At some point during my 3rd year of secondary school, our class tutor Mr Roles came into the room with a suspicious glint in his eye and announced that we would be getting a new student. Mr Roles had round hobbit-like features, mousy-coloured hair, and a voice that you couldn’t call quite high-pitched, but sounded like somebody had left an elastic band wrapped around his larynx. He was a decent bloke who rarely unleashed his fury unless circumstances required it.
Mr Roles declared that our new student would fit right into our class; that he was tall and skinny and at about the same academic level as the rest of us. He opened the door to the teacher’s office where the student was supposedly waiting, and produced a plank of wood.
“This is Plank,” Mr Roles said, “and I want everyone to make him feel welcome.”
I laughed out loud, and was the only one that did. Mr Roles seemed happy enough.
The school in question was Eaglesfield in southeast London’s borough of Woolwich—a large five-building secondary school for boys that seemed gargantuan at the time. There was the original two-story classic redbrick building that sat in the middle of the grounds, with pleasant white paint-chipped windows, one of which was smashed during a lesson by a student who decided that his wrist would be the best thing to open it with. This was the most handsome building of the five. It contained classrooms for languages, maths, and art, and the headmaster’s office—Mr McCarthy, a broad and sturdy man who was imposing as his position dictates. He addressed us on our first day like a general addresses his soldiers, and if I were ever called to his office for punishment, I imagined he’d just look at me for five minutes while I withered like candy floss in a stream. I was acutely aware of the location of his office for this reason, and amazed some years later when a fellow student claimed to have remotely hacked into his computer, laughing at the potential wrath of such a commanding fellow. Bullshit in hindsight.
This building is where I had French lessons, run by the most pitiful teacher in the school—Mrs Paterson, or “Edna” to the students. Choosing teaching as a career was surely the worst decision of her life. She didn’t seem to have a single attribute that makes a good teacher—being engaging, enthusiastic, patient, able to command respect, and most importantly, having the grit to handle 30 little bastards who wanted to make her life hell. When she turned her back to write something on the chalkboard, someone yelled “EDNA!” at the top of their lungs, or made a random noise like “BARP” or “MNEEH” or some other vocal abomination that made her whip around like a furious owl, eyes scanning the room for the culprit she could never find. Or if the boys felt like mixing it up a bit, they’ll scrunch up paper and throw it at her. The poor woman must have been miserable—I hear she cried on more than one occasion. Hopefully it got to the point where she pursued a different career or found a nicer school. Or maybe deep down she really did have the qualities and determination to be a good teacher, and that her reputation at Eaglesfield was like a curse that doomed her every step.
The other large building in the school was perched on a hill about 50 metres away, and was a four-story mass of concrete and glass that towered over the grounds, some nightmare of modernity that threatened to engulf all that was classical and beautiful. This is where I was taught English, Geography, History (three of my favourite subjects), Religious Education, and some other subjects I can’t recall. It’s also where lunch was served, and was home to Mr Roles and Plank, in a top-floor corner classroom with excellent views across the borough of Greenwich. This same classroom is where I was taught geography by Mr Walton, a scrawny and cheerful Yorkshireman who for some reason always had a cut down the middle of his upper lip that looked horribly sore. At the start of every class he’d say “bums on seats fellas, bums on seats,” like a hypnotising incantation that somehow compelled us to sit down. He was a great teacher—friendly, charismatic, and one of the few I remember fondly. In fact, the Geography department seemed to be made up of some of the best Eaglesfield School teachers—a group of three or four men (Mr Roles included) who taught us about countries and cities and volcanoes and earned the respect of every one of us. They congregated in the office where Plank lived—a sacred place that you had to knock to gain entry to. On the same level a few doors down was the office of Mr O’Sullivan, a history teacher and head of our year, who after sending a certain Indian boy there for detention, was unfortunate enough to return and find him masturbating furiously in his chair, as though detention was a real thrill. I suppose porn was a lot harder to come by in those days.
