Reflections on masculinity, mental health and trying to make a difference
When I was young, I was lucky enough to be taken to the Liverpool Playhouse. The performances there were high quality because they were warm-ups ‘in the provinces’ for plays before they transferred to the West End. I shall never forget a performance in 1971 – I was 16.
It was Michael Redgrave in The Old Boys a play of the novel by William Trevor centred on a small group of old scholars reminiscing about their boarding school days in slightly nasty tones. I remember Michael Redgrave’s powerful performance more than the play itself. A reviewer of the William Trevor book suggests “It reminds us that at every level of every society there are groups of Old Boys cocooned in smug insularity.” I now suspect the resonance might have something to do with my age and the stage of my own boarding school education and an awareness about my privileged insularity.
In the years immediately after leaving school, I returned for the annual reunions while I still knew people at the school, particularly the teachers. There then followed a long break at the end of which I first experienced clinical depression, eight months before my 40th birthday, with further episodes in the following two decades. The ‘black dog’ can always return uninvited but hasn’t done so for more than two years.
I made a conscious decision to organise a 25th anniversary reunion to try to discover if any of my contemporaries had had comparable psychological experiences in the intervening years that might be attributed to our shared education. It was also a form of ‘coming out’ to my former class mates about my mental ill health. In the event, there was no great revelation at that gathering – we didn’t all start expressing feelings that had been suppressed over the previous three decades.
With my parents retiring to the north of England it was easy to return for the annual school reunions and I took on an informal role keeping our year group in touch with each other in the run-up to each reunion. Very gradually I learnt more about the boarding school experience of my fellow old scholars.
Those who were prepared to talk shared stories of prescription medication for anxiety, of hating everything apart from sport which, perhaps surprisingly, kept them coming back for the reunions. Then there were the night time escapades involving climbing over walls, motorbikes, and girls. These and other more daring exploits now seem like small rebellions against our cocooned existence.
Much was probably quite normal for post-pubescent boys, but I also remember some vicious, physical and psychological bullying (and of one teacher in particular) which seemed at odds with the pacifist ethos that was meant to pervade the school. I think it tended to focus on the intellectual deep thinkers; people interested in cerebral rather than physical exertions. I’ve always felt there were some anti-semitic undertones in some of the more unpleasant confrontations, but I have to say that Jewish friends I’ve asked about this had no such experiences. I once also thought there was some anti-semitism behind the antagonism towards Leeds United supporters (of whom there were many at the school). I now think it probably had more to do with the team’s success and style of play at that time – these were the days of Norman ‘bites yer legs’ Hunter…
Ironically, it wasn’t until I started writing this ‘No man’s land’ blog series that I felt able to ask others about their emotional development while at boarding school. It was as if ‘research’ was a valid reason to ask personal questions, rather than being free to make supportive enquiries of friends of over 40 years (when the first half dozen years of those friendships had been forged 24 hours a day).
One of my contemporaries says of his own wellbeing. “I find it difficult to be open about such things [mental health] having been conditioned by years in the NHS where stigma is embedded and to admit to anything marks you out as weak/vulnerable and therefore career limiting. The NHS is not very good at looking after its own people and inclined to exploit them. I did suffer anxiety in my last job in which I worked far too many hours and often felt I was not achieving very much.”
‘In loco parentis’ is Latin for “in the place of a parent”. It refers to the legal responsibility of a person or organization to take on some of the functions and responsibilities of a parent. All boarding schools take on that role, and our school the more so, selling itself on the caring and inclusive environment it claimed to offer the parents of young men through adolescence.
At the time I didn’t consciously feel an absence of nurturing by the school, but I now realise that they didn’t do very well with the in loco parenting. This may not be too surprising as I’ve since learnt from a former Schools’ Inspector that the school was, by current standards of ‘good practice’, under-staffed by 30%. As with historical sexual abuse in wider society, it’s too easy to say ‘we’re talking about 50 years ago’; the impact of those years, and the lack of emotional support, are still being felt by those who endured that schooling.
