This is pretty much what I did in the September of 1966 when I walked into Crown Woods School. I left behind an indifferent five years in all boys’ secondary modern school and one real friend.
And in its place embarked on a two year spree of new friends amazing academic challenges and a new confidence about who I was and where I was going.
But enough of the indulgent personal stuff suffice to say that when I sat down in that room on the second floor with a dozen or so complete strangers I took control of who I wanted to be. There was no one to judge me against the untidy, loud 11 year old afraid of his own shadow of five years earlier.
Here I could be a new me, and it started with walking to school with a rolled umbrella. A piece of sheer affectation, silly in retrospect but it made me feel different.
The year before the timetable had been collapsed for certain year groups and various departments collaborated on a drama production “The Price of Coal.”
Set in the 19th century it examined the conditions in which children worked in the coal mines... And so while the History department set to research the story the English and music departments worked on the production and Art created the backdrop.
Nor was the school alone in sending out a message that comprehensives were just as good at offering exciting and innovative experiences. Just down the road at Eltham Green School their staff and 6th Form hosted major conferences each year where 16-18 year olds could take part in workshops, listen to leading writers, historians, and scientists, meet and debate with each other and just have a good time.
I can’t remember the theme for the summer of 1967, but Sgt Pepper had just been released and by one of those rare coincidences the organiser was a Mr Pepper, and so much of the two days was filled with the sounds of that LP. What I do remember was listening to Arnold Wesker discuss with others the cost of the Arts.
Back at Crown Woods there was a regular slot where well known writers were invited to come, meet and talk to us. I am not sure what Margaret Drabble thought of the meal with four Sixth Formers in the Domestic Science rooms or the level of our discussion but for me this was something totally beyond what might have been possible just a few years earlier.
And that was the point. At that critical moment in growing up I had the opportunity to discover a whole new set of experiences. So within a year into being there as a few passed their driving tests and were trusted with the family car we were off along the country lanes of Kent hunting out old pubs or just going the three miles to sit beside the Thames on late warm summer nights listening as the tide on the river banged the barges together.
It might be the Old Vic with Lawrence Oliver, Joan Littlewood’s theatre at Stratford East, or one of countless small rep companies performing across the capital.
We hoovered them up as if there was no tomorrow. Most were fun a few were dire and some still resonance today, like the visit to see King Lear at Stratford. Three of us had travelled in Crispin’s car and while he settled into a bed and breakfast Mike and I camped for the night by the Avon within walking distance of the theatre. How we got away with that I don’t know but we did and that is about as far as you get from a small secondary modern school in Brockley to all that followed at Crown Woods.
Pictures; from the collection of Anne Davey, Wikipedia Common