My first German class was in a cramped attic classroom right at the top of my new school. The rooms had been the living quarters of the teachers about twenty years ago. My new school was large and centred around a beautiful old mansion. The sixthform block was across three floors of the mansion. It was a girl’s school that allowed boys into the sixthform. Of course I stood out. But I was an outsider for a different reason and as such people treated me with respect and got to know me, instead of relying on the rumours that had followed me there. People asked me, whether I had really turned up to a non-uniform day in a dress or whether it was true that I came out by making a big announcement to a packed class room in front of everybody, shouting about my sexuality and then trying to kiss the boy sitting next to me. Surprisingly none of the rumours were true.
I ended up being good friends with lots of different people there. I already had close friends at that school, people I had known since childhood and they were my support system. I also ended up striking up friendships with people who were not friends (and in some cases, enemies) of those core friends I already had. Any school is full of rivalry, bullying and old feuds. I was naively plunged into the middle of that, but because I was a total outsider I was not allied to anybody. This was a fantastic new feeling, I could come to school each day and just learn. Nobody said a single homophobic thing to me the entire time I was at the school. All of the teachers were incredibly supportive and understanding. More than anything people were curious about me, and delighted that we could talk about boys we fancied together.
I still lived with those after-affects of the years of ostracism. I was still recovering from the depression I had worn heavily for a number of years. But what made the time incredible was the company I had and the sudden rush of new ideas and learning I had. I studied Philosophy for the first time, in the break before starting school I had read Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder and had ordered a lot of books about philosophy from the library. All of a sudden I had these new concepts which helped to explain the world to me, the idea of the Platonic forms, Aristotle’s concepts, Jungian Archetypes, Freud’s theories on the unconscious. Everything suddenly became wider and broader. We studied metaphysical poetry in English, the plays of Oscar Wilde, and E.M. Forster’s Howards End.
During this time I read Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and imagined the grand mansion house and the attic featured in the novel was the school house. I strode around the corridors of the mansion with a new confidence, I was in this incredible beautiful old building alone between lessons or on free periods. I had never before felt like I belonged at a school. The teachers I had were passionate. Especially those in the English department, who supported me and understood, before I did, just how important literature was in my life and how it could shape my life. I remember one parents evening my English teacher pointing out to my mother that I was one of the only pupils in the class who got the small, wry jokes in Austen’s Emma. I have loved Austen ever since. Virginia Woolf was another writer who I discovered at that time. There were cupboards and cupboards of old school texts which were being thrown out. We found a skip in the carpark full of the old battered books, so naturally some of us climbed in and picked up what we could. I got the complete works of Shakespeare, Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, Austen’s Persausion and Mansfield Park, complete with front covers made from old wallpaper with bookplates with names and dates going back to the mid-sixties, and a battered penguin edition of Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. I read this in my spare time, Woolf’s prose made utter sense to me and was shaded with a beautiful philosophical nihilistic wonder. When I look back on those days I remember those sunny, long, free afternoons reading. Walking around the grounds with new friends. We took poetry classes or German grammar classes outside under the trees.
I still found things hard, being gay was still a bit of a secret that I had to keep up. It was still something I felt I had to keep relatively quiet about around my family. But my fellow pupils at school were so incredibly accepting. I really started living in those two years at that school. I got back some self confidence and became better at expressing myself. I even enjoyed making people laugh in class and I acted in the school play and as several comical roles in the Sixthform Revue (something I never thought I’d have the confidence to do). I wrote constantly, keeping an online journal of all my thoughts. I still carried that legacy of depression and knocked self-confidence all the way through to University and perhaps I still carry it with me today in moments of nervousness and anxiety.
Ultimately the yellow folder, what was inside it, the endless pages of German vocabulary I’d copied out or the heavily annotated photocopied pages from key scenes of Shakespeare, what was on the outside of it: words carved heavily into it as if it were tree bark. The folder got me through. I carried it with me against my chest, tightly, a yellow shield that managed to deflect almost everything that was thrown at me.