When I was growing up I was always identified as a shy but intelligent loner. I was never one to initiate interaction with others. I was happiest playing on my own with my Lego: I didn’t have any need for company. I did very well academically at primary school and passed the entrance exam to get into Manchester Grammar.
I can remember one of my first lessons there. I realised that I didn’t know the correct way to present my work in this new environment. I couldn’t ask anybody because I was afraid. I spent a little while just deciding whether to write in pencil as I had done at primary school or to use ink. I was so nervous about making the wrong choice that years later the memory of that anxiety is still vivid.
I suffered from a degree of bullying as a result of being socially awkward and physically somewhat out of shape: this took the form of intimidation, name-calling and teasing rather than anything physical. I guess that was just my good luck to be much bigger than the average kid my own age. I never had much of a circle of friends: mostly spent time walking round the corridors on my own at break time. I did enjoy the lessons however with a couple of notable exceptions. I never enjoyed Religious Studies and never got good marks because I approached it all from the position that religion is a tool used by those in positions of power to keep the “peasants” in line by stifling critical thought. I also loathed PE. I have never felt comfortable undressing or getting changed in front of others and that combined with my poor fitness made it all hard work.
It was around the age of 14 that things took a serious turn for the worse. I don’t know what all the factors were but one of the major ones was when I received a detention (my first ever) for not doing a homework assignment in English. Up to this point I had assumed that my teachers were supportive. I explained that I hadn’t heard any assignment being set and was told that that was no excuse and I should have asked somebody. I couldn’t explain that I wasn’t able to ask anybody because that would mean making the first move in a conversation. (In fact I never analysed it to that degree at that stage.) I felt that the situation was very unjust: I had been penalised for something that I had no knowledge of. From that point I began to lose interest in school, my grades suffered and my behaviour deteriorated to the point that I was receiving regular detentions.
Before long I began to dread going to school. I thought about opening the car door and jumping out but was worried about injuring myself. My dad did not react well to all this and would frequently shout which would make me very withdrawn. In the end I took to barricading myself in my bedroom and generally only coming out at night. This continued for a number of months and in the end social services became involved and I was dragged out to see a “child psychologist”. That was all “half full/half empty” bullsh*t and I felt she was simple-minded and patronising.
What broke the cycle in the end was moving to a different school: William Hulme’s Grammar where my younger brother was already enrolled. I entered the 3rd form close to the end of the academic year, being put into one of the lower sets on account of having missed so much schooling that year. The difference was remarkable. The teachers at that school were genuinely supportive and helped me to get established, identifying areas where I needed to catch up and others where I was actually ahead. When it came to the end of year exams I performed very well and was put into the top form for the 4th & 5th years (O-Level/GCSE – it was around the time of the transition from the former to the latter).
That was the end of my troubles at school: I aced my GCSEs and had teachers asking me to take their subjects at A-Level. I opted for the scientific subjects: physics, chemistry, maths and further maths without really having any idea where I was wanting to end up. When it came time to apply to university I opted for Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge because my chemistry teacher had gone there. I didn’t put any thought into alternatives and only put any on my UCCA application because I was told to do so. In due course I got good A-Level results and a place at Cambridge reading Natural Sciences. I’ll talk about my university experience next time.