The best days of your life?

Joe Kelly
remembers how poor teaching contributed to his breakdown – and less directly,
his recovery.

teaches us many useful things about ourselves and these hard-won insights are a
valuable tool in drawing back the curtain of ignorance. Sometimes it changes
your life.

To be
specific, I am speaking about my own experience, growing up as a teenager in
the late 1960s at my secondary school in north London, and reflecting on how I
was taught. The school I went to was a poor cousin of the public school model,
a boys-only school and strictly no girls on our side of the fence.

Many of our
masters were bullies and knowledge was inflicted on us as if it were
punishment. If you didn’t comply, you were a loser. My English teacher used to
quote my essay mistakes to the class in order to embarrass me and I was caned
by the headmaster for poor performance. There was little appreciation of my
Irish background, which played an important part in my perception of the
English language.

best hope was to conform and I didn’t. I was bullied continually by another boy
and his gang. While I did redeem myself by giving him two black eyes, I felt

did me a lot of damage and made me distrust others, reducing my confidence. It
was very different from my previous school, which was more relaxed and more

enough, I was a sensitive child. In the right environment I could thrive and
show my ability – but this Spartan, punitive north London school stunted my
development. Added to that, my father was a workaholic, spending little quality
time with his family.

I recall
that on the last day of school several of my schoolmates were talking about
their ambitions for the future. As we went around the circle, one of them said
he wanted to be a teacher. It felt like a personal affront. “You bastard,” I
thought, “how can you be like these swines who have taught us for the past five

So it is
hardly surprising that when I reached the age of 19 I had a massive breakdown.
Instead of being poised on the threshold of adulthood, I was exhausted
physically and mentally and in no condition to engage with the world.

experience taught me to be my own person and within that to be as flexible as
possible in a changing world. It taught me that to be vulnerable and have a
predisposition to mental distress can be a strength as well as a weakness, that
to have a breakdown can be a new beginning. And it taught me to respect people,
and that education is about bringing out the best in people and not necessarily
putting in information.

Among the
people I learned to respect in my new life were the teachers I came across, the
majority of whom worked very hard to help me to learn their subject and who took
time and effort to give me the education I had missed.

in view of what I had thought of my fellow student years before, I became a
teacher myself. My subjects are art and horticulture. One day in the art studio
I was pleased when one of my students called me “Mr Motivator”. Some of those
hard-won insights must have paid off.

Kelly is a mental health service user, activist and teacher.

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