~ Posted by Maggie Fergusson, May 23rd 2012
A nephew of mine who’s making a tidy income as a private tutor told me recently about the wild, anxious, beseeching look that overcomes mothers as they pay him at the end of sessions. It’s as if what they want from him is not so much tutoring as a crystal ball that will allow them to look into their children’s futures, and assure them that all will be well. How I laughed!
Then yesterday my daughter’s school report arrived in the post, and I realised I was reading and re-reading it with exactly the expression my nephew had described. It’s a baffling document. There are no marks or percentages, and no indication of how my daughter is progressing relative to her peers. Instead, it offers a series of letters, numbers and symbols—drama, for example, reads “7 5H 6M 1 #”—some, but not all, of which are explained in a table at the end. Despite this, I scrutinised the flimsy piece of A4 as if it was a fortune teller at a fair.
I’m ashamed to admit this, since in the last year or so it’s been brought home to me just how unreliable these documents are as compasses to the future. Working with Michael Morpurgo on "War Child to War Horse", a book about his life, I’ve spent time leafing through a package of yellowing post-war reports from his bleak little Sussex prep school, The Abbey, and it’s safe to say that backing the schoolboy Michael to make a success of his life would have been as foolish as betting on a Handspring Puppet horse to win the Grand National.
This is the mid-Fifties, so there’s no PC beating about the bush. Michael’s maths teacher finds him “Very much below the standard of the form”; and he’s “a grave disappointment” in French. The violin teacher bemoans his inability “to coordinate notes and fingers, so that everything has to be played adagio”, and the headmaster judges him “excitable and harum-scarum”. Even in English he is “An exasperating boy” who “will never get far while content to remain in a cheerful back-bench coma”. Sixty years on, it’s clear that these reports say less about the child than about the masters assessing him—about the laziness of the history master, for example, who can only ever be bothered to write one word (“Weak—CW”, “Poor—CW”).
But they continue to fill Michael with dread. Each one prompted a summons to the cigarette-smoke-filled study of his stepfather, Jack Morpurgo, a heavyweight historian who believed both in the intellect and in punishment. The only way Michael could distract Jack from his academic failures was to throw his energies into becoming a sporting hero, and this he did. So my favourite of all the predictions made about him is not, in fact, in a school report, but in the school magazine published in his leaving term. Michael Morpurgo will never be “bookish”, it states, “but he has a great Rugger future.”