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School’s Out – a good report

Many people are embarrassed when their parents dig out their old school reports and start reminiscing. But, for Age Space columnist James Thellusson, his old school reports were a trigger to a conversation with his ninety- four -year-old mother which he would not otherwise have had about his school days. What’s more the conversation inspired the making of a book – ‘School’s Out’.

When my mum came to live with us in 2018, she brought with her several plastic bags filled with trinkets and bric-a-brac. It felt like an old bag lady had come to squat with us.

‘Do you really need all this old rubbish?’ I asked, as I lugged bag after bag up the stairs to her new bedroom.

‘It’s not rubbish. It’s my past. And yours,’ she replied. ‘Surely some of it could go to the dump?’ I pleaded. ‘If any of that goes to the dump, Jamie, I go with it,’ she said.

The stern look in her eye told me this was no hollow threat.  ‘She has a perfect right to have all her things here with her,’ said my wife, as we reviewed how the move-in, a seismic reorganisation of family life, had gone. ‘We’re not here to confiscate her things like she’s moving into a prison.’

Not for the first time, my wife was right. But did my mum really have to hold onto so many things?

I didn’t get it. I clear as I cook, take books to Oxfam as soon as I’ve finished reading them and have an attack of hives if my work desk is untidy. For me, history stops and starts yesterday and I’m not sentimental about holding onto things.

My wife, on the other hand, weeps if she has to throw away a train ticket. If she could job-swop with anyone it would be Lucy Worsley, and she would happily spend her days snooping around historic buildings. For her, objects are the embodiment of the history and must be hung onto.

‘I guess our job is to help her settle in, not throw out her past,’ I said.

‘Bingo,’ said my wife.  

Scroll forward to Spring 2020.

It’s the first Covid-19 Spring.  Old people are the most vulnerable to the virus and are dying in care homes and hospitals, far too frequently and far too fast.

coronavirus 2019

There is no vaccine yet, but my mother still wants to go to Sainsbury’s every day. It’s only 1000 metres away from our home, but because of the arthritis eating away at her right hip it’s the outer edge of her galaxy.

The journey there and back is her daily exercise and, more importantly, daily proof that she is still independent. Shopping by herself underpins her dignity. Which is why she is so annoyed every morning when I remind her that she shouldn’t go out.

‘Who says so?’ she would ask morning after morning.  ‘Because Boris Johnson says so,’ I tell her.  ‘But he’s a liar,’ she would respond.

Certain of her own logic, she would sneak off alone to Sainsbury’s without telling us, opening and closing the front door as silently as a safe cracker. Neighbours would call to say she had been spotted sneaking towards the high road or holding court with the Deliveroo drivers, slouched over their bikes, at the end of the road.

One morning, I decided to head her off at the pass. Or rather her bedroom door. I thought if I could talk her out of going to Sainsbury’s while she was still in her pyjamas, then I wouldn’t have to spend the rest of the day keeping an eye on her and the front door.

I took her a breakfast cup of tea and toast. Peeking out from under her bed, was the corner of a plastic bag, an insult to my longing for total tidiness.

I was about to tell her that shopping at Sainsbury’s had been classified overnight by the NHS as the most dangerous activity for an elderly person (apart from sky diving without a parachute) and that every world leader had recommended that every grandmother should stop shopping and stay at home until advised otherwise by their sons or daughters.

But the grubby little plastic bag giving me the finger from beneath her bed distracted me. ‘What’s in that?’ I asked. ‘School reports.’ ‘Yours or mine?’ ‘Mine are in the British Museum next to Tutankhamun,’ she said.

I put the cup of tea down and dragged the plastic bag out from under her bed. Inside were 30 stiff white paper pouches filled with single sheets, one for each academic subject. Each sheet is covered with inky words setting out a teacher’s judgement on me to a strange staccato beat.

Summer Term: 1979. Philosophy. Not naturally gifted at this subject. His attempts to be witty about Wittgenstein in class fell short, as did much of his homework this term. If he does not adopt a more serious approach, he may face an Existential threat come the exams. EJ.’

‘E.J.?’  I ask turning to my mother. She’s sitting on the chair next to her bed in a gown.  ‘The chaplain,’ she says.  ‘The one who went to prison?’  ‘Yes,’ she says and calmly takes a sip of tea.  I read another report.  ‘Do you remember W? The boy in the year above me.’  ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘He was suspended for stealing records.’  ‘That’s right,’ I say. ‘And I read last week that he’s just been sent to prison for a massive VAT fraud.’

She raises an eyebrow.  ‘How sad. I thought he was the type of shyster, who would get away with it in later life. You know, being crooked in the City or a politician.’ 

I pick out another sheet from a different pouch.

‘Summer 1977 Tutor’s report: ‘The absence of Jupiter Pluvius has meant his passion for cricket has been uninterrupted this term and he has probably spent as much time in his Whites as his school uniform without distracting from his academic efforts. Well done!’  

‘Terribly pompous, isn’t it? But he was right: you did love cricket,’ she says.

One by one I pulled the reports out of the plastic bag.  Some were heart-warming: the constant effort over many years of one of my English teachers to encourage me to believe in myself and read the subject at university.

Some were amusing: the headmaster’s note telling us that hiding on the roof to avoid a Latin lesson was not the sort of behaviour to be expected of young boys (oh really?). 

Other reports triggered memories of events which seemed funny at the time but now felt shameful: the times we silently mouthed answers to the old deaf teacher’s question, until he thought he his hearing aid was faulty.

Many were caustic, critical and almost poetic.

Those mangy old records of exam grades and teachers’ gripes, which had been sheathed inside a plastic bag for 40 years, set off the longest single chat I ever had with my mother about my school days. They were kindling to a conversation not just about my academic successes (few) and flaws (many) but about what I was like as a schoolboy and our family life.

Mum had theories about why I had done well or badly, which probably aren’t taught at teaching college, and which mainly put the blame for our failings on others. For example, that we would have been better at languages if my French teacher hadn’t been a slob and my father, who was fluent in German, had spent more time doing homework with us (or did she mean for us?) and less time down the pub. I guess that’s what mum’s are for.

As for her own responsibility for our academic achievements or failure, she didn’t hold herself responsible for either because she left school at 14 after what she described as a traditional Catholic education consisting of ‘prayer, cruelty and prejudice.’

Two hours and three Samovars of tea later, my old school reports had been read, rated and reviewed.

I rummaged in the bag to see if there were any more left undiscovered.  ‘Do you think there’s a book in these school reports?’ I asked. ‘They’re given us a reason to talk. And some of them are very witty, if cruel.’

‘How would I know,’ said my mum, getting up from her chair.  ‘What are you going to do now?’ I asked.  ‘I’m going to put my clothes on and go to Sainsbury’s for the paper,’ she said. ‘I can’t stay here all day reminiscing about the past.’

Schools out blog

A perfect Christmas gift – and James is offering Age Space readers a 20% discount until 3 November.  Buy direct from quoting SOageSpace20.