I arrived at Tallis in September 1993, having led a rather sheltered life. Well turned out for the first day in my new shiny black trousers and even shinier black shoes, it soon became clear that rather than being a place of conformity and rule following, Tallis was a melting pot of characters where the whiff of rebellion was ever present.
Whether it was the Thomas the Tank Engine apron proudly warn by Mrs Young, or the Tibetan Flags that were festooned across room 43 (Ms O having spent the summer immersing herself in an Asian adventure of apparently epic proportions), the pupils, staff and subjects that made Tallis were like nothing I’d ever experienced.
The 5 years leading to my GCSEs were the very best, and very worst of times. Throughout the ups and downs, Tallis became a home. It was the unfailing support , perseverance and determination of a great many people that meant I made it to year 11 in reasonable shape. Bar one red ticket (absolutely Shane’s fault, Ms Leeke!), some infrequent detentions and the occasional bollocking, I was usually on the right side of the law as far as school was concerned.
Mrs Maguire had introduced me to politics and I was enjoying representing the school in our local youth council, learning more about democracy and very much finding my voice. It was a passion that gripped me from an early age and although none of our formal education had been political, Ms O, Mr J and others had informally educated us on the intricacies of the geopolitical landscape. Mr Mandela - revered. Mr Major - not so much.
Anyway, the summer was approaching and I was doing my best to keep those year 11 plates spinning in the air, aided ably by the wonderful Mrs R. I was the only student for her half term revision class, the subject of which was the power of aromatherapy oils and the hidden powers you could unleash to get through your exams. It was great fun. Armed with more lavender than a small branch of Holland and Barrett and an array of highlighters, I was motoring towards the end and making good progress.
Except for Italian.
Now, the languages faculty was a big deal at Tallis and filled with some big characters. Exotic menus of global cuisines adorned the walls. As a very fussy eater it all looked pretty disgusting (me being much more a fan on the turkey twizzler than the tortellini) but Ms C had persevered with us for almost 2 years, desperate to make the kids from the Ferrier authentic for any future trips to Florence. Sadly, I was more captivated by her colourful use of the overhead projection than I was trying to pretend to buy a second class rail ticket from Rome to Venice and by the February-March time, with just weeks to go, I had decided (inspired in part by the icons Summer and Streisand) that enough was enough.
My lobbying efforts were well underway by early March to rid me of this evil (to be fair, Mrs C was very evidently feeling the same way at this point) and despite eloquent, extended explanations to all of the senior team, no one was prepared to let me drop the bloody subject. I was furious. Seething. Livid about the amount of time I was wasting on this pointless endeavour!
A brief flashback to a year 10 history listen - I was a big fan of the suffragettes - led me to the firm conclusion that a period of direct action was required. After all, I couldn’t be the only one feeling like this! (Year 11 was a rollercoaster - Emmeline Pankhurst one moment, Adrian Mole the next…) So having evaluated all options, I swiftly eliminated window breaking, hunger striking or chaining myself to anything.
An organised walk out would be my chosen method of attack. Although I wouldn’t be in lessons, I had considered all legal arguments and was pretty sure there was a world of difference between truanting and protesting.
Pandora was recruited as my fellow commander and we got to work on the specifics. It’s bizarre to think that we had no WhatsApp, Facebook or any platform to really communicate at scale. I didn’t even have a mobile phone! So we reverted to the trusted communication method that has served those dessert islanders so well over the centuries - the rolled up piece of paper. Pandora and I both had excellent handwriting, but it was fairly recognisable and whilst we were happy to organise, we hadn’t quite settled on going public as protestors in chief. At that stage of our education, one of the benefits of year 11 was the 2 hours twice a week discovering the joys of word processing. So we set ourselves to work.
Languages walk out. Enough is enough. Meet at the year base period 4 Wednesday.
As Pandora and I were both quite proficient in IT, we decided to upgrade this rather dull message to something more fitting, a revolutionary call to arms. Though I can’t be absolutely sure, I’d imagine that comic sans was the most likely font of choice and as we were doing well with Mrs B and the word processy stuff, we were able to arrange a perfect set of label printing. We needed 210 of those (1 for each of the year group as we were in a 7 x 30 combination at that stage). Rotatrims we’re in ample supply across the school and we were fortunate to have an unending supply of the year 11 must-have accessory: the clear plastic wallet - big thanks to WH Smith at this point, still the nation’s best stationer in my view.
I enlisted a series of lieutenants and gave them 10 each, instructing the message to be disseminated broadly across the year group. A good strategy I thought and one that would mean a charge of joint enterprise in the event that we were uncovered.
So with messages printed, distributed and the date of the revolution set, all there was to do was wait.
And before too long, it was D-Day.
In the run up to the day itself, chat was fairly muted - most people weren’t aware that me and P were commanders in chief. Many were dealing with impending coursework deadlines or the latest emotional crisis. I’d wondered whether this was all going to be a rather damp squib.
But, arriving into school that morning, I knew we were on. There was an electric current in the air as we geared up for action. Huddled whispers, nervous giggles - and not a clue about what was to come from our unsuspecting teachers.
