So often I get told that “children needed to go to school to toughen them up, so they learn that life isn’t all rosy.”

I’ve heard this said what seems like a million times since I’ve been home-educating.  It ranks pretty highly along with the lack of socialisation and the mums can’t teach everything concerns,  as what to expect in a conversation with somebody that doesn’t understand home-ed.

As an aside, I seem to be in highly reflective mode lately.  I seem to be thinking a lot about my past, my childhood, my school days and how they have affected me.  I’ve been soul searching deeply, looking into past mistakes and what could have been done (if anything) to change things.  

Life is one long learning curve isn’t it?

So, when someone made this “toughening up” statement recently, in a very matter of fact of course I’m right sort of way, it got me thinking.  I have analysed it more than I have done previously.   In the past I have just shrugged it off as differing opinions, but this time it bothered me.  Not in a “oh my whole world is going to come crashing down” sort of bothered, but more in a “how did school toughen me up then?” sort of way.

So let’s find out.

If memory serves me correct, I went to nursery school at 4 years old.  I remember being blissfully happy playing on the see-saws outside in the garden, queuing respectfully for a turn on the slide,  and blowing bubbles in the washing up liquid paint.  I remember the days dwindling away with creating butterfly paintings, cross-stitching on plastic canvas, sewing funny shaped cuddly toys and preparing for my Angel role in the Nativity Play.  It was obvious I was going to be given that role – after all, I was your typical blonde haired “beauty” at that age, exceptionally well behaved due to pretty strict parenting, with good manners, and always perfectly turned out.  My mum took the uniform rules very seriously – pinafore dresses and knee high white socks, highly polished black shoes, hair was immaculately styled in “pig tail” bunches, or plaits.  I was no trouble at all.  I was quiet and loved reading and writing.   The teachers seemed to like me, and all was well with the world.

Moving on to Primary school.   I think I enjoyed it, but I can’t remember a huge amount about it.  I can remember various teachers, but can’t recall much about lessons and learning.  I can remember a great deal about fellow classmates, but can’t recall having many friends in class.  I don’t feel as if I fitted in.  I was painfully shy and quiet.  I didn’t know about fashions and what the current trend was.  In latter years of Primary, the girls around me were discussing celebrities and make up. I didn’t know who they were talking about and had never touched make up.  My hair was all wrong, and my front teeth were the size of tombstones.  I was still happily jumping over flower pot jumps in the garden pretending I was a Show-Jumper, oblivious to the fact that others were growing up fast and playing with dolls was no longer the done thing.

During those years I clearly recall two occasions that sound so silly now, but I know have impacted my life.  First was when two boys sitting on the same table as myself talked to me.  Now I would have been around 9 or 10 years old at this time, and I clearly remember the joy I felt that someone was talking to me.  I talked back smiling, and promptly got hit on the hand hard with a ruler by the teacher for talking in class.   I was horrified.  Embarrassed.  Confused.  I was a “good girl”, never in trouble before.  It was a shock.  Those boys never spoke to me again and I never tried to talk to others.

The second incident was when I had finished my lesson work early.  Two other girls had finished theirs too (they were the “top 2” in the class).  We were asked to help the teacher to create a wall display, and this included cutting out lots of signs.  I didn’t know that we were meant to cut outside of the lines, as the lines were actually part of the design.  I happily spent an hour or so cutting with the other 2 doing the same.  The next morning I went into class and was greeted by a very angry teacher.  In front of the class I was belittled and made to feel stupid.  Apparently the teacher had painstakingly drawn around each sign and was very cross that I had cut  in the wrong place, I should have kept to the outside of the lines.  It was me, she was sure of it as “C and E would definitely have not made such a stupid mistake”.   Thanks.  Self-esteem plummeted to the depths as I could hear the class giggling at my misfortune, I remember feeling incredibly hot, blushing awfully, and wishing the ground would swallow me up forever. 

I’m not saying that Primary school was a bad experience for me.  It wasn’t that bad, I just remember feeling incredibly lonely and confused at times.  I do remember struggling to live up to teacher expectations.  I was following in the footsteps of my brother.  The brother that had academically excelled in everything he attempted (he was part of the debating team, the law and order team, the football team, the swimming team, the travelling drama crew… and…well, you get the idea). He went on to pass his 11 plus exam and thus entered Grammar School.  On more than one occasion I heard the “Oh, you are nothing like your brother are you??” when I failed to understand something or answer a question correctly.

