Fear of School

Have you ever been stuck in a place you never felt you belonged in? That happened to me when I went to grammar school (equivalent of high school). It was 1985. I was 11, coming up 12 when, having left Clevelands Preparatory School, I started at Manchester Grammar School in September.

Seven boys from my school had passed the entrance exam and won places at MGS. We were all in different forms – I suspect with hindsight that this might have been deliberate to encourage the development of new friendships. What it meant in practice was that I was suddenly in the midst of a group of strangers.

I never mixed. I used to spend my break times walking the corridors, feeling isolated. Early on I would pop into the form rooms of my schoolmates from my previous school, but they had quickly formed new friendships and I was not a part of that.

I gravitated towards other social undesirables: nerds and geeks of one form or another. Natural prey for the bullies. I was always big enough that I never experienced physical intimidation – it was the more insidious psychological form. I never knew how to respond to it. I would just sit or stand there and take it, while inside I was hurting.

An example of the callous behaviour of some of my classmates: the partner of our English teacher was stabbed to death and they harassed her with comments about the incident to the point where she broke down in tears and had to exit the room. If that was how they could treat a teacher imagine how much worse it was for me and the other pupils on the receiving end.

I had always looked up to and respected my teachers: I was always taught to respect my elders. I felt that they must be infallible. So it came as a massive shock to me when one of my teachers made what I considered to be an error of judgement. I and several of my classmates did not hear him assign homework one time. I still feel a deep sense of injustice that we were all given detention rather that him realising that it was his failure to communicate effectively.

That was the tipping point for me. I had always felt that despite the bullying from certain pupils, I could rely on my teachers for support. Turned out I couldn’t. At least that was how I felt, and that was what mattered.

When I think of that school I can remember numerous individual incidents. I can’t picture any faces, but that’s normal for me. I can remember the buildings in considerable detail. But all my memories of the place feel cold and hard-edged. I don’t believe I was ever happy there. I even recall the different smells of the different corridors: sawdust and sweat near the woodwork rooms and gym, old cooking smells near the dinner hall, paper and pipe tobacco outside the teachers’ common room and the only happy memory: the smell of new books in the bookshop.

All my other memories of that school evoke feelings ranging from discomfort to outright fear. I still find it very difficult to think of those two and a half years. I had to shut them out completely for several years before I was even able to tell my mother that I had been bullied. This is my most complete account to date.

A short way into my third year at that school I was finding it very difficult to even face the place and the people in it. I considered opening the car door – my father drove me to school – and jumping out. But I couldn’t do it because I was afraid of hurting myself.

In the end I was so anxious about going to school that I wedged my bedroom door shut with a screwdriver driven into the door frame: locked myself in so that I couldn’t be made to attend. At first my father was very angry – I can remember being very afraid of the anger and shutting down. But after a few days life settled down into the new routine whereby I would stay in my room night and day and everything else carried on around me.

Things couldn’t go on like that for long. Obviously my parents were worried about what was going on and before long I was persuaded to try to go to school. I remember sitting on my father’s car with the deputy headmaster talking but being unable to respond or get out of the car: an early shutdown. In the end my father gave up and brought me back home.

Before long a child psychologist was involved. I remember visiting her office. I don’t recall much detail but I do remember her asking what seemed to me, even at that age, a stupid question about whether a glass was half full or half empty. Obviously it is both at the same time, and there’s no reason to prefer one description to the other. There were other questions about whether I had suicidal thoughts – I didn’t – and that was about that. I got the feeling that I was beyond her limited knowledge and experience. As I’ve mentioned before, Aspergers wasn’t recognised back then.

The only thing that finally broke me out of me self-imposed isolation was a change of school. After that things went very well and I prospered. It goes to show the need I have for a supportive environment.

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4 thoughts on “Fear of School

  1. "Grammar school" sounds like the US version of the dreaded "middle school." Kids in the US start with "elementary school," which generally begins at kindergarten (for children who are age 5) and continues up to 5th grade (at which point you're about 11). That all takes place in one building. After completing elementary school, you move on to another school in another building, called "middle school." You attend this school from the age of about 11 to 14, completing grades 6 through 8. After that you attend "high school," from about age 14 to 18, completing grades 9 through 12. Middle school is roundly considered to be the most difficult phase of schooling for Asperger students in the US. At a vulnerable age, you are taken from the building you've known for six years, from the teachers you've seen in the hallway for six years, from the administrators with whom you've interacted for six years…to a whole new huge building filled with different everything. Although most of the children from your 5th grade elementary class will also move up to this same middle school, children from many other elementary schools also feed into it. So you are surrounded by strangers and in a massive and confusing new place with different rules (many of them unwritten social rules) and far less supervision. Many parents of Asperger kids today begin worrying about middle school when their child is still in early elementary. That's how much it is feared! Although the push in the US (and elsewhere) is for "inclusion" of ASD kids with their typical peers, this "inclusion" doesn't work unless every teacher, administrator, and parent is highly supportive of the plan. Otherwise the ASD child ends up victimized, misunderstood, shunned, bullied, abused, and overwhelmed. My son feels he would be happier in a "self contained" ASD classroom, where, in a perfect world, he would be given clearer instructions for work, and where his teachers would understand how and why he is struggling at different times. However, self-contained classes here are generally not considered appropriate for kids with Asperger Syndrome. Unfortunately, in most US school systems there is no program for "high achieving" ASD children–a safe place where they can learn at their own pace without feeling frightened and confused every minute of every day. It's a huge problem.

  2. Hi LouiseBC, thanks for your feedback. From your description it sounds like grammar school overlaps with the US middle and high schools: it covers ages 11 up to 16 or 18 – GCSE and A-Level in the UK.Inclusion for ASD (and ADD/ADHD) kids is very difficult to get right and, as you say, it needs full support from everybody involved. The benefits that can be gained from mixing with neurotypical people in a controlled, supportive environment are huge and a major help in later life. Sadly there are not enough teachers out there with experience or training in dealing with these kids. All too often they end up being labelled as "problem kids" and that can start a downward spiral of disciplinary problems as they feel more and more confused and frustrated by being misunderstood – I speak from personal experience here. It requires special insight to interpret the early signs of distress in ASD kids because of their communication difficulties.There are mainstream schools that happen to provide appropriate support but finding them is down to chance – I struck lucky after I changed school at age 14 but the support I received was thanks to the concern for my well-being shown by individual teachers rather than there being any program in place.

  3. You are exactly right and it's the same over here in the US. And schools in some parts of the country are better than schools in other parts of the country. Many families actually move from state to state as their child's school needs change. Or they homeschool, but then the ASD child can lose the daily opportunities to interact with peers.

  4. Pingback: My Dark Time | Married, With Aspergers

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