The schoolday I’ll never forget: ‘I hitchhiked 100 miles home from my school for the blind’
The best day of my school year was always the same: 29 May. It was known as Founder’s Day which, in most schools with such pretensions, meant being forced to dress in your best clothes, sing a hymn in Latin and then listen to some old bloke telling you how to live a good and righteous life. Doesn’t sound promising, does it? Except that at our school, it was different. We may have had the Latin hymn but, after that, we were told we must leave the school and go wherever we wanted (within legal limits, I suppose, though I don’t ever remember that being spelled out). This may not sound that spectacular, until you realise that this was a school for blind and almost-blind children.
You were also presented with five shillings, which I suppose was intended as a survival kit, but which we realised could buy 60 penny chews, or a dirty book from the top shelf of the newsagents, which the one boy with a bit of sight could read to you with the aid of a powerful magnifying glass.
If you think that, 60 years on, we live in a more liberal age when it comes to what blind children are encouraged to do, forget it! This would never happen now. But, I’m delighted to say that my friends and I made the absolute best of it.
For my first Founder’s Day, aged 11, three of us first years somehow found our way to Dudley zoo – I guess we must have caught the train. Methods of navigation are a bit of a blur but, somehow, once there, we must have found the dingo cage. Animal-mad, the first thing I remember is leaning over the bars to get as close to them as possible (being at boarding-school, I was missing my dog). No, I didn’t fall in, but inevitably my school cap fell off. Initially, the two dingoes approached it gingerly. Then, all at once, there was a snapping of teeth. The fight that ensued was deeply satisfying, interspersed as it was with the sounds of my detested school cap being torn to shreds. It was a suitably fitting climax to a gloriously anarchic day.
We made a return trip to Dudley zoo on Founder’s Day two years later. Now aged 13, we had become rather blasé about the animals and were more entranced by the small funfair. Three of us commandeered a dodgem each and, although the general idea is that your cars crash into each other, the unpredictability of three dodgems being driven by blind drivers proved too much for the staff. We were politely, but firmly, ushered out of the zoo.
My final use of the Founder’s Day freedoms was my boldest. With a totally blind friend, I decided to hitchhike home from Worcester to Winchester – well over 100 miles. I felt confident we could do the return trip in a day, while having time to sample a slap-up meal cooked by my delighted mother. One slight flaw in this plan was that I omitted to warn my mother we were coming. When we arrived, oil-stained but unbowed, she was up a stepladder, stocking the larder. She claims almost to have fallen off but, once over the shock, she did indeed provide us with a plate of sausage, egg and chips. But that’s as far as the prodigal son treatment went. I was told firmly that we had better head back immediately, before my dad got home, or there would be trouble.
The return journey went all right until we got a little beyond Oxford, when the light began to fade and people became less willing to pick up two scruffy urchins carrying white canes. But our luck still held. We found our way to a police station, where the officers were terrific. They drove us to the main road and then stopped cars until they found one that would take us back to Worcester.
We arrived back after midnight, expecting the sky to fall in. I rang home, where my father’s grumpiness turned to relief; even more astonishing, when we got back to school, the headmaster, after a bit of harrumphing, congratulated us on using our initiative.
My schooldays were by no means perfect, but if the job of a school is to prepare its disabled children for the rigours of life, Founder’s Day was a brilliant invention, now sadly missed.