I'm not sure that I'll ever manage to clear away my father's effects. The emotionally draining nature of it means that I can only manage short bursts at a time. My default emotion when I try is mostly frustration at his pointless hoarding (for every holiday that he ever took over sixty years he kept hold of every map and brochure), but interspersed with blinding rage at some reminder of his pomposity (a letter written to the paper in the early seventies complaining at some modern teacher's questioning of the value of homework, in which he compares the discipline required in learning declension of verbs with the worthlessness of "time spent loitering on street corners or watching television"). The worst discovery yet has been finding notes titled "W - personal development" in which he complains at my eight year-old self's “lack of interest in serious reading”, among my many other failings.
It’s a dispiriting experience in several ways, booby-trapped with the occasional emotional landmine. Such as three of my reports from primary school from 1981, 1982 and 1984. I have no recollection of being shown these at the time. Talk about the child being the father of the man - some of this reads like my immutable and continuous inner voice of self-reproach today:
William gives the absolute minimum; no amount of encouragement will alter this. (...) He is capable of producing more work than he does. (1982)
William (...) shows an uneven development. He concentrates on the subjects which interest him the most. A very individual boy. He can appear precocious until one gets to know him. (1984)
There are some odd reminders of aspects of myself that I'd forgotten. I always think of myself as being particularly cack-handed at anything visual or that requires making things, but at eight the thing that I was best at was art and crafts:
William is a very original and creative boy. He has some ingenious ideas and the skills to carry them out. He has an excellent sense of proportion in his drawing. (1981)
I'd forgotten that. I always think of myself as being verbal, but when I was a boy I was drawing all the time, not reading or writing. My other aptitude at eight years is Drama - "William enjoys being in the limelight in drama and can keep the whole class amused and keep their interest single-handedly." Like many shy people, I'm always most confident under the formal circumstances of speaking to a group. Another thing I'd forgotten was (third sentence):
William has a highly original mind. He writes very intriguing and unusual stories. His poems are excellent, here his originality and insight can be used to the full. (1981)
My final primary school report contains a particularly prophetic passage:
He tolerates other people, preferring to walk on his own. He is well liked + respected by other children though not always understood. William prefers a peaceful atmosphere + one can imagine him seeking an academic career when he's older (followed by the largely undeserved, "He is a boy with great potential", which I'm glad that no-one showed me at the time). (1984)
And look who I am and where I am now... The bit about other children makes me sound more popular than I usually remember myself being, but I think is also generally right. I tend to remember myself being an awful contrarian pipsqueak when I was eleven (usually learned behaviour from my father), but this reminds me that even I wasn't behaving like that all the time. By the age of eleven, there were lots of occasions when you would have proper mature conversations with your peers - boys and girls who you'd grown up with over the past seven years, the type of social interaction that I now like best as an adult. There's quite a lot to be said for the last year of primary school, when you could be a mature child without the anxiety of puberty or exams (more true then than now). Come the autumn, when I'd moved on to a single sex public school (Dulwich College) it felt like being thrown in a bear pit and all of that (co-educational) mutual interest and putative maturity had suddenly gone for good.
I have a generally melancholic disposition and tend to remember unhappy incidents and feelings, but reading the earliest of these reports reminds me of the sheer amount of pleasant time that you spend in school as a child in a well-run and kindly classroom. The crucial thing from year to year, I realise, was whether or not the teacher genuinely liked me. It’s something that the teacher can't fake, but affects the child's sense of whether you're an agreeable or problematic person. I sound like a different child in these two years - or, more precisely, an opposite version of the same one:
William takes an extremely mature interest in the world around him. He has settled well into the class and there are only occasional outbursts of temper. He is a very affectionate and friendly boy with a delightful sense of humour. William finds it difficult to concentrate on things which do not hold much interest for him. I have enjoyed having William as a member of the class. (1981)
William is an unusual child. Although he takes a mature interest in the world around him, his behaviour in class is extremely immature. He is unable to concentrate for very long and becomes distracted, annoying other children and the class as a whole. William is capable of giving more than he has shown this year. (1982)
And something that wasn’t thought about in the early eighties becomes revealed to me. My inability to concentrate, forgetfulness, and wandering daydreaming mind… is (predominantly inattentive) Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, isn’t it? And all of the constant censure and guilt about work - careless, irresponsible, lazy, you don't care/show any effort, you just aren't trying… Perhaps I actually really couldn’t do it, after all?
