I was really good at school until I hit Year 9. Something snapped in Year 9. Maybe it was the pressure of the abuse I was in my third year of enduring from my piano teacher. Maybe it was hormonal. Maybe it was the bullying – ironically, I was bullied at school because I played the piano and some of the other kids thought it was too posh. Maybe it was that a combination of all those things had made me withdrawn, sulky and uncommunicative at home. Whatever it was, I changed.
I went from doing my homework to not bothering. I went from silently enduring bullying to fighting back. I went from smiling to scowling. I pretty much hated the world and everything in it. I only really loved music.
To my teachers, I had everything. Compared to many of the other kids in my class, I was lucky. We lived in a nice house, my parents cared about my education and about me. I was clever. But I was horrid. Suddenly, bolt-out-of-the blue, horrid. I co-ordinated a mean little stunt on our English teacher who had a habit of a) spitting when he talked and b) losing his temper. Five minutes into the lesson, our umbrellas went up. Having won the grudging respect of the bullies through fighting, losing and fighting some more, I started hanging around on their estate – Stoops estate in Burnley where the writer of Shameless, Paul Abbott, grew up. They sniffed glue. I drank litres of cider. We’d throw up on the streets then I’d walk home, sneak up to my room and sleep.
“I love you, but I don’t like you!” said my Mum in exasperation. I didn’t care. I didn’t like myself either. Home life deteriorated to the point that I barely spoke to or saw my parents. If I wasn’t locked in my room, I was locked in my head. My Mum got so worried she took some eyeshadow powder I’d spilt in my bin down to the chemist to see if they could analyse it. She thought I must be on drugs. I wasn’t and they couldn’t.
But I still went to piano lessons. I learned to play sliding down on my stool so his hands couldn’t reach into my pants. But I still went. It didn’t cross my mind to ask for a different teacher, so I endured. Then a miracle happened.
Mrs Bowling, our bouncy, but strict music teacher, took me to one side.
“I hope you’re going to take this for O Level,” she said.
She got me to play. Told me my posture was shocking. She rang my parents. She told them I was really talented at music, but that I must find a different piano teacher. I needed to do grades, she told them, and whatever this man had been doing, he’d got me doing it all in a very odd position. So almost overnight, my life changed.
I didn’t change that much. But I had somewhere to go. The Music room was like a church for me – a haven. This adult didn’t ask me awkward questions. She knew I was getting into trouble a lot but she didn’t mention it. She ran me to the hospital after one particularly vicious fight, but all she said was “don’t do that again!” She played music to me. Rachmaninov, Mozart, Parry. I was glad. She took me to the Halle – I’d never even been to Manchester before. She saved me.
It took me years to straighten out. Even after the bullying had stopped and the hormones calmed down, I was like the ball in a pinball machine. Unpredictable, little self regulation, prone to huge ups and downs. I didn’t tell my parents about my piano teacher – didn’t tell anyone at all – until I was 30 and of course they were devastated, but by then, I was better.
So you see, when people tell me I’m a troll for wanting to protect children like me; that I don’t live in the real world; that I’m soft – I don’t give a Figaro. Because I know, every child needs a champion. To all adult eyes, I had it all – a loving family and every advantage. In most schools now I would have been excluded for fighting. But I wasn’t. I was given a chance – one human being – that’s all it took. Sometimes what’s on the surface is nothing more than a symptom of something terrible beneath. I know it’s hard, but let’s never lose our compassion. Let’s keep looking for that thing – that one thing that will capture a child’s interest and imagination. Let’s not give up.