I realise I’m extremely fortunate in being able to look back at my secondary school days as some of the best of my life. I forged meaningful and lasting friendships during this time and my over-riding memory is of frequently being convulsed in helpless laughter. My school reports until 6th form often referred to unfulfilled potential which could be remedied by less chatter and presumably not snorting hysterically at the back of the classroom quite as often as I did.
There are many stand out moments, which thirty years later we still reminisce about within our school friendship circle. One in particular occurred during group work while we were revising in class for GCSE History. For the life of me I cannot remember what we were attempting to commit to memory. This is probably due to fact that we made a mistake while we were constructing our timeline using sugar paper and marker pens. We tried to cover up our faux pas, but in the process ended up making an even bigger one – as it were. In fact, what was now staring up at us from the poster-sized sugar paper was what can only be described as a crude (in both senses of the word) depiction of male genitalia. Of course, being sixteen, this was hugely amusing to us. However, being good girls deep down, even we had to admit that presenting a phallic symbol to our peers was unacceptable. In a mad scramble to undo the obscenity we’d created, we attempted to convert it into a still life of a flower. Why a flower should appear on a historical timeline became irrelevant. And in truth, all we were left with was a rude and unwelcome intrusion into historical events which simply looked like, well, a phallus with a flower sitting proudly, yet improbably on top of it. This is probably the highlight of my academic career.
Hysteria was pretty much our default setting, so much so that egging on my best friend and partner-in-crime into the realms of ridiculous behaviour was not uncommon. On one occasion I encouraged her to place a colander on her head and tease strands of hair through its holes in order to replicate a 1980s highlighting cap, during a Home Economics practical lesson. Predictably, our long-suffering HE teacher caught us in flagrante, guffawing behind a cupboard door, upon which her customary sucking lemons facial expression became even more pinched. I recall that she used to refer to us French and Saunders. Again, being sixteen, we were more concerned by which one of us was Dawn and never stopped to consider for one moment how infuriating we must have been to have in the classroom.
It was in this context that our French teacher, a native of France no less, attempted to instil the basics into us with the aim of achieving sufficient proficiency to pass our GCSE. At times he must have thrown up his hands in despair and in hindsight this is the only reasonable excuse for the form our lessons occasionally took. Periodically, and with no explanation, we’d be herded into the school’s lecture theatre and instead of practising our verb forms, we’d watch an episode or two of ‘Fawlty Towers’ on the TV. Clearly this was very unsound pedagogical practice, but hugely entertaining nonetheless. I adored John Cleese’s portrayal of Basil Fawlty’s obsequiousness and uptight Britishness. Having watched the entire series, who can forget his frustration, tinged with embarrassment when it came to dealing with and making excuses for Manuel the Spanish waiter, explaining all with : “I’m so sorry, he’s from Barcelona.”
In the last few weeks the boot has been on the other foot. While I have felt I’ve been acquiring a sun-kissed healthy glow, a number of my students have categorically informed me that, by virtue of my nationality, I am in fact pink, and certainly not tanned. After all these years, my foreignness is inescapable, I’m still a bona fide bifa. Meanwhile, last weekend saw a family get together with various members of my father-in-law’s wider family, many of whom I’d never previously met. A few affected the look I call “The Fear” when I opened my mouth to speak in Portuguese, clearly already certain that they wouldn’t understand a word I said. I ploughed on regardless throughout the afternoon, until my mother-in-law piped up: “Ela é inglesa” (she’s English), by way of explanation for everything from my wonky accent to putting milk in my tea. I was the English Manuel. Perhaps I should have simply responded with an uncomprehending “que?”.
It’s taken the best part of a week for me to process this perceived slight. Having done so, I’ve taken a leaf out of my sixteen-year- old self’s book. When faced with potential humiliation, if you don’t laugh, you’ll probably cry. Besides, there’s no use crying over spilt milk – in your English tea, or otherwise.