At the end of the school day, everyone in the fourth year of the juniors was given a sealed buff envelope to take home. What these envelopes contained were our futures: the results of our eleven plus exams we had sat a few weeks earlier.
I arrived home and handed the envelope to my mother, who opened it and read the letter. It began, We are pleased to offer your son a place at grammar school, or words to that effect. I was delighted to have passed, as I had heard of all kinds of rewards being dished out to successful eleven plussers, from bikes to watches, and some even received hard cash. The tales I had heard about new starters at the local grammar school being thrown over goalposts and having their heads shoved down toilets didn’t matter right now – I was focused on what was in it for me.
When I told my dad the news on his return from work, his incredulous response was “You haven’t, have you?” He read the letter and then put it down, and then he picked it up and read it again, without even taking off his coat. He was delighted.
After tea, I was dispatched on the bus to my grandparents’ house to relay the good news. I received a small financial reward from my grandad, but the trip was memorable for what he said to me before I left to catch the bus home.
He beckoned me over to the armchair where he sat. “I have something important to tell you,” he said, “and you must tell your dad when you get home.” I nodded to show that I understood. He held up his right hand and placed the index finger of his l left hand acrosss the index and middle fingers of his right. “I have to go into hospital to have these two fingers amputated,” he said, “because of the steering wheel”. I was taken aback, but I gave an assurance that I wouldn’t forget to pass on the message, and I left to give my dad some bad news on top of the good.
I couldn’t understand how a steering wheel might be responsible for the amputation of my grandad’s fingers. He had driven a truck during the war, and he drove a bin wagon for many years after that. Looking at his situation now, I would guess that he was suffering from vibration white finger, caused by years of gripping the steering wheel of an idling truck. There were no ‘where there’s blame, there’s a claim’ ads on the TV back then, so he went in for the amputation without any fuss. He died the following year.
Back at my house, the eleven plus afterglow continued and over the days following the result, I garnered a tidy sum in reward money. I spent some of this when I went with my mother to be kitted out with my uniform and other necessities at the local Co-op department store: football boots, running vest, pencil case, and all the accoutrements that were needed by a schoolboy about to make his way in the world. To cap it all I was given a Timex watch that had square holes in the black leather strap and which showed the date where the number three should have been. I couldn’t have felt more grown-up if I’d sprouted a beard.
After much anticipation, my first day at my new school arrived. I was excited, but nervous too. I had been the only boy from my junior class to pass the exam, so I didn’t know anyone. I expected pupils from bigger schools to have rekindled past friendships and formed little cliques. On that first morning, as I sat in class while our teacher dealt with an administration task, I struck up a conversation with the boy at the next desk along. We were getting on famously, and I thought I’d made my first friend.
Then the classroom door opened and a pupil came in. He spoke to the teacher at his desk, and the teacher then addressed the class.
“Is there a Joseph Young here?” he said. I raised my hand nervously. “You’re in the wrong class. This is One South, you need to be in One East. Go with this lad.”
“Huh! Some best mate,” said my now ex-friend.
With the entire class watching me and probably wondering how this idiot, who didn’t even know which class he belonged to, had passed the eleven plus exam, I left the classroom with the missing pupil retriever. I then went through the embarrassing process again as I took my seat in the correct class.
What a fine start to my secondary education.