In 1975, I began a five year ‘sentence’ at a Cheltenham College, a private boarding school, and lived in a house with 80 other teenage boys.
To enclose a load of young bucks from morning until night in a confined space is a recipe for disaster. Boys fight, even with their friends. The impulse to poke, punch, grab and wrestle is fueled by the need to flex some muscle and to show who is king of the forest.
Fear and intimidation were the order of the day, and if you were sensible, you swore your allegiance to the king and did his bidding. If you wanted to survive, you had to run with the pack and be seen to be loyal, obedient and one of the lads.
In the dormitory, there were three kings, all strapping lads who ruled the sweat room with a bullish swagger. During the day, I did my utmost to stay out of their way, but after lights out, there was no escape.
Their favorite trick was to ask someone in a higher year group to come into the dormitory as the lights were about to be turned out, and tell me the Housemaster wanted to see me. This was a command not to be ignored. It saw me wrapped in my dressing gown, descending the stairs and knocking on his study door.
Of course he didn’t want to see me, and I was sternly ordered back to bed. As I entered the darkened dormitory, I was greeted by the stinging lash of wet towels, and ran the gauntlet of pain that whipped me back to my bed.
Every boy was allocated a daily small bottle of milk, but there was no fridge to keep milk cold, so that in the summer-time, the contents turned to yogurt before anyone returned to the house. But all the bottles had to be emptied and cleaned out and left for collection the next day. Or – alternatively – smashed up and placed in my bed, creating a studded sheet of broken glass that embedded into my skin.
On one particularly terrifying night, after the usual pushing, punching and strangling, two of the three kings grabbed me and pushed me towards the window at the end of my cubicle.
The remaining one threw it open, and they tipped me up and over, each grabbing an ankle, before feeding me head-first out of the window, so that I was hanging outside, four flights up, and looking down at a concrete yard below and – if they dropped me – certain death.
I didn’t scream. I was too scared to scream. Scared that if I screamed they would let me fall. After seconds that felt like minutes, I was hauled back and left shaking and sobbing on the floor, as my tormentors smirked and strutted back their beds, to a round of congratulatory applause.
I had never felt so alone in my life.
You may ask, why didn’t you tell someone?
I did. I told my parents. I got down on my hands and knees and begged them to take me away from this hellish existence.
The answer was ‘no’.
I had got into a highly respected school, the fees were paid, the family legacy must be continued, and I had to stick it out. When I heard that nonsensical sentence, ‘it will make a man of you’, I knew that my plea had fallen on deaf ears.
So…alone. Absolutely alone.
If someone had told me that 20 years after leaving the classroom as a student I would be returning as a teacher, I would have laughed in their face.
I never trained nor qualified as a teacher, but – courtesy of a degree in Theatre Arts – I found myself employed as a permanent supply member of the drama department in a rough, tough secondary school in Bexley.
As I sat in the car park on my first day, a good hour before the school even opened, I said a prayer to whatever entity might be listening: ‘Please make me a good teacher. And help me make sure that no one has to go through what I did.’
And for 15 years, I have kept that promise.
This is an extract from A Marvellous Party, written by Ian Elmslie. It is published by and available from Ignite books.