A bleary-eyed, hazily-written-at-7am blog post about my experiences at an all boys’ secondary school in the 90s. Please just be aware the blog talks about bullying, mental health, anxiety and has some strong language...
I’m up early this morning. Another horrible, horrible sweat-drenched dream – they happen most nights now.
I’m back at my secondary school, 17 again, but this time I’m trying to leave in my husband’s new car. The exits are blocked and I’m driving around the car parks, lost. There are throngs of students around me, in the various car parks that seem to surround the school, lining up for buses, sneering, laughing at me. I’m terrified if I even start driving, I’ll brush against them or scrape the car and everyone will laugh at me. Everyone is looking. I’m pushing my baby now in a pram and people are grasping at him.
When I had a breakdown at 30, it took a few months to articulate my secondary school experience and tell my counsellor. I remember saying, “This has nothing to do with secondary school. Nothing. Everyone gets bullied. It’s pathetic to even try and link this to school. Let’s talk about something else…”
She kept nudging of course. I’d reveal a few snippets here and I few snippets there and then gloss over them. So weak and gross to say, “Oh no, poor me, some kids were mean at school…”
There was the time in Year 7 when I was pushed up against the wall, a hand around my collar and throat, by a dinnerlady. I’d just started and making friends was proving difficult so had been sitting on my own in the lunch hall. A group of sixth formers crashed the table, gobbled up their food, boisterous, popular and having fun. They decided to leave all their trays on the table and mush up their leftover food. “You’re going to clean that up,” the dinnerlady snapped at me. “But it’s not mine…” When I got up from the table and walked away, she followed me, grabbed my collar and pushed me up against the wall and shouted in my face. I was crying and so, so frightened. I ran to the school office and the very kind receptionist called for the Headmaster. “Well, Eagleton, if I asked you to pick up some litter on the floor, don’t you think it’s your duty, as part of the community, to do so?” I knew then that I was alone. What the hell was this place?
Something else that was terrifying to articulate to my counsellor was when a group of boys would sit in class, on the back row, whispering my name. Constantly. Through the entire lesson they would whisper. Ian. Ian. Iaaannnn. Iiiaaannnn. Over and over. It developed into them doing it everywhere I went. When I was getting changed for P.E, in the library, lunch hall, waiting for the bus. Every day. It is possibly the single most terrifying thing I have experienced. You keep your head down, don’t look anyone in the eye and pray for the end of the lesson, for the day to be over. Then you’d return home to find your Grandad has died and your Mum has breast cancer and it’s best to keep quiet because everyone is dealing with things and it is so degrading to tell anyone that everyone hates you and that you are gay. What a failure.
There was so much more that happened to me: pushes, shoves, nudges, sneers, glares, rumours, looks of disgust, poof, fudge packer, just ignore them Eagleton, sniggers, are you gay? sitting in the toilets at break, terrified, skipping class, queer, why are you so quiet? you talk like a girl, hiding at home, not eating, eating too much, whispers, fag, backs against the walls lads, you look like a girl, do you fancy me or something, urgh, don’t come near me, backs of feet kicked so I trip, are you gay? are you gay? just ignore them Eagleton, crying on the floor outside the garage, we think your son has OCD and needs some help, quickly… but perhaps the most sickening, most othering thing to happen was being spat at.
I’d kissed a boy in a club many miles away where no one could see, away from school, safe. Except someone did see and that someone told someone else and suddenly everyone’s suspicions and name-calling and brutality was justified. So I was spat at. You disgusting fag. To be spat at is one of the most repugnant, degrading experiences that can happen to you. Such hatred and disregard. No better than an animal or dirt. By that time, I was so scared, anxious, heart-racing, silenced that I said nothing. Everyone cheered and laughed and I said nothing. What a horrible thing to happen to you as a teenager, juggling your identity, working out you’re gay.
I returned to my secondary school last year. Head held high, heart hammering, sweating. I had a tour of the school and met the new Headmaster, who was the Head of Sixth form when I was there. I asked him what they did now to ensure they supported their LGBT+ student. My dad sat in the car, waiting, waiting. “We are so sorry for how badly we let you down. I was there and we let you down,” the Headmaster said. Is that a crack in his voice? Not my problem, not my problem. I’m here for me.
A few glimmers of hope throughout the school years – art and poetry and writing and Mariah Carey songs and The Tempest and some kind friends who stuck, stuck by but never knew.
The dog’s curled up next to me snoozing, dreaming, the husband has sleepy-whispered, “Yes, please…”. That’s his signal for a morning coffee. The fat cat Thomas is tucked gracefully on the floor, paws intertwined. Another dream tonight? Possibly. Probably. I’m hoping one day I won’t have this pain every day in my chest, fear bubbling, twitching feet during a film, panic attacks, eyes darting everywhere for signs of danger.
I’m hoping one night I will return and drive that car through the throngs of snarling students, that I’ll escape. I’m hoping my child only ever knows love and hope and acceptance. I’m hoping I can look someone, anyone in the eye and say, “F*ck you. F*ck you. You’re wrong about me. I get to decide now.” It will come, it will.
Until then, one step, then another. A dog walk, sunshine sunshine and books, a smile and drinknwith friends, a longed-for hug with family once again. A morning cup of coffee with the husband and dog and fat cat Thomas.