Michele Hanson: I felt a bit of an outcast and left in a fury at 16
My school days were not a bundle of laughs. I went to a rather strict girls’ grammar school in the 50s, where the often ferocious teachers wore tweeds, brogues, and stiff, grim hairstyles with the occasional grey sausage curls. Our uniform was deeply unattractive, and I was tall, stooping, asthmatic and rubbish at lacrosse. And I chewed my handkerchiefs to ribbons in class. Very odd. I did have some best friends, but not in the main, popular gang, who knew all about sex. I did not. So I felt a bit of an outcast, all the more so because Jews were not allowed into assembly. We stayed in a classroom and filed in at the end for notices. A line of sore thumbs.
But there were silver linings. We Jews got an extra half hour to finish our homework during assemblies, I never had to sing There Was a Green Hill Far Away, which I could hear through the wall, and which gave me the creeps. Better still, the asthma got me out of stinking lacrosse, and although the illustrations in our library copy of Michelangelo had fig-leaves over the rude bits, we found the Miller’s Tale, which perked us all up. And not all of the teachers were Gorgons. Some were excellent, particularly the art, history and English teachers, and I loved those subjects. That’s what I wanted to do when I grew up. But instead I was forced to do science and geography. Horrid. I hated every minute of it, only just scraped through my public exams, got half an hour’s Latin detention for jumping down three steps into the garden, and rebelled. I left in a fury at 16 and went to art school, where I did, at last, spend some of the best days of my life.
Tim Lott: I was a big fish in a small pool – to be a schoolboy is wondrous
I find it impossible to say what the “happiest days of my life” were, since I know that perspective on the past is impossibly distorted by the present, and that the span of time is so great and the complications so numerous, it makes even making a guess an activity verging on the spurious.
School days for me were like the rest of my life since, a mixture of the pleasurable and the torturous. The pleasurable parts are easy enough to identify – the commonality of being part of a group (my secondary school had only 400 pupils, my primary even fewer), the simple fun of being young, the imminence (if in fantasy only) of sex, advertised by the precocious girls of the fifth and sixth forms.
I don’t know how that can be set off against the downside – first and foremost the unutterable boredom of my suburban, rather working-class grammar school.
The teachers were largely of that post-war generation that still held to military values. They were dried out, bitter and boring for the most part, and sometimes violent.
Sitting through a physics, chemistry or mathematics lesson was a numbing experience for me, and I often fell asleep (my problem compounded by the fact that I had to get up every morning at 6am to do a paper round). I was also depressed not only by the cruelty of the teachers towards the children, but the children towards the teachers – I remember the relentlessness of the mob towards any inadequate “call me Dave” student teacher. Anyone who was overweight, inept or disabled, teacher or student, would be mercilessly teased. No wonder Lord of the Flies was my favourite book at that time.
However, once I had found my legs, at the age of 14, I became a big fish in a small pool – cocky, cleverer than most and, most important of all, popular. To be a schoolboy is wondrous in this way chiefly – to know where you fit, to be part of a community, and feel the future in front of you. The happiest days of my life? No.
But probably the most secure, the most comfortable and the most easily mythologised.
Lola Okolosie: You couldn’t pay me to relive my school days. I’m happiest now
School days were most definitely not my happiest. Even leaving aside my troubled family life, I pity my teenage self. You couldn’t pay me to relive it. The incessant worry about where I did or did not fit in, the feelings of isolation and the pathological belief that only those who had had sex were actually living are not things I miss particularly.
I am, as schmaltzy as it may sound, happiest now: in my mid-30s, greying, with my partner of more than a decade and two kids, saddled with mortgage and student debts. All of this is terribly unglamorous, I know. But my life is my own. I care a lot less about what people I don’t even like think of me; it is a wonderful freedom. Most of the young people I come across aren’t there yet, expending almost limitless energy on where they are placed in the social pecking order. And it takes being an adult to recognise what a waste of time all that really is.
