I am colourblind. I didn't used to be. It happened over a few weeks in May 1967.
In that month I took up a new teaching appointment at a Luton comprehensive High School.
The town, once known for its production of straw hats had undergone a profound change thanks to the arrival of Vauxhall and other car and engineering industries. On the M1, it was in the corridor from London to Leicester, Birmingham, and the still industrial heartlands of the north. It was thus an employment magnet for the large numbers of newly arrived Commonwealth citizens from the Caribbean Islands and the Indian sub-continent in search of work
Knowing that, I was still unprepared for what confronted me from the stage during that first assembly. Later in the staffroom I fell in with an old, wizened and apparantly cynical colleague. He asked me a direct question..
."What did you notice about the kids this morning?"
"You mean apart from the fact that about 40% of them were black?"
He laughed, "I can guarantee that after a fortnight, you wont notice even that!"
He was dead right. So I became colourblind...an affliction I am proud to possess.
It then became strange to see when other people were not. Two examples stick in my memory. In my first year there, along with a colleague I brought a history class of 20 thirteen year olds to Castle Rising up here in backwoods Norfolk. The majority were black and presented a striking appearance...purple blazers, white shirts/blouses, ties in Windsor knots, grey trousers/skirts,and polished shoes.
We had to walk through the village in croc. The effect was extraordinary. Front doors fell open like rows of falling dominoes as people came out just to stare at the children who were totally oblivious to the attention they were receiving. My first thought was the neatness and colour of their uniforms but of course...none of the spectators had never seen black folk before.
The second occasion came a couple of years later. My first wife and I took a class of year tens on another history expedition but this time to the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth. I gave them an hour to explore the Museum to satiate their curiosity before letting them loose with their clipboards and assignment sheets. It was a pleasant day so we decided to have our packed lunches outside on benches under the two huge naval guns that mark the IWM.
Sitting beside us was an elderly local lady watching the students carefully. She eventually turned to us and said in an approving but loud stage whisper..."Your darkies are well behaved!"
Two of the "darkies," mates in my Athletics team overheard. CarIos and Kenroy were two priceless characters. They rose and came over to my wife and I. They both gave half bows and Carlos asked "Would de white master n' missus like some tea?" At a nod, off they went to the nearby tea stall only to return, Carlos with a tray, cups and saucers, Kenroy with the sugar and milk. Each had a borrowed tea cloth over one arm. They gravely handed them over, bowed and on my wave of airy dismissal returned to their highly amused mates. By then the old lady was nodding in rapturous approval. We were trying hard not to wet ourselves.
I cornered the two lads later. Discipline had to be maintained..
"Hey sir! Do you reckon she would have bought us off the block?"
"Not unless she was wanting two two cheeky toe rags!
You coming down to the track tonight?"