A Question of Right

by Nigel Gordon


To be honest if it had not been for Allen I doubt very much if I would have gone through with it. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that I did not believe in what I did, of course I believed in it, it is just that belief in something is not always enough. I doubt if it would have been enough in this case to push me to take the stand I did. Or once I had taken the stand to go through with it to the point I did.

Afterwards of course I found myself being feted as a hero. Somebody who was prepared to sacrifice all to stand up for their rights. National and international press covered me and my actions and I got mail from all over the world, even from the Secretary General of the United Nations and the Pope. It all sounded rather grand and important but it had never seemed that way. If anything it had all be a series of accidents which lead step by step to a conclusion that could not be avoided. It was rather like being on a roller coaster and suddenly realizing that there was no way to get off.

Except there had been a way to get off. At any point I could have backed down and agreed to take the reading, or just gone ill. There was always a standby to cover. More than one student at the college had had a series of convenient colds. Even on the day that option had been offered to me. Mr Whiskers had turned to me, just before we entered the assembly hall and asked if I was feeling alright, mentioning that I looked a bit off colour. He did not mention that it was only a few weeks to the end of term and the readings till then had all been allocated, so if I did go ill I would not be called again till next term. He did not need to mention it; he knew that I knew the situation perfectly.

I had thanked him for his concern and told him that I was OK. Then, with a level of assurance I did not have, opened the door into the assembly hall and made my way to the stage. As I walked down the aisle between the rows of seat I could hear a low murmur. They were not interested in why I was doing what I was about to do, all that they wanted to know was if I was going to do it or not. The thing was they did not realise that now there was no choice, Allen's attack on me the previous day had made it inevitable.

The course of events that had led up to the present situation had started eight months ago when the principal of Wednesbury College of Commerce had walked into the classroom, a prefabricated garage like shed hastily constructed at the side of the main building to accommodate overflow. We, a class mostly made up of Secondary Modern School boys who wanted to do better for ourselves than we had a right to, were assigned to the shed, along with its smoky pot stove in the corner, which was the only source of heat. Not that we needed the heat yet, that September 1963. It was not quite the first day of term, or the second for that matter, those were reserved for the students who mattered, the young East African Asians and colonial Arabs who paid massive fees to attend the College and get their qualifications in Accountancy or whatever subject they were after, but it was in the first week. He had sauntered into the room, filling it with his importance, and looked round, whilst addressing us on the importance of the Student's Guild, why the College had a Guild, unlike the Technical College up the road which had a Union.

I was seated in the front row, farthest from the door, against the wall, trying to concentrate through the mass of pain which was one of the early migraines that were to plague me for the rest of my life. The other boys in the class, we were still segregated on gender lines as we had been at school, started to ask questions about the Guild and queried its democratic status. Suddenly I became aware that the attention of the presence was directed at me. It enquired my name, then, after noting it down in his notebook, informed me that I was the representative for this class on the Student's Guild Committee and would be required to attended the first meeting at 4 p.m. the next Tuesday. Upon imparting this information the presence departed the classroom and we returned to our study of the impact of the 'Black Death' on the labour market in England.

The following Tuesday was my introduction to the Student's Guild Committee. The Committee comprised some 24 students, one from each of the full time courses that existed in the college. There were also a number of staff members present. I never did find out if they were technically on the Committee or not. Not that it ever mattered. Their presence made not difference to any voting, as there was no voting. The principal sat at the head of the table and made announcements, that we, the Committee members were expected to pass back to our respective course members. That was the purpose of the Student Guild.

Of course there were times when some student or other would raise an issue, but we were all quickly disabused of any idea that what we said or did was of any importance. If we raised some concern which met with the principal's opinion on how things should be, something would be done. If not, then nothing would be done. It served its purpose. The college prospectus stated that "students are represented in the college's decision making process via the Student's Guild". Represented yes, part of no.