Yet all this isn’t to say I no longer experience anxiety – retaining a sense of self while being a parent isn’t exactly a walk in the park. Now, though, I can place my feelings in context, recognise that I can’t be in control of it all and laugh at life’s absurdity. Only experience, good and bad and everything in between, gives you such perspective. I’ve earned my grey hairs thank you very much; I won’t be wishing them away. Well, not just yet at least.
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett:I’m not sure I believe in pure, unadulterated happiness. There are always anxieties
I’m always suspicious of those who say their happiest time was at school – you peaked at 15, really? It implies a fundamentally disappointing adulthood, which is sad.
But then perhaps I’m biased because I had a pretty horrible time of it at school, at least at first. In year 7 I was bullied constantly – mainly for having an autistic brother. They used to imitate the noises he made on the bus home from school. I was singularly miserable, and used to hide in the toilets.
I was moved to a new school but still struggled to fit in. Being a young carer, with all the stresses that entails, meant I felt somewhat removed from my classmates, who were mucking about in ways that I would never have dreamed of – my mum had enough to deal with and so I kept my head down.
Saying that, when I started my GCSEs things started to get better. I met a group of friends – boys and girls – with whom I got on. Most importantly (for how else do you define yourself as a teenager, if not through musical taste?) they shared my love of The Strokes. The last three summers of my school days were spent going to festivals, swimming in the sea, and getting stoned in barns and caravans belonging to other people’s parents. It gave me a taste of freedom that prompted my decision to move to Paris, alone, as soon as I turned 18. I was a waitress, free of all responsibility. I lived alone and loved it. It was a magical year.
I suppose if I had to, I’d choose that as the time when I was happiest, but the exercise feels arbitrary. There were always anxieties, as there are for most people. I’m not sure I believe in pure, unadulterated happiness. The closest I’d come to describe it is a period of living in the moment, when you’re not consumed by the desire for more, where you smile more than you frown. Right now, I wish I earned more and am annoyed I’ll probably never afford to buy a house. Which is why I’d choose my late teens, when the days were long and all that mattered was the here and now.
Stephen Moss: What mainly comes back are the moments of fear
When was I happiest? Always and never, perhaps. And I’m not just talking about school days here – I mean in life. I can remember half a dozen euphoric, transcendent moments – best not disclose what they were – which you replay over and over in your mind. Moments of sheer bliss when everything, briefly, seemed to make sense. Most of the rest is dull uniformity: getting by, getting on, doing your best, surviving.
I don’t remember much transcendence at school. I was very reluctant to go to primary school – I had to be wrenched away from my ultra-protective mother. You didn’t go to school till the age of five in those days; I’d never been to nursery, had no brothers and sisters (a brother arrived later), and probably found being with other children alarming. I was slow to learn, and couldn’t read till I was six or seven.
The thought of going to secondary school – a comprehensive with 2,000 pupils at the top of a steep bank – was terrifying. Being thrown down the bank was a rite of passage, and when it happened to me I was in pain for a fortnight afterwards. But slowly you learned the rules – mainly the boys to whom you had to give a wide berth – and it became bearable.
I haven’t thought about my school days for years, and as I do so now what mainly comes back are moments of fear: the time a thief planted someone’s stolen watch in my pocket to try to frame me; the occasion I locked my swimming kit in the science lab and couldn’t get to the pool on time; the time my class went to the theatre and someone put chewing gum in the hair of a girl sitting in the row in front of mine. I must have been like that boy in Kes who gets caned by the headmaster when he hasn’t done anything. Random injustice stalked and terrified me. I hated not being in control.
Around the age of 12 I got promoted to the so-called “grammar stream” (it was a comp that set children according to perceived ability), fell in with a boy who was very academic and became highly competitive. After that I just worked. I would get home at 5pm and spend every night doing homework – on the dining-room table, half-watching the TV. Hopelessly inefficient, but it did the job. I’ve no idea what drove me to work so hard, but something did. Children are absurdly conservative.
