The Second Pencil Case
Back before I lived in Leicestershire, I lived in Warwickshire. That was after leaving Leicestershire. Which we’d moved to from Warwickshire.
I suppose some people like to keep the defining north and south poles of their empires a little further apart. Span a larger axis. For whatever reason, life has really made sure I’ve kept my own poles far more provincial. Hoping between two neighbouring counties, whose defining edges are so uneven that they practically border on incest. Still, it’s okay, there’s some history around here. Shakespeare wrote plays and poems not too far away, before commuting to London and possibly not existing. Richard the Third, pantomime villain turned award winning role in one of those plays, slept under car park after forgetting where he parked his horse. Alan Moore only lives one country over, sewing seeds of magic, myth and political mayhem. Not a bad neighbour to have in these times.
I did the majority of my schooling in good old Leicestershire. For which I have plenty of jokes. Developed through a lifelong gambit of running small talk through the beaten path of social mazes. Jokes about the simplicity of the Leicester alphabet, with it’s 25 letters. The T always being silent around here.
When I was deep into the secondary school end of my teens, my parents conducted one of the leapfrogging moves between the two counties of my life so far. We went from here to Warwickshire. It wasn’t the easiest of moves for me. I still think a lot of my deeper-seated neurosis and uncertainties come from that particular trip between the poles.
High school kids are not the best at adapting to change or allowing a new kid into the fold. Well, I was new. I was an unknown quantity. I was quiet and unsure. I missed my friends and my house. I was also under no illusion, even though they were barely a motorway junction away, that I was going to see them again.
Or, to put it another way, I arrived in that high school perfectly target shaped.
I still kick myself about so many of the decisions I made back then. Don’t get me wrong, I made a few good friends. I made the fledgling steps that would lead, years later, to meeting the love of my life. I also dared myself to go to Stratford college and get crushed by a whole new heap of dumb, ego fuelled problems when I decided to study drama, underage drinking and pretentious waffle with a class of people who swam in very different circles to me.
“Oh, I tried the weekend job thing, but it wasn’t for me. Daddy said it was fine if I just do my own thing instead.”
Yep. The pitter patter of RADA bound footsteps was never far from my ears in those days.
Before then, back in high school, I made so many weak and cowardly decisions. The sort of things that the more primal end of our evolutionary instincts keep bringing back to the surface for me now, if only to remind me what I’ve found unsafe in my world so far. Opinions can get you mocked. Jokes can get you ignored. Actual personality can get your face presented with a foreign kid. There’s no saying that smiling kid doesn’t have a knife in his bag.
Yep, high school was fun times for me.
In that Warwickshire high school, which will remain nameless here. Nameless, aimless and pointless. A dull, 70s crafted prison that seemed designed to point the students at each other and whisper ‘fight’ in their ears. Back in that place of Darwin and grunge, I always ended up on the fringes of being bullied. It never officially set in, but it was there. Like the rot in the ceiling, or the baked in smell of sweaty misery lingering in the changing rooms.
Starting a few weeks before the end of a term, meant I went back six weeks later as the new kid. And the new kid, I remained. It took me three years to figure out how to survive there. One method I learnt pretty quickly involved packing an extra pencil case.
In Physics, through some random seating plan that our grey faced little teacher developed, I ended up next to the kids who wanted to kill me. Maybe he was trying to teach me about the deeper reaches of physics. The physics of the social outsider. The physics of fists and misunderstanding.
First thing, every lesson, we’d sit down, unload our bags and wait it to start. Only my pencil case would disappear.
I say disappear. The kids next to me would steal it. I’d get it back, the little scamps. Ha ha. But, for the whole of the lesson, they’d keep it. Saying they needed a pen. Challenging me to dare to ask for it back. Yep, it was a paradise of learning.
It took me a few weeks to remember that I owned a spare pencil case and plenty of old stationery. So, I filled a decoy case and always deployed it first. They’d see it, share a hyena grin and snatch it. I’d then produce my own case. They’d mutter, nudge each other, file away the minor victory as another reason to leave a bruise on me when they got the chance and went back to ignoring the presence of Physics in their life. Gravity was just a conspiracy of teachers to them.
Things went on like that until after our exams. It wasn’t Shawshank or anything, but it left its fingerprints on me. The lessons came and went. The exams and results came and went. I was left with hang-ups that I still can’t shift and a pile of memories that confirmed, once and for all, that your life will contain a large dose of idiots in its scenery. Loud, thoughtless idiots who survive on a world that accommodates them instead of challenging them. Social tumours, who communicate through opinions and laughter that begs to be heard.
The strange thing is that I’m over 20 years clear of that time, but I still find myself packing the extra pencil case. There are repeating problems in my day to day life that I can’t change. They’re the result of where the new classes sit. They’re common stresses, as annoying and deadly as the common cold; but just as constant. Just as contagious. I could try to fight them, but what’s the point? These are old patterns, set in stone now by apathy and a lack of consideration. Standing up and pointing them out puts me back into the spiral of that old target shape. Or that’s how it feels. Thanks, high school.
So I pack my second case and set it out first. I try to class it as a victory and I keep moving until the end of the day. Although, the day finishes a couple of hours after school finished, so it’s more of a drain. I'm still swimming through cliques and idiots. I still hold up the small talk mask to keep myself from screaming in people’s petulant, diet tide ridden faces that I can feel my life shortening in the tick of every second hand where they’re around. I don’t dare to try and change things.
I could look for a new school, placed somewhere between my provincial poles. I could pretend that’s the solution to my problems. Or I could pretend some variation of this will save me. The right words, on the right page, read by the right people will somehow make everything okay. Only that’s a fairy tale, written and rewritten by people probably nursing some similar scars to my own. I guess you just keep your head down. You make sure you can accommodate the idiots, if only to pay the bills. If only to keep the lions entertained and unaware of the fact they’ve not eaten in a while.
There are days when it’s all still a classroom. A Colosseum of desks and break times in an empire you never stood a chance in starting yourself.