“Love your scarf … that colour really suits you.”
My gaze falls downwards. Sparks fly from the smouldering images my friend has inadvertently stoked. I’m back in an eleven-year-old head again.
Oh dear Lord. Looks like my private anticipation of Hades over the past few months has been warranted.
Even the school exterior resembles a factory – the flaky, neglected gates, the imposing chimney and mud-brown tower blocks, a vast ‘play’ground void of vegetation/imagination. Swarms of kids, all shapes and sizes … only none of them seem to see me. I have no face here.
There are lofty boys with ruddy, pitted skin and resonant voices. There are prissy, delicate girls who might have been Shih Tzus in the canine world. Matronly pre-women who might well knock you over with their ample bosom. Girls who have clearly ‘been there’ (and back). Most seem more robust than me.
There are new odours that I find offensive (but will soon grow accustomed to): the assembly hall’s distinctly cheesy tones blend with the corridors’ own unique blend of industrial cleaning agents, sweat, hormones, and dread.
The predominantly black uniform seems apt, as I am already mourning my honeydew era at primary school where I’d excelled in all subjects – including PE and Social Status.
Hundreds of us gather in the hall to be systematised – classes are formed according to our surnames’ initial letter. My form’s names are called after an hour – the last class of eleven. This stamps its subconscious mark on the group self-image as we exit the hall with our new form tutor and enter the academic threshing floor for tests that will last all day.
The pressure starts with my placement in top Maths and a ‘Reference Group’ – the gifted elite guaranteed to breed (misguided) resentment in its excludees. Its focus is on History with a weekly lunchtime lecture, Latin lessons after school, and the odd trip to Wales or Greece to roam ancient ruins – too bad we broncos were more into ruining ourselves and looking ahead, rather than back. My enduring memory of Athens was the subgroup who got hammered – first by booze, then by teachers – on our last night there.
A combination of factors and events secured my place on the ‘Comprehensive’ fringes. I wasn’t a thoroughbred Essex girl, which meant that my accent did not go unnoticed. It was by no means BBC enunciation, but the fact that I voiced the letters h and t and sometimes even dared to use multisyllabic words meant that my head was invariably poised above the parapet. I soon learned to file my words and dumb down my vocabulary and humour. This evidently disappointed the teachers who expected better of me.
In my first term, an eye test confirmed that I needed glasses. I was careful to avoid the NHS pink or blue monstrosities of the epoch, and chose a Lennon-esque pair instead, but any kind of face furniture (with the exception of sunglasses) was a definite no-no.
Shortly after, I was fitted with two-year fixed braces; my smile became evermore self-conscious/non-existent.
By age twelve, I was forced into an LTR with chronic acne, which eventually left only a fraction of my face free of tiny red bumps and a reflective sheen. The common foundation approach to pimple management wasn’t an option for me, however, due to their numbers (‘dot-to-dot’ was a popular descriptive term). Besides, a powdery-orange potholed look was superfluous – wasn’t I already a Martian?
During the first term, every girl’s hair in my form class was (voluntarily) shorn in accordance with 80s trends, and one night I found myself hacking off my own bob to avoid looking obsolete. The ‘tough’ new look they had adopted just didn’t happen for me (on reflection, I became more like Julie Andrews than ever) and I missed hiding behind my hair. I never questioned The Regime, however.
As unluck would have it, I was a late developer, too. My ‘chicken breasts’ were humbled by the emergent mini pumpkins all around. Showers after PE became more of a torture chamber; I would run the full length of them just to convince my teacher that I had actually washed.
I grew vertically – taller than most of my female tormentors and even some of the male ones, but this wasn’t carried with pride. I kept my head down to minimise unwanted attention, reluctant to face the accusatory hall of mirrors that my peers represented. This earned me the alternative nickname of ‘Princess Diana’.
‘Boffin’ – that label stung me. All the former kudos that accompanied intelligence at primary school was now a loaded gun. What was the use of the teacher praising me if this evoked the hatred and derision of my peers?
