Fighting Part 2
Handsworth Grammar School was a violent school in a violent place at a violent time. This was a time of the Handsworth Revolution (Steel Pulse) and of race riots. Being a predominantly white school in a very black and Asian area meant that bus rides home were often “stressful” and menacing. Actually, they could often be dangerous. Handsworth Park was officially out-of-bounds. In reality though it was the place where scores were settled between rival schools. Rivalry within the school itself was handled in-house. Fights would break out most breaks. A circle would form and a fight would ensue until broken up by Prefects. Unless it was Prefects who were fighting…..
Prefects were responsible for all discipline in the school outside of the classrooms and lesson time. Prefects gave detentions, meted out litter duties, and could send boys to the Head for the cane. These were the official punishments. They were rarely carried out. More often than not Prefects preferred to administer a clip around the ear. I should know. I was a Prefect. Indeed, I was a Prefect Team Leader. Prefects, like velociraptors, preyed in packs. I had two naval-like stripes on my cuffs to show my rank. As a Prefect Leader I organised a roster of duties for the team on the days when we were “on duty”.
Duties included ensuring that the school was cleared of all boys when lessons were not taking place, unless it was raining. Before classes, after school, and at break times, the school had to be cleared. We would patrol the corridors and search the rooms. “Sneaking in” was a favourite prank. Prefects also had to ensure that boys entered the school in an orderly fashion. Upon the sounding of the school bell, boys were expected to line up in single file against the wall and were filtered through the two main entrances, one-by-one. Prefects would physically eject boys who pushed in or who were being noisy.
Rainy days were the worst because then the boys were allowed inside. But, they were expected to remain within the confines of their own class and the corridors were to be kept free. Prefects were allocated a Form. I was assigned the worst Form in the school. Fifth formers in the lowest stream. I got them because I was “hard”. They got me because I could not be intimidated. When this Form was in the fourth year they had beaten up the Head Boy. Incidentally, I had never aspired to the position of Head Boy. The Head Boy was a ceremonial role that required you to give readings and speeches during assemblies and other high-profile occasions. Not for me. Not back then.
My job during assemblies was to stand in the middle of my Form and keep order. To stop the serious crimes of giggling, key rattling, talking and making up rude words to hymns. Why the music teacher insisted on playing Bread of Heaven quite so often was beyond me. With so many Aston Villa fans in the school, it would quickly deteriorate…… The other main responsibility of the Prefects was to keep order in the Quad, and the immediate vicinity of the school and at bus stops. We had to break up all of the fights. We had to stop boys from smoking while in school uniform. To do this we raided the bogs (toilets). There were 3 main bogs – one for the juniors, one for middle school and one for seniors. Many a senior school toilet raid resulted in cubicle doors being kicked open by a Prefect to find a boy sneaking an illicit fag (which meant a cigarette in them days!). Punishment would involve a clip round the ears and confiscation of all cigarettes. It was rare to get a whole pack though as most local newsagents would, illegally, sell fags in singles. Confiscated contraband would be sold off in the Sixth Form Common Room, where smoking was allowed.
The Prefect System worked pretty well in my opinion. As Boys, all Prefects had been through the system on the receiving end. We knew all the tricks. We knew all the hiding places. We were streetwise. While Prefects never had an official sanction for meting out a “clip around the ear”, it was rare that Boys complained about it. Any complaints would most likely have resulted in the cane.
“Clips around the ear” mostly meant that bullying was rare. Young kids who were being bullied were far more likely to seek the assistance of a Prefect than go to a teacher. They got to see their bully receive his “clip around the ear”.
However, in my time as Prefect there were two occasions when the System did not work, with serious consequences.
The first was quite literally because the Prefects withheld their labour. We went on strike. I cannot remember the incident that provoked such unprecedented strike action but it must have been significant for us to cross the Head and the teachers – the Establishment. In any case, we Prefects went on strike to protest against something or other. In hindsight, I hope it really was important.
