My school career lasted exactly 40 terms. There were 6 years (or 18 terms) of primary education, then 7 years (21 terms) of secondary, and a final term after A-Levels for Oxbridge exams. I missed plenty of school days through minor illnesses, at least a few days per term with colds or even the odd dose of flu, but never more than a week at a time. In those 40 terms I played truant for exactly three lessons.
One Friday in May, about six weeks before our O-Levels began, I skipped two lessons (Chemistry followed by English) to travel from our school in Hammersmith to the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, to buy tickets for that evening’s semi-secret gig by The Kinks. The 27 bus took me to Camden Town, a short walk away from the venue. The fare was 5p, because I was still 15. Full fares on buses only applied once you reached 16. The tube would have cost 50p, because full fares applied when you hit 14. I borrowed a friend’s season ticket for the journey back. Season tickets were very specific back then: I could only have used his ticket to go on an outward journey to Bushey, where he lived, but I could use it for the return journey back to school. Very few stations had barriers. You could often walk straight past the little booth where the inspector sat, without showing a ticket. I bought a 10p ticket at Chalk Farm, even though the booth was unmanned, and showed my friend’s season ticket when I got back to West London. I had deprived London Transport of 40p-worth of revenue, and for much of the journey was travelling without a valid ticket, feeling anxious.
I mention this fare-dodging misdemeanour all these decades later because it fits in with my other behaviour that day, skipping two whole school lessons to buy tickets for a gig. This was the only day that I have ever travelled on my beloved tube network without a valid ticket, and it was the only day that I made plans to miss any school lessons. As you can see, I haven’t forgotten it.
My brief history of truancy has been playing on my mind because my 11-year-old daughter and her classmates had a dilemma earlier this week related to school attendance and a competing event. England’s football team are playing a World Cup Semi-Final against Croatia at 7pm tonight. The first performance of the school’s end-of-year show (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) was scheduled for 6.30pm. The whole of my daughter’s school year is involved. Should she skip the play to watch the England game? It wouldn’t involve missing school as such, just an evening performance with a planned finish time of 8.30pm. One or two of her friends were planning to be absent from “The Dream” (third, unnamed, fairy from the left might have been conspicuous by her absence) but my daughter was planning to do the decent thing, show up and contribute to her handful of scenes. Many weeks ago, when we booked our seats for the play, we dared to hope that the Semi-Final would be worth watching, so my wife, son and I will be at tomorrow night’s performance.
As things turned out, the school let the children take a vote two days ago, when it became clear that many of them, and their parents, would be very distracted, or indeed absent, during the play. Would they rather go ahead with tonight’s performance, or reschedule it so that they could watch the game instead? The vote went overwhelmingly in favour of the game (Football 1, Shakespeare 0) and today’s show has been put back a week, by which time we will know the outcome of the remaining three matches in this tournament: tonight’s Semi-Final, the Play-off for 3rd and 4th place on Saturday, and the Final on Sunday.
Returning to my own schooldays, and my brief history of truancy, I did okay in those O-Levels in the months after that Kinks gig: A’s for every subject apart from two. The subjects for which I failed to get an A were Chemistry and English, the lessons I had skipped to get tickets for the gig. In those days we didn’t use the word “Karma” but we probably would now. Did those two lessons cost me an extra grade? We’ll never know, but I doubt it. Almost everything I learnt for Chemistry came from the revision book I went through in the late-May half-term, over two weeks later. The English lesson was another look at another small part of our set Shakespeare text (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, coincidentally). Was that the lesson where the teacher explained what an Iambic Pentameter was, something I had to wait over 30 years to find out for myself? Probably not.
My other single example of truancy came the following term, at the start of 6th form, and was unplanned. It was a Friday lunch-time. Two of us took a stroll down to the Riverside Studios and ended up having a few pints of Guinness, the first lunch-time drink of my school career. I did not repeat the habit many times after that. There was always a strong chance of bumping into teachers at most of the local pubs, which is why we had headed to the Riverside in the first place. I missed PE, which was immediately after the lunch break, and considered skipping the final lesson of the week too. But it was History, taken by my form master, who knew that I was at school that day. My schoolmate headed home, but I went back for 40 minutes to learn about the French Revolution, the after-effects of half a gallon of stout on my breath, and made it to the end of the lesson without incident. I did okay at History and ended up with a place at the college of my choice after my 40th term at school. If I’d skipped that Friday afternoon lesson, things might would have worked out very differently.