It was shortly after my appointment to the Guild that Mr Whisker, the Economic History teacher came to the class to discuss the Bible readings. We had been informed at the start of term that attendance at the morning religious assembly was compulsory for all full-time students, except Jews and Catholics who had their own service. This was something I had found disturbing as my impression was that it was not a requirement under the Education Act of the time. That compulsory requirement only attaching to schools, not Colleges of Further Education. Also I was well aware that up the road at the Technical College there was no such requirement. I was also somewhat surprised given the fact that a high proportion of the college student population was from overseas and non-Christian. At that time the college was recognized as being one of the leading colleges of commerce in the Commonwealth, it had also been one of the first. Mr Whisker carefully explained that the principal was an Evangelical Christian (I think he said a Plymouth Brother) and insisted that not only did full-time students attend assembly but also that we each in turn took the morning reading from the Bible. This I found very disturbing and advised Mr Whisker that I was non-Christian and could not in all consciousness undertake such an act. A statement which produced some looks from my classmates. Most of them had known me at secondary school, I was the one who consistently came top in RE and could always quote the relevant passage from the Bible. They obviously were not aware of the advice that if you wanted to fight something you first had to know and understand it. Mr Whisker took some pains to advise me that the rule was absolute and there could be no exceptions.

A few days later during a free period I made my way into the library. Mr Whisker was seated at a table making notes from one of the Oxford History series. He saw me enter and indicated that I should go over and join him, which I did. The conversation was general, he stated that his mother had taught me at Secondary School, she had taken us for Drama but also for a few weeks for Religious Education, and had told him I was knowledgeable in this field. We discussed my religious beliefs and I told him that I had been looking a Buddhism but was being more and more drawn back into Paganism. He explained that the Principal was a very dedicated man who had built the college up into its current position but that he was also a very firm Christian and felt it was his duty to uphold the principles of the Christian faith. I pointed out that I felt the principal was misunderstanding the principles of the Christian faith and quoted Matthew 10, "Go not to the Gentiles nor to the Samaritans for my word is for the lost of Israel". Nothing was directly said but I got the impression that Mr Whisker felt some sympathy for the position I had expressed, this would be confirmed to me many years later in different circumstances when I found myself in dispute with another set of college authorities.

For the next five or six months nothing really happened. Although other full-time classes in the college where being called upon to take the readings, no one from my class was selected. I was to learn later that Mr Whisker, who had responsibility in organizing the readings, made a deliberate point to leave our class to last. Although at that time I had not said anything he had established the opinion, on what his mother had told him about me, that I would cause trouble over the issue. On that he was to prove correct.

With hindsight it is difficult to identify one thing that brought about the path which led to confrontation. I could claim it was Saud. A youth from a poor Palestinian family who had studied hard and got a scholarship to study accountancy at the college. His scholarship had come from a Muslim Charitable Foundation, actually part of what is now know as Hammas, and Saud was a devout Muslim. Why he came to me to raise the question of his having to take the reading I do not know, but I was on the Student's Guild and took his case to the Principal. The response I got was that Saud could either take the reading or leave the college. Saud left the college.

It was a few weeks after that when Mr Whisker advised me that I had been listed to take the reading. One by one boys from my class took their turn in taking the reading. I became increasing vocal in my opposition to imposition of a religious practice which I found offensive and believed to be offensive to the many non-Christians in the college. As I result when advised that I would be taking the reading the next week I advised him that I had no intention of doing so. This resulted in me being summoned to see the principal.

The presence sat behind his massive light oak desk. The desk and his seat were slightly raised, so that even with me standing, he still managed to look down on me. The discussion about my refusal to take the reading was short. It was a simple statement from the presence that I either took the reading or left the College, coupled with threat that he would make sure that I did not get into the Technical College to complete the course.

Returning from the meeting to the class I found a atmosphere of expectation in the room. Everybody wanted to know what had happened and what I intended to do. Many thought I should follow Saud's example and just move college. It was not as if the course I was doing was specific to the college. Others that I should just do the reading. As they said I did not believe in it so it was not important. There was also a number who thought I was right in my objections. None would come forward and say so openly. We were still not in the age of student revolt that would fill the newspapers in the later sixties, this was still a time when students were compliant and got down to doing what they were supposed to be doing. The hard times of the fifties where ones qualifications were essential to get a job were still fresh in our memories. They would though take the opportunity when no one else was around to say that they thought I was right, but to warn me that I was making myself a target.

