I was never a very naughty boy. My minor indiscretions were what little boys normally do; splashing in puddles when my mum wore her silk sari; smuggling worms in to my bedroom to be worn as live bangles; keeping a matchbox of wood-lice in my bed. You know, just that normal, gross stuff that little boys, made of slugs and snails, do unthinkingly.
When I was a little older, my mischief worsened. Just weird, random activities with neither ill intent nor malice aforethought. Activities like digging holes in the school playground; I didn’t see that as naughty; I just wanted to see if we could find lava. Or better still, Australia. The dinner lady didn’t care for my explanations and made me stand by the wall.
I left crayons on the classroom radiator to watch them melt and the colours drip down on to the parquet floor, leaving by the end of the lesson, a glorious multi-coloured Jackson Pollock at no cost to the school or taxpayer. To adults it was naughty. To me it was just fascination. This one I got away with.
My mischief evolved without any sense of wrong doing. There was the making of prank calls when my parents were out (‘This is the gas board, is your cooker running?’ ‘Yes,’ ‘Well you’d better go and catch it then’) or playing Knock Down Ginger and hiding behind a parked car for half an hour. It was harmless fun, naughty enough to get a kick and feel like a normal child, but not naughty enough to get in to something more serious with the Fuzz.
When I was 12, it took a moment of brilliance from a school teacher to turn me around and push me on to the straight and narrow. Her name was Miss Freeman and she taught woodwork.
I couldn’t compete with some of my other friends like Paul Xenophontos who put a baby sparrow, tiny pink and blue eyed, in Juliette Hampton’s lunch box. I knew it was him, when I saw him smile as she screamed. And then there was Raj Harridwar who rescued an injured bird on Figges Marsh and kept it all day in a plastic carrier bag and never got found out till double-French when the plastic bag hopped across the classroom and made the some of class scream. They thought it was a poltergeist. Then there was Tim Connors who chewed a page of his exercise book in to a squishy wet pulp and threw it up on the ceiling where it stuck for half an hour, before landing splat in the middle of Mr Cope’s desk. No, my naughtiness, my meandering from the norm, was mild to say the least.
The outstanding endeavours award in the field of human mischief, went to Jim, Jason, Michael and Martin, called the Bandstand Boys because, every day after school, they would cycle around the bandstand in Fair Green on their Grifters and Choppers.
They weren’t bad lads though, they liked Madness songs, Galaxy Invader 2000, Fred Perry polo shirt, Doctor Martens boots and short haircuts like Action Man. In the same way, they liked messing around.
Michael spent the whole of one term sitting next to me, faffing around with a pin and a pot of Quink ink tattooing his surname in bold block capitals on to his left forearm, dipping it in and pricking his skin hundreds of times a day. (I wonder how that worked out later on in life for Michael Bush.)
My relationship with the Bandstand Boys was cordial – they once said to me, ‘We don’t like Pakis, but you’re okay.’ This, at the time felt like a veiled compliment. My childhood naivety never recognised racism.
The Bandstand Boys were quite daring. Once, when Mr Day the science teacher left the classroom for a quick cigarette, Martin chanced his luck. He tried on his elbow-patched Tweed jacket and gave a mock lesson in front of the whole class (‘Today children, we are going to learn about pollination. HUMAN pollination’). He managed to put the jacket on the back of the chair in the nick of time before the teacher’s return.
The Bandstand Boys had the greatest opportunity to mess around in science lessons. All that apparatus. Chemicals. Water. Fire. They pulled pages from their exercise books, rolled them up, lit them in bunsen burners and smoked them theatrically as if they were millionaires with Cuban cigars. They would create minor explosions from random chemicals and pretend they got the proportions wrong. They would peg clips on the tail of Mr Farrell’s white coat every time he passed and by the end of the lesson he’d have at least 20 clips jangling off him. The most daring of all, was when Jason poured a thin trail of ethanol along the front of Mr Higgin’s desk. Jim lit one end; a blue flame passed along the front of the desk; Mr Higgins who was busy marking books, looked up disapprovingly and said, ‘Grow up boys,’ and carried on marking.
The one lesson the Bandstand Boys never messed around in was Mr Clarke’s – he was the strictest teacher of all, he never smiled and had a beard which gave him a menacing look like a craven pirate; he could throw a blackboard rubber (which were in those days made of wood) across the classroom and get it to bounce on the table in front any of the Bandstand Boys, sending a huge cloud of dust over the victim. No one messed with Nobby Clarke.
