Advice · Home life · Learning

Things you should know before you go to secondary school

The school holidays are upon us. My 11-year-old daughter has finished primary school, something that has been anticipated in various posts throughout the academic year, like this one about her most recent sports day. In September she starts at secondary school (senior school, or High School if you prefer). The last three terms have mainly been preparation for this step up.

Last week she set me a challenge, something that had been doing the rounds among the other children in her year. She drew a triangle, wrote some words in it, and asked me to read what it said. It looked like this:


I read the words: “Paris in the the spring”. I noticed both occurrences of the word “the”. Many of her classmates had been caught out by this. They read the text as “Paris in the spring”, which is understandable. If you were set this sort of challenge at school you will probably have seen the extra “the” in there too.

I have been drafting this piece for a while now, about challenges of this sort, the things you should know before you go to secondary school. The big stuff (curriculum, travel, new uniform, rules and regulations) takes care of itself. We have been preparing her for the smaller things, where a child might ask a seemingly straightforward question with the aim of catching you out, or of embarrassing you in front of your friends (or, worse, an entire classroom). There’s a heading for each trick or challenge in the 1100 words that follow.

“Which hand do you use … ?”

Here’s something that I recall vividly from my school days. A child asks, “Which hand do you use to wipe your backside when you’ve been to the loo?” (At my all-male school this was phrased with rather more earthy language.) If you say, simply, “My right hand” or “My left hand” you will be met with, “Ugh! That’s disgusting. I use toilet paper. You use your hand. Ugh.” And so on. You might get caught out by this question twice, but probably no more. The safe answer will be, “Well, I use toilet paper, and I hold it in my right hand.” I alerted my daughter to this one several months ago.

Ink in the freezer

She has been aware of the next challenge for much longer. A child says, “If you put water in the freezer you get iced water. If you put milk in the freezer you get iced milk. What do you get if you put ink in the freezer?” If you say, “Iced ink” (which sounds like “I stink”) the questioner will say, “You stink! You said it yourself.” And so on, again.

Borders and frogs

A couple of years ago, visiting friends in Worthing who have children of similar ages to our own, we ran through a range of similar school-era questions. As I recall, none of the intended traps caught me out, but they would have done at some point in the past. Here’s an example. “A plane crashes on the border of Switzerland and Germany, exactly on the border, not in one country or the other. Where do they bury the survivors?” Answer: They don’t bury the survivors, they’re still alive. There was something similar about a dead frog on a lily-pad in the middle of a pond, too far for it hop to the edge of the pond, and there are no other lily-pads for it to use to get to the edge. Frogs are unable to hop off the surface of the water. How does this one manage to jump out of the pond? Answer: it doesn’t, it’s dead.

Another plane crash

My daughter taught me a new one last week. It also involves a plane crash. “A plane crashes. Every single person dies. Who survives?” Answer: All the married people. Only the single people died.

Passengers on a bus

One of my favourites, which simply requires you to remember a key part of the question, goes like this. Imagine that you’re driving a bus. When the bus leaves the bus-station, it is empty. Four passengers get on at the first stop. Three get on at the next stop. At the third stop two get off and five more get on. [The listener will probably be counting the comings and goings at this point.] At the next stop four more passengers get on and two more get off. Then a man with a dog gets on and two more people leave. [Carry on like this for longer if you like, it doesn’t affect the final part of the challenge.] Now, here’s the question. What colour are the bus driver’s eyes? Most people will have been concentrating on how many passengers and dogs there are on the bus and will say, “Well, how should I know?” They will have forgotten the starting point: Imagine that you’re driving a bus. The answer is, whatever colour your eyes are.


Last weekend there was something on one of the children’s channels, a few minutes of some drama set in a school, where the word “gullible” came up. I asked my daughter if she knew what it meant. She didn’t. My definition wasn’t quite as pithy as that on (“Easily persuaded to believe something; credulous”) but I did go on to warn her that at some point in her life someone will say, “You know that the word gullible isn’t in the dictionary, don’t you?” Without thinking, you might well say, “Is that right?” And your friend or colleague will have made you look, well, gullible.

There was a good twist on this one many years ago in an episode of the American sitcom “Roseanne”. Jackie, played by Laurie Metcalf, tried it on Darlene (Sara Gilbert), telling her that gullible isn’t in the dictionary. “Really?” said Darlene, seemingly fooled. She went to the dictionary, flicked through it, and said, “Yes, you’re right Aunt Jackie, it’s NOT there.” Jackie crossed the room, picked up the book and said, “Let me see that”. The tables had been turned.

What would be the best response for this trick? You could say, “Yes, I know, I checked it myself”. This might prompt your inquisitor to think again, and check for themselves, or at least end this attempt to make you look gullible.

As a leaving gift from primary school my daughter was presented with an “Oxford School Dictionary and Thesaurus”. It’s on the table beside me right now. I am surprised to find that it doesn’t contain “aardvark”, but “gullible” is there: “ADJECTIVE easily deceived”.

“I done up”

It’s at least five years since my children learnt the following  joke. “Knock Knock” / “Who’s there?” / “I done up” / “I done up who?” [Sounds like “I done a poo”.] Cue much laughter, “Ugh, you done a poo”, and so on. You really should know this one before you get to senior school. My brother has been wary of “Knock Knock” jokes since being tricked by this one many Christmases ago. You might have come across it yourself in Martin Amis’s novel “The Information”.

Whale, oil, beef …

This one doesn’t come from my own school days, and there are no doubt many tricks and challenges for school children that have not come my way yet. It was mentioned in passing in this excellent column by Maureen Lipman back in January 2006. Her columns were always worth reading, and I can see that this one was published just after my daughter was conceived. Here is the relevant paragraph:

“All this reminds me of the time, years ago, when a friend of mine, over dinner, handed his sweet old mum a list of words to read out as a sort of party game. I know it wasn’t kind and we shouldn’t have laughed, but it was hilarious at the time and, in fairness, she never really did know why. The assembled guests got more and more helpless as her perplexity grew. The list of words was: whale, oil, beef and hooked. Please do not try this at home.”

Do try it at home. I have just written out the four words for my daughter to read aloud, and after half a dozen goes explained why I was laughing so much. We’ll try it again before the holidays are through. If anyone tries to catch her out in this way during her time at secondary school she should be ready. And, crucially, she doesn’t seem to be the kind of girl who would attempt to embarrass someone in front of the rest of the class. She is more likely to teach them, to tell them what to look out for. That’s what school is all about.




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