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.
Have you ever been stuck in a place you never felt you belonged in? That happened to me when I went to grammar school (equivalent of high school). It was 1985. I was 11, coming up 12 when, having left Clevelands Preparatory School, I started at Manchester Grammar School in September.
Seven boys from my school had passed the entrance exam and won places at MGS. We were all in different forms – I suspect with hindsight that this might have been deliberate to encourage the development of new friendships. What it meant in practice was that I was suddenly in the midst of a group of strangers.
I never mixed. I used to spend my break times walking the corridors, feeling isolated. Early on I would pop into the form rooms of my schoolmates from my previous school, but they had quickly formed new friendships and I was not a part of that.
I gravitated towards other social undesirables: nerds and geeks of one form or another. Natural prey for the bullies. I was always big enough that I never experienced physical intimidation – it was the more insidious psychological form. I never knew how to respond to it. I would just sit or stand there and take it, while inside I was hurting.
An example of the callous behaviour of some of my classmates: the partner of our English teacher was stabbed to death and they harassed her with comments about the incident to the point where she broke down in tears and had to exit the room. If that was how they could treat a teacher imagine how much worse it was for me and the other pupils on the receiving end.
I had always looked up to and respected my teachers: I was always taught to respect my elders. I felt that they must be infallible. So it came as a massive shock to me when one of my teachers made what I considered to be an error of judgement. I and several of my classmates did not hear him assign homework one time. I still feel a deep sense of injustice that we were all given detention rather that him realising that it was his failure to communicate effectively.
That was the tipping point for me. I had always felt that despite the bullying from certain pupils, I could rely on my teachers for support. Turned out I couldn’t. At least that was how I felt, and that was what mattered.
When I think of that school I can remember numerous individual incidents. I can’t picture any faces, but that’s normal for me. I can remember the buildings in considerable detail. But all my memories of the place feel cold and hard-edged. I don’t believe I was ever happy there. I even recall the different smells of the different corridors: sawdust and sweat near the woodwork rooms and gym, old cooking smells near the dinner hall, paper and pipe tobacco outside the teachers’ common room and the only happy memory: the smell of new books in the bookshop.
All my other memories of that school evoke feelings ranging from discomfort to outright fear. I still find it very difficult to think of those two and a half years. I had to shut them out completely for several years before I was even able to tell my mother that I had been bullied. This is my most complete account to date.
A short way into my third year at that school I was finding it very difficult to even face the place and the people in it. I considered opening the car door – my father drove me to school – and jumping out. But I couldn’t do it because I was afraid of hurting myself.
In the end I was so anxious about going to school that I wedged my bedroom door shut with a screwdriver driven into the door frame: locked myself in so that I couldn’t be made to attend. At first my father was very angry – I can remember being very afraid of the anger and shutting down. But after a few days life settled down into the new routine whereby I would stay in my room night and day and everything else carried on around me.
Things couldn’t go on like that for long. Obviously my parents were worried about what was going on and before long I was persuaded to try to go to school. I remember sitting on my father’s car with the deputy headmaster talking but being unable to respond or get out of the car: an early shutdown. In the end my father gave up and brought me back home.
Before long a child psychologist was involved. I remember visiting her office. I don’t recall much detail but I do remember her asking what seemed to me, even at that age, a stupid question about whether a glass was half full or half empty. Obviously it is both at the same time, and there’s no reason to prefer one description to the other. There were other questions about whether I had suicidal thoughts – I didn’t – and that was about that. I got the feeling that I was beyond her limited knowledge and experience. As I’ve mentioned before, Aspergers wasn’t recognised back then.
The only thing that finally broke me out of me self-imposed isolation was a change of school. After that things went very well and I prospered. It goes to show the need I have for a supportive environment.
My school days seem a long time ago now – I’ve lived half my life since then. There are some things I can remember clearly – fragments of brilliant clarity among the discarded remnants of temps perdu. Much of the time I spent there is lost now – faded with age beyond my powers of recall – and still more is ensconced behind locked doors in my mind.
Playschool (kindergarten, or pre-school), furthest removed from the present, divulges but few memories – a vivid recollection of an instance of my social phobia where I had an accident because I was too afraid to ask to go to the bathroom and a vague but familiar feeling of being apart from everybody else, of being on the edge, standing and looking on but not being a part of things. There are no faces in any memories of those times – I can remember the building (a Nissen hut) – its layout and furniture – in detail but despite there being teachers and other children in my mental pictures, none of them have any identifying characteristics – they are just impressionistic shadows of people.
Prep school (primary school) brings forth a stream of memories – almost always finishing first or second in the class, right through all seven years at this school. Not understanding when the class was asked who was Catholic and who was Church of England. (Although both my parents were C of E they always left my brother and me to make our own minds up about faith and religion.) Never achieving a single gymnastics badge in PE lessons – unlike the entire rest of the class – because I could never manage a forward roll. (My physical coordination is a little impaired and I have minor balance problems – I also still can’t abide the feeling of being upside-down.) Sitting inside reading on my own when the others were playing outside during break times. Feeling hurt when told that I had bad breath – I couldn’t use toothpaste as a child because the mint taste was too intense to handle. A ritual before exams – touching certain parts of my face and touching fingertips together. A special interest in astronomy and the planets of the Solar System – I remember being called up in assembly once – I was about 7 at the time – to recite the names of the planets in order of distance from the sun, and I remember feeling surprised that anybody would find knowing this to be in any way remarkable. Sitting on the floor regularly in assembly and on other occasions – was I the only one who found this painfully uncomfortable? Hating the feeling of how my sweater constricted and rumpled the shirt beneath it – it was part of the school uniform and I didn’t have any choice about wearing it.
I’m sitting here surprised at how most of these sound negative when I don’t remember being particularly unhappy at that school. I think they were more than made up for by my enjoyment of the academic side of things. I’ve still got all my end-of-term school reports and they all follow the same pattern – first in the class more often than not, poor at PE and games, poor handwriting, highly intelligent, very quiet – doesn’t get involved. I guess signs were there if anybody that knew me had been aware of ASD back then (late ’70’s and early ’80’s).
I’m going to leave writing about my memories of grammar (secondary) school for another time – there’s a lot of baggage there that I don’t feel like going into yet (see my earlier post about my childhood experiences). One thing I will say is that the atmosphere changes as I move from prep to grammar school – clouds are gathering; a storm is imminent. I get a sense of foreboding from just thinking about disturbing some of those old memories – there is a certain trepidation in case I awaken something terrible. I have a gap of about a year and a half both in my recollection of those years and in my archive of school reports. One day I may choose to unlock certain doors and confront my demons, but today is not that day.
Certain people left an indelible mark on me as I was growing up. I’d just like to give them a little recognition. I’m not going to name them though: I don’t believe that would be right without their permission.
One who particularly stands out is my English teacher from when I was studying for GCSEs in English Literature and English Language. She was head of department as well as teaching 4X and then 5X, my forms over the two years in question. I found her to always be very supportive – quick to give praise when deserved and very patient.
I always looked forward to her lessons and got great enjoyment from the subject. It was her that first gave me my love of language for its own sake and kindled my special interest in words. I honed my writing style over those two years under her guidance and grew to gain a great deal of enjoyment from the writing process which I have carried through to this day.
So I would like to say thank you to my former English teacher. I don’t believe I would experience half the joy I get from language without your influence. You are an inspiration to me.
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.