Friday, April 20, 2007

Education otherwise

It's 20 years since I left school this year, and I am hardly surprised that there has not been as much as a whisper of any kind of class reunion to mark the passing of time (and all of its sickening crimes). Some have died, and some have faltered, and I don't really know where most of them are apart from a few gems I am still in touch with. I suspect that it's really still not long enough ago yet for most of us.

Philip Roth wrote acerbically of school reunions that there are few reasons to go, most of them suspect, and usually based on self-aggrandisement (look how much better than you I have fared!).

Our school was a difficult and troubled place and when I joined at the age of 13 (after four years of an only-partially-successful experiment in rural home schooling, about which more some other time), I was terrified by what seemed to be the premature maturity of my fellow pupils in the big city: talking about learning to inhale, and drinking at parties, and lovebites. I felt completely out of my depth.

Shy and insecure, and longing to fit in but unable to, I made things worse for myself by falling horribly in love with the class celebrity (who would definitely mind being described this way). So popular was he that, when I went past his house on the bus, I would always see at least one person hanging around outside waiting to catch a glimpse. I never stooped to that, of course, but I too succumbed to his rough magic. He had several self-appointed female security guards whose job it was to stop anyone from getting to close to him.

At the first real party I ever went to (ie the first with no adults present), I watched in despair as he carried his then girlfriend, who was wearing a risible schoolgirl outfit with a black lace garter, up the stairs for – what? I didn't know. I had a glass of wine and danced to Mad World, which in that teenage nightmare seemed to speak my life.

The pupils at my school seemed to specialise in psychological warfare – or is that every school? So yes, on reflection I am in no hurry to revisit those memories either; as this article about the Virginia massacre by Lionel Shriver (author of the disturbing, powerful book We Need to Talk About Kevin) says:

"For a lucky few, school and college are where we first distinguish ourselves. But for the majority, they are the site of first humiliation, subjugation and injury. They are almost always our first introduction to brutal social hierarchies, as they may also sponsor our first romantic devastation. What better stage on which to act out primitive retribution?"

6 comments:

Claire said...

I can only relate my experience of my class, two years above yours (at the same school, for anyone else reading this). I think each class at that school - or any school? - had its own personality. My classmates were somewhat more placid and amenable than yours, and although there were cliques, it wasn't as hard to be accepted. Things might have been different had one Fergus Anderson still been there.

mad ireland said...

Hello LottieP, Claire. I tend to agree with Philip Roth (in the example you gave) about these school reunion things - however recklessly brutal his assessment may seem.

Occasionally, I can convince myself that it would be a good idea, a chance to catch up - and can even become quite excited by the prospect.

Usually, though, the very idea simply makes me want to curl up and die. It just seems difficult to imagine what might be gained from such an event. If you haven't been in touch with someone for twenty years, it kind of seems likely that there is no real desire on either side for it to be otherwise, no?

Why meddle with sensible fate?

As for the psychological warfare, well, I just don't know. I feel certain, however, that it would not be a unique characteristic of your school. Children - and even young adults - are capable of being unthinkingly malicious. There is no real awareness of how their actions may affect others, no real empathy. This comes later, I think.

Incidentally, from where I'm standing, you seem to have done rather well not to hang outside that guy's house. The people that did hang around and fawn over him look rather weak and dim from here - no offence. Probably irritated the hell out of him. I just bet that he secretly liked you all the more for your distance and restraint, as well.

He's probably still waiting for you to call, in fact. That would be my hunch. Interesting post.

Kind regards etc....

LottieP said...

Hello, Mad Ireland, and thank you for your thoughtful comments.

I think you may be right about there not being any conscious malice, because a lot of the nastiness arises from a kill-or-be-killed defence mechanism: far better for it to be someone other than me who's flinching from the vitriol.

There's a story by Roald Dahl about a mob of kids who egg each other on to force a lonely bullied boy to kill a swan and then, after they've tied him to a railway line in the face of an oncoming train, force him - at the point of someone's big brother's air rifle - to climb a tree, the swan's bloodied wings tied to his arms, and jump.

He uses the wings to soar above their heads and away.

An unlikely denouement, but a satisfying one.

LottieP said...

PS Mad Ireland - thanks for the link - what an extraordinary picture of the Susten Pass in Switzerland on the website - it brings back all sorts of memories.

How did you guess that it was the school trip to Switzerland that was the time of my worst suffering?

mad ireland said...

Hello again, Lottiep.

Was the Roald Dahl story as clear cut as that? I don't remember Peter(?) soaring above his tormentors and flying away - although this would have been an entirely satisfactory ending. It is years and years since I read the thing, true, but I have a feeling that the ending was less certain, less satisfying, even. Room for doubt, in any event.

There is an astonishingly high chance that I may be wrong, of course - and it should be noted that I can't even recall the name of the story - but I seem to remember feeling pretty glum at the end of it. I may just have been feeling glum already, however, a distinct possibility, and allowed this mood to affect my take on things.

So - with some reservations - yes, that was a satisfying, if rather unlikely, denouement. We can agree on this, at any rate.

How did I guess about your school trip to Switzerland being an unhappy time for you? Or, indeed, that you even went on a school trip to Switzerland in the first place? Hmm. Good question, Lottiep, very good question. Let's just put it down to female intuition, shall we?

I am intrigued, however, as to why this trip to Switzerland was so painful for you. This seems like a terribly sad way to have to remember a school trip.

Kind regards etc....

LottieP said...

The story actually seems to end ambiguously, I discovered when I checked, and no one knows whether or not the poor boy flew, or fell to his death as intended by his wicked interlocutors.

In my mind it was always clear that he flew.

Switzerland, and my experiences there, probably merits a blog entry of its own. I'll add it to the long list of self-indulgent blog musings I have planned.