Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Jenny goes to school

    Recently I have been sent away somewhere. Back to school. Over twenty years ago now, silly, isn't it. I didn't really want to go but I was sent there by a few recent blog comments. If any experience in my life has marked me for decades it's attending that school, seeing as how I credit it with pushing me firmly into the closet and setting me up for my first decade in adult life as a clinical depressive. Even now as I'm in a far better condition thinking about my time there can send me perilously close to a panic attack.
    Funny how a supposedly "normal" experience can do that to you. I mean, the other kids, my classmates, they don't have panic attacks about the place. Most of them probably never even think about it now, lucky sods.
    I attended what we here in the UK call a "Public school", a confusing description for what is really a private boys school (our public schooling system is normally referred to as "State school"). I was there because I managed to pass an extra exam and earned an assisted place, part of an initiative from the Government in the 1980s to broaden the social base of such schools and encourage social mobility, as they saw it. Maggie (Thatcher, for those on Mars in the '80s) paid my school fees, my classmates were all the rich kids, and I was the outsider. It's debatable whether Maggie's scheme was money well spent overall, I guess there must have been kids who really were pulled out of the mire by it somewhere and I know I have a better education than I would have otherwise because of it, but I feel it taught me the hard way that there is a hell of a lot more to growing up than a so-called "good" education.
     My mother is a teacher. To her, success comes through academic achievement alone, and she wanted her children to have the best opportunities available. I don't blame her for that, it stood her in very good stead for her career and she similarly wanted the best for us. So she put a lot of effort and personal sacrifice into ensuring that all of her children achieved funded places at the local private schools that had the highest achievements. To this day I am approached by acquaintances who have found out where I went to school, anxious to assuage their middle-class guilt about considering sending little Tarquin or whoever to the same place, and I am afraid they are often shocked by the toned-down-for-polite-company version of my views on the subject.
    I'm acutely aware that it would be too easy to couch any description of someone's schooldays as an appallingly vomitory piece of mis-lit. After all, teenage years are difficult for everybody, not just closeted t-girls, and I'm sure you won't find many teenagers with a complete absence of  scars. So I'll resist the urge to wallow, and limit myself to observation as far as I can.
    People who didn't go to a school like mine often have certain preconceived ideas about such institutions and their pupils. Often based upon lurid tales of corporal punishment and homosexual shenanigans handed down from the sensational fiction of a different century, they have a basis in truth if you've read accounts from the 1950s such as the autobiography of the UK broadcaster John Peel, but by the 1980s such practices were long gone. What hadn't gone was the atmosphere of institutionalised bullying upon which the past excesses must have thrived. It's fair to say some of the teachers would not have found  employment in the state sector at the time and would be the target of frequent legal actions were they still teaching today. Add to that about five hundred barely controlled teenage boys for whom Daddy's chequebook meant they lived consequence-free, and an ethos that placed academic achievement far above any form of personal or emotional development and you had just about the worst environment in which to place any youngster, let alone one with gender issues.
    I was picked on when I was at school. I was different, I didn't come from the same background as them. My parents picked me up in a tatty old Allegro or a Peugeot pickup truck rather than an Audi or a BMW, I was worse than crap at sport and had no interest in their games anyway and I just didn't fit in with them. How can you fit in with nasty kids when all you want to do is dress up like your sister? Back then if asked in confidence I'd have told you I was a transvestite, with such little information available I even wondered as a teenager whether I might be gay, something I pretty soon realised I wasn't when I encountered gay people at university a few years later. In an atmosphere of constant homophobia at school the one thing I find amazing is that I can't remember ever being accused of that particular transgression.
    To deal with it all I became an aggressive little sod. Not so little as it happens, I was bigger than all the other kids so if something got physical it was unlikely the perpetrator would make the same mistake a second time. I learned the bloke act too well, so much so that it took me twenty years to lose it. I learned that kids who live consequence free will lie and cheat their way out of any situation and I also learned never to trust people in authority unless they've earned it because they will invariably take the easiest-looking option, and if someone said the big kid done it then that was always good enough for them. Most of all I learned to lock the girl away in case she ever peeked out enough to be discovered, and for that alone if not for all the rest I hate that school.
     It would be unfair to portray only the negative side of the experience though. Aside from the ineffectual intellectual ditherers and sadistic scum among our teachers there were one or two inspiring people who really did try to make a difference. In particular I feel lucky to have been one of the last generations to have been educated by people who fought in the Second World War. Having lived through that they stood apart from their colleagues in having entered the profession to make the world a better place rather than to just provide a career. If I hadn't been taught about Shakespeare and Chaucer by someone who genuinely cared about his pupils rather than just the results they would achieve, I suspect I would have left school a lot more screwed up than I did.
    So I had a "good" education, British style. My parents genuinely thought they were doing their best for me and Maggie probably got value for her money because I passed my exams. Would I have had a better time of it had I gone to the same school as all my primary school class? Difficult to say, though I suspect I would have. My exam results would probably have been different, but I think the value of attending a co-educational school alongside people whose ways I'd spent the previous six years learning would have outweighed that.
    When you are a child, you believe every path you are guided along by your parents or teachers must be the right one. It is only later that you can sit down and analyse where things went wrong. It's easy to say here "No child of mine will go through that...", but the fact is my children, should I have any, will also face the consequences of their parents' unwise choices for them. I had better ensure that none of my choices have such a lasting effect.