In my time at boarding school, I can’t recall any members of staff asking me ‘how are you?’ – none of the pastoral support you’d expect from your parents and hope to have from those looking after your welfare 24 hours a day, 30+ weeks a year, for seven years. I’ve recently been reminded that the headmaster’s wife and the nurse in the sick wing did offer some pastoral support (but I had to be reminded about this…)
There was no offer of support to help us through the emotional and physical upheaval that is puberty – the delight and concern associated with wet dreams (what’s happening to me?!) No one addressing the first flush of love – romances, crushes, infatuations – for either sex, but I accept that this may have been common in similar schools in the late 1960’s and early 70’s.
Our sexual awakening was not helped by the portrayal as members of the opposite sex as ‘others’ – residing on the other side of the city, protected by a headmistress who tried to convince us that being tucked up in our own beds was the only place to be after dark – probably for life, except for the act of pro-creation. Of course, such a stance made us all the more curious about the ‘forbidden fruit’ as those stories about after-dark escapades – re-told, and probably embellished – testify.
My sex education at school was gleaned from the (anatomically incorrect) graffiti on the toilet walls. The only health education I remember was being told if we combed our hair regularly it would stimulate the follicles. No reference to how the soft porn magazines hidden in those same toilets might stimulate other parts of our bodies!
As regards homosexuality, I think I lived in a bubble. Apart from a teacher and sixth form student leaving the school following an ‘affair’, I was unaware of covert or overt homosexuality. There was no education about homosexuality, let along the associated physical and emotional baggage. Maybe this is not so surprising as some of the teachers were not much older than us – being straight out of teacher training college.
It has taken 45 years for me to learn there were as many as five young gay men in a year below mine. Other than heterosexual marriages, I still have no indication of the sexuality of my contemporaries – such is the repression of expression of emotions and feelings amongst this particular group of boarding school educated men.
Most shocking for me was something I learnt quite recently from one of my contemporaries. He, like a good percentage of our age group, had come to our school in the third year, having previously been at preparatory school (prep school) which often meant boarding from a younger age than I had. This particular friend confided that he’d been sexually abused on a number of occasions when at prep school and that up to that point – more than 40 years after leaving school – he’s never told anyone else about this, other than his partner.
I know my emotional development suffered from leaving home at 11, for others that went away to prep school at a younger age, the impact may have been even greater. A former classmate notes “I was away from home age 9. In my case I think I missed some family dynamics and goings on I’ve only recently discovered, and I think my sister who was left at home without her brothers considers herself to have been the one who suffered. And though I’ve never been especially close to my brother, and he never liked boarding school, I probably benefited from his already being there.”
My father had some lifelong nervous twitches which he attributed to his boarding school education (he too had gone to a prep school at an early age). Clearly he didn’t like being sent away to school and his education served his emotional development poorly, so I’ll never quite understand why he did something similar to his only son.
But I don’t want to finish this blog so negatively. My contemporaries have recently pointed to some positives which are no doubt shared by others. Those who describe their prep school days as ‘miserable’ say their later schooling – including the friendship of fellow students and teachers – made a refreshing change. While some point to damaged family relationships from being away from home, others (including myself) pay tribute to the subsequent support of partners with strong, loving and enduring relationships that defy our being ‘cocooned in smug insularity’ in our formative years.
Many who gather on a regular basis at our annual reunions confirm the value of the lasting friendships they made so many years ago. This group is, of course, self-selecting and others may be suffering in silence, not suffering at all, or have come to terms with our shared educational experience. I believe that I owe the school my self-confidence and I know others do so as well. A friend talks of gaining resilience from his schooling but then suggests that very resilience [and self-confidence] may ‘obscure an awareness of natural human frailty and therefore not recognising a need to ask for help’.
For other blogs in the ‘No man’s land’ series click here https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/no-mans-land