CW: child abuse, physical abuse, bullying, verbal abuse, emotional neglect, invalidation, general cruelty and despair, self-loathing.
This is a short summary (over 3000 words long!) of some of the ways I was traumatized by school. I might add to it later, and I might expand certain parts. I think that if I were to try to organize everything relating to school that was traumatizing in some way, I might end up writing a whole book. So maybe this post is the start of a book, who knows.
"Someday when you're an adult, you'll wish you could be back in school" - My old school principal
No. Fuck you. I've been out of school for 19 years now. Every single moment I've been out has been SO much better than every single moment I was stuck in there. Bored out of my mind. Waiting for things to end. Stressing that at any random moment, I'd be verbally assaulted for something I couldn't possibly have predicted.
Also, there are so many people out there who would respond with some shit like "but it wasn't that bad, other people have it far worse, be grateful you had an education", or my personal favourite: "Back in my day, we had it far worse! Kids these days are so entitled."
To those people: fuck you too. So what if other people have it worse? That doesn't make it good. Even if it wasn't "that bad", it still sure as hell wasn't good. I didn't get an education - I survived 12 years of hell. Overall, it did more harm than good. Also, if "back in your day" it really was that much worse, why in the actual fuck are you just standing there acting like any of this is okay? You should know better, older adult person who is supposed to be a role model!
It took a long time for the nightmares to mostly end. I kept dreaming that I arrived in some class and forgot my homework, and I was stressing that I'd get yelled at. Many of the dreams were far more disturbing than that though, in ways I don't really want to write about yet. Maybe some other time. Just the other night I had a dream that some people were invalidating my feelings about school, basically telling me how school is good and beneficial, and I was so angry with them I started screaming at them in the dream. I woke up with sore teeth - a sign that I was grinding my teeth in my sleep. I'm still angry about the whole situation. It was fucked up, and nobody should have to go through this kind of thing.
Spending 12 years of my childhood in hell is one thing, but then having to spend potentially the rest of my life healing the trauma is another. I started School Survival in 1999. It's now 2019. It's taken me 20 years of running the site to actually heal enough to be able to start writing about just how damaging the experience of being in school actually was. I thought about writing about it before. I even tried writing some bits and pieces. I couldn't get very far without breaking down in tears. I also didn't really understand much about trauma in general, and didn't really think of school as traumatic. I thought trauma was limited to stuff like war and being raped. But it turns out it's far more complex than that. So for the most part, my writing about school until now has been mostly about the "easy to write" stuff, like thoughts and facts and some things about the private school I eventually went to (which was a very interesting experience). I was able to write about those things because they weren't that bad. I didn't even want to remember the stuff that happened before that for a very long time.
I hope that maybe writing about this will help humanity realize in some way that the "education system" is generally ineffective at best, and horribly damaging at worst. Do better, humans!
"But without school, how would you learn anything?!"
Oh, I learned stuff alright. Let's cover a few of the things I "learned".
I learned that my feelings don't matter.
I was about 4 or 5, and it was to be my first day of pre-school (Americans apparently call this kindergarten). I didn't want to go. I was terrified. I was hiding under the table, clinging to it for dear life, kicking and screaming and crying, begging my parents and grandmother not to make me go. This went on for quite some time, I don't know how long... to me it felt like an eternity. They kept telling me how it wouldn't be that bad, that I'd grow to like it, or whatever random bullshit they could think of that might reassure me. It didn't. Eventually I got tired. I figured that it didn't matter how much I protested, they were going to make me go regardless. My feelings didn't matter. I gave up. I was defeated. My grandmother walked me to pre-school that day.
The thing with being forced into a situation with no viable way out is that it fucks you up mentally. I learned that nobody cares about my feelings, so I guess my brain decided not to even let me know how I was feeling, because knowing how I feel and not being able to do anything about it would make me feel even worse. So I totally lost touch with my feelings. For years, I had almost no preferences. When people asked me what I wanted to do, I didn't know. I'd let them choose. I had almost no clue what I wanted.
And in this state, people expect me to make plans for my future? Ludicrous! It was only around the age of 36 that I realized this is a problem, and that I actually do have preferences, and I started really making a point of making choices for myself instead of just going along with what other people decided.
I learned that the less people know about me, the better.
Anything I say can and will be used against me at any random moment.
Bullies, aka The Monsters
There were a couple of mean kids in pre-school, I think, but it wasn't until grade 1 that the real monsters appeared. I really do mean monsters. I don't know what those kids went through to make them that fucked up, but they were truly awful.
