I was in trouble. Yet again I was in the Headmaster’s office. I can’t remember what I’d done, but it must have been something pretty bad because I was fairly certain I would be caned.
My misdemeanours usually came in two forms. The first – violent outbursts, hitting out, swearing, getting into altercations with other children. The second – failure to complete work, to present work sufficiently neatly, to do what I was supposed to be doing. I don’t know what I’d done on this particular occasion, but after weeks on report I was fairly certain I’d reached the end of the line and I stood there in my grey uniform with the chewed tie, waiting for the worst.
The Headmaster started to question me, which I found confusing. He asked me whether I had breakfast at home and what I’d had to eat this morning. I always had breakfast – my parents wouldn’t allow me to go to school without it – and it would have been cereal and toast, because it was always cereal and toast on a school morning. I told him this. He then went on to ask if I had my own bedroom at home. I told him I did. And he asked me what time I went to bed. I can’t remember what time it was, but I told him my bedtime, which was the same every night, and his response, which I can still hear in my head, was “That’s good and early.”
Then he started to question me about my parents. Were they good to me? I said they were OK, though they always made me go to bed earlier than I wanted. Did they ever hit me? I told him that they didn’t, but when I’d been naughty they lectured me on why what I’d done was naughty. Did they ever do anything that made me uncomfortable? I couldn’t think of anything. Did they ever touch me anywhere that felt wrong? I assured him that they didn’t.
I can’t remember much more than that (it was over 36 years ago after all), but I remember answering these slightly odd questions, wondering why he was asking me all these strange things and not just getting on with the caning thing. I remember eyeing the cane in the corner of the room, wondering whether it would hurt more or less than the ruler that another teacher had recently hit me with as a punishment for untidy work. I remember wondering how the cane worked and whether it would be on my hand, like the ruler had been, my bare legs, or through my skirt on my bottom.
I never found out. The caning never came. The Headmaster looked at me and said to me, very very seriously, that if there was anything, anything at all, that upset me at home, that I should come and tell him. And that it would be OK. And I could tell him anything. I was still very confused about this, because I couldn’t think of anything that I needed to tell him apart from some stuff about having to eat vegetables and I didn’t think he’d be interested in that. I assured him that I would tell him the minute anything bad happened. With this assurance, he dismissed me from his office and sent me back to the classroom.
I have never forgotten this incident. All my life I’ve known that I was very very naughty at primary school, constantly on report, and that I sailed so close to the wind that I was nearly caned and had this bizarre interview about my home circumstances. I put the naughtiness down to boredom, to being bullied, and to the general wilfulness that characterised my early school career. I realised that the Headmaster knew that there was something not quite right and, as I grew into adulthood, it became apparent to me that he was trying to discover the cause of my behaviour and was investigating the possibility that I was being neglected or abused at home.
But he never caned me. And he never did get to the bottom of my extreme behaviour or my problems in the classroom. But he tried. And he recognised that I was in considerable distress and knew that there was something going on. And, to his credit, he did his best to find out what.
At the end of the 1970s, an ordinary primary school headmaster in the north of England would never have guessed that the usually chatty wilful little girl who did well at tests, but whose behaviour was often challenging, was autistic. He’d never have known that she was constantly overloaded by the noise of small children surrounding her. He’d never have known that she didn’t complete projects because she didn’t really know what to do or how to go about it.
And the irony is that the little girl didn’t know these things either. She wasn’t making much effort to learn sums or spellings while at school because those things came naturally to her, but she was making an absolutely huge effort to try to keep the bullying at bay, to make a few friends, to work out how she was supposed to behave to fit in. She was processing massive amounts of information, building a mask that would cover her condition for decades to come, and working out what she had to do to survive in a confusing world. But she was only a small girl, and she didn’t know any of this. She just assumed it was the same for everybody because that was all she knew.
But now, decades later, she has finally discovered what was going on. And she’s thought of the Headmaster and how he knew there was something, but couldn’t work out what. And he tried, but, like her, he had no chance of finding the answer back then, because girls like her weren’t given labels or support and their difficulties weren’t recognised.
But he never did cane her. For which she was very grateful.
He did, however, make her stand up in assembly a few months later – so the whole school could applaud her for having the highest grade in the school on a musical instrument.
She must have been one of his more confusing and baffling pupils!