I was 16 years old in May 1992 when I sat my Highers at Glasgow Academy, the exams that would determine where and what I might study at University. It seems like a long time ago, but then again, I am not sure how much I’ve changed.
Highers. It’s not a word that I’ve thought about or used in more than 20 years. In isolation, “Highers” is such a strange word. And of course it means nothing to anyone who has not gone through the Scottish school system. But for those who have, it is a word that likely generates feelings of dread.
Highers are the name for the important exams taken by Scottish students in their final or penultimate year of high school. The results of your Highers will likely determine if you get a job, or what degree you can study, and in turn what you do with the rest of your life. Or at least that is what you are told. For most 15 or 16 year olds, it’s a lot of pressure.
In May 1992 I sat six Highers. Most schools only did five but Glasgow Academy wanted me to do 6 Highers. So that’s what I did. Higher English, Mathematics, History, Physics, Chemistry, and Latin.
At the time it was the biggest stress I’d ever experienced. I studied hard, and I was expected to do well, but I was as nervous, if not more nervous than most of my friends. Of course, I didn’t admit that. One thing I had learned at Glasgow Academy was the value of being able to mask any feelings of self-doubt and portray an air of confidence. But I think like most 16 year olds, inside I was massively insecure. And not just about the exams, but about my whole persona.
When I looked in the mirror I hated my reflection. I saw a cowlick in my hair, a big nose, big ears, and bad acne. And these were all features of my face that had been pointed out to me by others at some point. So I tended to avoid mirrors and photographs.
I was acutely self-conscious about my flaws. For years as a teenager, I had a few warts on ends of my fingers. Every single morning I would cover them up with plasters (band-aids), for fear of being ridiculed.
And then there was puberty. A lot of boys in my all-boys school had a body odor problem. Either they didn’t know about deodorant yet, or it just wasn’t’ working for them. Fortunately I knew about deodorant, but I would still perspire. I just did. I still do. It doesn’t smell bad. I just sweat.
I was so embarrassed about having wet patches on my white school shirt that I wore a grey wool sweater under my blue wool blazer year round. Even on warm May and June days, of which there are admittedly few in Glasgow, I would never remove my sweater. That continued until I left school.
I’m pretty sure I took my Higher exams while sweating in my grey pullover. And outside of school, I almost always wore black. As a moody 16 year old, it was pretty easy for me to get away with wearing black all the time. It wasn’t easy being 16.
I didn’t keeping a diary around this time but I was a bit of a hoarder. I kept every Sky Magazine I bought, and I recorded almost every TV show I watched onto VHS videotape.
I’ve found a few notes and mementos that remind me how in 1992 I was really into things like Italian soccer, Notre Dame college football, Vic Reeves, and grunge music.But I don’t think anything could give a greater insight into my teenage mind than one particular love letter that I wrote late one night.
The note was never delivered and has never been read by anyone before. I don’t even remember writing it, but I do recall some of the feelings I was experiencing at the time. It was the first time I thought I had fallen in love.
As way of background, the note was written in November 1992. I was in my 6th and final year of Glasgow Academy and my all-boys school had decided to join with a nearby girls school. The full merger would not take place until the year after I left, but in that final year, some of the girls were allowed to join the boys A-level classes.
The girl who is the subject of this letter is called Gail. She was the only girl in my A-Level Latin class, and indeed was the first girl with whom I had ever shared a classroom as a teenager. Those two facts alone were probably sufficient for 16-year-old Pete to fall in love. And of course, I did.
It looks like I wrote this note at about 1am in the morning after talking with Gail on the phone, finishing my Latin homework, watching The Prisoner on TV, and while listening to Pearl Jam ‘Ten’ on cassette. And that would have been a pretty typical Wednesday evening for me in 1992.
WARNING: If you are not Gail M or this is not yet November 19, 1993, then this note must not be read. It is emotionally biased.
The Scene: 12.55am on Thursday 19th November 1992
Listening to Pearl Jam ‘Ten’ (Side 1) having finished Virgil homework.
This week has seen a huge change in my life. This metamorphosis has been brought on by a certain Gail M. On Monday Afternoon, after triple Latin, I told her that I was lovesick. She comforted me, I thought sympathetically but this led to a 90 minute ‘tete-a-tete’ in the library. There between sighs and exclamations of ‘Oh My God’, she revealed to me something I had only dreamed. (Alive has started – Good timing Eddie!)
She said she was shocked but that she would have been more surprised had the feeling not been so mutual. At this my heart sang. She is in a difficult position. She has been going out with a certain Chris F for over a year, she is best friends with his sister, she has a room, toothbrush etc. at his house, and now a lovesick teenager drooling after her. I guess I feel sorry for her. If someone of the opposite sex with my ‘looks’ told me that they loved me I would be very much perturbed.
