Thursday, 31 March 2011

The power of a long thin envelope

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.


Shopgirl said...

Another well told story, you have a way of take us through an experience through the seemingly mundane objects you associate with it. Artful.

So was the interview related to art schooling?

Philip said...

You never disappoint me. That was great. Fuck the posh lady and her stupid painting. You are, like all true artists, your own work of art.

Baglady said...

It's so unfair that the hopes of parents are so often pinned on children like this.

I am glad you didn't go there. Purely selfishly because every change that you make in your past changes the way your future turns out. You're perfect just the way you are.

Elisabeth said...

The power of the long thin envelope. Before I moved into your story I thought of the long thin envelopes that arrived at our house from overseas in Holland where my parents were born.

I thought about how some of these envelopes were bordered in black. When the black bordered envelopes arrived in our letter box
I knew that another relative from back home had died.

By the time I finished reading your story, Sharon, the image of my news-of-death-bearing envelopes seemed apt alongside yours that bore such bad news. Was it for the best then I wonder that you did not go to this school. Would you be very different from how you are today?

It's a poignant and wonderfully told story.

Scrappy Grams said...

Wow, do you have a way with words! I'd say you've done quite well without this school. But oh, I felt my neck and shoulders tensing as you knew that the envelope was not thick enough for it to be an acceptance letter.

caterpillar said...

Some people just have a way of intimidating us and making us want to try and turn around and walk in the other direction....I felt bad for you, and irritated with that lady...

Liz said...

Wow, Sharon. Another fabulously told snippet of your life.

legend in his own lunchtime said...

One of these days, you'll get a long thin envelope with a big fat cheque in it. You are a wonderfully talented writer.

Jennifer said...

I really loved this! I love your writing. :)

Pat said...

It doesn't seem to have impeded your progress at all. You were probably well off out of it but what a traumatic thing to happen.
In my time one's life was more or less mapped out by age eleven. Either you passed the scholarship to the excellent Grammar School - still going strong - or you went to the council school - left at fourteen and worked in the mills or factories.
I always remember one boy - brilliant in class - and because his feckless parents didn't complete the essential forms missed his chance. We were all stunned at the waste. I wonder whatever happened to him.

Happy Frog and I said...

Such a beautifully written story, I do love coming here to read your posts. I had a similar experience happen to me when my parents applied for me to go to a very post girls school in London. It was my answers to questions that caused the big problem. Apparently saying I loved Countdown was not appropriate for their school.

Anthony Hodgson said...

My daughter has just been through this with her eleven plus. She is exceeding at school and doing very well. Just before Xmas a teacher friend of mine offered to help her with extra work for the eleven plus. I asked her what she thought of her chances and she said she would pass but wouldn't be in the top 10%. Me and my wife put no pressure on her too pass and when the letter came and she found out that she would be going to the same school as her best friend the look on her face told us that we had done the right thing by doing what we did. A happy child doing well at school is what its all about shame my parents didn't think the same.

Olga said...

I know about the power of guilt when you disappoint your parents. It drags behind you all your life, regardless of whether you broke your mother's favourite vase (in my case) or broke your father's heart by getting married and leaving your town (also in my case).

Young at Heart said...

aaahg poor you....the horror of the haughty shut-up-for-petesake-son became mute under similar interrogation.....I have always had a fear of the buff-envelope, I wonder if such a phobia has a name??

Pearl said...

Wow. Stumbled in from Mr. London Street and am truly pleased with finding you. I really liked this.


Pearl said...

Well well. What a dullard I can be, huh? Tried to "follow" you only to discover that I already have...

Hmm. I have good taste AND I need to get out more often.

Still. Good to know I'm consistent.



Talli Roland said...

Love how you've written this, Sharon -- I could feel the power of that envelope!

Sharon Longworth said...

Shopgirl - thank you for your comment - it wasn't art school; but I'm glad of that - I think to be rejected from art school would have been even worse.

Philip - thank you lovely. I hope I can carry on not disappointing.

Baglady - thank you, that's such an incredibly nice thing to say, I'm grinning from ear to ear just reading it again.

Elisabeth - I didn't really think about other sorts of thin envelopes as I wrote this, but now you mention it I can remember the strangeness of airmail letters when I was a child. They came from my aunt who was with stationed at an overseas airforce camp with her husband. Luckily no bad news came with them, but I guess it very easily might have done.

And yes, in the end I'm very glad I didn't go to that school.

Sharon Longworth said...

Scrappy Grams - that's very kind of you, thank you.

Caterpillar - I'm glad you're on my side! thank you.

Thanks Liz!

Legend - oh my, wouldn't that be grand?

Sharon Longworth said...

Jennifer - I'm really glad you liked it.

Pat - I'm glad that people have more options nowadays and don't end up in a fixed path just because of a judgement or misjudgement in their youth. It is strange to think though how things might turn out for all of us if we take a different path.

HappyFrogandI - any school that doesn't appreciate the magic of Countdown sounds like a rubbish school to me!

Anthony - I'm so glad your daughter is doing so well - she must make you very proud. And I'm sure she's just as proud of her writerly dad.

Sharon Longworth said...

Olga - it's difficult isn't it? - I'm sure every one of us has done something that our parents were less than happy about. I suppose the trick is to balance it with the occasional thing that makes them proud.

Young at heart - I love the idea of a phobia of buff envelopes - don't know if it has a name, perhaps we should invent one.

Pearl - thank you for stopping by - I'm glad you liked & even gladder for the long-term follow!

Talli - thank you!