The last time I went to school full-time was early 2008. Right now I am home-schooled. And also self-schooled. I get sent materials and I teach myself.
I have a complicated relationship with my old school. In my last three years before I was legally allowed to leave (16 in England), I had what’s called a “reduced timetable”—I would go to school very sporadically, because, to be honest, 80 percent of the time I hated school. It didn’t help that I had been diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis, aka chronic fatigue syndrome, with the bonus add-ons of anxiety and depression.
When I get anxiety it’s like the world becomes warped. I feel detached from everything. When I was in a regular school, I had panic attacks, so frequently that I couldn’t concentrate on my work. I would call my mum and ask her to bring me home. I felt guilty and ashamed, but I didn’t care. All I cared about in the throes of a panic attack was the quickest way out of there. Sometimes waiting for Mum was agony. I can’t explain to you the relief I would feel when I got home. I would change straightaway out of my uniform to get all traces of it far away from me. Then I’d feel exhausted, because of all the tension I’d been holding in all day at school. Then as night fell I’d start thinking about the next day and experience a new round of headaches, tummy aches, and insomnia.
In case I haven’t made it clear by now: school was very hard for me. It was a reasonably large all-girls school, and I felt very insignificant there. I wasn’t the cleverest in my class; I wasn’t at the bottom; I wasn’t the loudest; I wasn’t the quietest; I wasn’t popular; I wasn’t bullied. I didn’t stand out in any way. A lot of teachers couldn’t remember my name. I found the atmosphere stifling. I’m sure a lot of people feel like this and are still somehow able to finish regular high school. But my physical and mental problems compounded everything in the worst way. Besides, I felt I was learning more outside of school, off my own back. I did a lot of reading alone and found that just as effective as reading in a formal setting. I shall quote a Bruce song here (as I am sure I will often): “We learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school.”
I don’t think I remember ever being encouraged to be an individual at school, or to have an opinion. Apart from in two lessons, my saviors: English and art. Special mention to my year 11 English and art teachers for making me actually feel like a person rather than a grade. I love knowledge. I love learning. But I think the saddest thing about the school I went to is that it was more about passing an exam than actually absorbing anything important.
I did, by the way, pass my exams. I passed all the ones I took with good grades (apart from my C in maths, but talent in maths does not run in the family). But I didn’t feel any satisfaction at all. I didn’t celebrate them. In hindsight and with a therapist’s insight, I realize I was probably depressed during this period. At the leavers’ assembly* a lot of my classmates were crying. I looked around and my only thought was—why? Why was I even there? That’s when I realized I’d never felt part of that school. All of those other people seemingly felt like they were leaving something that had shaped them, that had given them deep friendships and a huge amount of memories. I personally couldn’t wait to get the fuck out of there. (Side note: I did also realize that I would miss seeing my closest friends so often.)
My original plan was to go to college after year 11, and I actually did start at one, but I was still depressed and having panic attacks, so I didn’t go very often, and eventually they kicked me out. So I didn’t have much choice but to look for a distance-learning situation, so that I could complete my AS Levels and hopefully my A Levels.** My parents agreed that studying at home, independently, was the best option for me at the time. (Distance learning is this whole service in England. A lot of adults use it if they want to change careers, or if they want to redo their exams, or even just for fun. I use it to complete high school.)
Like I said, I get sent materials, and I have a lot of assignments that I send to tutors, and they send me their feedback. I don’t get to study any old thing I want (right now, for instance, the service has dictated that I learn about the Unification of Germany, 1848-1890). And I still have to take exams, but I don’t feel pressured about them, because they’re not the be-all, end-all. I am much happier not having to worry about school anymore. Right, back to the Unification of Germany 1848-1890… ♦
* In England, after year 11, you either leave school to work or whatever, or you go to college, which is two years long and different from university. (In the UK, college is basically what Americans call junior and senior years.) So at the end of year 11 there’s a big assembly where everyone comes together one last time to say goodbye. That is called, appropriately enough, the leavers’ assembly.
** AS Levels are “advanced subsidiary levels,” which are what you get when you pass the first year of college (basically American 11th grade). A Levels are what you get when you complete high school. You can get A Levels in a variety of subjects (English, maths, music, etc.). You need three A Levels to get into university.