(I do not know what I’m writing, but the only person I ever want to read this is you Gail, so maybe I’m not thinking straight.)
Anyway, that was three days ago now. Since then I’ve written off to Cambridge my questionnaire, written a letter to Uncle Doug’s Problem Page, pretending to be Miles S., and that bastard himself has asked Gail to the theatre on Saturday night. (I’m sorry if swearing offends but the reader of this will understand I’m sure).
I phoned Gail tonight at 22.10 and spoke for about 45 minutes. We talked about our bedrooms, the Open day tomorrow, (Hang on the phone just rang at 1:10. It might be Gail and my parents picked it up – I haven’t told them yet), debating and the positive and negative aspects of her life.
She said that whatever she decided she would make someone very sad, (to me that sounded like it would be me), either Chris or me. On positive (I blanked out the negative) she admitted that she had no feelings for Miles – it was purely “Platonic”.
She said that she was definitely breaking up with Chris. She said that we might get to know each other better. Gail also promised that, for the School Dance, (I put her on the spot and asked her), she would give whoever she takes 2 weeks notice, meaning that she has two weeks to make up her mind. She also promised to phone me on Tuesday, (I bet she doesn’t), and called me ‘honey near the end of the conversation.
I had to break off to watch ‘The Prisoner’ and ‘Married With Children’, as for Gail, I think she was getting bored. Overall I don’t rate my chances, (Jeremy), she is too afraid of the atmosphere should we break up. I have to persuade her that I would never break off but that might scare her off. I really think I love her. God what does that sound like! When I read this in a year’s time I will be at Uni and probably in love with another girl, however, Gail did mention something about Uni tonight.
If I were to make it with Gail, and by that I mean become her boyfriend, my life would be complete – without a doubt. It might be that Gail reads this as my wife and looks back on these days with fond remembrance. Then again it is past 1:30 in the morning and I can’t really remember anything I’ve written, all I know is that its from the heart. And Gail if you ever read this, then my prayers will have been answered and dreamland has arrived.
I’ll always love you Gail.
Declaration: I promise never to read this note until November 19, 1993, (I will not read through it even now – any mistakes will only emphasize my state of mind), or if Gail is present. I will now write a warning at the front.
Aye. That was me 24 years ago. How things have changed?
Anyway, I used to love my Latin classes. I wasn’t really into the subject, but some of my best friends were in the class and I idolized my teacher. He was a football loving, cricket playing Mancunian called Vic Hadcroft.
I always felt that a lot of the teachers at Glasgow Academy didn’t like me. And for the most part the feeling was mutual. I was not a model student. My biggest problem was that if I saw an opportunity to make the rest of the class laugh, I would take it. Usually at my, or the teacher’s expense.
But Mr. Hadcroft was different. He and I had the same sense of humor. Or maybe I have modeled mine from his. Anyway, he didn’t seem to mind an unsolicited contribution from the pupils, if it was funny. I think he actually encouraged it. He taught with a passion and I loved it. I wasn’t the best at Latin, but I studied it for 6 years just so that I could be in his class. I remember that I borrowed money from him once so that I could run out and buy tickets for Vic Reeves Big Night Out Tour. And I even paid him back.
When I think of early male role models, there is my Dad, of course, and then there is Mr. Hadcroft. While so many of the teachers at Glasgow Academy frowned at laughter, Mr. Hadcroft never took himself, his classes, or life too seriously.
My Latin higher was the sixth and last exam I took in May 1992. I remember being exhausted as that final day approached. On the eve of the exam, I decided to take the night off from studying and watch the European Cup Final between Barcelona and my favorite team Sampdoria. I was a huge fan of Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli.
But Sampdoria lost and I ended up getting a ‘B’ in Latin. I felt like I had let Mr. Hadcroft down, but he didn’t seem to mind too much. When the results came out in August, I received five ‘A’ grades in the other Highers, which meant that I had the choice of studying any degree at any University in Scotland. It set me on the path to getting a good education at Edinburgh, and later at Texas.
It has been interesting for me to reflect this week on the person I was as a sixteen year old. At first it was the differences that jumped out – the things I’ve learned, the confidence I’ve gained, – that initially led me to conclude how different I am as a person now. I also have a better haircut now, slightly better skin, and my search for love is no longer unrequited.
But writing this now, having been living with my memories of 1992 all this week, I’m not sure I’ve changed all that much. I’m still a dreamer. I’m still hopelessly romantic. I still look in the mirror and shake my head. My sense of humor is the same and may even have regressed, and I even still like Pearl Jam’s first album.
I suppose the biggest change is that now I don’t care who else knows.