When experiencing depression, Christopher Hodges explains the failures he faced in the schooling system and the process of realising the potential that was otherwise neglected
Wednesday July 27 2022, 12:53pm
Content Note: This article includes detailed discussion of depression.
The first book I felt a connection with in a difficult first year of sixth form was a volume of Ted Hughes’ poetry. It had come too late. Just two weeks later, my head of year called to confirm that I was no longer a student of my local state secondary in South Wales. As a dropout, my schedule went on to consist of the following: waking at four in the afternoon, hardly showering, and spending what effort I had on browsing the internet, before crawling back into bed at dawn. Existing was an embarrassment.
I have never worked out what went wrong, which is often the case with depression. I had been a good student, one of the ubiquitous ‘quiet boys’ every classroom has, cruising along on A’s and B’s, with a particular love for English lessons. There is a step-up from GCSE to A-Level, but it wasn’t an impossible climb. Yet partway through my first year at sixth form, I found myself miserable, avoiding my books and skipping school. While I had a few teachers that showed tenderness, I was mostly met by indifference. I was told that I should reconsider my position as an A-Level student. My inability to perform was the main cause for concern. The school’s pastoral care officer met with me just once.
“I was just one failing student in a school with other priorities”
However, this is not an exercise in axe-grinding: we find teachers preoccupied with overly large class sizes, overstuffed schedules, and challenging target grades. In effect, I was just one failing student in a school with other priorities. This is no surprise: a report by the Welsh government found that 1 in 5 students, and especially boys, do not progress to their second year of A-Levels. Students not exhibiting extreme symptoms of depression have almost no support, with another report stating that these students are “the so-called ‘missing middle’, referring to the almost complete absence of services for them”. In Wales, and likely in many schools across Britain, dropouts are a tacitly accepted part of the current system as much as the high achievers, as difficult as this is for anyone to admit.
I am fortunate to be writing this today. My mother, ever stoic in the face of disaster, frogmarched me to counselling sessions. Whatever anguish I had been in was largely talked out of me. I started to sleep normally, and I began socialising again. However, what didn’t return was my self-confidence. After much encouragement from my family, I restarted at a further education college. I was terrified. I believed I was not up to the standards that A-Levels required, and that I’d again crumble.
“Those without help at home will slip through the cracks”
Two years later, I’d find myself with great grades and off to university. I was furious. I realised that I’d previously been written off by my school when I shouldn’t have, that I was up to the standards asked of me, and that I’d felt worthless for nothing. I went on to chew my way through as many books as I could, out of immature spite, and as a way of making up for lost time. At the time of writing, I’ve just completed an MPhil here at Cambridge. I am part of the first generation in my family to go to university. There loomed a sense of imposter syndrome for some of Michaelmas term, but this soon subsided after settling into familiarity with friends, course-mates, and tutors.
Life governed by epilepsy
I am not angry anymore. I realise that I am lucky. Everyone’s mental health journey is different: some take months, some take years, and some learn to live life differently. When the system failed, I had a family to pick me up and make sure I was well again. But this is not the case for everyone. When a struggling education system must focus on performance over welfare, those without help at home will slip through the cracks and are likely to never come back from it. Some definitively do not.
In May Week, I attended a talk at Pembroke College focussing on a new book, The Catch: Fishing for Ted Hughes. The discussion was captivating. Poems I’d forgotten started to come back to me. My overdraft couldn’t handle buying any May Ball tickets for that night, so I spent the evening in Grantchester with a copy of the book. I’ve now moved out of my student accommodation, back home to Wales. My brother-in-law turned up to help move my things, exasperated at the bags of paperbacks and loose papers that he had to load up. But I’m still reading The Catch. I’m tempted to dig out my old volume of Ted Hughes’ poems from school that I’d put away on a shelf, and this time, read the collection cover to cover.
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