At the other end of this building was an outside staircase and balcony that went up to the first floor, and when it snowed, this was the place where boys went to battle. It was pandemonium. Two battalions of students formed—one who took position on the balcony, and one that took position on the grass opposite. They pelted each other as though their lives depended on it, and it was during such a time that I was hit squarely in the testicles with a gloriously-aimed snowball, which sent me crashing to the ground like a demolished building, with flurries of snowballs continuing to batter me. I haven’t experienced pain like it since—top marks to the boy who threw it. This rear end of the school was also home to the main playground, which being on a hill (like most of the school), sloped steeply upwards, prompting the school’s designers to install 45 degree concrete slopes topped with grabbing bars, which in today’s world, would require a helmet and the signing of a release form to take on. Maybe those designers foresaw the molly-coddling culture that would infect parenting and teaching, and decided to fight against it by showing kids that a broken collarbone isn’t the worst thing in the world. We darted up and down those slopes like Sisyphus himself, bruised and battered, but never defeated.
This building is also where English was taught, another subject for which I have fond memories. One of my teachers was the beguiling Miss Woods—a gorgeous blonde who I assume every straight boy and male teacher daydreamed about. Sometimes, when she had a skirt on, she sat on the cabinets at the front of the class and put her feet on a nearby desk, and every boy put a knuckle in his mouth. I irritated her once because I pointed out a spelling mistake on the chalkboard, an ungodly taboo when dealing with an English teacher, especially when coming from a teenage wretch trying to be a smartarse. I fear our romantic destiny was derailed at that point. This building also contained the formidable Mr Keith—a wiry mathematics teacher with a grey crew-cut who looked like he’d walked straight off a military base. He believed that severity was the best way to command a pupil’s respect, and if it had been ten years earlier, I’ve no doubt he would have taken pleasure in caning us. Though he never taught me, there were stories of him pelting students with chalkboard rubbers if they were caught daydreaming, an action long out of practice in the teaching world, but still considered fair game by this nightmare of a man. His eyes bulged so much that he could probably glare through walls, and if there’s one teacher that people will remember from that school, it’s him. Terror has a knack of staying with you.
The PE (Physical Education) building was connected to this second building and looked different still—a redbrick of a different tone, but with far fewer windows and none of them pleasant. It housed a swimming pool (a rarity for schools in the borough), a basketball court, and the necessary washrooms and classrooms where the men could be separated from the boys. One of the boys in my year had a monumental mishap during a swimming lesson, the front of his pants bulging in a way that didn’t go down well with a class full of semi-naked boys—perhaps the poor lad was daydreaming about Miss Woods? His solution was to jump headfirst into the deep end where his passion could be extinguished.
Adjacent to the PE building were four or five tennis courts, and next to them a mammoth grass field that made up the bottom area of the school’s grounds. This is where hundreds of boys descended for lunch, booting footballs past makeshift goals made of school bags, and launching two-footed tackles at each other without worrying about a referee or VAR.
The PE teachers were three guys who were less like teachers and more like fun uncles. There was Mr Smyrk who I never once saw smirking, Mr Fischer who looked like a Charlton Athletic player called John Robinson, and Mr Haines who wore glasses and looked like a 30-year old Harry Potter. They were blokes in the classic sense of the word—constantly pissing about, digging each other’s ribs, and lovingly shoving you onto a football field covered with winter ice. They were our chaperones when we went to France for a skiing trip in the winter of 1999, and because the legal age of drinking was 16 in that wonderful country, they turned a blind eye to the inevitable boozing that went on. On the final night of our trip, they assembled a mock court where each of us were charged with a crime, and given a punishment for the evening like ten push ups whenever we swore, or not being allowed to talk to girls without our tongues being out. Through our 16-year old eyes, they couldn’t have been any cooler.
