Holly Ruskin – writer, lecturer and co-founder of Blood Moon POETRY press – discusses her education at a private girls’ school and explains why she wants something different for her daughter…
Imagine trying to learn a completely different language, while you stand on shifting sands and try to juggle for the first time. At one point there’s solid ground beneath your feet but pretty soon it moves on, breaks apart, and it’s undulating again. You lose your balance, tipped over and quickly trying to right yourself while you drop all the balls and forget the very foreign phrase only just learnt.
And there is a moment, where the gentle breeze works in your favour and suddenly everything just comes together. You’re speaking fluently, body in perfect harmony: it all lands, just right. For a moment you let go of the anxiety that’s gripped you for so long (since you started this impossible task really) and let yourself believe that all will be well.
But then, the sands shift again. Too far this time. The weather changes and you’re lost. Anxious. Sick with fear that you’ll have to learn it all again.
This was school for me.
I was sent to all girls’ private schools from the age of four and being an August baby I was always the youngest and (I now realise) the most vulnerable.
There were three primary schools and two secondary schools by the time I was 11. Pushed through the 11+, I arrived at my last secondary school bruised and very scarred by my education up to that point.
Being naturally quiet I was a target for bullies, and in my first primary school, they were both teachers and other girls. I don’t remember much from this time, other than a sprained wrist from being pushed over onto the hard wooden floors during ‘playtime’.
Apparently one teacher had a habit of insisting I face the wall often, because when I did finally talk it was often not what was asked of me. I am an introvert who has never liked being told what to do, especially by people who I can tell don’t have my best interests at heart.
My experience of single sex private education is that all unique aspects of my personality were regarded as both acts of rebellion and parts of me that needed to be stripped away.
I spent years – 14 to be exact – trying to fit in and battling the natural teenage hormones and brain development that insist on a breaking away from authority. This push-pull resulted in ending up bottom of the class in subjects I didn’t like (taught my teachers I really hated) and top of the class in subjects I enjoyed, taught by the rare few teachers who nurtured me.
Funnelled through years of rigorous testing and incredibly stressful examinations, the pressure never lifted from the moment I started my education.
Having spent so many years interacting with just girls, I also existed in an environment where feeling safe was a moveable feast. Very early on, at primary school even, cliques were formed.
I’ve now read (and would highly recommend) ‘The Orchid and the Dandelion’ by W. Thomas Boyce M.D., a book about why sensitive people struggle. So I know that, based on his extensive research, I was probably always bound to end up being targeted as an outsider.
I was very quiet, sensitive and lacking in the confidence that young girls sniff out and favour for forming the friendship bonds that are ultimately about protection – from older girls, the tougher ones or even teachers who equated learning with submission.
These groups of girls would form, break apart and reform practically daily. I would embed myself with a few who I thought would become friends, before coming in the next day and finding that no one would talk to me.
Literally, I once went a week in Year 8 in absolute silence. This is how I landed on the phrase ‘shifting sands’ to describe my secondary school education, I think when explaining it to my utterly shocked and perplexed husband who spent his time in a Steiner school.
He knows only being valued, heard and respected by those who worked with him to expand his mind. His peers were kind, mostly creative kids who were guided in understanding how to develop their own self-esteem and in turn support this growth in others.
All this did mean I had a year long brush with very intense OCD, that saw me forced to write out a particular phrase in my diary 10 times every night before I could sleep and believe that the next day at school would ‘be ok’.
Followed swiftly, when I was around 15, with a couple of years battling disordered eating. And though I luckily managed to find a way out of it before becoming an anorexic (though I teetered on the brink several times), my mental health – I now know, after years of therapy – was probably impacted forever.
My education and the havoc it wreaked has followed me into every part of my adult life, and it’s only after leaving school that I found my path and achieved in exponential ways never predicted by my teachers. I did manage to achieve very good GCSE and A Level results, going on to attend a Russel Group university to study English with Film.
I should add in a disclaimer here, that the privilege of my education is not lost on me. I understand what it means to start a race with fewer hurdles than many others and am grateful that my parents wanted to give me what is an option for only one out of 16 students.
But life is incredibly messy and nothing is straightforward; it is important to realise that being grateful can rub alongside the discomfort and pain of something that just isn’t right or even ok.
Not only that, we all need to start looking beyond what appears ‘better’ in order to really understand not only how our children are learning, but actually how they’re feeling while doing it.
Learning is not a privilege, it is an absolute right for all of us. How we hold, support and nurture the next generation while they’re doing it can only be improved by genuine and careful interrogation of what does and doesn’t work.
Ironically, or perhaps not, I am now a lecturer with an MA, teaching Film at a university. Though I have enjoyed my job sporadically over the last decade, journalism was always my dream. But having been battered by the storms of a private, single sex education that I couldn’t hope to survive in one piece, I never developed the confidence to start writing professionally. Teaching was safe. Journalism at Columbia in New York was almost on the cards, but ultimately, I was just too afraid to take that leap.
It’s only since having my daughter two years ago that I’ve really started to look at how I was educated, what’s it done to me and perhaps it’s the fires of motherhood that have finally enabled me to go back to the writing I have always loved. Nothing is quite as scary as holding a newborn baby, knowing you have no idea how to start keeping them alive.
So, what does all this mean? Nothing and everything really. I can’t change how I learnt the things I know now. There are parts of me forever and irrevocably damaged by my education. I also know a lot about myself, what I can handle, friendships that are right for me and environments I am very clear will not be good for me.
When my husband and I talk about our daughter’s education, I will only say that I want her to feel safe. Wherever she is, she must feel safe. Free to be herself. Heard, valued and respected as an individual. Her interests carefully nurtured, and her fears eased with gentle encouragement.
Being a teacher myself, I have spent years doing the same for my students and have forged lifelong friendships with some. I’ve cried at end of year awards ceremonies, received countless cards and hugs – my daughter still now sleeps under a blanket bought by a group of students who graduated just before she was born. So I know, really deep in my bones, what the real difference is between a good educational experience and a bad one.
We have chosen the non-mainstream route for our daughter until she tells us otherwise. When she’s old enough to choose, her education is 100% her own. But for now, we seek the free schools, Steiner’s, Montessori’s and any place really that is looking for ways to help raise whole human beings. We’re open to home education if we can’t find the right environment for her needs.
My husband told me that he was happy to go to school every day that he went. This is all I want for our daughter, for my students and all I ever really wanted for me.