I chose to go to a Grammar school. Unlike many peers, my parents never forced or pushed me into going, never sent me to a revision class. I voluntarily chose to go there.
In my 11 year old mind, I thought I’d be going to a haven of learning. I was excited to be in a place surrounded by others hungry to learn, to read books, to discuss and debate, to feed our curiosity in the world, and find out how things worked. I imagined how exciting it would be to find friends like those I’d only come across in books like Matilda before.
I imagined that school would be a place where someone who loved learning – someone like me – would thrive.
Within weeks of joining secondary school – a girls’ grammar school – I soon had those naive assumptions knocked out of me. I learnt within weeks that putting your hand up in class, being eager and enthusiastic, was social suicide. Once learnt, it was too late to turn the clocks back; I had been branded as a swot, and it would take years to shake off this unwanted, ugly label. Over the years, I found myself having to hide my exam papers, out of fear that others would see my results. “96%? You WOULD get that,” the girls would say, spitefully. And here’s the thing about girls… they don’t dish out their venom in one foul swoop. They do it slowly, passively, with looks, the icy tones of their voices, and where they allow you to sit, rather than with actual words or blows. It was hard to pinpoint if it was actually happening, though I knew it was, which in itself drove me a little mad. In many ways it felt like it would be easier if there was something to point at, something people could see.
I would often get asked by other girls if they could copy my homework, and my answer would always be; I’ll sit with you before school and help you get it done, but you can’t copy it directly. Once in year 7, three girls decided they’d do it anyway; they stole my homework, and photocopied it entirely, changing the name at the top so that they could hand it in. Inevitably, they got caught.
When I was about 13, my dad went on a teacher exchange visit to schools in Chicago. He brought back booklets about one School made by the student body, and for months I would daydream that he would get transferred out there. The schools he visited seemed to celebrate getting involved, showing enthusiasm, taking extra classes at the level that worked for you. The ethos was all about school spirit, finding your passions, being great at something. It seemed like the kind of place where you’d never be ridiculed for being into maths.
One time, two girls pulled me aside in the PE changing rooms, the air a heavy mix of sweat and fruit-scented Impulse body spray, and told me they were going to give me a makeover. At the fragile age of 13, when you already feel uglier than any grown-up can ever imagine, my worst insecurities were confirmed by these two mascara-lashed teens. The shame of it sank deep. I carried it with me for years.
The girls would hug each other in the corridors between classes, they would hitch up their skirts an extra inch or so, and would swoon over celebrities in glossy magazines. I felt alien in their world, as though a chip in me had been missed out when I was being made a girl. Sometimes I would pretend to feign interest in their worlds “Yeah he’s so hot!”, sometimes I would try and hang out with the quiet girls (and wonder how I was meant to communicate), often I would trapse over to the IT room and hope upon hope there would be a computer free, to pass away the time between classes, where escaping wasn’t an option.
As I grew up, we mixed classes and people’s interests changed. I became able to find things genuinely in common with these other girls… Kurt Cobain and Indie music, the poetry section in the bookstore, occasional classes with popular teachers. Even then, it felt like there was still another club to be joined, another uniform to figure out. Indie didn’t mean ‘independent’ or ‘being an individual’, it meant… spend your money at the Oasis market, buy baggy black trousers and a particular brand of eyeliner, and indulge in smoking behind the school grounds. I didn’t do those things, though once I did buy a pair of flared jeans.
I survived those years, and sixth form became much more bearable, as I found a group of kindred spirits outside of school. I found a tribe of social activists, and over the years, these are always the sorts of people I would be able to feel connected to, those who burned burned burned about the injustice of the world.
But still, my school felt a bizarre place. My dreams had long ago been buried about school ever being able to be a place filled with curiosity and a shared love for learning. I had a further maths teacher who taught us about Things That Were Actually Difficult and for the first time I found myself enthralled. He regularly went off on tangents about a particular area of mathematics, and I sat in lessons, rapt. On one particular meander, a girl in my class raised her hand and said “Sir, is this going to be on the exam?” Exams exams exams. The school and the system had trained us to only care, to excessively care, about these goddam bars and how to propel ourselves over them.
I envy those kids who seemed to go to schools where they were deemed acceptable, ’normal’, even. I wonder from time to time how different my life might have been, if I hadn’t spent my most formative years covering up who I was, hiding these core parts of my spirit so carefully each and every day. How much more able might I be now to delve deep into communities, to put my hand up, put my voice out there and share my whole self.
I’ll never know the answer to that.
But I guess that’s alright, because it’s definitely not going to be on an exam.