It has taken me fifty years to reach a point in my life where I feel ready to talk openly about some of my boarding school experiences. Since my late thirties I have tried to address the most painful aspects of those years, seeking therapeutic approaches whenever my life’s challenges seemed to point to my early wounds as their source. But out of denial and a habitual stiff-upper-lip, I have kept my story close to my chest.
I have only recently opened enough to accept the levels of trauma and shame that I have been carrying from my school years, because whenever I have found myself paralyzed with fear and unable to speak out, I failed to see the extent to which my ‘weakness’ as a man, as I saw it, led straight back to the terror of the small boy from my childhood. I have been hard on myself all this time and minimised in my mind, the effect of those school years, through the numbing and dis-association that my system employed to get me through that time, and which became my unconscious response for creating safety when under pressure or threat in my adult life.
It was skillful means for a small boy, but life limiting for the man ever since.
I hope by revealing what I have kept hidden from all but my closest partners along the way till now, my account will serve to lighten the load for other men and women who have struggled through their lives with a heavy weight on their shoulders. I do not claim that the challenges I lived through during my school years were any worse than those of any others who became victims of abuse, whether mental, emotional or physical. There are thousands of people out there who are carrying burdens much bigger and more damaging than mine. But I offer my story in service to those people, in all walks of life, who are longing to find ways to heal old wounds and make peace with themselves.
The drip-drip-drip of water on stone:
I arrived at Dauntsey’s, my secondary boarding school, on the strength of my Common Entrance exam, age thirteen. Some boys started there having passed their Eleven Plus exam, and both intakes were based in a Victorian brick mansion nestling in a large area of woodland a mile and a half away from the main school.
My intake was there for just one year before moving permanently up to the main school, although in that first year most of our lessons and other activities involved walking through the woods each morning, and into the village, to reach the school for our daytime studies. For the first two months, September and October, we could make the journey back to our night-time base in broad daylight, having our evening meal there and our period of prep before bed. But as the nights drew in the walk back through the woods in twilight conditions and then in complete darkness, was at best an eerie experience. I remember becoming terrified of this nightly ordeal. I think I had always had a childhood fear of the dark and of dark woods particularly, but I had specific reasons for this being a heightened experience as the days and months passed.
I had not been at Dauntsey’s long when I became aware of older boys taking an interest in me. These boys were attracted to my soft girl-like features and, being an all-boys school, there were one or two poor souls each year who were picked out as the ‘pretty boys’ to become the focus of all the pubescent testosterone and unexpressed sexual energy raging through the school, which was of course a virtual prison.
This sexual energy had nowhere to go except towards those of us who were forced to become surrogate females, in service to the relief of that pressure valve in the system. The sexual aspect of this was the dominant factor, for in fact we were known as ‘bum boys’ (a name that still triggers me); but I can see now, that having been separated from our mothers, most of us since the age of eight when we were packed off to our first boarding school, we craved contact with any female energy, and more sinisterly for us ‘pretty boys’, we faced the disowned anger of sons abandoned by their mothers. I can now see how this explains the edginess of the attention I drew towards myself; all that anger wrapped up in the abusive tone of the words used towards and against me, that I had to learn to face and endure on a daily basis, as the designated ‘female’ in our year.
I found it scary to be noticed by older boys, especially fifth and sixth formers, who seemed like grown men to me. Taunting comments came more regularly from the year above me and gradually, as ‘gorgeous’ became my nickname (virtually everyone had a nickname of some kind), boys in my own year joined in and tended to treat me the same way. I quickly learned not to react, trying to deflect all forms of attention, whether abusive jibes, or more appreciative and harmless ones. Soon it all became a relentless daily nightmare for me, continuing for the next three years, during which time all teachers and staff seemed completely blind or oblivious to my predicament. I never once tried to seek help from my so-called guardians after two experiences where teachers witnessed sexualised comments towards me and just sniggered knowingly rather than making some effort to stop what was happening.
I felt like I was only seen as an objectified female; there for everyone’s pleasure; there to allow a release of everyone’s frustrated sexuality, sexual confusion, and all the new-found feelings of adolescence that needed to be explored, including their repressed anger towards their mothers; all of which had no legitimate outlet for expression.
Usually I could tell if boys were just using me to let off steam with no personal attachment to me or to an outcome – for whom this was just a phase they would work through and then move on into a more mature heterosexuality. But I became aware that there were a few boys who showed an interest in me that was more personal and targeted. This would be out of their own neediness, or because they had already secretly identified their permanent homosexual orientation.
My first experience of this was in my first year when Jones, a boy one year older than me, accosted me in the school grounds, told me he found me attractive and invited me into the woods with him. He was mildly intimidating, and I was scared, although my memory has become vague about the details. I seem to remember he wrestled me to the ground and started to fondle me, but I must have managed to stop him going further and I got away. Strangely he never tried this again, though it was months before my fear of him relaxed and I realised Jones had lost interest and moved on.
For the next four years I made sure I had nothing to do with him. I held huge resentment for what he had tried to do and it showed me how I needed to guard against putting myself at risk in this way. I never knew if Jones was genuinely feeling a sexual attraction to me or whether he was just trying to overcome his own sense of vulnerability by showing off his power and ingratiate himself with his friends, because he had started his ‘hit’ on me in a very public way. A lot of that went on.