It was suddenly break time and as usual we headed to the year base. It was a fairly warm day and we would normally have been outside, but a spontaneous solidarity now united us.
Suddenly, commotion. An almighty racket from the door leading out. What the hell was going on?
Having headed round the corner, I was momentarily lost for words. The 11RS lads (very much a motley crew) were suddenly amassing any piece of available furniture they could lay their hands on and for some unexplained reason barricading all of us inside the year bus. Chairs, tables, trays - it all went on, piling higher and higher by the second. Having intervened to ask what the bloody hell was going on, one of them replied they were stopping us from going to languages, having apparently completely misinterpreted the note!!! As I ran over to stop the false start, a very angry Mr B was heading towards the door at speed, hollering and shouting - we assumed - for the immediate cessation of activities! As that failed, he launched into a sort of fly kick, desperately trying to break the barricade, at the door! Panic ensued in the year base, with most now exiting through the emergency door, or the window for those feeling more adventurous!
Period 3 was over in a flash, and the familiar tone of the pips signalled the beginning of the revolution: operation walk out was on! I sprinted to the year base, to find not one, not two but many revolutionaries who had answered our call. I also found Pandora, who was now mildly hysterical. Lots of noise and swirling about before someone came up to me (my cover blown) and said: so what now? At that very moment, I was panic stricken, it suddenly dawning on me that I’d done all the work to get us here but hadn’t actually planned what next. We had no placards, or purple and green sashes, no organised meeting point…just most of the year group who were now looking to me for direction.
“To the back fields”, I bellowed possibly accompanied by a revolutionary fist in the air. Off we went, huddled together (Pandora and I) now in the middle of the throng, marching purposefully under a Tallis blue sky, all buzzing that things seemed to be going well (so far!).
We were suddenly at the very furthest point of the field, adjacent to the railway line, which seemed as good a place as any to set up shop. We arranged ourselves in groups and mostly sat down. After moments of what seemed like a party atmosphere the air was penetrated by the amplified tones of Mr B.
“Stop, stop right there. We know who you all are” he boomed, megaphone in hand and flanked by at least 20 teachers who had arranged themselves in a line formation and were advancing towards the revolutionaries. As they moved closer, everyone stood up, unsure what would come next. Suddenly, and without warning, one of my number shouted, “RUN”…
And with that, we all did. Quickly, bags in hand, arranging ourselves neatly into a sweeping formation that meant we could escape their advances. “Danny Thorpe, stop right now” one of them screeched, but they had absolutely no chance. Whilst any sporting talents had eluded me so far, my feet were very much to the metal and we were ascending at speed into the building…
Almost hyperventilating, I fell through the door into the Italian classroom. A sweaty, ginger, hysterical mess. And Mrs C was furious. Practically steaming. She ordered us straight back outside and made clear we were not welcome in her room anymore. Trying desperately to get ourselves together, we were soon discovered my Ms L, senior, serious and furious. She was actually much friendlier than her general demeanour suggested, but she was not to be messed with. Her inquisitions were always of a serious nature when her glasses were moving and today was absolutely one of those days. Her demands for answers to explain just what on earth had been going on only made me and P more hysterical, but luckily for us she was soon distracted! A number of the RS lads were now in full flow at the other end of the corridor, reenacting some kind of battle scene as they escaped from the increasingly furious teachers, whose echoey shouts could be heard from all four corners of Planet Tallis as the revolutionaries entered the building.
It was fair to say that the unfolding chaos wasn’t quite what we had planned. And I’d had far more fun than I would have had if my time had been consumed with the seemingly never ending exploration of Italian tenses!
Lunch time was a weird affair. Word had got round and upon encountering any year 11 pupils, the teachers would simply look in disgust. Carol, who ran the dinner operation at Tallis, broke ranks, screaming enthusiastically at any year 11 she could find how disgusted she was with the mornings events.
But there must be more? They must be planning something, we pondered, fairly sure that there would be consequences for our actions. And sure enough, we were right.
Halfway through period 6, we were instructed to down tools and gather our things. Immediately. Directed to the door, it was clear that Operation Strike Back was underway. Marched in silence to the goldfish bowl that was the Sports Hall, we were arranged into tutor groups for the bollocking of our lives.
Understandably, they were beyond furious. And as the torrent of anger rained down, it’s fair to say we weren’t laughing any more. Poor Mr J (Head of Year, Top bloke) looked close to tears, declaring “you’re all sheep” and running between us hollering “baaaaaaaaaaaa” at the assembled masses. The dawning reality that we’d probably taken the poor guy closer to the edge than at any time during his 5 years of shepherding our flock was a sure fire way to bring the party to an end.
There wasn’t really any discussion about a second strike, and after Mr J’s worrying display, I developed the view that I should simply shut up and get on with it.
By some miracle, I ended up with a C in Italian at GCSE, a grade I’m sure I could have improved if I’d concentrated on my studies instead of revolution.
-- Danny Thorpe, Leader of Royal Borough of Greenwich Council