Saturday, June 13, 2009

Bless Me Father, For You Have Sinned.

Yesterday I got an anonymous comment on my post about my old school and it brought up thoughts and feelings that I said I'd talk about some day - and I guess that day has arrived. I've never written about my time at school before and this won't be easy for me. I'm not doing it for cathartic reasons or to exorcise any demons. No, I'm doing this simply because some readers have asked about my school days as I've touched on some parts of it in previous posts.

I don't plan on cracking any jokes either. This isn't a subject I find amusing in any way, shape or form and trying to mix in a bit of humour may lessen what I'm trying to get across.

I've mixed feelings about boarding schools in general but very definite feelings about one boarding school in particular. St. MacNissis College, Garron Tower in N. Ireland. The one I went to from 1963 to 1970, from age 11 to age 17.

By passing my 11+ exam, I was given access to this school and for a Catholic boy in my part of the world, going to 'The Tower' brought pride and bragging rights to my family. The fact that it also brought physical pain and mental torture as well wasn't something that was so frequently talked about. I had both for pretty much my whole time there and it didn't always come from my peers.

The school took full time boarders and day boys who were bussed in and bussed out after lessons were over each day. The teaching staff was made up of priests who stayed full time at the school, male lay teachers who stayed full time, lay male teachers who left every day and one nun who taught music. Apart from another nun who dealt with medical problems (doesn't every young boy going through puberty just want to go to a nun for advice ?) you can see it was a VERY male orientated environment.

From day one, after my parents drove away and left me standing waving at their car growing smaller by the second, I was thrown into a strange and unnatural world where bullying was the order of the day and crying myself to sleep at night became the norm. I soon discovered that there was no sanctuary even in bed. In that first year, I was in a dorm with dozens of other 11 year olds and our personal space was almost totally filled by a bed and a small locker. At the end of the building were 2 rooms where the prefects studied and slept and we were always happy when we never saw them.

The prefects kept order, enforced the rules and administered punishment. When you give 17-18 year olds this sort of authority over impressionable and mostly terrified 11 year olds and compound it with almost no supervision, then bullying follows as surely as bruises follow a good beating. And we were bruised a lot. I remember numerous occasions when we were told to get out of our beds, bend over the ends and wait for the prefects to come down the line whacking us all on our backsides with hurling sticks. Google those if you like but just think of them as field hockey sticks and you won't be far wrong. The reason ? Who knows and we rarely did. Often it was done just because they could.

The head of the school, The President, was a rarely seen priest up in his ivory tower, who condoned everything that went on as that's how it had always been. There was no point in going to him with any sort of complaint as for one thing you'd never get to see him and for another, he'd be as likely to beat you again just for complaining about the beating handed out by the prefect...or priest....or anyone else who felt like beating you. Even the medical nun could give you a nasty bruise, usually when grabbing your nuts and telling you to cough ! I never understood the role medicine played in that particular exercise but it seemed to do wonders for the nun in question.

If a boy misbehaved in class, he was sent to The President who gave him the strap or the cane. The former was administered to the hands and the later to the backside and both hurt like hell as they usually came in multiples of 6. Most teachers gave out punishment as well and this ranged from pinching the loose skin just above an armpit as they walked past your desk (try it, it bloody hurts doesn't it ?) to giving us a smack on the head just for the fun of it.

Remember many of these teachers were priests and when I say misbehaving, I don't mean injecting drugs or throwing knives at the blackboard. I mean not knowing the answer to a question or not wearing your school blazer.

So the teachers would bully us during school time and after school was over, the bully baton was passed to anyone bigger or older than you. In my case I was painfully shy, had rampant acne, thick NHS glasses, came from a small town nicknamed 'cow town' and couldn't play team sports to save my life. I was that rare form of geek in that I was geek looking but not even clever. So I was verbally and physically bullied for most of my time there for any of those 'reasons.' Once started, it rarely stopped and we were given no help to deal with it. Who could we turn to ? My parents would never believe the teachers were like that and especially not the priests. I had to be making it up. I actually never told them about being bullied as they'd strugged to find the money to get me into the school so how could I let them know it wasn't perfect and I hated being there ?

Religion was also used as a punishment. When we became older, we were 'excused' going to evening prayers and other gatherings so we had more time to study for exams. This was classed as gaining a privilage and if you misbehaved or broke a rule, you had privilages revoked......and so would have to go to prayers. This carrot and stick attitude to religion, combined with the actions of most of the priests, led me away from Catholicism for good. I questioned it all and it came up wanting.

Today I remain a Christian but not a Catholic. That happened the day I left school but the seeds had been sown many years earlier. Seeds sown by the brutal and cowardly acts of particular priests who were a disgrace to their calling and should never have been put in positions of authority over anyone, never mind young boys.