No big deal you might say, and I would ordinarily agree.  But for some reason experiences such as these have haunted me.  I can see that I doubt my ability to do things even to this day. Do you know that it is only in the past 5 years or so that I have become comfortable with making people cups of tea? I fretted that it would be too strong, too weak, not sweet enough, too much milk etc etc.  I panic over silly things being “right”, and would often rather not try things than get them wrong and make a fool of myself. 

My self-esteem plummeted to beyond recognition.

My first year of Secondary school was spent at an all-girls school.  I liked that school.  I felt quite popular.  I got along with everyone and felt part of things.  I did well in the classes, didn’t find the work difficult, and felt that I could just be me.  None of the teachers had any expectations of my abilities as my brother hadn’t been there before me.  Sad then, that the last day of this school is so ingrained in my memory as a bad day.  It was school sports day and I had been chosen to compete in the 1500 metres for my team.  I loved running, just like my dad.  I sprinted around the track and won with ease.  Instead of celebrations I was met by angry girls.  Why?  Because one of my fellow racers behind me was crying as she had lost despite trying so hard.  Her humiliation and disappointment was there for all to see, and that made everyone feel sorry for her.  Even my fellow team mates thought I was the bad guy.  The last words that echo in my mind are “You could have let her win…” from a so-called friend of mine.  I felt guilty, I felt bad, I felt sorry that I had caused her such upset.  It was something I had never experienced before as the kind, loving, caring child I always tried to be.  I just wanted everyone to be happy.  

Then we moved house.  Not just to a new house, but to a new County.  At 12 we moved from Birmingham to Devon, to live by the sea.  I was sad to leave, but excited.  I dreamed of a new life with lots of new friends.  A clean slate.  Oh dear.

I started in the 2nd year of my new school.  There were 3 new girls in the class that year.  Immediately the other two paired off and became friends.  I was laughed at.  My skirt (that mum had chosen as suitable) was too long and unfashionable as it was knee-length and a bit flared, my knee high white socks were childish, my shoes were of the “sensible” flat round toed variety when the fashion was for sharp pointy toes and kitten heels.  I wore a “proper crisp white shirt” and my tie was worn correctly, with a large knot.   My hair – well, my beautiful blonde hair was a great source of amusement.  Why?  Because I didn’t have a fringe.  I was laughed at and taunted.  “Slaphead” was the norm.  I was heartbroken.  I had so many dreams of new starts and being popular, but it wasn’t to be.  I didn’t talk to my parents about it, although I did beg my mum to cut me a fringe.  She wouldn’t.   I just muddled on through the days and got on with things as best I could.  One day (embarrassing confession time), I sneaked a can of hair spray into my school bag.  I got down the road on my way to school and tried to make a fringe.  I put a side parting in my hair and tried to stick my hair into a side sort of fringe.  Obviously it looked hideous, and I was taunted all the more.  I can laugh at my foolishness now, but I was so desperate to be liked!  I went on to sneaking a shorter, more fashionable skirt into my bag and changing on the way to school.  I started to wear the usual casual polo shirts instead of the crisp white button up ones, hiding the fact under my jumper and praying mum didn’t notice.  I rolled my knee high socks down around my ankles, and took a change of shoes.  All this deceit in an attempt to fit in.  I was torn between pleasing my mum and wanting friends.  I chose to turn against my mum and work hard on the friends bit, hoping it would lead to a happier school day. 

I haven’t yet mentioned that I wore glasses. My eyesight was (is) very bad.  I couldn’t read any of the blackboard without glasses.  But, my glasses were awful.  They were the free NHS prescription frames that my mum thought were lovely.  They would do the job and that was that.  I would never argue with my mum.  Even when she told me to wear bright lime green flares and a matching waistcoat – I wouldn’t argue.  I cringed and sobbed inside, but wanted to please my mum and make her happy.  So there I was with a choice to make.  Do I put my “Dame Edna” lookalike glasses on (I kid you not, I wish I was!) knowing that my peers would tear me apart for the rest of my school days, or do I just pretend that I can see perfectly well thank you, and spend hours pretending to copy text and diagrams from the board.  I did the latter.  Wearing glasses was bad enough, but who would want to look like Roz from Monsters Inc in their early teenage years?

You can imagine the mess this got me into it – I struggled to keep up, I couldn’t revise for exams, I was a big fat failure because peer pressure and trying to conform was more important to me than grades.  Looking back it’s crazy, stupid of course – hindsight is the most wonderful of things.

Actually, I went on to College, and after handing in essay after essay and getting very good scores, my tutor checked my file for school exam results and couldn’t believe how low they were in comparison to the high standard that I was achieving at college.  The difference being there was very little copy board work to be done at College, simple.

