My secondary school was a comprehensive, but would never have admitted it. Built on a slope, its playing fields spread down to front gates that displayed its Latin motto and emblem. The first was ‘Levavi oculos’, as in the statement from the Book of Psalms, ‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help’ (in modern English, it might also mean ‘Aim higher’); the second, a shield bearing Saint Kentigern’s symbols, which as children we’d learnt to recite in rhyme: the bird that never flew, the tree that never grew, the bell that never rang, the fish that never swam. These were the school’s main values: aspiration and failure.
Their greatest clash remains my sixth form’s common room, beside whose door a plaque read VIth Form Centre, a tiny ‘th’ on the Roman numeral. Mr Chapman, who insisted on being called ‘headmaster’ rather than ‘headteacher’, loved the sheen of privilege as much as he despised political correctness – if he failed to ape the style of England’s public schools, it was never because he didn’t try. Fond of appearances, the man took great pride in his pupils’ bottle green and maroon uniform, devoting countless hours to the doing up of top buttons, tucking in of shirttails, lengthening of skirts and taming of hairstyles. (If he knew what focusing on this caused him to miss, he must simply have cared about it less.) Just as prized were his army of prefects and Victorian style games syllabus – hockey and rounders for girls, rugby and soccer for boys. A core feature in the latter case was violence against anyone deemed queer, especially if they didn’t deny it.
I’d love to say Keswick School’s homophobia was confined to the student body. It wasn’t. About half way through my career there, I was told Mr Chapman had complained to his PSHE class of a letter from the government asking him to support gay pupils; in one I attended, he remarked of prejudice, ‘it can be [about] gender orientation… I don’t want to get into the gay thing.’ Mrs Swainson, head of that subject presumably because after so many years of teaching French she was owed a department, shut questions down in an assembly about STIs, declaring ‘We didn’t come here to talk about gay sex’, and noted on a different occasion that although people weren’t to be judged by how they spoke, ‘gay people do seem to have higher voices’.
In Year 8, Mrs McDonald (English) told a boy whose shirt was hanging out, ‘Don’t be such a gayboy.’ In Years 10 and 11, Mr Simpson (Chemistry) made fun of male students by saying they liked other boys. Mr Ingles, the cuddly and kind supply teacher whose stories people loved, told my History class he ‘abhor[red] homosexuality’, not understanding ‘why any man would want to put part of his anatomy there’ and prompting Aaron Bailey to express approval; he told my RE class that he and his wife loved their friend ‘but we hate – hate – what he did.’ Even those staff who didn’t do these things turned a deaf ear to slurs and blind eye to explicit homophobic bullying. They were fine with ‘gay’ being another word for ‘shit’, and in fact punished that term far more severely, which while it may not have hurt anyone fell leagues short of the middle class manners expected.
These were my experiences – others could list more. In adulthood, or in some cases during our last years there, some of the queer kids like me who sat through this have found each other: Jack, Liam, Adam, Chris and Mark from the years below me, Daniel and Nick from the years above and the girl from mine. (If the list seems male-dominated, it’s because we’ve often made contact on Grindr.) Only a few of us were out in our school years, and even we weren’t out enough to challenge those in charge. How could we, in a place where you were walloped for defending blonde highlights or heels higher than an inch?
Instead we kept our heads down and muddled through, clad in the uniform of presumed straightness. If ever we looked to the hills for help, none came.