Altiora in Votis

These words were sprayed in two foot high white letters along the redbrick fascia of my school on a major trunk route through North London. I would imagine that tens of thousands of people saw this heartfelt statement, because even though the school authorities did their best to scrub away the obscenity, the letters remained visible as ghosts on the brick beneath the tall Victorian classroom windows for many years afterwards.

I often wondered about the motivation for this graffiti. "Giles" was the Headmaster and an inoffensive figurehead whom I always thought of as a bit like a cut-price version of a minor member of the royal family. I didn't consider such an ineffectual individual worthy of such bile. Furthermore the words had been written, so it was whispered, by a boy who had been expelled for some misdemeanour or other. I really didn't understand this. As far as I was concerned being at the school was a nightmare, the claustrophobic half-hearted-gothic buildings a hell on Earth, a hell that still haunts my dreams to this day. Surely expulsion was a blessing, not a curse?

Let me say that I am sure that in these enlightened days things are a lot better there. For a start the school now admits girls and their civilizing nature no doubt has made a huge difference. Furthermore these days you simply can't get away with treating the young in the way they were treated back then, the fear of litigation and accusation means that teachers now have to walk on eggshells.

But back then it was a different story. In the 1970s and 80s it was a male-only preserve of institutionalised bullying, physical assault and soft paedophilia.

The abuse started in the Junior School. I joined at the age of 10 so I had no idea what went on with the even younger boys, but in retrospect what used to go on during our sports afternoons was disturbing enough in itself.

The first thing that struck me as odd even at the time was the "No Underpants" rule. It was forbidden to wear underpants beneath your football shorts. Forbidden. This mean that when getting changed into our kit we were obliged to strip down to the genitals in front of one or two leering "Masters", all of whom we had to address as "Sir". I remember one boy's attempted justification of this frankly bizarre rule - something about the risk of falling over and mud shooting up your leg onto your y-fronts. I wasn't convinced. At the time it just appeared to be a pointless rule, in retrospect it seems to have been implemented purely to provide the staff with specialised erotic entertainment.

It was bad enough having to then spend what felt like a couple of days standing ankle deep in a patch of freezing mud and grass with no underwear whilst bigger boys kicked a large heavy leather sphere at you, but even when this ordeal was over there was no respite. Back in the changing room the Master who'd been in charge of the game would more often than not decide to warm himself up on the boys, sliding his large bony hands up their football shirts and grinning at the shrieking distress this caused. We then had to strip off entirely and all pile into a bath like a miniature swimming pool where the lukewarm water turned black with the mud from our legs whilst the Master stood by watching intently.

I am sure this experience has a lot to do with my adult dislike of sport in general and football in particular.

By the time we graduated into the senior school the teachers could no longer get away with this kind of thing quite so easily. However, as one door closed, another one opened.

The first thing we had to do in the mornings was go to chapel and spend fifteen to twenty minutes being bored by lukewarm religious claptrap begin spouted by the school chaplain and headmaster himself. After that we'd have five minutes to get to our classroom for roll call before finding our way through the maze of wood panelled passages through which Masters stalked in their dusty black gowns, to whichever of the classrooms in which our first lesson was due to take place. We had to go to them, they wouldn't come to us.

The tall chambers in which the classes took place were shrouded in gloom, the narrow windows too high to reach. Ancient radiators clogged with thick white paint emitted a dull intense heat and odd-smelling fumes which mixed with the smell of chalk dust and furniture polish to produce a unique odour which if bottled and sold would no doubt go under the name Essence of Despair.

It was the sarcasm that really used to get me down though.

It is a commonly held belief that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit. However, strangely this information seemed to have passed all the Masters by because whenever they were delivering what I am sure they imagined were witheringly sardonic putdowns they acted so pleased with themselves. And yet the idea that they simply hadn't heard this common aphorism was simply too ridiculous to bear in mind. Come on, everyone had heard it. Even children at the school having withering sarcasm ladled out to them by the steaming bowlful by officious pricks in chalk dust stained dull green suits.

Sometimes of course the sarcasm wasn't a devastating enough weapon which is when they'd decide to use the board rubber as a projectile. Ninety-nine percent of the time they missed. For all their bluster and barking from the side of the athletics field they couldn't have hit a barn door.

Looking back now from the vantage point of the present it's clear that most of them were no-hopers, the only thing going for them a modicum of power over a collection of small boys. Having failed in all other arenas of life all they could hope for was the minor pleasure to be gained from scoring points over a thirteen year old child who was forbidden to answer back anyway or perhaps the vicarious thrills gained from lurking in the toilets trying to catch a glimpse of a young penis or three.

The oppressed hit downwards. Many of the more unpleasant pupils decided to vent their frustration at being bullied and abused by the teachers by themselves bullying and abusing the smaller and odder boys.

Unfortunately at the time I was both small and odd...


Anonymous said…
Interesting, I was there in the early 70's, and just in the senior school apart from a few weeks in junior school, and my experience was totally different to yours as are many of the people I know that went there.
Catmachine said…
It just goes to show how subjective such things can be... A lot may well be to do with the luck of the draw with regard to who one's fellow classmates were and which teachers one had for which subjects.
Anonymous said…
Can relate to the description given. It was fencing that kept me sane and some insane arty types. I have mixed feeling of school and just glad I learned to stand up to the bullying which at one point nearly destroyed me.
Anonymous said…
The no underpants rule was very common in many schools at that time.The reason was both hygene and cost.
Boys could not be relied to change underpants after sport and any way it is far healhtier for young boys to have fresh air around the genital area which would spot the sweating which could cause colds and flu.
The austerity of the war years was also a revelant recent memory when many soldiers 'went commando'.The rule also saved costs of additional clothing.
Anonymous said…
Can't believe I found this by googling "Giles is ..." following a fund-raising call from a very affable and charming OC. I declined to contribute. I do have some good memories from my last couple of years, but the rest was hell and every word you say rings true with me. Giles (nice word portrait of him by the way), I believe, left very suddenly and under a cloud. One teacher was certainly imprisoned shortly thereafter; many were deeply dodgy. Some, on the other hand, were decent and inspirational. I am sure, as you say, it is a much better place now and those were very different times. But it is still incredible to me how much was brushed under the carpet.
It was quite a day when those words appeared on the wall for all to see.
Your descriptions of the classrooms, the smell, made me shudder and they haunt me too. So glad someone has written about this.

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