I'm not sure exactly when it was, but I must have been about ten years old when I first discovered the power of a long thin envelope. Up until then, the only mail I'd been remotely interested in was the stiff square variety that turned up at Christmas and birthdays; cards containing at worst a gaudily coloured wish and at best a folded five pound note.
This envelope was different. It was cream and important looking, with a typed label on the front. Though I knew it was about me, it wasn't addressed to me, so all I could do was wait for my Dad to open it, wait for him to read it, then watch him pass it to my Mum to do the same. All I could do was watch while they looked at each other and wait until they finally looked at me.
Some months earlier there'd been discussions about secondary school. This was in the days when the Eleven Plus was still widespread, when children were categorised, classified and labelled on the basis of a three-part test. My big sister had already passed hers and was attending the local grammar school, but I wasn't daunted. I'd spent most of my life playing word games and doing puzzles; I knew the smug satisfaction of getting a sum right, demonstrating my comprehension skills, predicting the next shape or number in a series.I was one of those sickening kids who actually liked tests; I positively looked forward to it.
So that was when my parents upped the ante. I've no idea who first suggested I might sit for a scholarship to James Allen's Girls' School, a local independent fee-paying establishment. I don't remember if they asked me what I thought, but it wouldn't have mattered anyway, I couldn't have expressed a view; nobody I knew had ever gone there, or was ever likely to do so.
The scholarship exam was in three parts, two rounds of tests, and for those who did well enough, a final interview. My memory of the tests is hazy and mixed up with later experiences of exams, but I'm pretty sure we had to sit in a huge hall with tall windows. The first challenge was probably finding my seat - walking down the long rows to find an empty chair at one of the wooden fold-up tables, taking my seat while looking around at the other girls, watching them place their pencils neatly on the table-tops.
I must have done ok. I got through the first round of tests and then the second one. A few weeks later, before I'd even really thought about it, I was on my way to an interview.
Nowadays, if someone I knew was going to an interview I'd tell them to prepare, to think about the questions they might be asked, to imagine themselves in the role. Back then, the whole thing still bore no relation to reality. I don't think it even occurred to my parents, with their misplaced trust in my innate ability, that I might need some guidance or practice. It wasn't until the imposing lady with the stuck-up voice enquired haughtily of my entirely healthy, but distinctly adenoidal south London accent, "do you have a cold?" that I started to realise I might be out of my depth.
My nasally-toned answers to her questions became monosyllabic. After a while she waved a hand grandly towards a large gilt-framed picture propped up on a chair -"'talk to me about this painting Sharon. Describe to me what you see. Tell me what it makes you think of". At that point I think we both knew we were wasting our time.
I'd worked out that a letter of acceptance would come with lots of information about uniform and books, about kit-bags and fountain pens. And that would mean a thick, padded envelope.
So when the long thin envelope arrived, I already knew what it contained. In the time it took for my Dad to open it, read it, then pass it to my Mum to do the same; before they'd looked at each other and then at me; before I'd even started to feel guilty for disappointing their hopes, I'd already learned that the power of a long thin envelope is the power to dash down dreams you didn't even know you had.