As far as Welsh church schools go, mine (in hindsight) wasn’t particularly strict. When I started in 1996 there were a few rules that seemed archaic, like boys’ and girls’ stairs and a stupid rule that girls weren’t allowed to wear trousers, which was pretty much unheard of by then. Other than that, as far as rules and discipline go, it was standard. I was one of two children from my primary school to attend, and contrary to the tales the other year sixers wove before we said our final goodbyes, there were no nuns, and no smell of incense. Just regular wafts of greasy chips, and tinned plum tomatoes which were added to every sauce-based meal. The school even employed a practicing Buddhist to head up the Drama department, although I’m still not convinced she was ‘out’ to all the staff, some of whom were ordained members of the clergy. There were, of course, a few teachers who were exceptions to the liberal teaching staff, but the one who stands out in my memory above all others is Pea Head.
Pea Head wasn’t her real name but was the one which all students used when they knew they were safely out of earshot. Everything had a name assigned to it by students past and present. There was the Old Block, the New Building, the Covered Yard, and the Long Corridor; the staff list was no exception. Some names were generational (Pom), and some had been around since the start of time (Bun Head, both in name and person). Pea Head, as with most fierce faculty members, fell into the latter. Pea Head was as loud as she was tiny. Her voice reverberated around every room and made even six-foot sixth formers quake. Her self-imposed uniform of polo neck jumpers and A-line skirts made her look like a golf ball ready for tee off. I am sure that her head, if studied using cephalometrics, would be deemed perfectly spherical, a shape accentuated by the severity of her short haircut in a time where pixie crops were out and long, poker straight hair was in. I don’t think she liked long hair. She revelled in every opportunity to yell at an offending girl (it was almost certainly a girl) to tie their hair back, offering a super thick elastic band with extra snag if they didn’t have a bobble.
Pea Head was a stickler for the rules, no matter how ridiculous we thought they were. She’d be waiting at the bottom of the girls’ stairs like a cat waiting to pounce on some boy-shaped mouse. She’d peer at faces for a fleck of foundation or mite of mascara, sending the offender to the toilets to scrub every morsel of makeup off until the only thing left was a ruddy red complexion and permanent panda eyes.
The home-school notification system consisted of formal letters for class trips and plague notices (aka: the great nits pandemic of 1995 and the all together more serious, but less icky, meningitis scare of 2001), but for daily teacher comments, house points, and homework assignments, our trusty homework diaries were the first port of call. They had to be signed by parents and form tutors every week, a fact which frequently fell through the holes in my ADHD brain. I remember the sweaty palms, increased heart rate, and tight chest on the weeks that happened: it was a sure-fire way of Pea Head giving me demerits; something my equally strict mum with equally short hair would inevitably yell at me for.
Pea Head was feared and loathed in equal measure, but on reflection was a damn good teacher. She was my form tutor for years seven to eleven and taught me French at GCSE level. Her advice to use ‘je ne comprend pas la question’ in oral exams contributed to me achieving an A when I thought at best I’d get a C, and to this day I remember how to ask for a table for two by the window. She was a stickler for those rules though, and wasn’t such a great listener. I guess if we hadn’t made such excuses for our skirt lengths and banned-list shoes, perhaps her ears would have been opened, and That Day would have ended differently.
That Day is one which I’ll remember forever, though I cannot recall the year. I was sat on the windowsill of our form room with Emily, talking about the things teenagers talked about while blurred fingers tapped on Nokia keypads during the infancy of the tech-based age of multitasking. The fact we were in for lunch, and not out at the green, makes me think we were in year nine, so we were probably thirteen at the time.
Emily was leaning against the single glazed, unbarred, turn and tilt window, her regular picket in our daily rebellion against another of those stupid rules. As Emily leant against her transparent backrest, the consequence of rule breaking played out in a second.
The window swung open. Our form room was on the second floor. Below us: concrete.
The wind burst through the opening, pushing Emily up as I grabbed at her sleeves. My fingers clutched at her soft jersey sweatshirt, searching frantically for a fold in which to anchor. My hands, whose extremities had been christened ‘Butterfingers,’ grabbed hold with eagle-like precision as I snatched Emily into our schoolroom nest, an eaglet not ready for flight. It’s true what they say: you can perform impressive physical feats in life or death situations. I, and Emily, believe I saved her life that day. Unfortunately, neither of us had the grace of a bird of prey, and Pea Head walked in just as I’d sent Emily crashing into the overhead projector, which plummeted to the ground shattering the bulb, mirror, and sheet bed.
The Pea became a Cranberry.
‘Miss Coombs. Miss Wightman. Follow me.’
She didn’t shout. It was worse than being told someone’s ‘not angry, just disappointed.’ Frantic attempts to explain what had happened were met with silence, extinguishing our words and leaving us gasping for air. We were paraded via the quickest route to the headmaster’s office by unseen chains, pulling us to our judgement. She used the boys’ stairs. It wasn’t just trouble; it was something else.
I can’t remember what was said in the headmaster’s room, or even how long we were in there. My only remaining memory of that day is of my mother speaking with Emily’s mum over the phone, so that she could explain to my mum what had happened; how I’d saved Emily from a nasty fall. It mitigated some of the trouble I was in at home and was one of the only times I ever heard my mum disagree with the views of a teacher in front of me.
We hated Pea Head even more after that day. We would regale the story to all who would listen, demonising the malevolent mademoiselle until our fellow students hated her as much as we did. We’d wax lyrical about how I’d saved Emily’s life, and how Pea Head didn’t even care. Wouldn’t even listen. Only worried about her beloved overhead projector. Writing this now the irony hits me: if we’d listened to Pea Head in the first place, the accident would have never happened.
Pea Head’s strict nature coupled with our smear campaign meant that our entire form despised her. The feeling was so strong that in year eleven we wrote a joint letter to the head stating that we would only remain at the school for our A-levels if we could have a different form tutor, a demand which was granted on the first day of year twelve. We’d exercised our right to free speech, power had been given to the little people; we had won. It later transpired they split up a bunch of forms, and that ours was included was purely coincidental. From that point on, I barely saw Pea Head as both my new form and lessons were in different parts of the school. My disdain for modern foreign languages meant I had no need to meander in the hallways of the Old Block’s second floor, and Pea Head had no need or desire to visit the airy drama studio on the ground floor of the New Building.
I’ve recently returned to the school to look around with my eldest son. While some things still haven’t changed, there are still boys’ and girls’ stairs and the classrooms are all pretty much in the same places I left them, there seems to have been a mass exodus of staff since I last roamed the halls, and Pea Head was amongst them. It meant I never got a chance to tell her she was a good teacher, or to apologise for being such a precocious pain in the ass. Most of all, I never got a chance to see if her head really was that small and round, or whether her name had the power to augment reality; it was certainly a name which had power.