Mid-week On The Playing Fields

(Warning – lots of personal history and absolutely no music in this blog post)

From time to time during blog posts I have mentioned sports in school and that I never participated in them. I may have spoken somewhere along the line about my eyesight and the two are interlinked so I thought it might be worth an explanation.

I was born with cataracts in both eyes – fully formed in my left eye and half formed in my right eye. Oh and there was astigmatism as well in the right eye which gave everything a fuzzy glow of slightly double vision. This wasn’t discovered until I reached infant school even though my parents were concerned that I was sitting right in front of the TV to watch it, and I kept stumbling over my feet or anything else on the floor. “Just finding his feet, a bit clumsy” they said. That was until someone did a health check on us all a few months into our first year of primary school and discovered that I was blind in the left eye and barely seeing through the right eye. Yet I’d learnt to read and write through this – a fact that I still feel amazed at even now. I started wearing glasses from the age of five and haven’t stopped since, they feel perfectly natural on me now. Anyway after tests the cataracts were found and I had surgery to try to correct the left eye but it is effectively a lazy eye and only a little light – vague shapes, colours etc – can be seen through it. This also means that I’ve never seen in 3D – apart from the times it’s dark and the light in the right eye matches the left eye and for a brief minute or two I see in 3D and my brain explodes with joy.

Over the years numerous consultants and opticians that examined me and always said the same thing – the cataract in my right eye would develop to the point where I would lose sight in that eye. They also said that the process of developing would be sped up if I sustained a knock to the head. Somehow in my mind this turned into “If you hit my head I’ll go blind”. Nothing was really done about this for a while except that I had this lingering black cloud hanging over me. Then in my final year at Evenlode school in 1980 I was playing rugby and received a knock to the head in a ruck. I don’t think I was anything worse than concussed but my parents started to panic. Within a few weeks there had been meetings and letters and suddenly I wasn’t allowed to participate in any kind of contact sports in school.

To be honest I was glad of the decision. I’d tried football, rugby, rounders, crickets and whatever else the school sports department could throw at me and I was useless at everything. Don’t forget that I wasn’t seeing in 3D, my sense of perspective and judgement of distances was non-existent so I really wasn’t good at anything sporting. Nothing at all. So I secretly cheered and pulled sad faces when I was told I couldn’t do sports. No more standing in the fields searching the air for cricket balls heading my way which I would never see until it smacked me on the nose.

This non-sporting decision was carried over to secondary school, which was a blessing and a curse. On the one hand I didn’t have to drag myself through the mud and grime of rugby in the pouring rain on a late November Thursday afternoon. On the other hand this lack of sporting ability – and the fact I was singled out to not be involved – probably didn’t help my image of being a wimp and probably encouraged the bullying that occurred during my first few years at Stanwell.

The PE department had four teachers – two male and two female and they could not have been more different. Mr C was portly, middle-aged bald and spoke like he had a piece of rubber stuck in his throat. Whenever he ran he looked like he was going to have a cardiac arrest. Mr S was short, relatively young, almost cool, trying to be matey with the boys. Mrs J was short and bossy while Mrs W was young, attractive and blonde. She was our form teacher for two years from 1982 to 1984 and my best friend and I managed to get ourselves on the front desk in front of her for every registration session at the start of each day and the other boys were rather jealous (I only know this because my friend was told this frequently – “Do you want to swap seats in reg?” – “No way!”). But my main contact with the PE teachers was with Mr C – he’d give me responsibilities for checking equipment or preparing the gym, moving the horses and mats around. Shouldn’t he have done this? Well yes but he always looked red faced and perspiring if he moved any equipment so I thought it was best to help.

Now when I say I was singled out, that wasn’t quite true. There was another boy in my year who never did sports either, who I’ll call Joe. It’s one of those unspoken things that nobody talked about – Joe was a special needs child of some kind but none of us really asked what his disability was. I suppose in today’s terminology he was a slow learner. He wasn’t difficult, there were no behavioural problems, he was just slower than everyone else. Of course this also led to bullying and pain and I suppose we were both in it together. We just hung out for an hour and a half once or twice a week watching our classmates beat merry hell out of each other. But he was a nice lad, carefully spoken, quite quiet, perhaps withdrawn. Together Joe and I became equipment monitors. We would drag bags of footballs or rugby balls out of the store rooms, carry hurdles and hoops and all kinds of shit out to the playing fields. Then we’d stand around in the cold on the touchline chatting about music and girls and all the rest. Sometimes we’d be linesmen, but we never really took any notice of what anyone was doing so just made our decisions up as we went along. Then we’d pack everything away and drag it back to the store room again. It was boring and dull.
So we did that for about three years until we started our ‘O’ levels from September ’83 and we started to actually study. I don’t know what happened to Joe but whenever my class had a PE lesson I was sent off to a little office in the Middle Block around the corner from EI Owen’s office (Mr Owen was head of middle school and his initials were indeed E and I. You couldn’t make it up). The office was meant to be the school nurse’s room and was painted pink with posters on the wall full of female anatomy, there was a desk and a chair and a bed and a cupboard full of ladies’ sanitary products. Clearly it was meant to be for girls. And I spent hours in this room, supposedly working or revising. Instead I’d lie on the bed and relax and read whatever copy of “Just Seventeen” was around. It’s no wonder I had some strange ideas about the opposite sex. It soon became known that I would be in this room during PE and I would have visitors sometimes, friends would drop by for a chat and a laugh. Some of these friends were boys from my class hiding from the PE teachers, and some would be girls from my class who’d tease me about the contents of the cupboards and the posters on the wall. After a while I realised that no teachers were checking in on me during these PE lessons and if nobody was checking then there was no need for me to be there at all. As long as I turned up for the following lesson at the right time then I could disappear. And this is exactly what I did – quietly and discreetly leaving the school and heading into the town centre for an hour or so, probably stopping at a sweet shop along the way.

During my fifth year in comp my PE lesson was moved to the last double lesson on Monday afternoon. It could not have been more perfect – I could do the afternoon’s first lessons, have break time and then disappear home. Or even go to the train station and disappear to Cardiff to check out the week’s new record releases. I didn’t do this every week, I would sometimes stay in the pink room just in case someone did check up on me. But this was how I ended up buying “Crush” by OMD on the first day of release, going into the old Virgin Records store opposite Cardiff Castle, watching the staff putting up a huge display of the sleeve art on their wall and wishing I’d asked for a bit of it to take home. Did I ever get caught out? Only once actually. Just as I was heading out of the school gates I was seen by the deputy head. I said I was popping to the shop for some Lockets. I don’t think he believed me. So I was back in the pink room for a few more weeks. Once I’d completed my O levels there was no compulsory PE so I never did any sport after that and I was glad to stop all the hanging around and hiding.

Come to think of it I did participate in a few sports. During the summer it was athletics and tennis season. I didn’t do tennis but did carry the balls and racquets and sometimes be the referee, and I have distinct memories of refereeing a match with my first crush, letting her win just so she’d smile at me. But athletics…well anyone can run, but not everyone can run fast. I was in the latter category sadly, but did manage to finish second in a 400m race during one sports day. A moment of glory. But running was all I was capable of. I tried javelin and shot put and throwing the hammer but it was deemed too dangerous – not for me but for other spectators. I really was shit and could have caused some serious damage.

The PE section of my school report was always written by Mr C he said the same thing every single time for five years. “Rob is always helpful”. Thanks Mr C.

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