See my previous post for the lead up to this most painful part of my boarding school years.
By the time I got to the fifth form, I realised I was literally the only boy in my year who had an interest in art. This set me apart in yet another way, which was both good and bad. I found peace and solace in the art room, away from the rough and tumble of my peers. I even expressed some of my angst in my paintings and sculptures. I had sensibilities and feminine qualities, which I rarely felt safe enough to express, but here was one of the few places where I had an outlet during those years. It felt wonderful to have my art teacher quietly supporting and affirming my sensitivity and creativity.
I was invited to get involved with painting scenery for a theatre production, and through this opportunity I discovered a further escape from my lot in mainstream school. I began to spend all my free time behind the stage, and was enrolled as one of the ‘stage staff’. I made new friends there, people who seemed to accept and respect me as a human being instead of seeing me as a sexual object. This was refreshing, comforting and very healing. I was able to start showing myself more, expressing my feelings. I could breathe and share creative time with these people.
My class mates on the other hand took great exception to my involvement with the stage. In their eyes (probably their parents’ eyes actually) all actors and anyone connected with the theatre were ‘queers and poofs’. In their eyes I had become one of ‘them’ and this confirmed that I was and always had been a faggot, a level up (or down) from just being a ‘pretty boy’. I had by then matured too, my voice had fully broken, and although I still looked young and fresh-faced, other younger boys had arrived at the school by then to take over from my given role, and become the next generation of ‘bum boys’.
The upshot of this new dynamic between me, as a member of the stage staff, and the rest of my year, was a vicious period of taunting and bullying. They seemed to resent my success in finding ways to live outside of their control, sidestepping the feminine role they needed to keep me playing for them. I was feeling safer, strong enough to rebuff their taunts. This only made them more angry, and unbeknown to me, they began to plot a way to teach me a lesson. So there was actually worse to come before my circumstances would improve.
One night I was just dropping off to sleep as usual in our large fifth form dormitory when I became aware of boys around me whispering something to each other and then suddenly, without warning, I was being set upon and attacked. There were at least six of them, my own classmates around my bed. They wrenched back the bedclothes, lifted me up, with a boy holding each limb and someone trying to stifle my cries with their hand. I immediately started to struggle, shouting gruffly for them to fuck off and leave me alone. I felt waves of fear and rage run through me as I fought to free myself. This all happened in a few seconds and then I could feel one of them pulling down my pyjama bottoms to expose my groin and genitals. He started to fondle them roughly letting me know in a hoarse whisper that this was to teach me a lesson.
Nothing else was said I struggled angrily, both to throw them off and to overcome my feelings of fear and shame, that they were victimising and humiliating me in this way; the very people I had to sit in class with, meet on the playing field and share meals with every day.
Suddenly they let me drop to my bed and were gone, back to their own. They had plotted to reek their revenge and for them It was over.
I lay there in a daze of shock, self-pity, shame and humiliation, crying on the inside, but keeping silent. I barely slept all night, in a frenzy of emotional pain that I knew I had to hide from everyone else. There had been a strongly sexual intent in their attack. More than one boy had handled my penis and they had tried to induce an erection, but of course I was never going to become aroused in that predicament. I wondered if they had intended to take it further with me and then found they did not have a taste for it when the moment came. They didn’t need to; I felt as though I had been raped anyway.
Even though this happened in the dark, the whole dormitory of perhaps 15 of my peers would know all about it, and I knew I had to somehow get up the next morning as if nothing had happened, with my head held high. As the night wore on and I had worked through the worst of my pain, I started using the mental discipline that I had developed over the previous three years to protect my self esteem. I had to refuse to give them the satisfaction of seeing how much they had hurt me. I had to get up as usual and go about the next day feeling and looking strong.
It didn’t even cross my mind to go to my house master and report what had happened. I had always dealt with my difficulties alone, without running to the authorities and I had no doubt that even if I did seek protection from my so-called carers, it would just pile on more layers of hatred from my perpetrators, who would then find ways of punishing me further.
So I did face the world the next day and every day after that, as if nothing had happened. I carried on as before and strangely, though with huge relief, I found that as the days went by, some kind of poisonous bubble had been burst. Maybe I was less self-righteous towards my class colleagues, I couldn’t tell, but they certainly changed. They stopped harassing me, they gradually became more friendly towards me, accepting and even respecting the work I was doing as a member of the stage staff. It was a sign that we were all maturing and moving on and I felt freer to be with my friends painting sets, attending rehearsals for the forthcoming play, setting up lighting for each scene and becoming engrossed in the whole creative process. I had already found a sense of belonging with these boys, and gradually it began to happen with my own class too, as we all focused on preparing and sitting our ‘O’levels together.
During my last year at school I went on to design and paint the entire set for a production of the Opera ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’. I met there my first love, one of the leading ladies Marion, who joined us from a nearby Comprehensive School. But this and my other early romantic relationships I will cover in a future post, where I will describe the ways that 10 years at boarding school affected my emotional responses to girls, to intimate relationships and to sex.
There is one very significant thing to say here though; it was just after my humiliating rape experience by boys who were my so-called classmates, that I started to meet girls and to explore those first achingly exciting forays into physical touch, sexual longing and heart-ache, that enabled me to escape from school and have encounters outside its claustrophobic atmosphere. This was a crucial factor in helping me to come through the trauma of the preceding years. I could reassure myself that I was heterosexually ‘normal’ and there was a whole world out there beyond the prison walls that, on saturday afternoons and sundays, I could at least find solace, emotional connection and an outlet for my naturally sensitive nature.
I this and other ways I buried my hurt, my anger and my resentment. I had used a mantra to support me through those school years, keeping the shadowy wounded beast locked away until my midlife when it eventually demanded to be addressed in my body and in my psyche.
‘Forgive them for they know not what they do.’
I had used this phrase as an inward means of support to keep myself sane. It helped me to rise above all the abuse and it explains perhaps why my peers accused me of being self-righteous and superior. I probably did come across that way, but only out of my own desperation to avoid collapsing and sinking into total victimhood.
Looking back now, as I record this time of my life, I feel huge compassion and respect for that boy, for how he found ways to get through. It may not have been the easy way through it all, but it taught him inner courage, survival and self-reliance. It was his soul’s calling and an important part of his soul’s learning for this life. I honour him, and now at last I can honour myself.
I feel moved to write about this whole episode of my life, not because I see my boarding school experience as being unique or even especially bad. I write because so many young people have had, indeed are having traumatising experiences right now, at school, at home, in other people’s homes, in the street. Experiences that happen behind closed doors, that are taboo or too shameful to be shared and so remain held in secrecy; unresolved, wounds that never heal and stay festering in the shadows, blighting and poisoning their lives.
I held my story in a cloud of shame, hidden from my family for many years. My father died age 82 and I never told him. I have written my story to inspire others, with experiences similar to mine, or maybe dissimilar but as painful, or worse, to find the courage to start speaking about their painful secrets. Shame and hurt feed on silence and secrecy. Only by bringing these things into the light do they start to heal and allow us some inner peace.
My teenage school experience explains the resonance and empathy I have always felt with women, especially vulnerable women harassed by predatory men. When I first became a professional counsellor in my forties I was surprised how I attracted women who had been abused by men, until I realised that my personality reflected my own experiences, and they could pick up energetically that I was a safe and gentle man who knew something of what they had been through, with whom they could share their wounds and learn to trust a man again. I was a prime example of the ‘wounded healer’.