The fourth building was nestled between the PE block and the original building, with a footbridge connecting their upper floors. It was dedicated to science. I can’t for the life of me remember what it looked like, but it was probably ugly. We had our GCSE exams in this building, and during the biology exam, our teacher shiftily whispered the correct answer to me *diaphragm*, which I assume was a desperate attempt to save a failing school that closed a few years later. Over in the chemistry lab, a fiendish little shit called Philip decided to douse a chemical in water to see what would happen, and the lab started to fill up with a noxious purple smoke that definitely didn’t belong in the lungs of teenage boys. I’m not sure why, but the substitute teacher kept us trapped inside for five minutes before some of the bigger students got bored and heaved her out of the way.
The science building had two levels, with an open staircase in the middle of the building that had a balcony to drop things onto people’s heads—empty coke bottles, Opal Fruits, chewed Bubbaloos, pencils, backpacks, or whatever else was at hand. Somebody decided to do this with a full bottle of water, and instead of getting an unsuspecting boy, they instead walloped our Scottish chemistry teacher with it, who came into the class ten minutes later, wrote “I am not a victim” on the board, then burst into tears and fled. I felt dreadful despite being a bystander.
I also studied physics in the science building, run by Mr Porter—a stout male teacher with brown hair, a commanding voice, and a knack for explaining his horribly complicated subject. One day, when teaching us about Newton’s forces using a pellet gun and target, my still-good friend Scott looked down the barrel as he was about to shoot, and the look on Mr Porter’s face said “what have I done to deserve this.” When we had our final Physics exam that year, one of the teachers wrote “Fizz-icks (very hard science)” on the whiteboard, which showed the mandatory sense of humour for being a successful teacher at Eaglesfield.
The fifth and final building was the smallest—a one-story cube of concrete that was home to design and technology (DT—formerly known as woodwork). It was here that we fumbled about with wood and metal and glue and tried not to chop our fingers off with high-powered mechanical equipment. On this topic, one of my classmates got distracted while chiselling a piece of wood with a fixed circular saw, put the tip of his finger into the saw’s side, then screamed like a banshee and flicked his hand about which temporarily turned the room into a Tarantino film set. I can still see the blood splattered across the faces of my classmates, and the look of horror on the teacher’s face as he beheld the flattened tip of the boy’s newly-squared digit. Being a teacher at that school must have felt like trying to educate a flock of insolent sheep who are anxious to run off the nearest cliff. When we weren’t busy maiming ourselves, we’d twist open every available Pritt Stick and launch them into the ceiling. And when there were no more Pritt Sticks, we’d stick our chewing gum onto the end of our pencils and do the same. The room ended up looking like one of Indiana Jones’ temples.
So those were the five buildings of Eaglesfield Secondary School in London (there may have been some other buildings I’ve forgotten), and just a few of the antics that I personally remember. The school was a force to be reckoned with. The borough in which it lived—Woolwich—certainly wasn’t the most dangerous in London, but it was up there. Many of the kids who went to Eaglesfield were from poor homes, where life was tougher than it should have been. I was fortunate enough to come from a stable, comfortable home (thanks mum and dad) which unfortunately doesn’t prepare you for a lion’s den in which a large portion of the kids prowled about with teeth and claws that they’d happily sink into you. So I’d try to make myself as small as possible to avoid being mauled, and while the strategy worked, it also forged bitter resentment towards my bigger, stronger, and more violent peers, especially when they used their dominance to jump the lunch queue and leave me with the saddest jacket potato in England. I guess this is only fair given how well-fed I was at home.
Once, a group of the biggest and roughest scallywags in our year planned a coordinated attack on the local shop. It wasn’t a complicated plan—they just used their collective strength to storm the shop, grabbed as many sweets and drinks as they could, and then left. I went along to watch, and after the last boy came running out the door with a carton of Pepsis, the Indian shop owner appeared in the doorway looking utterly wretched, helpless to stem the attack on his precious supplies. This shameful event was brought up by our year’s head teacher at the next assembly, but I have no idea if anyone got into trouble for it, or whether punishment would have done anything at all to prevent future crime.