Despite having an older brother there for my first 4 years, I never felt as alone as I did at that school. I'd go off by myself whenever possible and that has remained a character trait to this day. I don't feel comfortable in even small group of friends as I feel I've nothing to contribute. I prefer my own company. Until recently I've always travelled alone and been happy to do so as I never knew any other way. I don't make friends easily and as a result, I don't have many. I've gone for quality over quantity and you know who you are. Bless you for sticking with me.

You see, on my own no one could hurt me. I couldn't be bullied. I couldn't be mocked or laughed at as I got both from time to time even in the workplace. Now I've retired I'm genuinely happy and how sad is that ? It took me to my 49th birthday to finally be free from it all.

People are also surprised when I tell them I'm shy. I'm so different in my writing that it does seem hard to believe. I can express myself in my blog posts which is probably why many of the posts are so long ! The words just flow from me and I find it hard to stop. I've things to say and no one can stop me now. I love knowing that people read what I write and find it funny or informative at times. I was once asked why I bother blogging and I guess if I'm honest, I enjoy the idea that what I write might interest people. But I'd also be crushed by a bad comment !

I'm not a comedian and was never able to deflect school bullying or teasing with a witty bit of banter. But as I got older I found I could make people laugh. Not in a stand up comedian type way but simply by seeing the funny side of things and saying so in an amusing way. Maybe it's a defence mechanism kicking in a few decades too late. I donno. It's not something contrived but something natural for me.

The ironic thing about my old school was the fact it was set in a stunningly beautiful part of the world. For those who haven't read previous posts on the subject, the school was, still is of course, set on a plateau a few hundred feet up from the North Antrim Coast Road which hugs the East side of N. Ireland and is classed as an area of outstanding natural beauty. If only the setup within the school had been as beautiful back in my day.

I say that because those days are long gone as the school ceased to be a boarding school a decade or so after I left and also went co-ed. I've no idea what it's like now as it's not the sort of place that ever had reunions and nothing would drag me to one anyway. If any of those teachers were still there, I'm not sure if I could be trusted near them.

I guess I've painted a pretty black picture of the place. Let me admit it wasn't miserable all the time but sadly in my case, those are the times that I remember and the times that I feel affected aspects of my life afterwards. The happy, sunny days seem few and far between and my overall impressions are that I hated the place with an intensity I've never experienced since. Yes it gave me a wonderful basic education that I hope comes across in my writing but that's about it. The choice of subjects was woefully small, so much so that I took Latin, Greek and Ancient History as some of my O'Levels. How I ended up having a 30 year career in IT is beyond me !

Reading back what I've written, it's very tempting to delete this post or cut out most of it as it's almost like putting a diary entry up onto the internet. Once I hit 'publish' there is no going back and I've kinda bared my soul here, which is not my thing at all. Maybe it's saving me a fortune in therapy but I doubt it as like I said at the top, I've not really done it to get things off my chest. Having given small glimpses into my school life before, this has just brought it all into one place and if nothing else it should be interesting if future readers visit this post when they google the school.

My 'story' might be close to that experienced by others but I'm sure the details are unique to me. I hope so as I'd not like to think that others had 7 years there like I had. I despise a LOT of the students, I despise MOST of the lay teachers and I dispise ALL of the priests because they were made up of those who actively bullied and those who were just as bad by knowing it went on but did nothing about it.

I said in the previous post that my profle now contains a link for anyone who wants to email me rather than, or as well as, leaving a comment. Feel free. As always I'd like to get feedback.

I think you may gather that my schooldays were not the happiest of my life ! Thank you for listening.


abritdifferent said...

I am amazed by your story, but not shocked. Which is sad really, because as a society, I think we've come to expect certain types of behaviours as norms. I went to a public school and was bullied too. If I think about it to try and describe it, it doesn't make any sense. The majority of the people bullying me, were also my friends. I got verbally bullied quite often from one teacher too. It affected me so much that my poor mother thought I would have a nervous breakdown, and I was in P7 at the time. I think you're right though, our memories are very selective, and tend to focus on negatives. It's a struggle to understand it because I know I am who I am because of my experiences, and yet, I try not to let all that bad stuff define who I am as a person.

Thank you for posting this and, especially, for hitting 'publish'. That is harder than writing it, I think.

Milo said...

Powerful writing and well done for doing it. Although you say it's not for cathartic reasons, it does help to talk about things and demystify / break down traumatic periods of our lives.

I also went to boarding school from 11-16. Mine was a co-ed, though. Was religious (Methodist) but I'd still rather that than Catholic. There was only one chaplin and no priests. That said, we had chapel 4 times a week, which was intense. There was no corporal punishment (that had ended a few years before I joined).