The sixth form I did enjoy. We had our own room, were doing A-level subjects we had chosen and could cope with. Getting rid of chemistry – to which I had devoted about 90% of my O-level revision in a bid to get a decent grade – was a source of joy. I was made head boy in my final year, but blotted my copybook by being discovered playing cards in the common room when I should have been at assembly. This was no random injustice – I was guilty as charged. The headmaster, whose former job was in the Sudanese civil service and who ran the school as a branch of empire, was not best pleased, though he did write on my final report that I would be chairman of ICI one day. I still have time of course.
Anne Perkins: I remember it as a kind of servitude, a prison sentence
Many years after I had left school, I drove past the bus shelter where I used to hang around for the school bus. Quite unexpectedly, I was gripped by an awful sense of misery and my adult self finally grasped that for five whole years between being a scrawny 11-year-old in crooked NHS glasses to being a cocky 16-year-old with my tunic hoicked up to just below my knickers, I was bored.
It was largely my fault. If you put more effort into not doing homework than doing it, persistently read under the desk, and giggle and whisper with anyone you can distract, no teacher is going to trouble over you much. Mostly, they didn’t, and I didn’t. I remember the sum of my Latin O-level revision was conducted on the 25-minute bus journey to school the morning of the exam.
I suppose the happy times myth is based on the idea that these are the days of innocence before jobs, mortgages, babies etc. But I remember it more as a kind of servitude, more of a prison sentence than an adventure in intellectual development. It wasn’t that kind of school anyway, more preoccupied with pass marks than inspiration.
I often wonder what could have made things different. I think what might have been most influential was to have come from a family that valued education instead of having to find out some time later how wonderful it actually is. School might have been happier and it certainly would have been more productive. But I still can’t imagine it being better than being grown up.
As I tentatively, after a number of years away, poke my toes back into the shark-infested waters of the teaching world and start some private tuition next week, I’m surrounded by what feels like hundreds of documents from the new national curriculum – it focuses on a more ‘traditional’ approach apparently. As I update myself on the latest advice and wade through end of year expectations, performance descriptors and the new assessment procedures, I’m reminded why I do not want to return to the classroom. I still want to teach, yes. But I really dislike the ‘one size fits all’ approach. I hope by working on a 1:1 level with students I can get to know each of them individually and ensure that their learning is engaging and enjoyable.
Though that still leaves me wondering about those children in mainstream classrooms that, however hard they try, they just can’t quite fit in to the rigid school environment. Square pegs in round holes. The ones, like my grandfather, that have an innate ability to play around with language, yet their creativity is being stifled by the need for neat handwriting and correctly punctuated work. Or those that struggle to even put pen to paper while at the same time being incredibly intelligent. Are they failures by the time they are eleven because they are unable to reach the age appropriate requirements? Surely not.
I think I feel so passionately about this subject because my own experience of school, as a whole, was pretty negative and has affected how I view myself, even as an adult. I struggled academically and had very poor co-ordination so had to work exceptionally hard. Luckily, I am very stubborn and tenacious and eventually caught up and progressed relatively well. Though, looking back, if I had the chance to take certain exams a year or two later I may have got higher grades and achieved more. My parents did their best to support me, however, I’ve always felt like the ‘dummy’ of the family, especially in comparison to my very clever older brother.
So when, thirty or so years later I saw my own son Charlie becoming disengaged and unhappy at school, I felt quite sick – was history repeating itself? The school had called me in to discuss all the problems he was having. He couldn’t hold his pencil correctly, use scissors to cut neatly and he was taking too long to get changed for PE. They also told me that he was painstakingly shy and never put his hand up. Oh yes, and, even though he could read fluently, they told me he wasn’t able to comprehend what he was reading. I was desperately upset, as this was not the Charlie we knew and, to be honest, they were talking complete rubbish. An educational psychologist was called in and, as it turned out, he concluded that Charlie had a very high IQ and was just thoroughly bored.
We eventually moved Charlie to another school and though not perfect, (nowhere ever will be I suspect), it’s much better. They treat him as an individual and recognise his strengths. He’s happy and he’s thriving. Work is at a higher level and his co-ordination difficulties are being addressed.