But in my last year at Dauntsey’s Taffy Jones, as he was known by then, joined us in the upper sixth form, having failed his A levels and returned to re-sit them with our year. During that time he and I became friends. It was as if we were different people, and I trusted his friendship now. He even invited me to accompany him for a weekend back home with his family on their sheep farm in mid Wales.
Neither of us ever mentioned the awkward and painful encounter from years before, but it was as if he was unconsciously wanting to make it right between us. The universe was giving me the opportunity to heal that particular wound so I could make my peace with him.
Of course to really honour my truth I would have needed to confront Taffy with how much I had been hurt by what he did to me four years before, but it was not my nature to be able to do that. Taffy turned out to be a sensitive and gentle person and I loved spending those two days as his chosen friend, on his farm, with his very Welsh family. He would have known I came from a farming background myself and I was certainly able to appreciate the wild landscape of his parent’s hill farm and the lifestyle that cradled his youth.
So that painful and scary encounter with Taffy, age thirteen, and other particularly personal and threatening verbal exchanges, put me in a constant state of alert for my safety and wellbeing. In my first year, those nightly walks back through the woods, with a minimum of electric lighting to show us the way along the path, became an ordeal for me. If I was with class mates I felt safe and OK, so I tried to engineer this each day. But there were evenings, when I had been doing some extra activity, I returned later than the main body of boys and then faced the prospect of making the journey alone. I was always terrified that an older boy would follow me, or would be hiding in the bushes, waiting to grab me when I came past.
Thankfully, nothing serious did happen, but I was never free of the threat of it in my mind. I was being accosted with verbal reminders of who or rather ‘what’ I was in the eyes of the school, many times each day, so I was never allowed to forget I was the fancied ‘gorgeous’ object of attention. This dynamic haunted my dreams and loomed up before me every time I scurried along that tree-lined mile of terror in the sinister darkness of the woods.
It was a traumatising time for me, something I have only recently come to accept fully, as I have looked deeply into the damaging effects on my adult life. There was worse to come at Dauntsey’s, but first I need to add that there was another side to this coin and other aspects of my circumstances that complicated my overall experience of boarding school. I had already been boarding for five years at my prep school. I had already established that I told my parents virtually nothing of my troubles, only the positives. I was often lonely, I was isolated and I was seriously lacking in affection and physical contact. This was the cruel nature of boarding school.
So given all this, there was an aspect of the attention I was getting, which affirmed that I was an attractive person. It was feeding a need in me to be seen, appreciated and liked. A natural and necessary need in all young people. So perversely, I often enjoyed the attention I got; and yet, as with all victims of harassment or abuse, I could not risk showing that I enjoyed it. It was a painful double bind, which only led me to feel more lonely and isolated, trapped by my own fear of what might happen.
My fear of being ‘hit on’ homosexually was a drip-feed of torture. In the face of this I adopted a saying that became my mantra:
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words alone can’t hurt me.”
This helped to numb the pain, while giving me a childish sense of victory over my situation and over the boys who taunted me. If I avoided physical violence I could appear indifferent. I was able to never show they could get to me, that they couldn’t hurt me with their nicknames and sexualised comments. I must have held fury deep inside that I also withheld from my perpetrators and in the end I paid a big price for my determination to rise above their games. Through my reactions, or lack of them, I was becoming trapped by my own stubbornness and self-righteous pride so that eventually they wanted their revenge. I will come to that in the next chapter.
The fact is that while my tactics allowed me to look strong and resilient on the outside, I was hurting and often screaming on the inside; living in a state of alertness and fear for my physical and psychological safety. It left me with exhausted adrenal glands which has affected my health in later life. It must have taken its toll on me even then. I found myself slipping behind some of the brighter kids with our academic work, although I did sit and pass maths ‘0’ level aged fourteen and gained another nine ‘0’ levels age sixteen, so in spite of my situation, I not only managed to keep my troubles from my parents, I was able to impress them with my achievements and do justice to the ‘privileged’ education they were affording me. Ironic as it may seem, I was still stuck in the naive belief, that if I didn’t achieve and do well, my parents wouldn’t love me.
If you, the reader are thinking at this point, “why the hell didn’t you tell your parents and ask to leave? After all you sound way too sensitive a child to be placed in a boarding school environment for ten years.” You would be right, But the fact is it never once occurred to me that I could get help to escape or change my situation. We children didn’t have a sense of our needs and rights in the way that most young people have today.
My saving grace at school perhaps, was that I showed myself to be a skilled and plucky player on the sports field. In fact my forte was squash and I played for the school at various levels for this as well as for hockey, cricket and tennis, gaining genuine respect and kudos with parents, teachers and the boys around me. In this forum at least, I could prove myself to be a man.
To be continued.
* To learn about the climactic conclusion to my painful experiences as a teenage boarder, see my next blog post being published in a couple of weeks time.
* For my account of my first years at Boarding School, aged eight to thirteen, see three earlier posts under ‘My Articles’.