As the week went on the tension got palpable in the class. I had discussed what I intended to do with a couple of friends in the class. They had told the others. Now the whole class knew that I intended to make this a showdown and a public one at that. The day before the reading I was summoned to Mr Whisker's room for a rehearsal. I was word perfect, having been given the reading a week before to learn. It is strange but I have found that as a non-Christian I often have a better knowledge of the Bible than most Christians and as a result had encountered no problems with the text. I once more advised Mr Whisker that I had no intention of taking the reading. He told be that he would make sure the principal knew. Many years later I was to learn that he spent quite a bit of time that afternoon arguing with the principal that I should be excused the reading.

Returning to the classroom after the rehearsal I found a strange tension in the room. I was to learn later that whilst I had been absent from the class the principal had visited the class and warned them that any misbehavior on my part would reflect badly on the whole of the class. Although it was not stated it was implied that if I did anything the whole class would be refused enrolment in the second year of the course. Actually this was on the cards anyway as the college was having funding difficulties and there were doubts if the course could be maintained at it current number of students.

Over lunch the tension became quite heavy with a number of my fellow students demanding to know what I intended to do. When I told them they became agitated and the atmosphere became rather nasty. Allen started to shout at me and things got heated. To this day I do not know how the fight started but suddenly I became aware of myself pressed back on a desk and Allen's arms tight round me, lifting pushing me back painfully. Then just as quickly as it had started it was broken up. The rest of the afternoon passed in a sense of sullen tension. I knew then that now there was no way out. It was not so much a question of what I believed in. It was a question of face. To give up now would mean that I would lose face, I would be shown as not having the guts to back my beliefs. For a fifteen-year-old that was an impossible situation.

The reader was required to take their place on stage five minutes before the start of assembly. Normally at this time the hall would be empty. Most students did not bother to get into the hall until just before the start of assembly. Between first and second bell. Today though was different. Even as the first bell rang and I opened the door I became aware that the hall was full. Somehow word had got round, there was an air of expectation.

I walked down the aisle, aware of the eyes upon me and the murmur of things said and unsaid. I was there, going down the aisle to the stage, I was going to take the reading, I was capitulating. In the back of my neck I could feel the glow of Allen's eyes as they relished the triumph of his force. In the pit of my stomach I could feel the pity of those who knew I had let them down, that I had given in.

Without looking out over the mass of seats I climbed the seven steps up to the stage and then made my way back to the chair upon which the reader sat during the first part of the service. Sitting down, I pushed the chair back. Back towards the fly drop, into the shadowed area of the stage, out of sight, out of mind. Eight hundred eyes looked at me, but did not see me. Why should they? I was just another student who had bent to the demands of the system. Somewhere I could hear a scurrying sound of a mouse or rat under the floorboards of the stage, down amongst the judo mats and badminton gear that was stored down there and really disturbed. How I wish I could have joined that mouse.

The second bell rang. The main centre pair of doors to the hall opened and in paraded the execution party. The presence had arrived in the hall, it processed forward towards the stage, like a racing yacht fetching for the line. In its wake trailed Mr Whisker and one of the English teachers who would play the piano very slightly off key. There was only a momentary glance at the stage to see if I was in place. Followed by a smile of victorious satisfaction.

Once upon the stage the presence completely ignored me. Why should he bother, he had won. I was there, in his domain, sitting submissively, almost cowering at the back of the stage. I must have looked like a scared rat to a man who was totally self confident in his power and authority.

Looking back now I cannot recall any details of the service, though there is an impression that he addressed the congregation of students and staff on the need to do what is right and needful. That though may be trick of my imagination. A justification that I have added to my own benefit for the acts that were to take place. Though there was something that he said that changed things.

Even when I had arrived on stage I had been uncertain. The only reason I was there was because of Allen. His jibes and taunts had driven me to a position where I had to turn up, but once I was on that stage doubt assailed me. My options once more opened up before me, like the empty pit that seemed to have developed in my stomach. Why not take the reading? It did not mean anything. Everybody else did and they had no greater belief in what was said than I had, if anything they probably had less. At least I had read the Bible, in some depth, and understood the meaning of what was written there, though I did not agree with the teaching behind it.