The Boys responded to the strike predictably. They acted like any hormone-filled mob might. There was a near riot. A real “Lord of the Flies” kind of rebellion and loss of control. Anarchy. Despite notice of the strike the Teachers had not assumed the day-to-day responsibilities normally carried out by the Prefects. They should have seen it coming. They didn’t. On this day when the school bell rang out at the end of break there were no neat lines of boys against the walls, filtering into the two main entrances. Instead there was a scrum, a melee. Everyone rushed to the door. Everyone pushed to get through the doors at the same time. Everyone thought it was a huge game. And then…….the front of the scrum collapsed. Some of the boys fell. Others continued to push. More boys fell. The boys that fell got trampled on. At this point the Prefects ended our industrial action. Order was quickly restored, teachers were summoned, ambulances were called for. I seem to remember that four boys went to hospital that day – a concussion, a couple of broken limbs. I also seem to remember that the incident was reported on local news. I think that this has had a long-lasting impact upon me. Strike action has consequences. People get hurt. But, it could have been a lot worse……….
The second time that the Prefect system failed it was a lot worse. It was as bad as it could ever get. As I have said, these were violent times in Handsworth. Grammar School kids were often targeted by kids form the local comprehensives. There had been a couple of instances when smaller lads had been beaten up on the way to or from school, or on the mile and a half walk from school to the playing fields for Games. Smaller boys, mostly, began to carry weapons for protection. At first these would include metal combs with sharp handles, the odd compass set, penknives and worse. In the year after I had left Grammar I heard that a “raid” on one form discovered a crossbow!
On this particular day I must not have been on Prefect duty. I was in my form room – one of the “temporary” wooden structures on the far side of the Quad away from the main school building where the Sixth formers hung out at break. A “fight” broke out outside and a kid came running in to get me. It would seem that a second-year boy had been being bullied by a third-former. This third-former was a known bully. The second-year boy had apparently brought a flick-knife to school to ward him off. Somehow the bully had run onto the blade – a single puncture wound to the stomach. A single puncture wound through the stomach. A single puncture wound through the stomach and into the heart of a 13 year old boy.
The next few seconds are just a distant, foggy blur in my memory. My mind plays back the events almost as if I were a spectator, watching from a distance. I barked at Sixth-formers to push back the growing circle of boys who had assumed another fight was taking place. I shouted for someone to call an ambulance. I screamed for someone to get a teacher. It all happened in slow motion. Excited faces turned to grimaces of fear and horror as realisation hit home. I cradled the bully in my arms and that is where he died. I had told him he was going to be OK. He was not. The situation was made worse – if such a thing could be worse – by the fact that both boys had brothers in the school in the same fourth-form class. The bully’s brother was holding his hand as he died in my arms.
A teacher arrived, and, to be honest, I do not remember much at all after that. I remember looking out of the teachers’ rest room. I must have been sent there to clean myself up. There was not a lot of blood but there must have been some. I remember peering out of the window alongside a couple of fellow Prefects. We could see the body lying across the Quad next to our form room. The body seemed to lie on the cold tarmac for an absolute age before the police finished their business, before they had drawn their chalk outline and the hearse arrived to remove the body. Small kids would later examine the spot eagerly for signs of blood.
I have a faint memory of being interviewed that afternoon while sat at a single desk set up examination style in the Main Hall. But, I could not tell you if this interview was by the police or by a counsellor. I would imagine it must have been a plain-clothed PC. These were the days before counselling, before we worried about the impact of a traumatic event upon the witness. These were days of stiff upper lips.
I think we must have been sent home early that day. But, I have no memory of it. I have no memory of it being marked as a memorable event at home. “Hi mom, a kid died in my arms today.” I have no memory of the incident being discussed at all. I remember no follow-up action with the police or other authorities. The “killer” was expelled and sent to borstal (Young Offenders’ Institute). The two brothers used to look at me a little strangely, as if I served as a constant reminder of what had happened. I don’t remember much discussion about it at school either. Except, on one occasion, when the Senior Football Team was playing in the FA Schoolboys’ Cup at West Brom’s ground. The “killer’s” brother was playing and his brother – the “killer” – was spotted in the crowd, flanked by his parents. It made me feel a little uneasy. There again, with the wisdom of hindsight, I can understand that he had been a victim too. And, so perhaps, was I.
- Back to School, Back to Bullying? (abcnews.go.com)
Entry filed under: childhood memories, Politics, School. Tags: 1980s, bullying, child murder, counselling, Handsworth, handsworth grammar, handsworth grammar school, handsworth revolution, kids and knives, knife attack, knife crime, knife culture, lord of the flies, murder, prefects, School, victims.