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Backwords: Life's Pluses

“I do recall writing a long essay about what I would do if I became lost in a dense forest…’’ Mike Shaw has mixed memories of school exams.

It was a day when by all accounts I should have been a nervous wreck.

True, the exam I was about to sit would have a crucial bearing on my future life.

But, strange though it may seem, what came to be known as the dreaded 11-plus held no terrors for me.

On the fateful morning the full enormity of the occasion didn’t dawn on me.

Somebody surely must have told me it was important. If they did, I had forgotten. Or shrugged it off as another grown-up fad.

I certainly don’t recall trembling with apprehension or quaking at the knees as I made my way to the examination room.

It was my first visit to Slaithwaite National School in the shadow of the village church, and I was the only boy from our little school in West Slaithwaite.

So I did feel a bit of an outsider as I sat down with dozens of lads on their home territory under the vigilant eye of the silver-haired headmaster, Mr Dalby.

Ready, steady, go…and off we went with a string of multiple-choice questions where we had to pick the odd one out from a handful of words.

The simple sums we were set have long since disappeared from my memory. But I do recall writing a long essay about what I would do if I became lost in a dense forest.

What stands out much more vividly about that eventful day in 1944 is the grilling I was given by my mother and father when I arrived home.

Mother insisted on asking me a host of questions, especially about the essay. And she was delighted when I revealed that in my composition I had decided as darkness fell to settle down for the night and resume my efforts to find my way out of the woods in the morning.

That was a very sensible idea, she said, confident it would go down well with the examiners. Her words of praise left me distinctly unmoved.

Then, some time later, came the day when I arrived home to find mother in a stage of agitated jubilation. In official jargon I had been awarded a West Riding County Minor Scholarship. In plain language I had been accepted for grammar school.

My immediate reaction was one of stunned disbelief. Followed by a blunt statement that really put the cat among the pigeons. I didn’t want to go to a grammar school.

My protestations that I preferred to stay with my mates at West Slaithwaite were greeted with amazement at home. But there was a more sympathetic and understanding response from my class teacher, and Miss Wolfinden’s gentle persuasion eventually won the day.

So I said a reluctant farewell to the pals, the outside lavs, the partly-cobbled schoolyard and the rural tranquillity at West Slaithwaite.

And six weeks later I was caught up among hundreds of children I had never seen before in the hustle and bustle of Royds Hall with its modern toilets and spacious playing fields.

For years I revelled in the cricket, football and tennis; wrestled unsuccessfully with the complexities of foreign languages; struggled in vain to understand the basics of chemistry; and used every ploy imaginable to avoid the weekly swimming lessons.

Then, in my fifth year, the inevitable happened. Exams cropped up with a vengeance as cramming began in earnest for the School Certificate, a piece of parchment which in effect declared that your time at school had not been wasted.

Pressure mounted from all sides, with parents and teachers daily hammering home the crucial importance of getting the five passes that entitled you to the certificate.

To give us a taste of the torture to come, we were put through the agonies of mock exams which inevitably led to cries of “Must do better!’’

So that when the real thing came round my head was spinning with a mass of dates, theorems, geographical data and quotations from A Tale Of Two Cities, and I finished every exam session with a massive migraine.

Much to my amazement, I did scrape through. Although even today I have a feeling it was due more to good luck than good management.

Of one thing I am sure. Exams then was all of the nerve-wracking experience they were supposed to have been. Unlike my 11-plus.


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