So Eaglesfield brimmed with rough and ready bastards, but I had my group of friends to help me through. There were five of us, and the leader was John—a stocky blonde kid who always had too much gel in his hair and kicked a football the way a mule would kick his greatest enemy. I once asked him how he walloped the leather so mightily, and he said “I been playing football since I was three innit.” As the naturally bigger kid, John was the one that everyone in our group wanted to please, as though his bulk could offer us some protection against the torrent of potential violence that surrounded us. He was like a small albino bull that was cute but somehow threatening.
My best friend in the group was Steve. His dad was in the military, so he lived on a military housing estate in the depths of Woolwich, a place that I visited once and never wanted to visit again. He had a broad face and a smile that seemed to wrap around the entire bottom half of his head, and he could jump onto the tall science tables in a single leap, something I assume his dad taught him in some kind of military bonding exercise. When the school arranged a paintball trip for our class, Steve was the one who captured the flag by crawling through the mud undetected, like a WW2 soldier squelching through a boggy French field. I stayed in the safety of a tower and shot anyone who approached him. Steve was a legend—one of the few kids at school who I could really talk to, and I hope that he felt the same way about me. He messaged me a few years after school wanting to catch up, but for some reason we never got around to organising it, and I assume there’s now 15,000 kilometres between us.
Then there was Ricky, a painfully skinny blonde lad who had translucent skin and looked like the ghost of Mr Burns. Ricky and I were never that close, maybe because early in our friendship we agreed to a no-holds barred insult match in which we wrote horrible things about each other and then read them. I remember him welling up at my contribution, and I felt terrible about it but for some reason didn’t apologise. This probably bolstered his conviction when this same group of friends bullied me for about six months straight and suddenly stopped, which felt like a torturer who yells “surprise,” points out the candid cameras, and then gives you a warm hug; a nightmarish alternative universe where Jeremy Beadle is a nasty little bastard with two tiny hands. Those months remain the most miserable of my life, and I wonder what kind of person I’d be today if they’d gone on for longer. But I don’t resent them for it. We were all just stupid kids who didn’t know any better.
Deano was the final friend in our group—a gangly black kid whose teeth looked like they’d been slung into his gums by a medieval catapult. Not a single one of his gnashers had agreed to go in the same direction, and Dean was clearly abashed by these circumstances, sporting braces for years before they finally resigned themselves to two coherent rows. Dean made up for his unfortunate choppers by being an all-round nice guy. He spoke in a soft, polite way that endeared me to him, and when he laughed it was the most tremendous cackle I’ve ever heard that didn’t come from a witch. And fuck me, he could run. Playing It with him was like trying to catch a firework—the boy could change direction in a way that defied physics, leaving you in a cloud of dust that echoed with mocking laughter. He might have made a fine rugby player, and in fact our school had a famous rugby past that had all-but died by the time I arrived there, succumbing to the popularity of football. Dean is the only person in this group that I’m friends with on Facebook, and if by chance he ever stumbles on this, I hope he doesn’t take offence at what I’ve written because he remains a lovely bloke.
Between the five of us, we managed to get through the formidable Eaglesfield School in Woolwich, and on reflection, I have some good memories of the place. Many of the kids who went there give it a bad rap, but it wasn’t that awful a place to get an education. Three-quarters of the teachers seemed to be good at their jobs, and genuinely tried to educate us well, they just happened to be teaching a lot of kids from poor backgrounds, many of them worn down by unfortunate circumstances and rebelling in the only way they knew how. Put those teachers in a school with rich kids, and they’d have been working with putty instead of steel, but they grafted and toiled and kept their sense of humour despite the immensity of the challenge, and for that I salute them.
I made new friends in my final sixth form year at Eaglesfield, and am still close with most of them. The school closed a couple of years after I left, but quickly re-opened its doors as Shooters Hill Sixth Form College—a place that seems to be having more success than its predecessor. It would have been a shame to close a school with such great facilities, and I’m glad that the spirit of Eaglesfield lives on in its classrooms and halls, like a menace waiting for a chance to trip you up in the hallway, bustle you to the back of the lunch queue, or launch a snowball directly at your testicles.