The following is from The Shame Game: Overturning the Toxic Poverty Narrative by Mary O’Hara, out today.
My dad had been showing me how to knot my new school tie all week. By the time it came to putting it and the rest of my uniform on – brown pleated skirt, jumper with two yellow stripes on the cuffs, white shirt, beige socks and brown blazer – for the first day of secondary school, he’d had enough of my efforts and given up, but I eventually had it down.
Somehow, the family had mustered enough money to make sure I had a ‘proper’ wool blazer and not the thin polyester kind that the government grant for poorer families covered. “This is a good one. It will make sure you’re warm in the winter,” the woman in the shop had told me as she took the government voucher and cash from me.
That I was putting on a brown uniform, and not a maroon one, was significant. This single fact weighed on me more than the guilt of where the money had come from to fund the better blazer. You see, a few months earlier I’d unexpectedly failed my 11+, the exam that determined which kids in Northern Ireland would go to the ‘grammar’ school (where the focus was on academic achievement) or the alternative (usually a school where poorer youngsters ended up and which saw most pupils leave at 16 with no chance of further education, never mind university).
The day the 11+ results came in my legs felt hollow, my stomach tumbled. In a single announcement all of my dreams seemed to die.
I. Had. Failed.
My aspiration of one day going to university had been stolen by an arbitrary exam that assumed you could decide the entire future of an 11-year-old on the basis of a couple of test papers, no matter what circumstances that child lived in when she had to sit those papers.
For months the whole class had been doing practice exams. The idea was that if we did enough ‘mock’ tests we’d be ready when the big day came. What I didn’t grasp was that it didn’t matter that my scores in the mock tests had always been extremely high – way above the pass rate. What mattered was how I performed on the day. And I didn’t. The exam didn’t care that I was exhausted because of unforeseen stresses at home and no sleep. It meant nothing that circumstances far beyond my 11-year-old control rendered all my hard work useless on the day.
As I stood in the principal’s office on the morning the results were read out, throat dry and tear ducts swollen, the head teacher opened her desk drawer and took out a small rectangular package. “For you,” she said, putting her hand on my shoulder.
My class teacher, Frances Egan, had come in and was standing behind me.
“But I failed,” I told them, heartbroken and believing I had let them as well as myself down.
They watched in silence as I opened my gift – a beautiful fountain pen. They explained that not getting into the grammar school wasn’t the end of everything. The school I was going to would take care of me, they reassured. At St Louise’s Comprehensive College I could excel. No, it wasn’t a grammar school. It was a comprehensive – uncommon in Northern Ireland – but they had a philosophy that would back me all the way. They did not label kids who didn’t pass the 11+ as failures.
When the first day of school came and my friends and I walked the half mile to the bus stop we were among a sea of brown. On the other side of the road, waves of maroon headed for St Dominic’s. We all understood – felt – the difference. No one needed to say it out loud. We were second-rate in the eyes of the system; failures on the road, if we were lucky, to factory or shop work. The girls in the maroon uniforms had ‘potential’. They were on the road to better things. They were expected to go to university.
The assembly hall at St Louise’s was packed with raucous 11-year-olds. The room was huge compared to our little primary school. After being allocated classes – 12 groups of 30+ pupils in a school with almost 2,500 girls attending – a hush fell over the room. We heard the approaching march-like strut of Sister Genevieve as she strode up the aisle, a feminist nun with a mission. In a few short sentences she gave us permission to believe we could defy expectations.
On so many occasions I lost count, we were told by Sister Genevieve (or ‘Gen’, as she was referred to by pupils when out of earshot) that we were as good as anyone else. Our circumstances would not be permitted to hold us back or to define who we were. We did not have to listen when people tried to put us down or dismiss us. We would take ourselves seriously and we would go out into the world with our heads held high. We would not accept prejudice or discrimination as immoveable fact. The enemy, poverty, would not stand in our way. Seven years later, at age 18, I began my first year at Cambridge University – one of the (still) negligible number of young people from poor backgrounds who do so.
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