Xaverian College, Manchester, is set just off Wilmslow Road in Rusholme. It is an expansive campus spread over several streets, well hidden from the outside world. Getting off the bus, one is confronted with the famous Curry Mile, a street which is wonderful purely because one look at it would make Nigel Farage explode.
The 6th Form College, once you’ve navigated a few residential streets, could easily be a small University. It is situated in a series of old buildings, many dating back to the peak of Manchester’s industrial heyday. The few newer buildings, with their asymmetric shapes, seem at jarring odds with the rest of the campus. A massive green, which wouldn’t look out of place in a Cambridge college, dominates the centre of the campus. Many of the buildings were once residential homes, now taken over by the students. I learned English in what was the master bedroom of a small but ornate mansion. My history classes took place across the road, in a magnificent, faux Grecian building. The original residents have been controversial in the local community. IRA sympathisers (on leftist, anti-imperialist grounds), they had once hosted Michael Collins and Anton De Valera in their home, as the two IRA men had attempted to engage in secret negotiations to end hostilities with the British government. Those negotiations had, in fact, been a ruse, to trap the Republicans, and both had hidden in the attic of the same building, where, 80 years later, I listened to an intensely paranoid history teacher drone on about the fact that the Nazis would one day return, but this time with nuclear weapons and flying an American flag.
I studied at Xaverian between 2007 and 2009. What brought me back was the auspices of an access visit for Cambridge University. The college were very keen for me to talk about my own experiences of studying politics and gender studies. I did two very interesting talks with AS students, as well as, through a series of confusing events, teaching an A Level Politics class. Not knowing what else to teach, I delivered a lesson asking if we should live in a post-gender society, if a society without a legally enshrined concept of gender would be better for us a people. On the one hand, without gender enshrined in law, one could feasibly argue that the gender pay gap would wither away. On the other hand, without gender in law, could we prevent discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity? A change in law does not immediately cause a change in social attitudes, or eradicate heteropatriarchy. The discussion was surprisingly fruitful. I was pleasantly surprised that most of those fresh faced 6th formers came at the problem from the same, progressive perspective as myself. The whole thing was made even stranger by the fact that the room I delivered this lesson in was the very same room where I studied A Level Law. I remember sitting there, realising that my interest in the law was thoroughly misplaced, and more importantly (at the time) that the extremely attractive girl in front of me thought I was cute but a bit of a tosser (which, in hindsight, was an astute analysis).
By chance, I encountered my old English teacher as I was about to leave the college. I owe that man more than I can say, now that I reflect on it. As an A Level student, I was a mess. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with life. Most of my plans revolved around not wanting to have a life, and also trying to come to terms with the fact that I needed to escape the grips of my family more than I needed an education. My English teacher, with extraordinary patience, convinced me to apply to University, and to apply to Cambridge. Mixed though my experiences of Cambridge have been, studying here was ultimately a good thing for me in the long run, given where I am at 24 compared to where I was at 18.
We spoke for about 20 minutes now. He’s semi-retired, and spends his time working with the college’s Oxbridge applicants and also its struggling students, with the aim of enabling the brightest while supporting the less fortunate. We talked about the state of schools, the government, my experiences of Cambridge (his son had spent 8 years at Cambridge, become a fellow at Christs, before getting sick of it and taking on a professorship at LSE). And then, casually, he dropped a bombshell:
“You almost got expelled, you know.”
He spoke with a quiet whimsy and a vague sense of bemusement half the time, as if he was about to share some wonderful joke with you, but he was waiting for just the right moment, all the while smiling to himself in anticipation. That tone was only ever dropped on matters of the utmost seriousness. It fell away now, pooling itself on the ground like a dropped towel.
“Well, I suppose it was a while ago so I can tell you…in a nutshell, we were very worried about your mental health. You were in a very bad way for most of your time here. You were always very bipolar – when you were in a good way, you were one of our best students, and when you were in a bad way…”
It was true. My bipolar disorder was certainly more pronounced during my 6th form years. My erratic, idiosyncratic behaviour, my theatricality, and my sudden lapses into closed of despair were a defining feature of my character, and something I felt ashamed of, but was incapable of preventing, as if I was watching a recording of myself, and quietly commenting “why, why are you doing that?” I also began the long, agonising drawn out process of a major mental health breakdown which culminated during my first year at Cambridge.
I listened, and found that during out conversation, I had rolled, and lit, a cigarette. Where the tobacco had come from, I wasn’t sure, and why I was suddenly smoking rather than being a good boy and puffing on my e-cigarette was beyond me. Stress and rollies tended to go hand in nicotine stained hand in my life.
“Go on,” I said, pensively.
“It’s a bad business, but there were people in college who thought you might become a danger to yourself, and they didn’t want us to be responsible for that. It’s a stupid attitude to take, as I’m sure you’re aware. But we fought your corner.”
“Me, a few of your other teachers, people who’d worked with you…we said ‘give him space, he needs to get some negativity out of his system. We need to support him. If we get rid of him, we don’t just lose a bright student, we might lose something more than that…we knew you weren’t going to get any help from your family.”
There was a pause. The whimsy was suddenly drawn back up, quietly concealing the seriousness. The weight of those words remained, and I swallowed them. They sat at the pit of my stomach, like a cannonball. We were talking about something had had happened six or seven years ago. The threat had long since passed, but at the time I had had no idea that those conversations had occurred. Perhaps, had I been more aware of the world outside the fluctuating chaos of my head, I might have picked up on hints, perhaps sensed something was amiss. In hindsight, I remember little beyond the feeling of being swept along by a current, never quite sinking, but never getting enough oxygen either.
He put a hand on my arm. He probably sensed my nervousness.
“I think we made the right decision. You’ve turned out well. I’m proud of you.”
What might might life have been like had I not finished my A Levels? Would I have gone to University? Would I have ever escaped from the nightmarish existence of my childhood? The what ifs create their own tragic trajectory of another life that I might have lived, had things been different, had the beating of a butterfly’s wings caused the wind to move in a different direction. Now, writing this, I’m trying not to speculate. It takes to me to places I’d rather not go. What I can say, was as I watched my old English teacher wonder off to become a retreating figure, briefcase in one hand, pile of James Joyce books under one arm, one thought came to my mind and will stay there whenever I think of him.
I think you saved my life. Thank you.