Bolton School Former Pupils

Valerie Stevens (née Deans, 1951-1958)

A Dark Horse – Memories of School in the 1950s

While locked down at home due to the coronavirus, with so much spare time, I decided to have a clear out of my study, going through old boxes of documents.

One box was labelled ‘Mementos’, and I dreaded looking into it ... so many reminders of times past. There were all the letters to me 54 years ago when our son was born and I was so very ill. But there was plenty of material that made me laugh, including all my school reports, starting in 1951, which my parents must have kept for many decades.

My reports from 1951 to Spring of 1954 are signed by Miss Varley, and after that by Miss Higginson. Right through to Sixth Form the remarks from teachers are the same – ‘Valerie could do better if she applied herself a bit more’ … ‘She has considerable ability but her heart does not seem to be in academic work (that was Lower Sixth) and so on. Art was always pretty good, and singing, even dancing, so perhaps that was what was meant. Even in Upper Sixth … ‘… often very good, but sometimes careless’. (English) Yet I loved English lessons!

The funniest report, which my Father always quoted was, ‘Valerie plays netball as well as a tight skirt will allow’. And that was in the Upper Sixth - I didn’t think we had to be involved in games then!

There are some rather mean remarks from Miss Higginson: 'Her own pleasant personality is often hidden by affected mannerisms.’ (Summer 1956) ‘We should like to see her a little less self-centred and more ready to think of, and to help, other people’ (Autumn 1956). And: ‘It would be a pity if she were to value the kind of admiration which is not worth having and to forfeit that which is.’ (Autumn 1957) I think that was after I had a glamorous role in the school play.

The reports do get more positive in our last term at school: '…an increasingly thorough approach'. In the event I performed better than anyone expected, winning a State Scholarship, and nine prizes at the subsequent Speech Day, which I didn’t go to because I was at Nottingham University, getting starring roles in the Dramatic Society productions in my first term.

I wonder if Miss Higginson ever realised the extent to which I had to overcome a background of genteel poverty? Cultured parents, but a house with no bathroom, a tippler lavatory at the bottom of the garden, and mould blooming on the bedroom walls. The friends I was making at school had fathers in managerial positions and – to my eyes – very grand houses. In my early years at school I was so weedy and dreamy, and hopeless at gym and games - always in the last two to be picked by team captains, and generally overlooked.

Somehow I learned that I had to push myself, to get myself noticed for something. I forced myself to be confident – more assertive we would say now. In the end I shone at acting, reciting Shakespeare soliloquies, singing, guitar playing, drawing. These are very lonely skills, one is exposed and nobody can help one. So I don’t know what Miss H. meant by ‘helping others’; I didn’t imagine anyone needed my help and I had no ideas of altruism then, only a wish to succeed and, yes, to be admired for my abilities. Don’t we all want that? Maybe she had a point though, and it took a good few more years and increasing political involvement before I learned to combine self-assurance with a concern for others.

Eventually, after many more stage roles in Nottingham and then Edinburgh, I put what talents and expertise I had to conservation of the natural environment, raising awareness of the disastrous impacts that humans were having on wild species and landscapes – to our own long-term detriment. My geography degree was an excellent grounding for that, and my thespian talents certainly helped when I was called upon to speak at big public meetings – including twice in Trafalgar Square - without any feelings of nervousness. So I had no proper career, and no salary over several decades, but I became greatly respected for my leadership (a quality I never demonstrated at school) in the environmental arena.

I think our revered Headmistress recognized that I was turning out to be socially useful: when I was in my early thirties she invited me to address the Sixth Forms of both Divisions on the subject of the great surge in human population and the effects this would have – was having – on the natural environment. That was fifty years ago, and here we are with nearly everything relating to the Earth, worse than ever. Still, I tried my best. And it was at Bolton School that I learned to make something of myself, to develop self-confidence and never be afraid of standing out from the crowd.

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1952 - Valerie (left) with Ruth Carter (née Garstang, 1948-1958)

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1957 - Valerie as Gwendoline in 'The Importance of Being Earnest' with Janet Mathieson (née Holt, 1951-1959)