  1. I think you might have had to endure similar experiences had you attended a State School Jenny.
    ' How can you fit in with nasty kids when all you want to do is dress up like your sister?' Yes, how true was that for me? I attended a State School and suffered the same things you describe. It is difficult growing up in any hostile environment which is only hostile because as individuals we may not exactly fit into the mould. Children can be really viscious when it comes to bullying and singling out those they dislike. It makes it doubly hard for the transsexual/transgendered who wouldn't dare expose themselves for fear of even worse treatment.
    When you wrote: ' the one thing I find amazing is that I can't remember ever being accused of that particular transgression.' Does that infer an attitude of it being sinful?
    It's a hard life but only made so by the insensitivity of others.
    Shirley Anne xxx

  2. There can be no doubt that no school is perfect, but don't think that a state school will not have all those things you describe.

    It is no fun having to endure the sneering of teachers who have all had a better education than they are capable of giving. Abuse following lack of achievement in rugby at a public school is just replaced with the same for a lack of achievement at soccer.

    Having to struggle with chemistry at school while self educating in the evening on electronics and computing while friends at public school are doing GCSE electronics and computer science during the day. Being the fifth highest achiever in the school, yet only gaining three 'A' levels - not enough to go to university. State school is not an education - it is just a prison for people unfortunate not to be old enough to work.

    Perhaps I am looking at the past when a state school meant virtually no chance of university. It could happen again when the only way to afford a university education is to get a scholarship.

    I am sure that school would have been hell wherever I or you went to school - but I think that coming out of school and going to university with a bit of self confidence would have made my life a lot easier.

    Suzie x

  3. I was so happy to have gained an assisted place in a Public School prison rather than the State Prison system system which I had heard so many horror stories from and doubt I would have survived.

    Being the poorer pupil was no fun though I got picked up occasionally in a Lagonda limousine in fabulous style much to their consternation. All my teachers were Oxford or Cambridge graduates but it did not mean that they were particularly good teachers! There was bullying thuggery there but their first attempt provoked such a memorable retaliation with no care for my own safety that nobody dared touch me for the next six years. as you know, a little extra height helps too.

    I knew I could never be part of their world and never tried, the sixties was still a depressed time and I could see no future in this world for someone like me. In many ways it is still not that much different.

