Aim for the stars, gels, and you might hit a windmill…

I must admit, I loathed my last school. I loathed the fact that it wasn’t a grammar school but would have liked to be. “We have the crème de la crème of teaching staff in this school, gels,” said Miss Spinks. It has just occurred to me this may have been inspired by The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. She was fond of quotes.

On our final day, I can’t remember much, except that we sang Blake’s Jerusalem. That was our school song. We shared it with the Women’s Institute. Of which, come to think of it, Miss Spinks was more than likely a member. And I know she gave an uplifting speech. I am not easily upliftable, and switch off as soon as bored. The only bit I remember was her advice to aim high. “Aim for the stars, gels, and you might hit a windmill. Aim for a windmill and you’ll hit the ground. Now, gels, which famous novel is that from?”

Silence.

She was fond of asking us unanswerable questions. I remember she once demanded to know which was correct – to take the tea-pot to the kettle, or to take the kettle to the pot? Not even the teachers – lined up on hard chairs down the side of the hall like prisoners waiting to be shot – knew what she was talking about. You could tell by the fractionally raised eyebrows and smothered smirks.

Silence.

Silence.

Don Quixote, of course!” Apparently this famous old Spaniard went around tilting at windmills, mistaking them for ‘thirty or forty hulking giants’. Poor chap. Should’ve gone to Specsavers. According to Miss Spinks, Don Quixote said that – about tilting at the stars in order to skewer a windmill. However, I have been searching the internet for half an hour and am unable to verify. I rather suspect she made it up.

Anyway, we were meant to aim high but expect – well, quite a bit less. We were gels, after all, and would most likely be married in a year or two. I remember being sent to see the Careers Advisory lady at one point.

“Do you have any idea what you would like to do after you leave school?” she asked me.

“I thought I might be a newspaper reporter,” I said.

Oh!” she said. Silence.

“Have you thought about the Women’s Army?” she asked, eyeing my tall frame.

People often eye my tall frame. After Dad died I went with a friend to a spiritualist’s meeting, and the visiting medium picked on me. “Your father is in heaven looking down,” she said. “I see him offering a you a rose. Does a rose mean anything to you?”

Silence.

He…” she opened one eye and eyed me with it, “he’s very, very tall…a…powerfully built gentleman, am I right?”

“Or Woolworths?” suggested the Careers Advisor.

I did once try for a Saturday job in Woolworths. It was a very hot day, I remember, and I was still in my school uniform, having walked down the hill after school. Black Watch Tartan in the summer – the zip used to burn a line down your back. Another of Miss Spinks’ inspirations.

I was ushered upstairs to a table in the staff canteen. There, surrounded by nasty-looking girls in Woolworths uniform, I attempted their Simple Arithmetic Test. I remember one of the questions was six cotton-reels at 6d each. Since 6d was half of a shilling (12d – you had to reckon in 12s rather than 10s in those days, just to make things more difficult) presumably I should have put 3 shillings, but I didn’t.

I was escorted back down the stairs and out into the shop, somewhere near the Pick ‘n Mix counter. Confused. Still sweltering in my Blazer, Hat and Black Watch Tartan summer frock; we weren’t supposed to take off either Blazers or Hats until we got home since we were Representing the School.

Even Woolworths couldn’t find a use for me.

Story of my life, really.

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