Adams’ Grammar School made me do it, and I’m sorry
I dated a black girl when I was 17. When my school friends found out, some of them laughed openly in my face.
They asked me if her vagina smelt of shit. They made monkey noises. This happened in England in the 21st century.
Specifically, it happened at Adams’ Grammar School in Telford.
When one of the three black guys in my year walked into a room, people would sometimes hide their possessions as a joke, because “all niggers are thieves”. People said “nigger” a lot, as a joke.
People said “faggot” a lot too. A friend of mine who left the school a couple of years before me often used this word; I have since heard that he has started sleeping with men at university.
If he had gone public with this information at school, he would have been laughed at and ostracised. At Adams’, “faggots” were a source of derision and disgust.
Women were treated like shit at the school universally known as LADam’s Grammar. The notion of gender equality was a joke.
Girls were referred to as “rat”, collectively: the word was also a synonym for “vagina”.
If you had female friends, you were not a “lad” but a “bummer”. Girls were generally treated as objects, for calling “fat” and “ugly” and “stupid”. They were of secondary value.
This letter is emphatically not an attack on any of my school friends. Prejudice is primarily institutional, not personal, in cause. There were no more dickheads at Adams’ than anywhere else.
Nor am I trying to speak on behalf of those who were oppressed and marginalised at Adams’. I was well-liked at school, and had a great time during my seven years there.
This is not the bitterness of a victim or the posturing of a saint; it is the confession of a bigot.
This letter, therefore, is an attack on Adams’ Grammar School. From my perspective the fundamental doctrine that Adams’ taught was that we should define ourselves by our perceived superiority to others.
This dogma magnified the unthinking prejudice common to all eleven-year-old boys into something more malicious.
Adams’ drilled into us that the strong were always superior to the weak. The ethos of self-advancement, self-protection and self-promotion was echoed everywhere from the assembly hall to the rugby field.
The arrogant confidence I learnt at Adams’ taught me to capitalise on my privilege.
“You are Adams’ Boys” ran the endlessly repeated litany.
We took it to mean “you are better than those dirty little shits at the comprehensive – you are better than those below you in the exam tables or weaker than you on the rugby pitch- you are better than everyone else because you have beaten them- you are better because you are Adams’ Boys.”
When I started university, I was a sexist and a homophobe. People I met here rapidly demonstrated me the weakness of my unthinking homophobia; not through any acts of particular courage, but simply through encouraging me to think clearly and logically about my beliefs.
Likewise, the intelligence, vivacity and brilliance of my female friends made my sexism appear absurd to me.
As soon people made me think about it, I saw my prejudice for the illogical bullshit it was.
But at Adams’, it was as though we were encouraged to power through life without thinking or caring about the less privileged, and so that was what I did.
At uni then I saw for the first time the link between the racism directed at my ex-girlfriend, which I despised, and my own sexism and homophobia, which I ignored. I hope that the people who helped me in the ongoing process of erasing these beliefs from my personality can forgive me my ignorance, past and present.
Yet I still recognise prejudice flaring up in myself, fuelled by the environment I studied in for seven years.
Adams’ is far from unique in being steeped in the toxic absurdity of lad culture. But the staff often indulged our sexist arrogance, in casual classroom bullying.
So long as we were doing well in the exam league tables and the Daily Mail Cup, it was like we could get away with anything.
The victims of our jokes felt it necessary to participate in them. The head boy in my year, a Muslim of Sudanese origin, was rightly popular and well-respected, but he still had to endure endless jokes about bombs and famine. I saw black boys posing with KFC buckets on their heads while a room full of rich white boys guffawed.
The girls put up with being groped, bullied and harassed on a daily basis. We drove them from the school and mocked them when they left. We constantly mocked marginalised groups.
It was all just a laugh- so long as you were one of the popular white boys laughing the hardest.
In fairness, only a minority of the staff indulged these attitudes. Many of teachers encouraged maturity and tolerance, though of course we did not always listen.
I have also heard from younger pupils that the situation is improving, with the boys attending lessons on how to respect women. Nonetheless, it is telling that these lessons were deemed necessary.
In effect, we were taught that to be Adams’ Boys was to be inherently superior to the rest of the world. And arrogance combined with ignorance creates bigotry.
I cannot imagine what it was like to be among the women and the homosexuals and the ethnic minorities and the effeminate and the unpopular and the weak at Adams’.
This letter is not an excuse. To the A-Level English teacher who cried because we mocked the idea of gender equality, I am sorry.
To the black and Asian boys forced to join in with the jokes about suicide bombs and monkeys, I am sorry.
To the boy who masked his sexuality in homophobia because he could never admit the truth, I am sorry.
Adams’ was not a place for the weak. It made me successful, certainly. And it also taught to me hate. But it did this by teaching me to seek to defeat others, to sneer at those less confident and popular and privileged than me, and to resent those who surpassed me.