Friday, 15 June 2012

My life in a boys' school - and why I can do press-ups

I was born in a school. Literally. A boys' boarding school. And thus began a strange childhood spent entirely in all-boys' schools, in the depths of various parts of the country, with my father as my headmaster and both my parents teaching me English, maths, French, science, cricket and hockey. One day I'll write about it properly but not yet.

Let's just say I learnt to be tough. Let's also say that now I cherish the strangeness of those times, and think that it was, genuinely, character-building, and I'm actually not entirely dissatisfied with the character that it built. I spent a lot of time alone (but never lonely) and am now very good at that. In fact, I need a lot of space and time to myself. I do love being with my friends and family but I also like being with myself only. Despite what I'm about to say, I wouldn't wish to have had a different childhood and there were huge benefits, particularly in the holidays. Well, OK, only in the holidays!

There is one teacher I'd like to tell you about. He's dead now, and for that I'm not sorry. He was a brutal man. I've no idea what went into his childhood to make him so, but he certainly got great pleasure from tormenting me. He picked on me as the only girl, and he knew that I would never complain to my parents because he knew that I knew what would happen if I did. You didn't complain about a teacher in those days. Besides, for me that would be "running to daddy" and I certainly wasn't going to do that. It was unwritten but certain that I would not.

This man - we'll call him the captain, because he had been an army captain and still used the title - was cruel. His eyes were small and button-beady, his shape rotund and solid and chest-puffed, his face apple-cheeked, his nose bulbous and threaded and pitted with veins and pores, and he wore an ancient kilt that smelt of cigarettes and tweed. (Yes, he was Scottish but this school was in Yorkshire.) He taught history and geography. I was bad at both but never understood why. I just knew that for other subjects (well, apart from maths) I'd get high marks and praise, while for his subjects I was getting 20-30%. Every time I handed in the best work I could do, every time I hoped it would be a decent mark, and every time it came back with his acid, diminishing remarks and a mean grade.

I remember his hand-writing now - it was small, whip-tight and poisonous. Red, of course, and I even remember the kind of orange redness of it.

But there's something I remember more clearly. The PE lessons, because as an army captain wasn't he just the obvious person to be teaching PE to some boys and one girl? Brutal circuits we had to do and whoever came last or committed some invisible misdemeanour had the punishment of doing more. And press-ups and windmills. As many as he could make us do. You did them till you could do no more. And when you stopped, exhausted or with arm-muscles paralysed with pain, you felt a failure for not doing more.

That is not all I remember of the PE lessons. But all I will say about the rest is that I did learn to fight. And I don't mean verbally.

He was a cruel man and probably a sad one.

I have only one thing to thank him for: I can - and do - still do press-ups. Oh, and if anyone got me in a head-lock, I'd certainly know what to do.


  1. The thought of Crabbit doing headlocks is quite scary...please tell me you don't practise those on aspiring writers...?!(Although you might feel like it sometimes)

  2. I was born in a boys' boarding school, but my parents moved away when I was a baby. They told me it was for my benefit, although that probably wasn't their main reason. With hindsight, leaving the boarding school was the worst thing they could have done for me. If they'd stayed, we could have fought each other or done press-ups together.

  3. Elizabeth Dunn15 June 2012 at 20:43

    That sounds horrible. Childhood can be such hell. I had no problem running to daddy back then. Bit of a wimp I'm afraid but a total man-eater now.

    1. Funnily, I didn't really find it horrible. I think when you're a child you take things for granted more. I tend to be much more relaxed in female company now, though. It might have nothing to do with it, I suppose.

  4. I was not born in a school but both my parents were teachers. My father was the headmaster from late primary school onwards. My mother was a senior member of staff. My brother, sisters and I knew we could never "run to daddy" and running to mummy at anytime or anywhere was out of the question.
    I did not learn to do press-ups but I did learn life is unfair and never to rely on other people. Not a good lesson to learn.

  5. As a fitness instructor and avid gym exerciser, one of my pet peeves is that I cannot do press ups, due to a long-standing injury. It's a good skill to have though - just for impressing teenage boys who think women can't do anything, be proud!

  6. What's a press up??

    I found that having a mother teaching at my last school was useful. It meant that not only was I the only student not scared to death of the head, but my PE marks improved from very bad, to only a little bad, once the PE teacher discovered I belonged to her lunch companion.


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