doesn't sound so bad compared to the other teachers' methods of inflicting pain, but in reality it meant having your face pressed tightly against the window for the remainder of the class. It was a form of mental torture. Every so often he would shout "Are they here yet, boy?" to which you replied "no Sir". "Keep looking!" would be his retort. If you actually did take your face off the glass window wee Bart would have inflicted great pain upon you with a cane.

The Headmaster of the school had a cupboard full of instruments of what looked like torture and death. If you were sent to him for misbehaving, he would order you to go to the cupboard and "choose a cane" to be hit with. It didn't really matter which one you chose for they were all designed to hurt. I was sent to him once and it was terrifying. I opened the cupboard and there before me were various pieces resembling a museum exhibit of torture instruments. I chose a long flat wooden metre-stick and he gave me two welts across the bottom and boy, it hurt.

It seemed that most of the Orangefield teaching staff spent their days taking out their frustrations on the pupils. My science teacher once kicked my back-side so hard I was off school for three weeks with an injured tail-bone, but that was okay in 1978. He made a simple apology and that was the matter done and dusted. I will admit that I was able to go back to school after two weeks off however I chose to milk the opportunity to stay off school for as long as possible.

Orangefield Boys Secondary School was the place where I saw the death of my academic career and in return saw the beginning of my new education in smoking, drinking and being very unruly. Orangefield was a rough school, a sort of place where survival from the ‘hard men’ was at the top of my agenda. To do this I had to form a cunning survival plan which was to simply get on with everybody, and so I did. My logic being that it is more difficult to beat up someone who is genuinely being a friendly person.

And so I became friends with the different factions; the quiet ones, the ‘hard men’, the mischievous ones and the sport-lovers, the music-lovers, all except the silent kids. They were the ones who had a disturbed, lifeless gaze in their eyes. Everyone including the bullies stayed away from those kids.

My tactic of being friendly with everyone usually kept me clear of enemies which meant I was able to keep my face intact. It was hard work drifting in and out of the many personalities like a schizophrenic but I managed to become skilled at it. I could shift seamlessly from the different conversations with the various social tribes within our school. As I walked along the corridors I would meet the ‘hard-men’ and enter into their talk - "Dinger's fighting' Andy after school. He’s gonna kick his shite in…” Further down the corridor I would run into the football-mad kids - "C’mon the Glens, get into that Linfield shite..." When I ran into the music-nerds I would switch into arty mode - "heard the new Genesis album? It’s brilliant.” I was kind enough to even speak to the pair of effeminate boys who were isolated and banished from the herd for being too girly. I would speak to them about some gentle topic such as comic books. I secretly liked talking to these quieter ones as there was never any hostility in their conversations, so no one was going to get hurt.

This multiple-personality approach to school life worked a treat. I was friends with lots of kids and therefore was under the bullies’ radar of people to beat up and make life hell for. This tactic saved my skin.

The teachers were driven to distraction by some of the kids who were full of devious mischief. One boy brought in a fake bomb to cause a bomb-scare. The school would have to be evacuated while an army bomb disposal crew was called out to check the ‘device’. The ‘bomb’ was a shoe box taped up with wires hanging out of it. Inside would be a clock ticking. In the 1970s Belfast there could be no chances taken as to whether it was real or fake, so we would all be sent home. Happy days!

Once, a team of glaziers were called in to fit new glass to windows that had been broken the night before. Seeing the playground covered in glass from smashed classroom windows was a regular occurrence. As the glaziers were repairing each window my mates and I were sneaking up behind them and picking out the putty-adhesive that held was supposed to hold the windows in place. The glass was eventually falling out and smashing to the ground. This of course could have caused severe injury to some innocent child or teacher walking past – but give me a break, I was twelve years old and wanting to impress my school mates.

Due to our mischief we had caused four windows to break. The word got around that ‘Westy’ the Headmaster was on the warpath looking for the boys who had caused the windows to break. “Westy’s goin’ round smelling everybody’s hands to find out if they smell of putty!”. I immediately smelt my hands and got a strong whiff of the putty. In a state of utter panic I washed my hands numerous amounts of times but the smell just wouldn’t go away. I rubbed my hands on the muddy grass banks at the side of the school and washed my hands yet again like an obsessed anti-germ freak, but still the odour remained. I was in such a panic and fear about being caught and caned by the headmaster that for a moment I even considered rubbing my hands in some dog poo but we all have lines which we do not cross even at critical moments.

