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GUY HENDERSON: A good friend in some low places

By Herald Express  |  Posted: August 29, 2014

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SUMMERS were so much longer when I was a lad. And Wagon Wheels were bigger, and all that.

It's only a week or so before the schools go back, and that can't be right, surely? It seems only a couple of weeks since they broke up, and suddenly the roads were clear of troublesome traffic on the way to work in the mornings, and Chelsea tractors didn't swerve around corners without signalling, and the pavements weren't full of sullen teenagers clutching energy drinks and bags of gummy sweets, the modern equivalent of that breakfast cereal that made you glow all around your edges as you walked to school.

But sure enough, the schools are about to go back, and for thousands of youngsters that means starting at a new one.

We still have the photographs from the girls' first days at school, of course. In one, Older Daughter smiles and waves excitedly in her new primary school uniform, with an equally excited Younger Daughter at her side, still in civvies. Then, a couple of years later, it was her turn too, and the great journey through school had begun.

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Just as exciting but maybe a little more terrifying was the first day at secondary school.

We were full of bull and bravado when we finished at primary school, swaggering big fish in small ponds who couldn't wait to get out and explore the wide ocean beyond.

We spent much of the summer traipsing around shops, collecting vital items for the new school year.

Remember woodwork aprons? Football socks in the school colours and don't you dare just turn up with generic blue ones.

Your mum spent hours sewing your name tags on to socks and shirts, jumpers and flipping woodwork aprons, just so you could lose them and have to rummage in a huge basket full of lost property to find them again.

And everyone had to have a slide rule, of course.

I had a lovely-looking slide rule that came in its own case and probably cost a small fortune. Dad used one in his job so he knew exactly how to slide the middle bit into the right place and read information off the cursor. He wanted to make sure I had a decent one because I was sure to need it.

But I never really understood how it worked, or why, and by the time the penny dropped and I had begun to work it out, the pocket calculator had been invented anyway.

I had a protractor and a compass, and a set square and some French curves for technical drawing.

I also had a booklet full of baffling tables of sines, cosines and tangents.

I never knew just what they were and I guess I never will.

For the purposes of research I have just looked them up on a website called Math Is Fun! (the exclamation mark is theirs, not mine) but to be honest I'm still none the wiser.

When we arrived in what seemed like an enormous new school, there was plenty to learn. Someone said we should report to a room in the East Wing, which made it sound as if we had landed in some kind of stately home.

Going back now, the much-vaunted East Wing turns out to be just a two-storey building designed by the same person who drew up every new school building in the land in the Fifties and Sixties. It's small now, but at the time it seemed huge.

There was also the horror of the initiation ceremony, which had been whispered about from time to time during the summer leading up to the first day.

People who had been to the school for a year already and were therefore veterans of the whole thing had spoken of it.

Dad said it was ridiculous and sounded like something out of Tom Brown's Schooldays.

Maybe such things happened behind the closed doors of the private schools the children of the chinless attended, he said, but not in a modern and forward-looking local grammar school.

But all summer long, we knew that something damp and distressing lay in wait for us.

And so it came to pass that on the first day we assembled in the East Wing and had our immediate futures mapped out for us in meticulous detail.

Then at break time we ventured out into the corridors, and the worldly-wise toughs of the Third Year (Year Nine in new money) were waiting for us, slapping their fists into their palms and hiding great wads of Beech Nut gum in their acne'd cheeks.

So this was how the first day would end? A head-down-the-toilet, pull-the-flush Ice Bucket Challenge, long before such things had ever been invented?

But I had a secret weapon up my sleeve.

Because one of those worldy-wise toughs, sporting a mullet that was almost a full-on feather cut, high-waisted bags and platform shoes, an Adidas bag all of his own and a T Rex album to poke out of the top of it, was my cousin Raymond.

He was flanked by a similarly-dressed Third Year goon squad with their ties tied in massive Windsor knots which allowed only an inch or so of actual tie to poke out beneath.

Over a Pollards ice cream at Children's Week during the long, long summer holidays he had promised to look out for me on the first day at Big School, and good old Raymond was true to his word.

There were a few words, some banter, a little pushing and shoving and then my mates and I were through the palm-punching, gum-chewing cordon of toughs.

I'm sure such things don't happen these days, and there will be no cordon of Year Nine toughs waiting for your little treasures when they step up to Big School.

But back in the less enlightened days of T Rex and Beech Nut, it was good to have a friend in low places

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