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14 August 2015

(originally published in the Queenwood newsletter)




I recently read Evelyn Waugh’s autobiography “A Little Learning”.  Evelyn Waugh, a famous English writer, best known for novels such as “Brideshead Revisited”, began writing his autobiography shortly before his death, when he was in his early sixties.  Sadly he was unable to finish it, but this slim book contains memories spanning his childhood as well as school and university education.  “Brideshead Revisited” is influenced by his time at Oxford University and probably one of the few novels that has been made into a TV adaptation even better and more beautiful than the book it is based on – a series that captures perfectly this intricate story of friendship and one young man’s desperate search for his own identity.


Searching for one’s own identity is a key part of growing up, and very often teenage brains struggle in the course of this process.  “A Little Learning” describes, amongst other things, the young Evelyn during his years as a boarder at Lancing College – then and now a prestigious English public school.  He was 13 when he started at that school, and he was thoroughly miserable:  “I find it quite impossible to identify myself with the lonely schoolboy of this chill time.  I was, for example, morbidly afraid of being in any way conspicuous.  It was the function of the head of the House Room to distribute letters.  I received rather more than most and once or twice they were tossed to me with a slight asperity: ‘Another one for Waugh.’  This was enough for me to ask my father to write less often although his letters were a delight for me. (. . .) I did not admire the other boys.  I did not want to be like them.  But, in contradiction, I wanted to be one of them.  I had no aspirations to excel, still less to lead; I simply longed to remain myself and yet be accepted as one of the distasteful mob.  I cannot explain it, but I think this is what I felt.  Perhaps I may have exaggerated the dislike in which I was held, but I do know that on Sunday afternoons, when the House Room was put out of bounds for two hours and we were sent out to the downs in our straw hats and black coats, I often found myself walking alone or obliged to make a rendezvous with some equally unpopular boy in another House.”


We are talking here about the period of the First World War, and a time during which British boarding schools were austere places, often ruled by power-hungry and sadistic prefects and sadly devoid of any notion of pastoral care, let alone anti-bullying strategies and policies.  However, when I read the above paragraph again, I had to ask myself how much really has changed where loneliness is concerned.  School policies and strong pastoral care systems can help a lot, but there is one thing that they do not always succeed in: they do not always manage to engineer friendships.  There are strategies to help, but at every school I have worked at I have spoken to unhappy children who were desperately keen to stay true to themselves, desperately keen to uphold the values they had been brought up with, yet desperately lonely and unhappy because they simply could not find true friendship or like-minded soulmates amongst their peers, which led them to question their own worth and identity. 


There are probably a small number of children at every school who dread times such as morning and lunch breaks because they feel they don’t have anybody to talk to.  They feel they have nobody who welcomes them into their circle, who wants to sit with them, who wants to eat their lunch with them.  At the end of lessons they have nobody who waits for them, who makes them feel special, who wants to hang out with them.  And apart from educating the girls through pastoral care programs to be kind to each other, to look out for each other, to be inclusive, there are limits to what a school can do to help a lonely young person find the friend she so deeply longs for.


There are various ways in which young people respond to such experiences of loneliness.  Sometimes they decide to stick it out and be patient.  And as long as they do remain true to themselves, people will begin to gravitate towards them eventually and seek their friendship.  Sometimes a change of environment is needed; at other times a shift may happen as time goes by and teenagers develop an increased sense of maturity and identity.  At many schools, we usually see a big shift in the transition to the final two years:  suddenly having increased power over your subject choices changes the dynamics of a year group, and new friendships form almost automatically as students are taught in smaller classes and with like-minded girls of similar subject preferences and interests.


Sometimes, however, young people can fall into the trap of compromising their values in order to fall in with the crowd.  Being lonely hurts, and at a time when one’s identity has not completely been formed, falling in with the popular crowd is tempting.  As Evelyn Waugh so aptly puts it:  “I did not want to be like them.  But, in contradiction, I wanted to be one of them.”  The other aspect of Waugh’s description of himself as a thirteen-year old rings equally true:  he did not want to be conspicuous.  This is why so many unhappy young people do not draw attention to their silent suffering and try to develop other coping mechanisms, even at the expense of betraying their own values.


Waugh himself, in the course of his years at Lancing, fell into that trap.  By the time he reached 17, he had somehow managed to become part of the popular crowd and a veritable bully to other boys in his house.  After describing various rather shocking instances of bullying, he acknowledges:  “In all these nasty manoeuvres there lay hidden the fear that I myself might at any moment fall from favour and become, as I had been in my first year, the object of contempt.” 


This is another statement that still resonates a century later, and often a reason why bullying is such a complex topic.  Very often those who exclude others have been targeted themselves at an earlier stage of their lives, and they do not want to go back to this desolate feeling of loneliness.  Betraying their own values may seem like the smaller evil at the time, but is no recipe for happiness, let alone for a sense of wholeness and identity.  And last but not least it perpetuates the cycle of current victims being made into future bullies.


For schools, it is very important to work with parents on this perennial issue.  If your child is suffering, encourage them to seek help.  Talking about feelings of loneliness, low self-esteem or lack of confidence can often help and be the first step towards a recovery and a development of coping strategies and resilience, and most schools have pastoral staff and school counsellors available to guide and advise the young.  Do not let them go on suffering in silence. 


If, on the other hand, your child is lucky enough to have a lovely circle of friends and a great social life, please encourage them to look around themselves and beyond their circle.  Encourage them to watch out for those on the sidelines, those who are never invited to parties or social events, to approach somebody who is not part of their normal friendship group, to stretch out their hand and make them feel welcome.  They may uncover hidden treasures, and it is not uncommon for proper, deep and meaningful friendships to develop from such charitable beginnings.


Children, in a crowd, can often be thoughtless and sometimes cruel.  As individuals, they are usually fabulous and full of great ideas how to make the world a better place. There is nothing wrong with thinking big, to the contrary.  But let us not forget to take some small steps first.  Let us begin at home by watching out for each other and extending the hand of friendship to those who are struggling.


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