It might have just been one of a number of ways that staff imposed their authority over school mealtimes, but I remember the day that the spotlight was on me in the most excruciating way.
In the middle of a typical noisy lunch, with staff members eating at their table raised on a dais at one end of the dining hall, a loud bell sounded and we all reluctantly but dutifully fell into silence.
From her seat next to her husband, the headmaster’s wife called my name, following it with a rhetorical question, designed to shame: “Swatridge!” – all eyes turn to me in the pregnant silence – “Why are you holding your spoon in your left hand? You know you should be using your right hand to eat with.”
I remember the initial feeling of panic in that moment. I probably did swap hands just to take the accusing attention away from myself and so everyone could return to their meal. But underneath my embarrassment was something much more authentic. A sense of defiance coming from deep within me, along with an inner voice for which my ten-year-old self may not have had words. But I can express this now as:
“You can control me and command my compliance in so many ways, but my left-handedness is an intrinsic part of who I am and you are NOT going to take that away from me!”
I can feel the anger rising in me now, at the injustice of what happened all those years ago. But the fact that it has stayed with me as a significant or even typical and potentially harmful influence on my character, is a useful reminder to stand up and be proud of who I am, rather than hide, the learned pattern that I needed for self-protection, and which became my strategy for survival.
This was just one of many traumatic moments at boarding school. Traumatic because of the low level of fear that I lived with all the time with no-one to go to for support or advice, as well as the specific moments, like standing outside the headmaster’s office, waiting to be beaten with the cane or the slipper. The waiting being intentional, to prolong the psychological aspects of our punishment.
Of course, there were many aspects of those school years that were moments of triumph and pride in achievement; that were character-building, that were full of fun and pleasure. We learned to focus on the positives to get through our challenges, and it is only years later, in a conscious revisiting of the experiences, that the darker side of those years gradually connects me more and more with the emotional scars that have influenced my adult life in negative ways.
It is years later, through engaging with these processes that those old defence mechanisms and shame-based limitations can dissolve and fall away, to leave me naked in the authenticity and truth of who I can be.
It is a journey, long and winding, perhaps with no final destination; but no-one else can walk it for us, and we owe it to ourselves in our search for our unique right to be, for self-belief and for an elusive inner peace.