Caught in the Headlights – Boarding School Wounds

I feel the piercing eyes of the school master boring into me, transfixing me, demanding an answer. Not just any answer I might blurt out from fear, but the right answer, the one and only answer that will allow me to escape from this terrifying predicament.

I have witnessed this scenario from the outside enough times to know what happens next; the two possible outcomes. The poor victim either gets the answer right and the teacher moves on, or he gets it wrong and the teacher shouts in anger, pouring on as much public shame as he can for good measure, to ensure that the lazy, ignorant pupil learns his lesson and pulls his socks up in future.

Its hard enough to be a witness to this familiar scene, but this time its me in the hot seat, the shame bucket. My paralyzing fear brings me close to tears of self pity. Then suddenly my fists clench, signifying an angry defiance that brings me a feeling of welcome power and protection.

“I refuse to give you anything. You can put me on the spot in front of the whole class but I will NOT succumb to your cruel games. I will NOT let you see my fear, my tears, my anger. I cannot win this battle you have forced on me, but I will NOT let you win either. You can hold me captive for as long as you want, but you canNOT take my inner pride from me. You will not humiliate me and make me wrong. I defy you by giving you NOTHING! NOTHING to get hold of, NOTHING with which to turn the screw and hurt me more than you have already”.

It is indeed a battle I cannot win, because I cannot be sure that the answer I could give would be the right one. This I dare not risk. So my childlike mind has found a strategy that allows me not to lose, in my own mind at least. That way I get to keep my inner flame alight, my soul intact. My stubborn determination holds a secret power and this saves me from feeling the destructive effects of exposure and victimhood. It feels like it saves me from the risk of annihilation.

What I am describing worked for me at the time, age 9. It was a strategy I had learned in the first days and weeks of being sent away to boarding school to overcome the emotional pain of parental loss. It worked for me up to a point through my teenage years, through the years of psychological abuse I suffered at boarding school. It made me strong in one sense, in the words of the old adage I learned back then like a mantra; ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words alone can’t hurt me’. But I was a sensitive boy and the effects of this strategy (trying to overcome fear and stay safe in threatening situations) were deeply damaging to my emotional body. The words did hurt me, but by refusing to show my feelings, I was not just hiding I was actually shutting down my ability to feel my emotions. Numbing out became my norm.

This self protection was an armour I wore all the time in case it was needed. I was always on duty, on guard. It became my default position. Tragically, I was not only cutting off from my anger and fear. I was inevitably cutting off from my ability to be spontaneous and open, to take risks, to experience passion, to feel unbridled joy; and I have been wearing this armour ever since.

This morning S helped me to reach down into my feelings via my body’s wisdom and to relive my child’s angry defiance in the face of the original teacher’s cruel interrogation 55 years ago. It only took a few moments of recall and I found myself sobbing tears of compassion for that plucky 9-year-old boy that was me, who had to go through such suffering, who was so brave, whose defiant inner power I could feel alive in me now, including his anger towards his parents for abandoning him at such a young age. I felt I could have cried for a long time; tears of unexpressed grief which tell me my buried anger and grief are big. So big.

The traumas of moments like this classroom scene from my childhood, have left me vulnerable at any moment to debilitating fear, overwhelm and frozen confusion, especially when i am put o the spot. I haven’t trusted myself to manage many of the things I might have attempted to achieve in life, given the talents I have been blessed with. My childhood strategy has kept me silent and suppressed, unable to speak up and speak out, afraid to set boundaries, unable to ask for my needs and often unaware that I have any. I have been living a ‘half-hearted’ life, all conveniently hidden behind the convincing mask of a quietly confident Mr Nice Guy, who has been my strongest ally and yet the enemy of my truth.

Up till now I have not managed to heal and change this self-limiting stance, in spite of years of training and therapy. Being aware of my outer persona and what goes on behind the mask is some help but real change only happens at the level of felt experience. That poignant moment of connecting the adult me with my child through those raw emotions today, lets me see where my locked up power has been lurking. It was there all the time. As S helpfully pointed out to me, it may not now take much to return it to its rightful place, so I can stand as Shiva in all my power and vulnerability as a man, enriched with the sacred masculine.

I write this holding the tension between my fear of change and my deep longing for healing and wholeness. Can I give up my safety and risk ‘exposure’ in order to feel alive and free? Am I willing to feel the pain of that small boy and the grief for my lost years, in order to lead a whole-hearted life again?
Can I trust the strength of this Shiva warrior who is emerging and offering me a new stance on life in service of me? My champion warrior …..who is he?

If you bring forth that which is within you,
then that which is within you
Will be your salvation.
If you do not bring forth
that which is within you,
then that which is within you
Will destroy you.

-The Gnostic Gospels

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About Inner Ventures

Evolutionary Counsellor facilitator and guide on a spiritual path. Craftsman in wood, creative writer, environmentalist & change agent. This blog is my way of promoting my skills, ideas, concerns for the planet, creative work, spiritual searches and philosophy of life in a public forum.
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