Further excavation unearths my first and second form school reports from Dulwich College. The striking thing about these when read after the primary school ones is the lack of pastoral interest in my emotional state or how I get on with the other boys. This makes them more disconnected from my inner life at the time, that I can vividly recall and instantly bring back.
The story of me over these two years can be quickly told. I was a very unpopular boy at school and the object of derision and mockery. Almost every day there would be some collective baiting of me that would culminate with me in tears, power rituals that built towards a climax that its hard not to read as an adult as being in some way sexual (and with an institutional parallel in the ritual humiliation of playing rugby union twice a week). There was a dual quality to my understanding of this. I didn't understand what was going on while simultaneously riding what was happening to me and evaluating and testing what got a particular reaction. This was in part coping mechanism, and part Christian fatalistic stoicism:
He is very much a 'day-dreamer' (Summer 1985)
And largely stemmed from my distaste at enforced mass male company, which remains something that I go out of my way to avoid.
[Even Smart's tremendous disorganisation] tends to distance him from his peers towards whom he feels no empathy whatsoever. (Michaelmas 1985)
The two years took two different routes and I'm still not sure which was preferable. In the first form I somehow managed to conceal what was going on to my parents and teachers, although I think I was mentally ill by the summer (I'd wake myself up at four in the morning and wouldn't eat lunch). It was a private suffering, unhealthy but which also carried a certain dignity:
He is a pleasant and reserved boy who ought to have the ability to make further academic progress. (Michaelmas 1984)
He is as yet very passive, shy and uninvolved: a real loner. His interest in Drama could prove very useful in overcoming this. (Summer 1985)
In the second form (thanks to a do-gooding and evangelical concerned form master) I was officially recognised as a problem child and sent to educational psychologists, etc, which felt like a continual humiliation. (By the third year, I became bolshier in a way that must have made me tiresome in a righteous teenage way but was also a better approach to coping with an institution).
All four reports continually reiterate my disorganisation and, especially, my poor handwriting. I suspect this wouldn't be so much of a big deal today, not just because of universal computerisation, but because people have stopped making such a thing about the paramount importance of joined-up handwriting. On a few occasions I was sent to handwriting specialists and felt a great sense of a burden being released when I was fifteen and the final one told me, "Your writing is much better when you don't join it up. You should just stop doing it." My marks are always wildly poor in these two years. Retrospectively I hold some contrarian pride in having been the bottom boy in the bottom class:
It’s apparent from an exam mark of a mere 10% that after the difficult first term he simply never understood this year's course. (Chemistry, Summer 1986)
But sometimes the grades for application are not so bad. I'm surprised to see B plusses for Science and French - two subjects that I can only remember being bad at. I intermittently show aptitude for History and Geography. The only thing that I'm consistently good at is Art, which certainly hasn't carried over into my adult life.
I had four English teachers over these two years, and my observation in my primary school reports of the paramount importance of how much the teacher likes you, and that being something that can't be faked holds just as true here. The first two weren't much taken with me:
Although he is an enthusiastic worker, his written work leaves much to be desired. (Michaelmas 1984)
There is still a rather strange disparity between his written work, which is often very poor, and his oral ability. He reads well and has a lively imagination but his written work has shown little improvement. (Summer 1985)
And then the third teacher, I'd forgotten about her. Young and inexperienced, she must have been a rather ill at ease but nice woman. She only lasted a term and wasn't good at managing the unruly and glib lower stream class. I remember her leaving at least one lesson in tears and the boys feeling a bit guilty and deciding to lay off because they quite liked her. Although my marks are almost as bad in English as in any other subject, I also get an A and her comment is the only one in these reports that strikes me as particularly perceptive or empathetic about myself:
Puzzling, original, unusual. His maturity of thought and his intellectual calibre is not only way above the technical standard of his written work, but also above the rest of the class in its sophistication, so he suffers from misunderstanding and isolation.
She must have recognised something of herself in my position, I think now. I wonder what became of her?