  4. Jenny,

    While I am from the USA, I can relate too much of what you wrote here. In the 70’s with public schools over crowded in California, my parents sent me to an all male Jesuit High School. Much of what you wrote about applies.
    There is no question that I received a superior education, not only in what I learned but actually learned how to learn. I can trace this decision by my parents to directly preparing me to be successful in college and later in graduate school. And like you, there was a high cost to pay.
    In those teen years when a young person is discovering who they are and developing beliefs, I cannot think of anything more damaging than being sexually segregated in a totally male environment. The stories that you and others above describe could easily apply to my high school years. Being around very wealthy boys that had no cash limitations, high hormone drives and often little attention at home makes for a dangerous environment.
    Being different is the last thing one wants to be, especially if they know they are (i.e. wishing to be in an all girls school). As a result, one learns how to conform, or as Jenny put it, be a bloke. It took years to undo the damage this environment caused to my social development and my sense of self. It ranged from the fairly easy aspects of how I treated other people (male and female) to coming to terms with my TG (still an ongoing process).
    Now while this experience did not cause my problems of self, it clearly made them worse. I saw similar things happen to the few friends I made during that time and swore I would never subject my children to single sex schools. I may be the only member of my high school class who has never attended a reunion. There is no need, I think about those times all too often and have no desire to relive the past.

  5. I can relate to a lot of what you wrote here (and admit to some curiosity as to which public school it was!) I didn't seek an assisted place, but instead my rich great aunt left my mother a sum of money which could only be used for private education fees, so that's what I got.

    I too felt like the outsider, among the rich kids with their ponies and palatial estates, while we struggled at home without the money to buy a TV license, or a car. Although the girls-only convent school I went to up until O-levels was perhaps slightly better than your experience, I still have bullying horror stories involving both the other girls, and the teachers. A few can be found on my blog.

    And then, for my last two years, I was sent to a more traditional boys public school that was experimenting with girls in the sixth form. I was interested to see that you say "by the 1980s such practices were long gone". Although the girls escaped the worst abuses, I know that in the late 1970s there were still horrific practices going on there. One of my contemporaries recently wrote on the school's Facebook page:

    I loved that school - plenty of free time, fagging system was still in operation, girls were brought in in the 4th year to entertain us lonely boys tired of playing soggy biscuit, and the staff had some really imaginative nicknames - not that I give them credit for that of course. Great setting, no academic rigour, and... batted above our average in sport during my time there - perfect, what more could a boy want? Come to think of it, was the last time I could make anyone else pay for my chinese take aways - had some good juniors! Can't believe mild bullying and intimidation is being driven out of society, it's character building.......apparently. And they've now removed the House rec rooms - where are you expected to perform organised mock-WWF wrestling for the delight of your seniors eh?

    I was sickened, but not surprised to read this.

    My mother, like your parents, genuinely thought she was doing her best for me. I know she was taken aback when I ended up at uni with a guy who had gone to the local comp (that she had "saved" me from) and he got higher honors than I did.

    Oh, and that public school? I just got back in touch with someone from my year who transitioned a little while ago, and I'm sure wasn't the only one. Interesting, hm?

  6. Like Liz I once went to get in touch with someone, the only one, from my school life only to find a girls profile come up in an all boys school from the year before me.

    Schools are the breeding grounds for the ills of the world. While thuggery is praised rather than punished and collaboration denigrated hell will continue to exist on earth.

    Caroline xxx

  7. I have no idea whether I went to school with any other trans people, like Lisa I have avoided any contact.

    Lisa and Liz have it right. You've both said it all really, and better than I did.

    Suzie, my school didn't teach anything as useful as electronics either, it would have got in the way of their aspirations to get kids to Oxford. I taught myself too :)

    Shirley Anne, I meant transgression as my peers would have seen it. Statistically some of them must have been gay, I'd be really curious to know which ones they turned out to be.

  8. ...and Caroline, your last comment really says it all too. They really did teach that thuggery was to be praised.