The Royal Grammar School, to which I had unexpectedly passed the entrance exam and got a subsidised place, liked us to call all our teachers sir. Most of the teachers referred to us by our last name. Mr Scarrett was no exception; he held a particular fondness for this form of address. An enormous man, as wide as he was tall, with a violent, ruddy complexion and a West Country accent, he would stare boys dead in the eye and bark their surname. I was eleven and it was terrifying.
Mr Scarrett insisted on sitting at a wooden desk from a bygone era. It had a sloped surface on hinges, beneath which lay storage space for books. Attached to the desk was a bench seat that creaked as he levered his belly fat onto the desk lid and forced his rotund frame into the space like putty into a crack. I often wondered whether some kind of winch was required to remove him. Every other teacher in the school had a normal desk, but not Mr Scarrett.
Mr Scarrett was the first team coach for the school’s highly respected rugby team and also head of the First Year. He was a disciplinarian, tasked by the school to instil its values, coercing the free radicals among us to submit and comply, to bow down to excellence and latin mottos. Mr Scarrett was a bannerman, imposing his will on every child from induction through to graduation, from the amateurs to the elite.
My first lesson at the school was with him. I was already bewildered by the different buildings, the labyrinthine corridors, and the arcane room numbering system designed to root out the logicians from the feeble-minded. As I scooted into a line of alphabetically-ordered boys, 45 seconds late and out of breath, it was patently clear to which camp I belonged.
Mr Scarrett went down the line, asking each boy for his name. He got closer and closer to my region of the alphabet.
“You boy,” he said, jabbing a meaty finger towards the nice Cypriot kid who sat one desk over from me. “Name?”
“Sir! Stefanou, sir.”
“And you boy?” he said, moving to the next victim.
Mr Scarrett rolled past him and fixed his glare on me.
“Thomas.” My eye started to twitch. “Sir.”
“No, boy. Your surname.”
“Thomas, sir,” I insisted.
He paused and grew red in the face.
“Thomas Thomas? That’s a stupid name!” he roared.
I was not supposed to be there. All my friends had gone to normal schools.
When the acceptance letter came through for the Royal Grammar School, my parents were delighted. This is a real opportunity, they said. It’s a great school. You’ll make new friends in no time, it is a real opportunity.
Our family was means-tested. I didn’t get a full scholarship. The reduction in fees was enough to allow me to attend, but not enough to allow me to escape the constant reminders of my privilege. That year we went on holiday as a family for the last time.
My first homework for Mr Scarrett was to explain, briefly, what contributed to Hannibal's successful crossing of the Alps.
I had never done history before. I didn’t know that the answers lay in the primary and secondary material he had given us. I was unaware that this was effectively a test of comprehension - reading, synthesis, and analysis. I preferred the world of fiction, the out-of-body experiences of novels.
Instead of reviewing the evidence, I instead contrived an elaborate, entirely fabricated backstory about networks of spies and courtiers. I speculated on the origins of the war elephants and developed intricate narratives concerning their lives in the circus and their journeys from Africa. I wrote pages and pages and submitted it, very proud of myself.
In the next class, Mr Scarrett gave us our grades. He took our exercise books from the top of the pile on his desk, shouted a surname, and spun the book through the air directly at the owner, hard. When he launched my book at me, it sailed way over my head and hit a cupboard at the back of the room.
“Pay attention boy, you’ll never make the First XV with hands like those.”
I scurried to the back of the room and retrieved my book. Back at my desk, I opened it. There was no grade, only three words, written in red pen with a sickening flourish.
Fanciful. See me.
“What did you get?” I whispered to the boy next to me.
“C+. That’s OK, I guess?”
“Right then,” bellowed Mr Scarrett. “Settle down class. I am not impressed. You would think that you would be keen to impress me with your first piece of work. For the majority of you, that was not the case. I am not, in fact, impressed. I am, in fact, de-pressed. There is much work to be done.”
I gulped and slid down into my seat.
“Now,” continued Mr Scarrett. “Who does not have a grade?”
I raised my hand.
“What does your book say?”
“See me, sir.”
“What are you waiting for then?”
The room fell still. I slipped out from behind my desk and walked slowly to the front, green exercise book in hand. Mr Scarrett snatched it from me and re-read my homework.
“How do you know these things?”
“Where, boy, is your evidence that the things you claim happened, happened?
“I don’t have evidence, sir. I just, sort of, made them up.”
“Made them up, boy? Made them up? We do not guess. We do not indulge in fantasy. We do not just make things up here. This is not English or Mathematics!” He allowed his glasses to slide to the end of his sweaty nose and stared at me over the top of the frames. “This is History,” he said, somehow pronouncing the capital H.