Miss Freeman was the quietest teacher; she spoke softly and rarely told any one off. As a result her classes were a seedbed of low-level anarchy. She was slim, slightly slouched, wore a tartan pencil skirt and had a perm that nearly covered her eyes. The bandstand boys saw her as a cake walk and her classes as a turkey-shoot.
We had double woodwork just before home-time every Thursday at 3:25pm. The Bandstand Boys were shouting, laughing and throwing things; I got caught up in it as I was always up for bit of fun. We threw around bits of wood, sprinkled saw dust in each other’s hair or down shirts. The usual stuff that boys do when they are 12.
We were making animal shapes from plywood. We used G clamps to hold down plywood sheets, stencils to draw the outlines of animals and junior hacksaws to cut them out. By the end of the lesson we had over 30 animals, rabbits, giraffes, horses, dogs and snakes and Miss Freeman lined them up on the window sill of the frosted glass window that looked out on to Streatham Road.
At the end of the lesson we all swept up the wooden off-cuts and sawdust, and put the tools back to on thier fixtures on the wall and in the tool cupbard.
Then we all stood by our benches ready to go home. The bell rang and Miss Freeman said, “Good night children, you can go home now.”
Then she tuned to me and with stern eyes under a permed fringe said to me: “But not you.”
I was puzzled why I was being held back.
“Sit down here,” she said pointing at a chair. She took out a pile of exercise books and started marking them (she taught other subject too). I stared down at my dusty hands.
“Tell me, why have I detained you?”
“I don’t know miss.”
She stared at me disappointingly.
“I’m going to the staff-room now, I’ll be back at four. When I return I want you to explain to me why I have detained you.” And with those words she took off her glasses, picked up her handbag and was gone.
Those 30 minutes felt like an age. There was so much time to think and wonder. Why was I the only person who got detained? The Bandstand Boys were worse. Much worse. Martin had carved his initials on a bench at the back with a chisel he had taken from the cupboard. Worse, Jason, instead of cutting the shape for a snake, had decided to show creativity to make a male genitalia complete with testicles; he was even looking for a red marker to colour it in.
At 4 o’clock Miss Freeman returned.
“So, have you worked it out yet? Why have I kept you behind, when Jim, Martin and the others were messing round as well?”
“They were worse,” I added. I didn’t want to tell her about the penis.
She sat on a seat in front of me and took a deep breath and exhaled. “What do you think those boys are going to be doing in a few years time?”
“I don’t know,” I shrugged.
“I can tell you,” she said. “They’ll leave school, they probably won’t even do their exams. Jim’s dad’s a plumber. Martin’s dad a scaffolder. They’ve got their own family businesses. They don’t need to pass any exams. They already have jobs.”
“Do you need to pass your exams?”
“Do you want to go to college?”
“Do you want to get a job?”
“Well then. You don’t have a choice – you have to get this right. You have to try harder than them. Stop messing around.”
We sat in silence in the light of suspended lamps above the work benches. The moments felt uncomfortably long.
“You can go home now,” she said.
I picked up my bag and headed to the door.
“One more thing,” she said. “I won’t tell Mr Hellier about this.”
Mr Hellier was our year head, who kept a log of detentions, ready for parents evening when the secret indiscretions of the term, so long suppressed, would find utterance leading to some bruised bums that night in the London Borough of Merton.
I walked fast to get home so that it didn’t appear to be a detention to my parents; I didn’t even bother looking for Cory or Paul on Figges’ Marsh.
The next day I woke and was just grateful that my detention would remain a secret; my parents would have been furious had they found out.
I’m not sure that I absorbed Miss Freeman’s advice straight away but from that day on I stopped being mischievous. Now looking back after all these years, I can still picture that puzzled 12 year old sitting on his own in that woodwork classroom. Only hindsight can elevate a mundane moment in to one of glittering, life-changing significance.
The next ten years of my life were filled with lessons, A levels, then university and further. Miss Freeman was right, my journey would be longer than some others, so I would have to stay focused for longer; I’m sure the Bandstand Boys are doing just fine. (I do wonder about Michael Bush’s tattoo though.)
Although I never took woodwork again, I never had a greater lesson than Miss Freeman’s woodwork class. And from then on I never got into another detention ever again.