I learned fast, and kept my hand down. I no longer sat near the front of class, especially as my nape was a target for sherbet pips and other random objects. (My coat hood was also a convenient receptacle for items such as apple cores – only discovered long after I’d paraded them around the corridors all day).
In a less sadistic school, I may well have celebrated my slender height, talents, sensitivity – here they were merely glaring targets that worked against me. It was as though I had a ‘fair game’ sign attached somewhere to my being. I recall a girl I’d never met before shoving me forwards as we traipsed out of the assembly hall. I was angry enough to turn and confront her, if only quietly.
“Don’t push me.”
“Can if I want.”
I never did work out a decent response to that one.
Y11’s unwritten classroom manifesto:
- a) We will inhibit/block learning and progress wherever possible.
- b) We will induce the teacher to lose control of him/herself, and thus the class, in the minimum amount of time, and derive entertainment from this pursuit.
- c) We will oppose/oppress boffinism in all its forms.
There was competition within the pack to achieve these primary aims– the performance pressure was palpable in every lesson.
“So, we can see from this experiment that nitrogen is a relatively non-reactive gas, unlike–”
(Wearily.) “Yes, Shane?”
“My friend thinks you look like Kenny Everett.”
“Okay you guys, if you wanna talk, just get outside and talk.” (Overly liberal American teacher witnesses mass exodus from classroom.)
“Sir, Mark just put my pen in the Bunsen burner, I can’t use it no more.”
“Y11, you don’t seem to comprehend just how much I am sick to the back teeth of you. Any more of your moaning, groaning, and whining and you’ll be on report for another week.”
“Mooooan! Grooooan! Whiiine!”
Some teachers would try to appeal to Y11’s better nature – much like entering an enclosure of ravenous bears armed with a tickle stick.
“Y11, I want to make it clear that I appreciate you all as individuals, but as a class, I’m afraid you really are – okay, who threw that?”
When I sensed a teacher reaching 100°C and preparing something desperately punitive, I seemed to stop breathing.
“Y11, you’ve had your warnings. You will all be standing in detention for an hour again today.” (Furious whispers directed at principle troublemakers.) “And every afternoon this week.” (Louder expletives.)
Before long, Y11’s reputation travelled well ahead of us – we had become every teacher’s true horror scenario. Despite their awareness that firefighting skills would serve more purpose than the best of their pedagogic training, few came prepared for their ordeal. Some lost their dignity in aggression or trying to adopt the same language as their teenage nemeses. This led to further hilarity and invaluable points gained on the power scale.
“Y11, your exam results were crap!” (Hapless teacher unwittingly leaning on an open desk on which the ubiquitous phallus emblem had been etched.)
(Hungarian supply teacher clearly in shock.) “Oh, you are … you are as silly as … 100 silly camels!”
(Teacher on the edge.) “Penny, get your feet off the desk and put those crisps away, you know you’re not allow–”
“Oh, fuck off, Miss.”
(Tearfully.) “No, I will not fuck off! You will not talk to me like that, young lady!”
(Puppet headmaster brought out of his office cloister to deal with hysterical teacher and indifferent pupil.)
After a year, my only friend abandoned the unwinnable battle to remain alongside me and chose to affiliate herself with the ‘in crowd’. I could sense her guilt and embarrassment as she sat with her new companion who flaunted looks, wealth, and popularity (if not intellect/grace).
“We don’t like Ellen, do we? She smells.”
“You don’t want to sit with that booooring old boffin anymore.”
I preferred the boys’ taunts. They at least had some humour I could appreciate.
“Is your face hurting you?”
“Well it’s killing me!”
A boyfriend was the ultimate status symbol for a Y11 girl. At primary school, I’d had a selection of male admirers at any one time; even the headmaster had made a fuss of me. Nowadays, the male eyes around me drew attention to what I was lacking, rather than to my assets. Even if a boy secretly enjoyed my company, he could never associate with me for fear of catching my alienation.