“Not a good start, Thomas Thomas. Not a good start.”
In addition to being the Head Coach of the school’s prestigious First XV rugby team, Mr Scarrett also coached the lowest of the First Year’s rugby teams, affectionately and patronisingly known as Scarrett’s Allstars.
The school had seven year groups, with four teams in each. We were the lowest of the low, a bunch of misfits. Too tall, too short, too fat, too thin; we were a Dr. Seuss poem of absolute sporting incompetence.
I barely understood the rules of the sport. Being an ardent football fan, the ball was the wrong shape for me. There were too many players and the game kept stopping all the time. There was no opportunity for a Glenn Helder stepover or a curled Paul Merson free-kick. I didn’t get rugby. I hated it and I was cold.
“The harder you go in boys,” screamed Mr Scarrett through a hailstorm,” the less you’ll get hurt!”
The Allstars were all part of Mr Scarrett’s empire. You could not escape him, certainly not by hiding in the lower ranks of a class or team. Mediocrity offered no shelter. There was nothing covert about adequacy and normality. Ordinary got you noticed.
So I decided to turn to the one thing I did possess: determination. I was by no means a strong kid, but I was taller than most and I was a good cross-country runner.
Out on the rugby field, I took Mr Scarrett’s advice to heart. I began to launch myself into tackles, flying at kids in the mud, wiping out spindly wingers and trepidatious maths students.
“Whoah!’” said Alex Stefanou, general do-gooder and fellow Commodore 64 nerd. “Where did that come from?“
I shrugged and smiled. I had turned myself into the flat track bully of the muddy playing fields and it felt good.
“Not bad Thomas Thomas, not bad!” yelled Mr Scarrett.
So I kept it up, running directly at schoolboys, knocking through them, wedging my shoulder into their solar plexuses and using my momentum to uproot them like dead trees in a hurricane. I began to barrel through packs of classmates, gripping the oval-shaped ball for dear life, eventually sprinting away from my exhausted foes and grounding the ball somewhere beneath the posts in the drizzle.
“Thomas Thomas! Come here!” Mr Scarrett summoned me over.
I trotted over, covered in mud, feeling not quite like myself, intoxicated with something. Pride, perhaps.
“You show promise. Head over to the third team and see if they’ll take you. You just got promoted.”
My heart stopped cold. I didn’t want to be promoted. I would be heading up to the next team, the Third XV, where the children were stronger and meaner. I had tried too hard.
I trudged across the playing fields to the third team. My classmate Richard was there, running along the sideline. He had played rugby for years and had confided in me that his parents had him on protein shakes so he could break into the First XV. I ran alongside him and told him I had been instructed to join their game. He got the attention of the Third XV’s rugby coach and pointed at me.
“Come up from the Allstars, eh? OK, very good. Join the green team as a blindside flanker, quickly, and let’s see what you can do.”
The coach ran off.
“What’s a blindside flanker?” I shouted at Richard but he had already shot off down the wing.
I ran into the middle of the game and immediately realised that I had no idea what was going on. The players seemed to have set formations and plays, and knew exactly where they needed to be and when. The ball whizzed down the lines of players with impressive speed, the oval ball arcing and spinning through the air with precision. I tried to catch up to no avail, until the coach whistled for an infringement and shouted for a scrum.
“New boy, let’s go, blindside.”
I froze. I had no idea what to do.
“I said blindside, new boy.”
In that instant, I missed my friends. I wanted to be at normal school, with people I knew, with teachers who looked out for me. My eyes began to fill with tears.
“New boy, are you… are you crying? Oh Jesus. You’re actually crying.”
I didn’t move. It was all too much. I didn’t understand the rules, I hated the game, I was cold. I did not want to get hurt. I covered my hands with my sleeves and wiped away the tears.
“Look, we don’t have time for this. It’s up to you. Either join the scrum or go back to the children’s game.”
“Fine,” I said. I turned on my heels, and walked straight off the pitch.
Back at the Allstars game, Mr Scarrett seemed surprised to see me.
“Back so soon?”
“They didn’t want me, sir.”
“Very well. Their loss is our gain, I suppose. Welcome back, Thomas Thomas.”
Mr Scarrett knew this world of impossible homework and dislocated room numbers better than I knew myself. He was no mindless authoritarian, nor simply an overweight drillmaster in a rugby shirt. He was a forcing function, committing us in advance to be ready for what was to come. So I began to run about again and the drizzle fell between the posts and the fog slipped in and the other pitches dissolved into the gray-green landscape like sugar paper. I knew that this world would never change, so I had to. Given what was to come, I had no option.