Over 200 years ago, Dr William Drennan founded the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. My grandfather went there, and so did my two brothers. In many ways, I am a blue blood Instonian. I achieved some academic success at the school and made friends, that should be where the story ends. A sugar sprinkled seven years as a Belfast schoolboy who moved abroad afterwards.
We are all guilty of looking back with exaggerated fondness for our schooldays, I have been more guilty than anyone. I have been asked to speak in London and Belfast about what school meant to me, and have done so. But have I ever really strayed from the expected script? No, I haven’t, and as a result both speeches were met with polite applause for meeting the required brief.
I meet a collection of friends from school once a year normally at Christmas, and without it meaning to be, it turns into a therapy session of sorts. There is a need to articulate our complicated experiences, because who else will understand? Our time at Inst from 1997-2004 was defined by a need to succeed, and we all bought into it. Our personalities then needed to conform to an ideal of social acceptability in the Instonian community, rigidly policed by our schoolmates. Show little emotion or empathy, act tough when necessary, excel at rugby and academics and most pertinently, never ever show any weakness. One close friend probably put it best, “Inst fucked us all up a bit, just in different ways”. This boy represented his country in his chosen sport while at school and excelled academically. Hardly a tragic ending. Like myself, he readily accepts he wouldn’t have possessed the drive as an adult if it hadn’t been for the atmosphere at school, but equally he wonders at what cost.
There were incredible and inspirational teachers in college square East. Teachers I still owe a huge debt of gratitude to for believing in me when I certainly wasn’t able to. They gave me a lifelong love of literature and writing. These men and women stood apart from the highly intense atmosphere that unfortunately often indirectly led to bullying and conformity. A boy I speak to regularly told me everyday he had a terror of walking through the school gates as he didn’t know what awaited him. He certainly wasn’t alone. Mockery in the classroom from a bullying teacher for academic slowness was often replicated three fold in the playground against those boys who dared to fit outside of the standard and approved Instonian mould.
We were offered opportunities many boys could only dream of. Music, drama and sport were represented at the highest levels internationally. You bought into the need to be excellent at all times, and if you couldn’t achieve this, you simply forced yourself to work harder. You voluntarily stayed in a pressure cooker. I was frequently asked why I couldn’t beat my older brother in exams and I responded by spending lunchtimes in the library studying. Academically, we were streamed by ability, and we knew exactly where we ranked on a league table. It made you work even harder, and this led to lifelong habits of perfectionism for some that have been hard to shake.
A wise teacher once told my brother, “if Inst represents the happiest days of your life, you must have had a pretty horrible time at university”. In many ways he was right, and he was an esteemed senior member of staff. We learnt at university that being kind to your fellow man wasn’t a weakness, but something to be encouraged, not denigrated. It took some us longer to learn this than others.
Things have changed largely for the best. I returned to school for the first time in a decade to talk about working for the Guardian as a writer. One of my favourite teachers invited me. A lot of boys came up to me after my talk and thanked me politely. I was watching how they interacted with one another closely that day and I noticed the hardness had gone. The teacher agreed times had changed for good in this aspect of life. The sporting trophy cabinet might be emptier, the Oxbridge entrants might be down, but the boys were more interested in enjoying their school days together.
My experiences of Inst informed exactly who I am as a person for the rest of life. It gave me a drive to succeed and a relentless tenacity to prove others wrong. Is this a good thing? Only those that are close to me could comment. I still feel anger at the treatment levelled at some boys who had the audacity not to fit into the normal mould that was prescribed by a playground mafia. I could have done more to stop the bullying and nastiness, but I didn’t. I don’t think I am alone in feeling this.
Our school motto was quarere verum, Latin for seek the truth; I am finally doing so eleven years later.