I tuned my radar to select teachers instead; my day was truly blessed if I caught a mere glimpse of one of them. Such an event would merit an entry in my coded, minimalist diary, which, needless to say, didn’t merit a padlock.
(12.4.84) Saw HIM on the stairwell today. Can’t look at him without going red. Got top marks in Chemistry test. N said “Hello Helen” today.
I was horribly demotivated, but not exactly taken aback, when all three of my favourite teachers left the school for greener, saner pastures. The best ones always did.
The lads who dared to push the boundaries beyond all reason achieved some kind of hero status following a caning from Mr Blackthorn (one of three deputy heads at the school employed to compensate for the wholly impotent, upper middle-class headmaster). Only the exceptionally foolhardy risked a second helping though.
A strong gravitational pull drew the male and female rebels together. Theirs was a heavy, quasi-adult life steeped in mystery and danger. It took me a while to learn what the huge red badges of honour on their necks signified, or what drew them to the local corner shop (where I only ever bought ice pops and chocolate). I was still content with my naive pleasures: TOTP, Angel Delight, baking, innocent teen mags, story writing. I hankered after the little clique of friends I’d had aged ten – fairly Blyton-esque in our habits/speech, but blissfully unaware of ourselves and our bodies (unmarred by BO, spots and scary hair). We’d discovered our inner heroines in French skipping, gymnastics, horse-riding, our pet rodents …
Yet I was curious about my current peers’ dark secrets, apparently light-years from my own. It was unlikely that I could ever prolong a conversation with them beyond a couple of minutes, yet here we were sharing eternity together.
Periodically, I calculated exactly how many days I would be spending in this purgatorial layby (four digits always cranked up my despair).
My bedroom was a box-sized no-go zone – the carpet obscured by paper, books and clothes, so that even opening the door a couple of feet became a challenge. The chaos was anathema to my mother, but mild compared to the disarray in my head, which she seemed to know nothing about.
There was apparently nowhere my real self belonged anymore, so my brain perfected Maths or French homework and self-medication with sugar/fat/ideally both, whilst my spirit cleaved like fury to music therapy (‘Radio Ga Ga’ could have been written for me). My little wireless was more like a life support machine; I only turned the volume down when watching TV, and it even came with me to bed – the first sound I heard in the morning, the last at night. Passionate, pathos-soaked lyrics provided a pressure valve outlet as well as a vicarious trip to a parallel universe. The music, meanwhile, soothed my many wounds and sense of powerlessness, its pulse bolstering my own. Headphones created an exhilarating tune-cocoon.
“No, I’m not buying those – you’ll be crippled with bunions by the time you’re sixteen.”
Yet more combat with my mother in a shoe shop – she spotting the most practical and enduring (i.e., hideous) footwear for my narrow, hypermobile feet/ankles; me opting for the closest thing to fashion I could actually walk in.
The boots on this occasion were expensive, impractical, and frankly, laughable. Peer approval was out of the question, but maybe, just maybe, this latest purchase would keep the heckling at bay for a while. It was a gamble; no extra funds were available if my venture failed, but once the desperate struggle to get my mother to the cash till was won, there was no going back.
(Resident gaggle of vultures dominating the dingy, claustrophobic corridor.)
“Hi, Ellen – I like your boo-oots …”
The affected voice dances before me. I know better … but I want to believe it.
“Oh – thanks.”
It is myself I despise as smirks become hysterics, and they stagger off, hanging on to each other as though drunk.
And who could blame them? I was trying to emulate them – an absurdity in itself. Materials could never alter my blueprint, nor did the essential me wish to become any one of them.
But alternative ‘solutions’ seemed bleaker still. So backwards I bent, complying with the tyrant called peer pressure – wearing red leather, leggings, lip gloss, and eventually a squint due to abandoning my specs.
The other female outcast in my class was Holly. We shared a love of God and nature, but only became true comrades long after leaving school – survival was the name of the game whilst we were there.
