I’m breathing hard, almost panting as I walk quickly away from the school bus. No-one really notices. My brother has disappeared into his junior school without a backward glance and the driver is looking impassively ahead as more kids file on bound for the secondary school in the nearest town. And that’s where I should be heading too. But I’m not. I’m getting away as fast as I can before I’m carried, screaming inside towards that place.
This isn’t the first time I’ve tried to escape school. I’ve been doing it on and off since I was four and my dad and teacher had to chase me around the car – ‘I’ll get out, but I won’t go in…’ Now I’m in my first year at our local comprehensive school, I’m eleven and while I may be older, the primal fear feels just the same.
The walk home is about two miles. I’m too innocent or not brave enough to bunk off and hide somewhere else for the day – I’m scared of getting into trouble at school and petrified of the attention that would bring me. I just want to go home to my mum and dad – who’ll be there with my little sister. I think I just want to be safe.
The school is enormous. Huge and terrifying it contains hordes of people who are able to cope and understand what is expected of them. They have friends, know what to do at lunchtime and don’t appear to have a lump of anxiety inside them weighing them down. My father – always patient and increasingly baffled– sits on my bed in the evening and tries to find out what is so difficult about being at school. I am incoherent, unable to describe as I can now that memory allows me to be incoherent, the smell, the timetables, the new books and new bags, the teachers and the vastness of it all – a jumble of sensations which feel overwhelmingly impossible to manage. I’m a clever girl – good at all my subjects, able easily to shine academically, but not nearly so able to feel part of the crowd, not able to shine socially. Every day I feel clumsy, anxious and inept and close to tears and the time drags heavy and long.
So finally I arrive home feeling sheepish and tearful and I’m faced with my exasperated mother not quite as patient as my father but just as worried about me. And I’m allowed to shelter briefly before I’m driven back to school in time for the second lesson of the day. The desperation I feel is palpable and fills the car as I’m driven towards the horror.
It seems, as a child, my perplexing lack of self esteem filters into all new experiences I want to take on or have to take on. I find life quite difficult despite having the trappings of a reasonably idyllic childhood. At least, I have parents who appeared to love each other most of the time, a younger brother and sister who I played with a and fought with in pretty much equal amounts, a lovely house in the country (rented not owned for a long while: my parents were eccentric and fairly penniless for much of my early childhood at least) and plenty of cats and dogs. My dad was quite disabled it is true, and my mum carried with her some of the baggage of her German-Jewish refugee past – but home was a safe and happy place for me, somehow it was the outside world which was not.
Now I look sadly back at that girl, climbing the lane out of the village. I don’t really recognise her now, but I can feel her little shadow buried deeply inside myself and I would like to be able to console her just, I suppose, as my parents tried to comfort her all those years ago.
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