I loved horses when I was little. I was obsessed with them. It was pretty obvious to everyone that I liked horses, and the monsters knew this too. So they said awful things about horses. Some stuff about killing my horse and mutilating the corpse or something. They danced around me laughing as I cried. These monsters were only about 7 or 8 at the time, so once again, what the fuck happened to make them like this, I can only imagine.
The monsters would use anything I did against me. Anything and everything was fuel for the fire.
I was in the same class with these monsters for around 8 years. That class gained a reputation as the horrible class. They made at least 2 teachers cry, and one stormed out of the room swearing. They were encouraging each other to be as awful as possible. It became some kind of art form for them. Their own sense of belonging with each other seemed to depend on how awful they could be to other people, especially me.
Why did nobody do anything? Break them up? Split them into different classes? It was clearly a problem for other people as well, not just me.
For many, many years, I was so paranoid. Everywhere I went, whenever there were people, I could feel them staring at me and laughing. I guess they probably weren't, though.
That eventually wore off, but I still didn't want people looking at me. I got so irritated with anyone who looked in my direction. How dare they invade my privacy by acknowledging my existence! I eventually became okay with being looked at, also, but it took a really long time.
Sometimes I wonder what the monsters are doing now. I wouldn't be surprised if some of them are in jail, or dead. Or maybe they became very aggressive salespeople, or abusive politicians. Who knows. I'd be really surprised if any of them recovered from their trauma and became better people.
I learned that I'm in this all alone, and can't rely on anyone for help, especially not anyone with authority: those are the most dangerous people of all.
There was this one awful teacher in grade 1 who was basically a bully. One time she dragged a boy by the ear so hard that his ear ripped open and was bleeding all over the place. I don't remember any other specific events about her. Probably blocked them out. I mostly just remember that she was awful and scary and I generally wanted nothing to do with her. And yet there I was, 6 years old, in her class, with no permission to leave. And everyone else seemed to be fine with it. School is a happy place where kids get to learn fun stuff, right?
In grade 3 there was another bitch of a teacher. One time my mother forgot to sign my homework, so the piece of shit bitch hit me on the hand with a ruler in front of the whole class. I cried, and everyone laughed. She had a sadistic grin on her face. At the end of the year, she took all the boys outside and hit them all, just for shits and giggles, no other particular reason. She was already kind of old then, so she's probably dead now. Good riddance, fuckface.
I think it was grade 7 when we had another teacher who had a whip that he enjoyed hitting kids with also, usually for minor things like forgetting homework or whatever. I can't remember anything specific he did though, but I remember being afraid of him.
That was considered normal and acceptable back then. I guess it makes sense that some children will turn into monsters, look at their fucking role models. Ludicrous!
Because I had learned at the early age of 5 that my feelings don't matter, it didn't really occur to me to tell anyone about the problems I was having at school.
Also, I thought that I was the problem. It felt like I was the insane one, the wrong one, the broken one. I spent a lot of time just observing the other people, kids and adults alike, and wondering why everyone else seemed so fine. Why are they coping with this? Why do they seem like they're adjusting and functioning well in this place? To me the whole environment felt completely insane, but because everyone else seemed to be fine with it, I felt like some kind of alien. Maybe broken. Perhaps a psychopath of some sort, because that was the only mental disorder I'd really heard of at the time.
To this day, I still have absolutely no clue how people can adjust and function in a school. It boggles my mind. It still feels absolutely insane to me, but at least I now know that the problem is not me, and never was.
"It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society." - Jiddu Krishnamurti
The one time I did try telling people about a problem at school, it just made it worse.
There was a group of girls that allowed me to hang out with them during breaks some of the time. One of them was my friend, and we would sometimes actually hang out after school, but she was always with this group during school.
The trouble with me hanging out with people during school, is that the monsters would pick on anyone who dared to be associated with me. So, I guess every now and again the group would get sick of being bullied, and kick me out of their group. This allowed them to hang out with the monster girls for a while. And it was always a huge dramatic event when they kicked me out.
So at some point I told my parents about the drama (I don't remember why - maybe they asked?), and they talked to a teacher about it, and the teacher talked to the class.... aaaand that just made everything worse. Then there was even MORE drama. Everyone was bitching at me. How dare I tell someone how stupid they were being. The horror. My bad, I'll never tell anyone anything ever again.
School made me feel generally unworthy of kindness and connection.
So far I've made it sound like everyone was awful to me, and nobody was ever kind. This was not so! There were a few kind kids and teachers. Occasionally, one of the kids even went out of their way to be nice to me. What did I do? Cringe. Why? Because if someone was being kind to me, I thought it was obviously because I was so pathetic that they pitied me. I did not want anyone's pity. I definitely did not want anyone's help either, because that was clearly a recipe for disaster, as explained above. Even though I desperately wanted someone to love and accept me exactly the way I was, I couldn't possibly accept that anyone would actually do that. So I pushed all the nice people away. I ignored them, avoided them, in some cases I was even mean to them. The only people I desperately wanted to connect with were the people most incapable of connecting with me.
