(Posted by Rob )
“Sing it. Sing it so I can hear all the words.”
There she goes, Mrs Dodds the teacher who takes the choir. A dandelion-head of frizzy white hair appearing over the top of the upright piano, silhouetted against the windows across the classroom. Between us, lines of boys and girls standing ready to sing, some with look-how-hard-I’m-concentrating expressions, some with a kind of easy nonchalance, but all ready to hit those consonants so hard the windows will blow out. (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” won’t be released for another eleven years, but the scene where the aliens’ reply to the human musical tootling shatters all the windows will make such an impression on me that maybe it echoes backwards through time.)
“Toodle-um-a-um-a, toodle-um-a-um-a, it looks like rain….”
And where am I? I’m the new boy, standing near the back because of my height, only in the school for a few months because we’ve just moved into the village. Not totally friendless, but with those guarded friendships you get when everyone else is already formed up into groups and you’re an appendage. Fairly bright: up there in the top five or so, sometimes vying for the top spot with Julia (a nerdy type but I fancy her like mad, just knowing somehow that she’ll blossom into a real beauty) or with Paul (son of one of the teachers, very full of himself, bosses people about, the kind of blond sporty type I am already coming to be wary of). Ten years old and wanting to fit in, that’s where I am.
“Toodle-um-a-um-a, toodle-um-a-um-a, don’t mind the rain….”
At my previous school we’d done French, which I liked. At my new school they do not only French, but German and Dutch as well. It beats me how anyone manages to take in three languages on an hour a week between them, and I’m not sure how much they do take in. However, all that is pretty theoretical because no sooner has my pudgy behind hit the seat in those classes than somebody asks for volunteers to sing in the choir which will be rehearsing at this time each week. And that, said John, is that. Goodbye French, hello choir. I do choirs. I do music.
“He’ll mend your umbrella, then go on his way….”
Picture the tubby ten-year-old, a bit of a nerd with a head full of science and a worryingly good memory for trivia. Also – courtesy of Dorset-born parents – cursed with an accent which to anyone from the Manchester area is redolent of Long John Silver, of yokels with straw stuck in their mouths, of village idiots…. The accent doesn’t show though when I let rip with my boyish treble. It’s a belter of a voice in fact: not King’s College Chapel material, maybe, but decently formed, in tune, and able to get the high notes without straining or cracking. I can certainly keep my end up in the school choir, which I love. The ugly duckling becomes a skylark.
Any um-be-rellas to fix today?”
Terrific. The notes die away. Windows still intact, but we’ve nailed it. Oh, and there goes a hand over on the far left, near the piano. It’s Paul, the abovementioned alpha male of Junior 5. Not a bad voice himself. What does he want?
“Please Mrs Dodds, Robert Saunders wasn’t singing.”
“Robert Saunders wasn’t singing.”
Has this child gone insane? Not singing? You’d have to cram a sock in my mouth and spray me with tear gas to shut me up.
And then. And then. I can see it now, forty years later, Mrs Dodds hardly even looking at me and saying “Well, we don’t want people in the choir who don’t sing, so Robert can go back to Mr Clowes class. Go on,” because I was standing in shock , “Out you go.”
I can feel around forty pairs of eyes on me. The ones nearest me, mostly female, puzzled because they know I was singing. Paul’s, triumphant. The rest? At the age of ten, the word “Schadenfreude” is still in my future, but the concept has arrived. I put down my music, eyes pricking and throat closing up with anxiety, rage, confusion and embarrassment. I clamber out of the row of children, and leave. I close the door behind me. I let go of a few anguished sobs but I’m literally choked up, and not much comes out. Slowly up the stairs, not wanting to get to the top.
If leaving that room is bad, arriving back in the other classroom to take up French (and German) (and Dutch) halfway through the year is even worse. How do you make an entrance that takes the sting out of “Hi, I’m a failure and have just been binned from the choir for no reason I can comprehend yet”? I may have an awesome capacity for trivia, but the memory of that entrance, indeed most of my memory of that class, will vanish completely. I may eventually learn French and German (even a few words of Dutch), but not from Mr Clowes, though I assume he will try to teach me.
Forty years on, it still rankles. I can only make sense of the whole incident as a set-up of some kind, whether because Paul was Mrs Dodds’ class favourite or for some other reason. Why else would his unsupported delation have led to my immediate dismissal? No chance to say anything in my defence. No asking the children round me if they had heard me singing. No “You’d better start singing or you’ll be out of this choir” even. Just “Please Mrs Dodds, Robert Saunders isn’t singing” and I’m history. Remembering the incident brings up so many negative emotions that if I wallowed in them I would begin to turn to the Dark Side. I really do want to go back through time and cut Paul in two with my blood-red light sabre. I want to gesture at Mrs Dodds and have her throat close up even more than mine did when she threw me out. “Apology accepted” I would breath metallically at her lifeless form. When I think back, it’s her role in all of this that I find most despicable and hard to understand. Paul, I assume, got rid of an unwanted rival, and fair enough, that’s what ten-year-olds do, if they’re total prats who believe the world is made for them alone. She was a teacher, and teachers are supposed to be the Guys In White Hats when you’re ten years old. For the first time, the system had let me down.