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Friday, 19 May 2017

Evidence that hats give Fran bad memories

I went to a grammar school in the 1970s and part of the girls' uniform for the Lower School was a blue beret with a gold tassel.

I was eleven when I first wore it.

Here's a blue beret.

Here's a gold tassel.

The tassel was attached to the centre of the beret. It was long enough to lie across the top of the hat and then hang down over the edge of it by several inches, bobbing along as you walked.

As a ridiculous piece of headwear, it rivalled this.





And this.








And - remember this?






I'm not saying the beret-with-tassel made us feel conspicuous, but if the sun caught the tassel, a magpie on holiday in the Outer Hebrides caught the glint and started back.

My question is: why would anyone do this to a child? I swear Freud wrote books about gold-tasseled hats and their effect on the adolescent psyche. He must have done.

I'd heard rumours, before I started at the school, about what happened to new first years. 'The older kids steal your tassels,' was the word on the street.

As a threat, I know this doesn't rate alongside, 'The older kids saw off your right leg as you enter the school gates' or 'The older kids poison your custard with deadly nightshade'. But as a quaking only-just-out-of-Juniors, insecure, troubled youngster, I was pants-wettingly terrified. The school rules in my new 'Student Handbook' made sans tassels sanctions very clear. The formula was:

beret + tassel = happy teacher
beret - tassel = unhappy teacher, public dressing-down, and detention

A memory.

My mother and I, standing on the pavement in Millers Road in Warwick at a bus stop, awaiting the school coach on the first day. Me, begging her to let me take the beret off before the coach came and I would be forced to face other students. She refusing because she'd read the school policy: berets had to be worn to and from school. Me, having a humdinger of a meltdown at the side of the road, sobbing like a burst main. 'Don't make me wear it. Don't make me wear it.' Me, clinging to her coat as though I wanted to be part of it.

Then, the ultimate humiliation. She, when the coach finally came, coming up its stairs behind me and calling down the aisle, 'Could someone look after her? She's a bit nervous.'

I took one of the seats at the front, among other 11 year olds nibbling their lips and looking down at the floor, and I burrowed into the seat, trying to disappear.

Not only was I wearing the beret and tassel at that moment, but I also wore shame the colour of a furious burn.

My tassel was stolen on the first day, along with tens of others. The rumours were correct. The fifth years had made it a Thing, the day the first years arrived, to invade the cloakrooms at lunchtime, pluck our berets from the pegs on which they hung, and tug off the tassels, which they left strewn on the floor. The result was almost beautiful, like discarded pirate's treasure, or as though Midas had been in the cloakrooms.

It turned out there was safety in numbers. To shamelessly quote Lady Bracknell from 'The Importance of Being Earnest', 'to lose one tassel may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two tassels looks like carelessness; for half of the first years to lose tassels seems like the fifth years have yet again escaped the clutches of the on-duty teachers and therefore sanctions seem inappropriate.'

The second day, I refused to let my mother come with me to the bus stop. I waited for the coach with the beret, its tassel sewn on again, folded and stuffed into my blazer pocket. I would don it when the coach passed the school gates, and not before, just like everyone else.

The second day, senior teachers prowled the cloakrooms.

I don't agree with school uniform. I never have. I've been teaching for fifteen years and I'd estimate that one year of my career has been spent, not teaching Shakespeare or creative writing, but intoning, 'Please tuck your shirt in', 'Don't roll your skirt up at the waist,' and 'That hoodie doesn't look like a school blazer to me' and entering sanction marks into school data systems when students have arrived at school in trainers, not shoes.

I keep to the party line if that's the school rules, but my heart's not in it.

This makes me wonder how teachers at my own secondary school viewed the imposition of The Tasselled Beret.

For me, it's one of the most vivid memories of my mother that I have: her climbing up the coach's steps and asking if someone would take care of me. At the time, I saw it as betrayal. Now, as a mother and grandmother, I have a different perspective.

She died when I was fourteen, so I've never had a chance to discuss it with her.




30 comments:

  1. *sigh* My mother embarrassed me so many times by forcing me to wear clothes that caused the other children to say, Why are you wearing that? I wish she were here to embarrass me now.

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. We see things so differently as the years - and the loved ones - pass :(

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  2. My mother braided my hair into 2 braids & then crossed them over my head. I (but fortunately, not the other kids) thought it made my ears stick out like a clown!!

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    1. I thought my ears were enormous, too, as a kid. Like, Dumbo enormous. How out of perspective I got things. They're not small, but they're not Dumbo either.

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  3. Ah that's sad Mum. However, I'll never forget my teachers laughing at me for keeping on saying 'these are city shoes really' on my trip to swanage. You can rest assured that I didn't actually realise everyone else had walking boots and was dead chuffed to win an 'award' for being a 'city slicker'. Do you remember that?!

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    1. Gah, no I don't. Did we send you without walking boots? Crikey, the shame goes on :(

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  4. Well, I know I've had a tough week (you could tell if you saw the Sudocrem on my nose)but this made me laugh, then cry. That is all x

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    1. Me, too. I mean the laughing and crying, not the Sudocrem. I pray for less discomfort for you. It has gone on too long :(

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  5. I was such a profound outsider in school that I learned very, very young not to care what other kids thought about me. So it was no big deal to me that my Mom never let me wear jeans despite jeans being the de facto uniform of every teenager. Learning how to survive as an outsider was the most profound lesson I needed for Life, so it was all valuable.

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    1. Gosh, you did well to buck the trend of teenage self-consciousness! As you say, a valuable lesson. I think I learned that at the age of .... er ... maybe next year!