In retrospect, we lived under a kind of demonic establishment that sought to invert the Philippian verse so that it read: ‘Finally, brethren, whatever is false, whatever is ignoble, whatever is wrong, whatever is corrupt, whatever is ugly, whatever is despicable – if anything is shoddy or reprehensible – meditate on such things.’
Holly had a short-lived period of ‘rebellion-to-try-and-fit-in’ and then threw herself into being the best student she knew how to be – gaining the approval of her parents, teachers and her God, if not these jokers.
The favoured Y11 catchphrase was a glottal stopped “Gu-(tt)-ed!” employed when the target pupil had been met with any kind of misfortune. On some level it was literal for me. I had many genuine stomach pains for over a year, although some were feigned in a vain effort to avoid school. The long hill was a struggle in the morning, but I would hurl myself down it like a hunted fox every lunchtime just for an hour’s respite at home.
Emotion was so easily manipulated, so I left my face in neutral. Provided I expected the worst, I could subsist on the occasional soul-treat that came my way. This Damoclean approach was effective for some time, until an intensely persecutory lesson one morning caused my blank façade to splinter. I finally gave way in the playground afterwards, and cried for the first time in many, many months.
There was deep relief at being a live, authentic human again, in addition to deep shame at my exposure. ‘They’ had won, and very publicly, too. In this circus, you had to stay tough, attractive, close to the pack. I’d failed the grade on all three counts, and from my pubescent perspective this made ‘them’ stronger and superior by default. I was now a certified freak.
“Come n’ set o’er heer.”
I dragged my bag to the empty desk in the corner, exhausted from leaked emotion.
Our hardy Highlands science teacher was awkward when confronted with my blotchy, broken face, but he became my heroic human shield during the following lesson that day. Finally, someone had understood that I needed time out from the persecution, and also from trying to be someone other than who I was. It was a one-off occasion, an act of kindness I would always remember.
Sadly, I lacked insight into my bullies’ own layers of bravado and fragility which created their dependence on the herd. Occasionally, a chink in the armour of these iron giants would betray helplessness, when they pushed too far and the shadow of expulsion became real; when they roused the bully in their teacher who then belittled them or succumbed to unrestrained violence. I have a vivid memory of a diminutive provocateur being hauled by his collar across a desk by a bulging-eyed teacher who had been mocked for the last time. The boy fled the room in tears, shocking all the other rebels into an uncommon silence.
These were sensitive adolescents, but all I saw most days was an unyielding dictatorship that I couldn’t hope to fight alone.
Mercifully, all such regimes implode sooner or later.
The months hobble on a little faster after the third year – choosing our subjects means blessed dispersal and dilution. I meet pupils who actually want to learn, who I can almost be myself with. We still start and end the day in our ‘form group’, but the curse of Y11 no longer feels like barbed wire. By this time, however, I am regularly playing truant through having developed a kind of classroom phobia.
Some girls have disappeared from view altogether – rumours of babies and miscarriages abound. One boy has finally been expelled and is now working on a building site. Most have woken up to the fact that their five years of clocking in and out of this Temple of Doom will be void with no papers to account for them.
Despite the blind terror preceding each exam, my own V-E day finally arrives. Those hard-won certificates will grant me access to the haven of college and real human connection.
But I will have things to unlearn there – such as the paranoia that accompanies the expectation of rejection/ridicule. This will be a lengthy process indeed.
Some lessons have been useful: don’t automatically assume that the lonely, messed up people who latch onto you are friends. Don’t look around you for self-esteem – unless you are willing to journey through life bent under an emotional rickshaw, blindly serving the adult bullies who will spot you instantly on their horizons. Don’t imagine that those bullies necessarily have an easier life than you. Be aware of your own power to impact and influence, however buried/non-existent it may seem.
I finally manage to meet my friend’s eyes. “You really like it?”
Her expression is bewildered by my doubt. She has opened a window of vulnerability and I feel alienated again, unable to take this stuff for granted as others seem to.
Her voice is softer now. “Of course I do. I wouldn’t say so otherwise, would I?”