19 years later
Let's take a look at how things are going 19 years later.
School taught me that nobody cares how I feel, but some people do actually care how I feel.
My one friend, Steve, always used to ask me how I feel. He'd be like "Hi SR, how are you feeling?"... And internally I'd be like "I don't know! Why do you keep asking me such hard questions?!". It used to annoy the hell out of me. I'd actually have to think for quite a while to figure out how I felt before I could reply. But it was good practice, and it helped me realize that not knowing how I feel actually sucks, and it'd be more useful if I knew.
I got better at it over time. I care how I feel too, now. There are a few other people who also do. So this is slowly getting better.
School taught me that it's not safe for anyone to know anything about me, but I really want to be understood, actually.
I get misunderstood a lot, because people guess all sorts of things about me. Probably because I hide a lot of things about me, so guessing is all they have to go by. Then again, I've found that when I do open up about me, a lot of people still keep guessing, and guess wrong, because I'm really not very much like other people at all, so they don't know what to expect.
So for now, I will practice expressing myself online and maybe some people will be able to understand me that way. Face to face, most people just guess too fast, and it feels more like damage control rather than progress. I also still prefer explaining things in writing rather than verbally. I also think that most people could learn to be better listeners.
School taught me that asking for help is just asking for trouble - this hasn't improved much yet, I still feel safer trying to do everything on my own. Also, a lot of people with authority really are corrupt and not safe to trust.
On the one hand, this isn't that bad: because I had to do everything on my own, I got kinda good at a lot of things. But on the other hand, sometimes it's just so exhausting to think that everything that needs to be done has to be done by me. The mere thought of getting anyone to help just feels like inviting more problems and exhaustion than doing it myself. In some cases, that might be true, in others, it might not. I still need to figure out the what/who/when/why's about asking for help. I think the "who" is the most important one. I need to get better at figuring out who are the right people who will actually be helpful instead of making things worse. I already know a few, they've already helped me with many things, all by themselves, probably without even realizing. Still, the thought of actually asking for help is still scary.
School made me feel generally unworthy of kindness and connection - but hey guess what? I totally deserve kindness and connection with good people, and they actually exist!
This one has been a tricky pain in the ass. It still is, but it's getting better.
When I was in college, I met some awesome people. I stayed in the hostel with them, and I'd go visit them in their rooms... but I never wanted to stay all that long, just in case I annoy them. They can't possibly want me around that long, surely?
This one time while I was visiting a friend there, I started feeling like I was overstaying my welcome, and kind of left abruptly, and he got this sad look on his face and was like "aww, leaving already?"... lightbulb moment. Maybe I actually wasn't really bothering him at all. Wow.
That was 2002. I've come a long way, and met some really awesome people who appreciate me, but I still sometimes get suspicious of people who are being kind to me. That's my default reaction - I have to override it on purpose when it makes sense to do so.
I also learned that I deserve kindness from myself. Even when I managed to think it was plausible that some people could like having me around, I was still "hard on myself" (which is usually just a fancy way to sugarcoat being self-abusive). That's a difficult habit to break, but after a few years of working on it, I'm getting there.
Self-kindness is also what made writing this post even possible. Before, I used to think I was just weak for not being able to handle the insanity of school. You know that old saying "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me"... I heard that bullshit often growing up. And it is precisely that: absolute bullshit. Words are amazingly powerful. The right words at the right time can absolutely break a person, or give them just enough hope to carry on living.
It turns out I'm not weak - I'm actually ridiculously strong for surviving all that, and living to tell about it. I deserve to have my story heard. (So do you, by the way!)
I still sometimes feel like I have to justify my feelings with bulletproof arguments. Like I'm not allowed to feel the way I do about anything, unless I can back it up with 100% perfect evidence and rational justifications. That's insane though. My feelings are valid regardless, and I know this, but I also know that there are people who will want to argue with me for what I've written in this post. I'm actually scared to post it for this reason. But I also know that it's important, and that people need to read this.
I'm really thankful that I never have to go back to school ever again. But many young people still do, and I wish I could rescue all of them. We all deserve better.
"It's not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It's our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless." - L. R. Knost
- CPTSD FAQ on Reddit
- Emotional Neglect and CPTSD - Free PDF by Pete Walker
- EQ for Everybody - A practical guide to Emotional Intelligence - Free PDF by Steve Hein