I have barely touched on my “bullying” experiences in the Secondary school.  I haven’t told you about the amount of times I was forced to run home as fast I could because a gang of girls were chasing me with cries of “let’s get her, let’s punch her in the face”.  Why did they want to do this?  Because I was an ugly slaphead of course.  I didn’t get into arguments; I was too quiet and shy.  My hair was blonde and my skin was fair, so I got labelled as an “ugly weird albino”.  Despite being good at sports, I was always the last to be picked for teams – along with the fat girl.  I remember turning up at the first school disco I went to, in an outfit that my mum had bought for me specially – a short flary skirt and smart short sleeved jacket.  I liked it.  Sadly nobody else did.  Everyone else had dressed in jeans and t-shirts and I was devastated.  I got called a snob and posh, I was pushed into, laughed at, and learnt it was easier to just hide away in the corner where no-one would see me.  Numerous times I got caught in the toilets by the girl gangs, and humiliated.  I would stop going to the loo during the school day, holding my toilet needs in until it was oh so  very uncomfortable – but I’d rather do that than risk a beating or humiliation session.  I started faking illness – stomach aches or headaches to enable me to leave school 10 minutes early.  Every day for weeks I did this, it was so important for me to be given that 10 minute head start before my enemies.  I actually started to have real migraines – with visual disturbances and sickness, it was actually quite relief to be suffering as it meant no school or shorter days. 

I could go on and on, but I won’t.  I think I’ve confessed enough.

So, did all of this “toughen me up”?

No.  It made me feel inadequate.  It made me worry about what I look like, how I dress, how my hair is styled, and if I fit in.  It closed doors for me academically as I didn’t get the results I was more than capable of achieving, and meant that making friends for me has been difficult.  I didn’t want to admit that I was struggling.  I didn’t want to let my parents down.  The peer pressure to conform and the expectations put upon me by the “one size fits all” system, added to these inadequacies.

It is only in recent years that my confidence has grown and my “don’t care what people think” attitude has been born.   But, I still struggle.  In the back of my mind are those inadequacies.  I ask myself often why people want to spend time with me.  I think I must be boring to others.  I won’t ask people to join me for days out etc, for fear of rejection.  Those that know me will recognise the fact that I struggle to even name a day and time to meet up for fear of getting it wrong.

Over-reacting? Maybe.  Over-sensitive?  Most definitely.  But, I am not alone.  I have spoken to many people over the years that have struggled with the same feelings and experiences.  So much so that it is probably deemed as almost normal.  Does this make it ok?  I don’t think so.

My children don’t need to be toughened up by such a “survival of the fittest” institution.  I don’t need them to experience humiliation and belittling to prove that life isn’t always rosy thank you.  My children learn from life.  They aren’t protected from society.  They (talking about the older ones in particular here) know all about drug use, alcohol abuse, divorce rates, dysfunctional families, unfairness in the workplace, financial difficulties etc etc.  How?  Because they have their eyes wide open.  They live life in the same world as the rest of us.  They read newspapers and watch news reports, then ask questions.  We talk, we discuss, we find out more.  I help them learn what they want to know.  They don’t need to be pinned down by three girls while a fourth punches and kicks them.  What will that teach them?  At best how to report and deal with a violent attack and how not to put yourself in such a situation again, at worst how to fight back and make people fear you through violent threats and behaviour.  How many times does the bullied become the bully?  Thanks but no thanks.

So, please no more “toughening them up” tales – I don’t want to hear any more.  If my children choose to go to school, it will be because they feel ready to face it.  They will make up their own mind and understand that school won’t be all wonderful and rosy – but that it can offer them opportunities too.  They aren’t kept inside a bubble, and actually, until they read this posting (if indeed they do), they know nothing about my school experiences as I have never mentioned them.  My children have seen my struggles financially and heard about us debating work choices and home-ed.  They have lived through their dad losing their job and the unfairness of the law and employees rights.  They have also seen first hand the bullying at the bus stop by the children waiting for the school bus where we used to live, and they have witnessed the police at our door enquiring about it.  They have seen their mum crying for days in absolute despair when a so called friend backstabbed her and turned her world upside down.  They have experienced first hand the cruelness of their own peers when they have been taunted as they try to enjoy themselves down at the park – but they have dealt with it, talked with me about it, and I am mighty proud of them.

My children are under no illusions.  They know they have to take the good times and the bad.  They know that some people will like them, and some people won’t.  They understand that life will be easy and hard at differing times, that they can be lucky and unlucky. They are fully aware that life will throw up situations that they will struggle to deal with.  But, they are prepared.  They haven’t been battered and bullied in order to be prepared, they have been loved, nurtured, and had their self-esteem protected in order for them to face the world and whatever life throws at them.