There was a reasonable amount of bullying and I also remember being 11 years old and everyone above you can treat you like shit as that's how it works. You were always in awe of the forms above you.

For the most part mine wasn't unhappy but there were lots of unpleasant / bullying incidents (not so with me, but with others) that I recall. Children can be incredibly cruel and I think a lot of people do come out of these places scarred for life.

Daphne said...

I knew this story of course, but it's still the most shocking post and I'm so glad you published it. The lack of your usual wonderful witty humour (which, I tell those readers who don't know you in person, is there in abundance in "real life" too) makes it all the more powerful. Cruel, stupid fools, they were. Makes me furious, and sad.

Debby said...

I love my Ian.

Yorkshire Pudding said...

Silverback...I am so sorry that this was your experience of education in Northern Ireland. Thanks for finding the courage to share it even after forty years. At least your story is now told (completely?) but given recent news about schools and the priesthood in Ireland, I am sure there are many untold stories - some of which will have undoubtedly caused more lasting damage than you obviously suffered. Why can't people simply be nice to each other? It's nice to be nice - whether at home, in the workplace or in hospitals, prisons and schools. Education should be enlightening, uplifting and joyous not fearful, brutal and depressing.

jay said...

I have heard so many stories about boarding schools over the years that I think I would never, ever send a child of mine to one. Well, I never did send a child, and I always thought that they were a bad idea simply because you were handing over your child to be raised by others for large periods, but now that I've heard the stories. Uh-uh. No way would I ever do that.

I'm sorry that happened to you. Our second son was bullied horribly - by students AND staff, and that was in an ordinary secondary day school. At least the poor devil was able to come away from it all each afternoon and had the full support of his parents. I used to let him stay home if he couldn't face school, because I knew that if he went in that frame of mind he would most certainly get into trouble.

I wish you'd had the same escape route.

As to shaking off the effects only in your late forties, well, join the club! I can say the same - only in my case it was a mix of bullying at school and ... let's just say a rather odd childhood. ;)

The Good Life said...

Hi again Silverback. Thanks for sharing your experiences at GT.

I suggested in my last post on your blog that my experiences weren't all good there either, but at the time I was thinking about another boarder rather than myself. I wanted to mention his 'story' then but felt it wasn't appropriate. It feels a little more appropriate today, but still not good.

Not sure if you heard about the 2nd year who died there in the mid-late 80's? He was blown off the cliff-face up by the statue of Mary above the playing fields whilst on a lonely walk (others, please see picture in previous blog

I refrained from telling his story last time, the story of a young boy severely bullied by his peers from the minute he arrived as a boarder, and am still loathe to discuss it in case a member of his family happens across the blog.

What has always worried me (at the time nobody would entertain the possibility of course), is that he may have planned to escape the malicious taunts of his peers that day with a longer walk than usual. If so, I hope those involved in his bullying are thoroughly ashamed of themselves. The priests and others in position of 'authority' did little to help that poor little boy in the two years they knew him. Your story resonates strongly in this regard.

Susie said...

Hi Ian Usually you leave my crying with laughter but this time it's sad tears. How terrible that school had such an bad impact on your life. Thank you so much for the insight into your background - it makes reading your blog even more interesting. We're in the process of choosing a senior school for our eldest daughter and I've heard so many parents commenting 'Oh x will be fine wherever she/he goes'. Possibly not. Your experiences highlight how important the decision is. My middle daughter has misbehaved all weekend and confessed tonight it's because two boys in her class have been teasing her. This stuff matters for life. I have to do whatever I can to make sure my children don't have to go through anything like what you did.

rhymeswithplague said...

Ian, I am so sorry you went through what you went through at that school. I truly am. I can't even remember large portions of my childhood, but many of the parts I do remember are bad enough.

Flannery O'Connor said something to the effect that anyone who has survived childhood has enough material to write about for a lifetime (not an exact quote).

It probably sounds insensitive to say it, but you are probably the better man because of what you were forced to endure. Nothing can justify it, though.

Daphne said...

RWP- I am breaking my own rule of not getting into a discussion in the comments and I hope Silverback will forgive me.
You're right, nothing can justify it. I think Silverback's ace and I think he would still have been ace if he'd had happier schooldays. I don't think all that has made him a better man - I just don't think there's a positive side to that kind of cruelty.

The Good Life said...

Btw Silverback, I'll write my own take on Tower days over at my blog one of these days. Just set it up today and it has no direction yet, just a kernel of an idea. In case you want to occasionally drop by to see if I get around to posting anything on the subject, the address is:

rhymeswithplague said...

I obviously didn't say what I meant to say. I shouldn't have said "because" -- perhaps I should have said "in spite of"...I like what Daphne said better.

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