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  6. ... my biggest embarrassment form my school days was when we had marching practice for our Combined Schools Sport Competition Day ..... we had to march in height... and I was short. So.. when I was in 6th class I had to line up with the 4th class girls ... I hated it ..
    I also was prone to cold sores on my mouth.. no doubt to school stress.. My mother used to send me to school with Triple Dye on my mouth.. this was a dark purple liquid that stained the skin. I was constantly teased about 'drinking from the ink bottle' ... mortifying ...
    ... Barb xxxxxx

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    1. Ouch. I really felt your embarrassment here. Lining up in height order, though - I remember that too. And I was somewhere near the end of the line, similarly!

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  7. 'Top drawer' post, Fran. Unsurprisingly, I hated school uniform. At 14 I took to wearing a roll-neck sweater instead of shirt and tie. I was taken to task, but pleaded poverty. "My parents can't afford the uniform. This sweater is a donation from a wealthier neighbour," I claimed. My mother was fuming after the next parents evening. She still edges it into conversation, occasionally.

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    1. Thanks, Martin. I love your story! I hated our school uniform and not just the beret. I remember wearing my school summer dress one day in the middle of winter, just to make a point that I could wear what I liked. I probably froze near to death during my after-school detention!!!

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  8. Secondary schools in Australia are all uniform schools. The private schools have a strict policy, the public schools mostly do, but some have relaxed the rules so that children can wear clothing in the school colours as long as it is appropriate, not obviously "street wear" or too casual. Public primary schools do recommend a uniform, but it isn't compulsory unless it is a private primary school. Some of the private schools take children from early learning right through to year 12, so the kids wear uniform from age 5.
    Even though uniforms are expensive, I do approve of them. They are usually sturdily made, so wear well, and there's no one-upmanship, particularly with girls, over the wearing of current fashion items. Also I think attitudes to each other are better when everyone wears the same thing.

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    1. You're right about the 'levelling' function of school uniform. It certainly does that.

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  9. my school beret was navy with a cerise tassel - we were opposite the boys' high school, and the risk was the beret being ripped off your head and thrown on a tree. A dozen kirby grips kept it on your head but nearly had your hair ripped out as they tried it. We resorted to hockey sticks in the end.

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    1. Schooldays were so traumatic!! Sounds as though you found a solution, though!

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  10. Brilliantly written Fran, loved the story. Brought back memories only we didn't have berets with tassels (thanks goodness), our threat to avoid was having your head shoved down the loo and flushed.

    On the subject of school uniform, I much preferred it because my parents couldn't afford the 'in' clothes. Maybe it would be easier these days but in the 80s if you didn't wear Levis on non-uniform day it was a bit rubbish. I dreaded non-uniform days for that reason but we all matched in our uniforms. But I suppose from a teacher's POV, non-uniform is much less stressful x

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    1. Hi Mandy - I guess you're saying the same as River above, about how uniform levels students. On the other hand, somehow they still manage to form cliques - the cool ones, the conformists, the rebels, etc - and their uniforms (or not-quite-uniforms) reflect that. Kids are very resourceful! Thanks for your comment, and glad you enjoyed the story.

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  11. Aged 11 I was furious with my mother for securing me a place at the former Grammar school my eldest brother had attended = green blazers. I wanted to go to the comprehensive = black blazers.
    My mother said, " How would you like a green Blazer ? " Not much really... however I have since told my mum that she made the right decision as I grew to love that school.

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    1. Gosh, when you think about it, you wonder how it is that, at 11, we think we are old enough to make our own decisions! They would all be rather unwise, no doubt.

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  12. South Africa has school uniforms but I can see the kids now have kinder simpler more flattering options than we did. Primary school was a convent in royal blue (a colour I still love) but fighting into a, was it a gym slip?, with a zip at the waist, in winter!! Now the girls are allowed to wear trousers in winter.
    High school was a particularly nasty bottle green. And the hats are history.

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    1. Some schools here are now considering changing to a gender-neutral uniform in which the boys can wear skirts if they like. Makes sense, bearing in mind girls have been able to wear trousers for years.

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  13. The dizzy delight of doing my A levels at the uniformless tec' , though we girls still had to wear skirts , not trousers . ( mid 1960s )

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    1. I was really surprised to find that some employers can still make women wear skirts. I know someone who worked for an airline recently, for instance, and she wasn't allowed to wear trousers.

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  14. I love uniform - it so saves one from having to think what to wear. I'd be happy to wear uniform still... come to that, I sort of do (black trousers, shirt). I would also have loved tassels. I wanted long hair, to toss around in pigtails, but my hair was curly and my mother wouldn't let me have long hair in case it disguised the curls - curls which she would have liked, herself, and didn't have. I would have pretended that the tassel was a pigtail. Ah, the difficulties of youth... and parenthood...

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    1. Yes, oddly enough, despite what I said above, I tend to wear a fairly uniform selection of clothes to work! I wanted big hair as a child. The only time I managed it was with a very unwise perm when I was fourteen. That only happened once ...

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    2. Ah, you're a different generation. When I was a teenager, long straight hair was the thing, and I had long curlyish hair, not at all fashionable. However, with the menopause my curls kind of vanished, as did much of the thickness of my hair. Now I could do with them back, to make my hair look thicker. The only good thing about it is that I don't really care much any more!

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    3. My hair's always been dead straight. In terms of colour, I'm at that point where my hair still looks dark from a distance and only those close up can see the grey. I'm keeping well away from folks.

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