While I’ve written before about the trouble that led to a change of school at age 14, I’ve not ever gone into detail about that time because it still evokes strong negative emotions more than 25 years later. But tonight I’m going to confront some of my demons and open those locked doors in my memories.
It was the fall of 1987 and I was 14, a young, naive, painfully shy lad attending Manchester Grammar School. Other boys in my class were self-confident and comparatively worldly: they were loud and seemed to be forever pushing the boundaries, testing the limits of what they could do. How much they could get away with. Even their attitude to teachers, to adults in general, was different: I was deferential and respectful, speaking only when spoken to. I looked up to them as absolute authority figures. The other boys behaved as if they were equals: they would challenge and answer back — and they seemed to do so almost with impunity. I couldn’t even dream of acting like that.
I didn’t fit in; I never had. There was too little I had in common with them. Kids pick up on this: I was frequently teased for being different, for being physically and socially awkward. I was bullied: they would exploit my obvious weaknesses to humiliate me. Even other misfits had more social skills and confidence than me, so I became the main target. I didn’t know how to deal with it; all I knew was that I was lonely, scared and confused.
You see, I believed I was where I was supposed to be. At prep school — up to age 11 — I had always been a top performer academically, so when it came round to sitting entrance exams for secondary education it was assumed that I would be headed to what was regarded as the top private school in the area. Eager to live up to the expectations of my parents and teachers I never even thought about what I wanted to do; instead I just wanted to please so I went along with their suggestions. Nobody, least of all me, ever expected that I would have any trouble…
Right from the start I had issues. The place was large and unfamiliar, and I didn’t know how I ought to act, what I ought to do. I relied on trying to mimic what others did because I was too afraid to ask questions that everybody else seemed to somehow know the answers to: should I write with a pen or pencil? Am I allowed to go there? It felt like a minefield where the slightest misstep would have disastrous consequences: I have a deep fear of breaking rules, of being censured for doing something wrong. And unwritten rules are the hardest: people all around seem to be playing this game by a set of rules that I am ignorant of and unable to work out.
So there I was, isolated, persecuted by my peers and totally lacking in self-confidence. All I had was my academic achievement and the praise of my teachers, and that was my motivation. So when I didn’t hear my English teacher one day when he set the homework for that night, and turned up unsuspecting to the following lesson with no homework completed it was a catastrophe. How could I have made such a mistake? I tried to explain. I was completely honest — I didn’t know any other way to be — and said that I had not heard him set any homework. His response was that I ought to have known there was always homework and it was my fault for not asking him about it after the lesson. Oh. A new rule: there’s always homework. Unfortunately too late for me: I was given a detention.
This involved a slip of paper detailing the offense to be taken home and signed by a parent. But how could I admit such a failure to my parents? I was undone by my perfectionism, by defining myself according to my achievements and the praise they merited. I was terrified of being seen to be less than perfect. Would they react angrily? Would they punish me? Would they reject me? Would I lose the safety of my place at home?
I didn’t tell my parents. I scribbled a signature on the form myself, figuring correctly that the teachers wouldn’t have any idea what my parents’ signatures looked like. I had to sit quietly at a desk for half an hour after school: it wasn’t bad. The room was quiet with very few people in it and I felt more comfortable than I usually would in class. I got a head start on my homework so it wasn’t wasted time, and when I got home I told my parents that I’d missed the bus.
But the real damage had been done: I felt an intense feeling of injustice but was not able to express this to anybody. I had been completely honest to the teacher and expected that a single simple mistake would be forgiven. Of course with hindsight the teacher would have had no way to tell what a crushing blow his punishment would be to me: it would have seemed a relatively light imposition. But to me at that time, who had never been punished at school because I had never broken any rule, it was unbelievably harsh. This kind of thing. Did. Not. Happen. To. Me. Ever.
And so began a rapid downward spiral in which my academic work slipped from excellent to failing and my discipline became, if anything, worse than that. Detentions became a regular occurrence as I developed a fear of anything to do with the school. Instead of catching the bus there in the morning, on a number of occasions I instead wandered the streets of Manchester city center until I grew so weary that I gave in and rode the bus in, making some excuse or other to explain my lateness. I tried to feign illness so that my parents would let me stay home: I made myself retch and vomit so I would appear to be sick. And when my father drove me to school I would fantasize about opening the car door and jumping out to escape.
Eventually one morning arrived when I refused to leave my bedroom. I couldn’t articulate my fear — I know now that I was overloaded — and just sat on my bed rocking. My father called for me to come out a few times to which I didn’t respond, becoming audibly angry as the time passed. He assumed that I was being willful – I wasn’t able to speak about my feelings, about my fear, to anybody. Not even my parents. Before many more minutes had passed he came into my bedroom, demanding that I go to school. He tried to grab me and I dodged, running in panic from him into the room across the hallway where I slammed the door shut, leaning against it and holding the handle to keep it closed.
He must have tried to open the door. I don’t remember very clearly because of the trauma of what happened next as he broke the door from its hinges: I was caught. I’m guessing I went into meltdown because there’s a blank in my memories of the event. Whatever happened, the next I knew he had left for work and my mother was trying to comfort me. What a wonderful woman: she calmed me down somehow and I felt comforted. From that point I took to locking myself away in my bedroom most of the day, at least when anybody apart from my mother was in the house. I would drive a screwdriver into the door frame so the door could not be opened and pull the curtains shut: in there nobody could get at me and I was safe.
This went on for weeks and then months; in the end my continued absence from school meant that the authorities became involved. I was seen by social workers and child psychologists but would not speak to any of them. Even the deputy headmaster from the school somehow, through my father, managed to persuade me to meet him outside the school in my father’s car. Unfortunately this was the same teacher who had unwittingly triggered my whole breakdown and he had no more success than the others in getting anything out of me.
What finally broke the deadlock was my father finding an opening for me at another school, the same one my younger brother had started at earlier that same academic year. I was taken for an interview with the headmaster and I guess I sensed a sympathy from him, a compatible atmosphere that had been lacking in my other encounters because finally I was able to talk. Not about the cause of the problem, my breakdown, which was assumed to be simply bullying, but about me and my interests. The place was confirmed and I would start at the beginning of that year’s final term. I never thought about that bad time for years afterwards: I couldn’t handle the associated pain.
Seven years later I was sat at the kitchen table with my mother; we had eaten dinner and were talking while my father had gone off to watch the news on TV. I finally told my mother about the bullying I had suffered back then, although I still couldn’t face talking about the ultimate factor in the case. I never did tell my mother the whole story: she died two years ago before I reached the point where I could face the complete memories of that time.
I know now that the biggest factor in my breakdown was an unhealthy perfectionism. I believed I was only valued for my achievements and that any failure would bring rejection: I was chronically insecure, lonely and unhappy — and that was with a loving family. I never could get the hang of talking about my feelings: I still find it next to impossible in speech. But these days I am able to write about them instead, which is a deeply therapeutic release. And, of course, being able to communicate when I feel distress allows me to seek help before it becomes a crisis. I only wish I had been able to tell my mother at the time how I felt, or even that there was a problem. It would have saved her so much worry and pain.