That though was it. They did not believe, I did. Not in the teachings of the Bible, but in another set of teachings. A set of teachings with a belief in duty and responsibility. The whole thing about compulsory morning assemblies and religion in a college of further education was wrong. It was hurting people and doing harm. There was no reason for it. The argument that it was necessary to have a daily meeting of the college for notices and information was spurious. That could have taken place in any event without a religious service. As it was the Roman Catholics and Jew did not take part in the service but joined at the end for the notices and information. The same could be done for all, with the service just being for those who wished to attend.

The hymn had been sung and the presence announced the reading from the bible. I stood and walked forward to the lectern. My eyes focused not on the book lying open at the defined page that lay upon it but at Allen. He was sitting halfway down the hall, smirking to himself, knowing that he had won. My left hand came up and swept the book close with a thud. Its heavy pages making a sound that reverberated around the room demanding silence for what was to come.

There was no need to shout or project my voice, though I have been told by those who were present that it sounded like the voice of a prophet. To me it seemed almost like a whisper.

"Under the European Charter of Human Rights I have freedom of religion. As such this is an imposition of religion and I refuse to take this reading." There was silence, a silence that lasted an eternity then was over in a fraction of a second. After which the presence boomed out.

"Get out. Get out of my college. Never ever return."

I never did return. My parents were summoned to the college and told that they had to withdraw me from the college with immediate effect. If they did not, I would be expelled. This it turned out later was not an option actually open to the principal. Only the governors could expel a student, and it would have been doubtful if they would. For some time there had been pressure from the governors to remove the morning assembly which the principal had ignored. However, that was not known to my parents or to me.

The immediate after effect was nothing. The college carried on till the end of term. I found a menial job in an office, making tea and running errands. Then sometime in August the world changed. A reporter turned up at the door one evening, just after we had finished tea and asked a couple of questions. He was from the local paper and the story ended up on the front page during a quiet week. The next week was anything but quiet. An MP started to ask questions, national papers ran the story as did radio and television, and then came the international press. Also then came the mail. Letters from all over the country, from all over the world. They all wrote in support. Some who wrote were unheard of, and would remain that way. Others were famous and yet others were unknown but would become known. It was one of those letters that meant the most to me. A card from South Africa, simple in its message was, no matter what the cost if you believe in something you must fight for it or cease to be yourself. That is what I had done.

When the college returned for the new academic year in September, I was of course absent from the roll of students. It would be ten years before I returned to education. I was not the only thing that was absent. So was the morning assembly. I had never fought for its ending, all I wanted was that it should be voluntary for those who believed in it. By trying to enforce it as he had and defend it as he did, the principal lost it totally. A message from Whitehall had arrived saying that its existence was incompatible with the ethos of further education.

I never went back to the college. Some ten years later I went to the Technical College, which had by that time consumed the old commercial college within its structure. Mr Whisker was still there, though now at the Technical College site. Once again he taught me. He also told me what had happened after I had walked out of that hall.

At that moment the presence had ceased to be. Even though the assemblies continued for the rest of the term, most students ignored them and no student took the reading. Staff who had once stood back against the wall as he passed them in the corridor, now blocked his passage and berated him over lack of facilities or failure of supplies. Within a couple of years he left the college, his plans and ambitions for it dead. Within five years the merging of the college as the junior partner with the technical college became an inevitability.

Do I regret what I did? In some ways yes. The fact that I lost my chance to get to University and to study to be a Doctor, that has always hurt. The fact that my actions caused the failure of what had been one of the best colleges in England is something I also regret, though I suspect that if it had not been my action then something else would have happened. From other sources I was to learn in later years that there had been a lot of disquiet about the authoritarian, dictatorial attitude of the principle and plans were already being laid for his removal. The most important thing though is that I continued to be myself. I had believed in the right of something and stood up for it, no matter what it cost.

There are some who have said I was the first of the student protesters. That is not the case. Though I was amongst the first, in that summer after Kennedy was killed. That, maybe was the key. Our bright light and hope, our Arthur in his Camelot had been destroyed. If we wanted to change things we had to do it ourselves. Maybe that is why I did what I did, but I like to think that I did it because I believe in what that South African wrote upon the card she sent me.

And Allen, well I never woke up in bed again to find him at my side. That was the true cost of standing up for my right, was it worth it? Yes, but there are times when I wish he was next to me.

Copyright © 2015 Nigel Gordon