As I was clearing up some paperwork in the kitchen last night, I stumbled across an issue of the glossy magazine my old school occasionally sends out to its former pupils. In spite of myself, I can’t help but have a quick flick through, even though I know that it’s only going to annoy me.
I am, you understand, a product of that hoary old British tradition: the public school. Even though I left the place some twenty-three years ago – more than half my lifetime - it apparently still has the power to make me feel nervous and uncomfortable. I look at those pictures of happy, privileged children and I feel a surge of self-loathing and resentment. I realise this says more about me than about my alma mater.
I don’t come from a particularly wealthy background: my dad was a doctor working for the NHS in General Practice and my mother was a nurse who had become the full-time mother to three boys. Clearly, we were better off than some, but in order to afford a fee-paying school for their children, my parents made sacrifices (many of which I've only really begun to appreciate as I've got older). Where my fellow pupils were heading off to Florida in the summer holidays, if we went anywhere at all, we usually went to stay with my grandparents in Devon (where my father’s father used to run a pub in the Plymouth naval docks). It probably also helped that I sat some exams and was awarded a scholarship which meant that we got a discount on fees and I got my name in capital letters in the school directory.
I attended the school at the tail end of a long period of under-investment and the buildings were in various states of disrepair. In addition, academic standards were low, perhaps because the school accepted anyone who had the money to pay the fees and didn’t apply any minimum criteria. Scholastic achievement was generally considered poor form and, with hindsight, I’m not sure that the teaching was up to much either. I spent five years there, and the only time I’ve been back since was to attend a friend’s wedding. I don’t like to talk about it very much and I am perfectly happy if no one ever finds out that I attended a school anything like it.
You’d imagine that must be because I had a terrible time, but that simply isn’t true. For better or for worse, that school played an absolutely critical role in making me the person that I am today. My very best friends are all – almost without exception – people that I met there. So why do I have such a violent dislike of the place? Because I hate people’s preconceptions of public schools and I hate it when they are applied to me; I hate it when I run into some of the people I used to go to school with and when they prove that many of those preconceptions are rooted in reality (We barely spoke at school and certainly haven't seen each other in more than twenty years. Tell me: am I likely to want to be your friend on Facebook?). I hate the faux-nostalgia for the place that people seem to have. If those were the best years of your life, then actually I think I feel sorry for you. As I flick through the magazine, it is filled with pictures and reports from reunion events: 40 years; 25 years; 1 year…. Pictures of people wearing the old school tie with brackets after their name in the caption detailing the house and years they attended. (C 87-92). They are in networking clubs in London, Dubai, Hong Kong; they are at golf tournaments and fundraisers (the school, which currently charges fees in excess of £10,000 a term*, has charitable status). They are in government….. It represents a world that I want nothing to do with and I’m a little embarrassed to have ever been a part of, even through no choice of my own**.
I met some amazing people at the school, people I’m proud to call my friends, but I tend to think of us as survivors rather than alumni.
* This is a **lot** more than they charged when I was a pupil. They charged enough then, but this seems ridiculous and doesn't even include things like uniforms. It's a better school now, I'm sure.... but holy cow, that's a lot of money.
** I should be absolutely clear, if it needs saying, that my parents were only doing what they thought was best. You don't send a seven year old child away to board lightly. At least, I hope they didn't.
3 days ago