I sat in class waiting for the moment a messenger would walk in and announce to our teacher that “Mr Weston wants the class to go out to the playground”. That moment did arrive and our class was herded outside and ordered to line up. As we stood in line like captured war criminals we were instructed by the headmaster to hold our hands outstretched in front of us with palms facing upwards. Mr. Weston walked along the line like a military general inspecting his troops, except he was sniffing everyone’s hands. Every few boys he would yell “You!! Five steps back!!!” He had obviously smelt the putty from the boy’s hands. I waited as one by one he sniffed a line of hands and moved slowly closer to me. It was then I knew my fate. Mr. Weston eventually stood in front of me and I closed my eyes and waited for that booming voice - and it came. “You boy!! Five steps back!!!” he screamed. We each got caned across the backside that day. Harsh, but well deserved – Ouch!

For the next three years I daydreamed my way through school paying no attention to school work and my truancy had now become very regular. In my family there were no expectations from school at all. My parents saw it in a sense, like a glorified baby-sitting service - somewhere I could go during daytime while they were at work. The previous hopes they had for me when I had gained entry into Grosvenor Grammar were by now gone afet I had been expelled. I was destined to enter into an apprenticeship as an electrician, plumber or a welder in the Harland &Wolff shipyard, like the majority of males in my family therefore a good education didn’t really matter.

My last day at Orangefield was a strange affair. I was eligible to leave school before I sat my GCE exams, so that's what I did. No-one batted an eyelid, including my parents who had the view that education wasn’t important. This was working class Belfast.

For some unknown reason my last day at school happened on a Tuesday. I walked into my last ever school class and the teacher asked me "Aren’t you leaving school today?" I told him "Yes, after this class that’s me finished sir". He replied with "On you go then, enjoy your life"... and that was that. I had left school forever, with not an exam to show for the entire experience.

As I made my last walk home from Orangefield Boys' I wrestled with the concept of never having to go back. I debated internally, "What, NEVER? I have actually LEFT school?
My fifteen year old head struggled to comprehend how the next stage for me was life as a working man, out in that big scary world….

Monday, 11 October 2010

Brian McDermott

1973 - Brian McDermott was in my class in Nettlefield Primary School. He disappeared from a playground in Ormeau Park, Belfast on September 2, 1973. A week later his mutilated torso and arm were recovered from the River Lagan.

This sent shock waves around not only the Ravenhill area but the entire country. Yes, we murdered people in the names of the "Keep Ulster British" or "Free Ireland" causes, but children were never harmed deliberately, or particularly in this way. The murder of my classmate Brian reignited the memories of Ian Brady’s and Myra Hyndley's brutal murders of five children in Greater Manchester during the 1960s.

Many people in our area spoke of "Devil-Worshippers" and "Witchcraft" being the cause of the grotesque murder of my school-pal. All children were kept under close scrutiny by parents. No child was seen in the Ormeau Park for weeks after this traumatic event. I remember a strange happening about one week before Brian went missing;

As I meandered home from a day at Nettlefield Primary School, kicking a stone the whole way back to our house. It was a thing I did practically every day. The challenge was to see if I could kick the object the whole way home without losing it under a car or down a manhole. As I was engrossed in my stone-kicking task a car stopped alongside me and the window was wound down. A man leaned across the seat and asked me; "D'ya know where Gotha Street is son?"
I replied, "it's just up there” I pointed along London Road.

"Could you get in and show me where it is?" he asked. This request scared me.
"C’mon, get in and show me" he said as he opened the passenger door.
I really didn't want to get into this stranger's car, but I feared saying the word "no" to adults. This came from my father, who would completely go off in a rage if I ever said "no" to him or my mother. Unwillingly I climbed into the stranger's car, ignoring the voice in my head screaming at me “DON’T GET IN THAT CAR!

The stranger drove up London Road and as we approached Gotha Street I said "It's just here on the right". The man ignored me and drove in silence past Gotha Street. By now I was petrified. Why was he driving on? Why was he saying nothing? I formed and executed a very quick plan. When he reached the end of London Road, I opened the car door and dived out tumbling onto the safety of the street. The stranger in the car sped away.

One week later Brian McDermott went missing from the same area. The two events may not have been connected, but I’m eternally relieved that I didn’t find out what this stranger wanted with me as he silently drove me away from my home.

Why oh why do adults hurt children?