Scotland in the 1970s wasn’t exactly the height of racial integration, and this was certainly mirrored at my school. In those days it laboured under the moniker of ‘The Dundee Demonstration School’, although I was never clear what it was supposed to be demonstrating.
For many years I have gone through life thinking that our class size was relatively small, but having just stopped to calculate it I reckon there were somewhere between 30 and 35 of us, which makes it average for the time. Of those, precisely three were not from Scottish backgrounds, and one of those was a French relative of Sonja Harris’ who was on an extended stay with her for some reason or another. I was one of the other two, being English, and the other was an Indian girl named Anuja Dhir.
The class itself had a strange kind of teacher-led segregation about it. We were split into four tables according to academic ability. Coming into the class, everyone had to sit at Table Four, which was for those of lesser ability. At some point, probably a few weeks on, you would then be assigned to your permanent Table by our teacher, Mrs Pettigrew.
For some reason I was perceived as being slightly brighter than the lowest common denominator and so was ‘promoted’ to Table One, at the opposite end of the scale. I think this was because there were eight spaces on the table, only seven were filled, and only two of those were boys. In effect, I was sent to save Ian Cameron and Richard Bowman from the domineering female presences of Gail Souter, Fiona Dallas and co.
There were three people I remember as always being stuck on Table Four. They were Murray Black (not only the smallest boy in the class, but the only one who had to leave before the school day was over in order to get home, something which baffles me to this day), Jan Burnett (a boy, you may be surprised to know) and Anuja.
Looking back, it was always somewhat incongruous that Anuja would be sat at that table, because I went to her birthday parties – often one of only two boys invited – and her parents were, as I recall it, both doctors. Sadly, but all too typically of the time, it seems that the school had assumed that because Anuja’s background was different, that she was less able than the rest of us, forever doomed to be seated with the early leavers and those of biologically indeterminate first names.
How wrong they were. I didn’t hear anything from or about Anuja for a great number of years, until one morning when I was driving to work and heard her speaking on the radio. She had become a barrister and was working in London. Finding out which chambers she was a member of was easy and I quickly established that it was indeed the same girl I had been at school with so long before.
That alone would have been proof enough that the only thing that the Dundee Demonstration School had demonstrated was a willingness to be bound by stereotypes and not to judge pupils upon their true merits. But last week I found out something else. In March 2010 Anjua was appointed as a QC, a Queen’s Counsel, one of the elite rank of barristers whose true designation is ‘One of Her Majesty’s Counsel, Learned in the Law’. Which is a far cry from not being thought to be brighter than me.
It took a good many years, but finally someone promoted Anuja to Table One, and I couldn’t be more pleased for her, or proud to say that I once knew her.