On this night in 1980

My school burnt down – the second time in five years

It’s about time for an off-topic post. Twitter’s littered with #OnThisDay tweets and, I’m sorry to say, I’m about to add to this.

It’s 35 years to the day that my old school, Outwood Grange Comprehensive, burnt down. The second time. The previous serious fire had happened five years before, almost to the day. Both cases were arson attacks – by the same perpetrator, I think.

The 1980 fire was not a complete shock. When I started at the school in September, I was aware of the arson attack of ’75. And one Monday morning in late November, I looked out of the window of my form room L4, across the corner of the redgra (the red gravel playground) to see that prefab classroom L29 had been burnt down over the weekend. How bizarre – nobody had said anything, and to this day I don’t know the cause.

Soon after, on the morning Friday 4 December, breakfast was interrupted by a phone call from a friend’s mum to say the school would be closed that day because of a fire. I walked up the road to where the houses gave way to fields of rhubarb. On the horizon a large part of the school buildings could be seen still smouldering. Having had quite a few unusual experiences in life before and since, this still stands out as surreal.

The night of 3-4 December had been a windy one. That, plus the site being on a hill and the ridiculous design of the ’70s building, meant the school didn’t stand a chance. There were stories of a fire fighter having to run the length of a corridor to escape the fire’s rapid spread. Was the fire in L29 a dress rehearsal for this spectacular blaze? I don’t suppose I’ll ever know.

Headmaster's letter from December 1980

‘…circumstances beyond our control’ Some circumstances! Headmaster’s letter, December 1980 (click to read)

The arsonist gave us our longest Christmas break in my school career (three extra weeks), and at the start of January 1981, us 1st years were bussed out to disused buildings at a nearby primary school that became our home for the next two terms. The facilities were basic to say the least. In Science, a Calor gas stove stood in for a Bunsen burner. In Games, rainy weather meant a classroom lesson where the games teacher explained the rudiments of football, tennis, rugby, basketball, cricket… Actual sport replaced by hastily drawn diagrams on a blackboard. It must have been an absolute dream for kids who’d turn up with a note from home to avoid games. A simple weather forecast check now showed if those ‘Jimmy is too poorly today’ notes were needed.

Over the years, living in the south, I’ve got used to coming across people from Wakefield unexpectedly. There’s a pattern to conversations. On schools, it usually starts with: ‘Are you an old Savilian?’ [the local public school]. When I say I went to Outwood Grange, the response involves a jaunt of the head: ‘that’s the school that burnt down!’ ‘Yes, twice.’

My attitude’s gradually shifted from embarrassment to bemusement, and finally to pride.

The fire seemed to reinforce the comprehensive’s image as rough, or at least not as genteel as its private competitors. But I’ve come to recognise that my formative years were anything but dull. Not only that, but I can now appreciate the fighting spirit of my headteacher and others who led by example, showing how overcoming adversity can be a way of finding strength.

Huffington Post

Since starting this blog, I’m thrilled to have become a contributor to the Huffington Post’s UK blog. My next posting there will be on how the Outwood Grange fire recently drew my attention to an oddity of the UK state/private education divide.

About Ed Green

Writer and editor, Yorkshire bred, now living and working in Central London. This blog charts the writing of my memoir 'Twinned' - life with and without my disabled sister. It features disability issues, cerebral palsy, traumatic death, bereavement, twinless twins, guest posts, and throws in the occasional 'off topic' post.
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