Looking back, secondary school rules on dress were fairly relaxed when I started there in 1989. Ties, although encouraged, were an endangered species, and dark-blue blazers reached extinction some time during my second year. Trainers and “T-shirts with slogans” were severely frowned upon; jeans banned outright.
“You’ve got the biggest bit.” My brother Andrew measured the chocolate Swiss roll with his eyes. “Put some back.”
I stacked the three sections on top of each other. “We’ve all got exactly the same size. Stop whining.”
David, my other brother, stalked nearby.
“Give’s one,’ he pounced, snatching his piece then heading for the living room. Seconds later we heard the opening strands of the Home and Away theme tune. I swore. There was always a fight over the TV remote control at lunchtime. “Nae luck,” laughed David. “Snooze you lose.”
I stuffed my roll down before stomping upstairs to my room. I lay on my bed looking at my trusty black Wranglers hanging on the radiator. The wind had blown harsh on the walk home and my standard-issue grey trousers had provided little defence. But my jeans were windproof. Double science this afternoon I thought. Old Mousey Milburn won’t report me. She’ll be too busy trying to keep Andra Johnson and Billy Duff under control. I threw my trousers off, stepped into my jeans and pulled the thick, still-warm fabric up and fastened the buttons. I felt toasty and cool at the same time.
Leaving the house, I heard gasps from David and Andrew.
‘I’m telling Mum,’ said Andrew.
‘You rebel,’ said David.
‘Big deal,’ I replied. ‘Besides, they’re black. Nobody will even notice.’
As I walked through the main door of the science block I began to feel anxious. Perhaps this hadn’t been such a great idea. I could feel the hot gaze of every pupil on my legs as I assessed their murmurs: some impressed but mostly impassive. When a member of staff came into view, I huddled with my friends as camouflage. On reaching room A13, I quickly took my usual seat and looked over my homework on electrical circuits and Ohm’s law.
‘Take your seats, darlings,’ boomed a voice outside the classroom door.
I froze. These were not the demure tones of Mousey Milburn. In the doorway now stood the imposing figure of the rector, Mr McLeish, known affectionately as Churchill. He had earned this name partly because it was common knowledge that his first name was Winston but mainly for his tough but fair manner.
‘Mrs Milburn is off today,’ he continued. ‘Instead, you have the pleasure of my company.’ He breezed through the class to the teacher’s desk and sat down. ‘Now, Mrs Milburn tells me you’re half way through basic electrocution. Is that right?’
There was a low hum of agreement.
‘Right, and the circuitry is still set up?’
More affirmative rumblings.
‘Splendid. So, who can show me where you got to last session?’
Collectively we studied our jotters, no eyes meeting his.
Churchill grunted. ‘Strong silent types, eh? One of you must be able to remember.’ He picked up the class register. ‘First on the list is…Brown,’ he said, searching the room. ‘Richard Brown.’
I raised my shaking hand.
‘Ah.’ Churchill raised his eyebrows. ‘Have I met you before? Is Mhairi Brown your sister?’
‘No,’ I said.
‘Or Iain? Iain Brown?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘My brother David is in the first year.’
‘Good,’ he smiled. ‘Well, if I haven’t met you, it’s because you’ve been well behaved.’ Churchill leaned forward, resting both hands on the teacher’s desk. ‘So, can you show me what you were doing last session?’
‘O-ohm’s law,’ I stuttered. ‘Resistance and–’
‘No, don’t tell us, lad. Show us. On your feet.’
I stood up. I could hear muffled giggling from my classmates. I walked quickly to the side of the classroom where the circuit experiment was set up.
‘We were using a variable resistor,’ I said pointing to a small black box. There was silence. ‘And that affects the voltage.’ More silence. ‘And the bulb lights up–’
‘And where does it say you should wear protective trousers?’ Churchill’s patience had run out. His face, only lightly wrinkled previously by laughter lines, was now cold and corrugated. My face, by contrast, burned.
He continued. ‘Do you know the rules on school uniform? They state clearly that jeans are banned–’
My trial by ordeal was interrupted by the sound of the classroom door opening. Dod, the school’s rotund janitor entered, struggling with a boy in each hand. One by one he pushed in my classmates Andra Johnson and Billy Duff.
‘Sorry for barging in,’ wheezed Dod. ‘I caught these two smoking at the Morriston gate. They said they’re supposed to be in this class.’
Andra looked shocked. ‘Churchill? You cannae be serious.’
‘Where’s Mousey?’ asked Billy.
‘That’s Mr McLeish and Mrs Milburn,’ said Churchill. ‘We don’t use nicknames here. We–’
‘Mr McLeish!’ Miss English, the PE teacher stood puffing at the door. ‘Thank goodness I found you. There’s all-out war on the hockey pitch. You need to come immediately!’
Churchill fumed. He pointed to me, Andra and Billy in turn. ‘You three go and sit outside my office.’
Later, we sat on uncomfortable chairs as two teams of third and fourth year girls filed past us into Churchill’s office. Some still brandished hockey sticks like a weapon. Several had cuts and bruises on their legs and forearms. Billy looked on blankly. Andra rubbed his knees.
An hour later, I sat alone outside. The door opened and out poured Andra and Billy. Churchill looked exhausted.
‘Okay, Levi Strauss,’ he said. ‘You’ve waited long enough. Come in and sit down.’
My punishment was fitting: a 1500 word essay on the need for school uniform. When I couldn’t think any more, I counted up what I’d written. 1373 words, 127 short. With a dissident huff, I clicked my pen shut, handed in the essay and swaggered home.