Source: The Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 1999 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Pubdate: Sun, 24 Jan 1999
Contact: Author: India Knight
Author: India Knight


The Headmasters' Conference has been galvanised by the news that one in 10
pupils at Britain's "top independent schools" is a regular drug user.

I am shocked too: the figure seems on the low side. Obviously not much has
changed in the 15 years since I was expelled from a girls' boarding school
in Buckinghamshire for the heinous sin of persistent pot-smoking.

It's odd, the lack of change, when you consider how deeply and insidiously
today's pop culture is indebted to drug culture. There was no Trainspotting
when I was 15, no mainstream bestsellers about vapid people snorting coke,
no heroin chic, no teenage fashions that aped the clothes and hairstyles of
black American drug dealers or pimps (and you certainly couldn't buy
miniaturised versions of this look in BabyGap). There was no music to take
ecstasy to.

Still, we struggled by. There wasn't much of a drug culture at the school,
Wycombe Abbey, which then as now catered to the brainier (though you could
have fooled me) daughters of the well-off. But my friends and I all smoked
improbable, lung-busting quantities of cigarettes, drank a bit and, in two
or three cases, raced around in a blur of amphetamine sulphate.

Every boy I knew at the time - people's brothers, boys you met at dances,
boys at parties in London - was an occasional-to-frequent drug user. Eton,
in particular, seems to have a special aptitude for producing heroin
addicts: even today, you can barely walk down the street in certain parts
of west London without tripping over ropy-looking Old Etonians on their way
to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting.

The teenage children of the middle and upper-middle classes have a long
tradition of familiarity with drugs. I have many theories on why this
should be, apart from the obvious ones, like the ennui that comes from
being bored and privileged (cue violins), or the fact that drugs are easy
to afford when you have a monthly allowance; or - my own excuse - the plain
fact that (boarding) school is cripplingly boring.

There are other reasons. Many middle-class families live in the country,
for instance, which may be aesthetically pleasing but where nothing
happens. Poor rural teenagers sniff glue in bus shelters; well-off ones
take ecstasy at black-tie parties in Gloucestershire (or, in my day, smoked
themselves into a marijuana stupor).

Middle-class children in cities are living in the regional equivalent of
Chelsea, in all the people-like-us comfort their parents can muster, and
are consequently pitifully naive about the consequences of long-term
drug-taking. Kylie from Hackney is 100 times more likely to have seen or
known drug casualties first-hand than Arabella from Hampstead, who just
thinks it's all a bloody good laugh, yah? You couldn't make well-bred
naivety less attractive if you tried - or knowing urban streetsmarts more

The main reason for middle-class children's familiarity with drugs and,
predictably, it's a stupefyingly shallow one - is that every middle-class
teenager worth his or her salt goes through a phase of suffering absolute
agonies of torment over their lack of street cred.

This is a particularly acute problem at boarding school: the old "town
versus gown" thing. I vividly remember marching through High Wycombe,
resplendent in straw boater and navy wool blazer, In fide vade embroidered
on my breast pocket. It means "Step out in faith", a feat I never quite
managed when being stared at by the enviably normal-looking town girls,
doing normal things in their normal world.

It must be even worse now for teenagers surrounded by a relentless pop
culture that incessantly suggests street-wiseness, sex, violence and drugs
as the epitomes of desirability. Imagine: you gaze down at your
stripey-tied, shiny-shoed, hair-neatly-parted, fantastically uncool,
tragically unsnogged self (Yo!) every morning, and heave a very loud sigh
of frustration before meekly trotting off to chapel.

Obviously, there are greater hardships in life than feeling like a sad,
square sap - but not for privileged 16-year-olds. Unless you are very, very
self assured and see yourself as an embryonic Master of the Universe, or
very, very unimaginative and incurious, of course you take drugs.

In my day, you also automatically and rather sweetly joined the Communist
party, which is really taking naivety to extremes. All of this is partly to
do with middle-class children having no middle-class role models. Very few
teenagers today aspire to being William Hague, despite his stabbings at
street cred last week - and who, frankly, can blame them?

I can't say I can. I must come clean at this stage, and admit that the
expulsion which resulted from my drug-taking was the best thing that
happened to me in my school career. I was lucky, of course, but not that
lucky: expulsion is seldom the disaster it is made out to be.

I didn't like boarding school. Unlike some of my tougher, more hardened
contemporaries, I wasn't sent away at the age of seven: until I was 13, I
had always lived at home with my mother.

I hated everything about what I saw as my forced incarceration: the filthy
food, the endless petty rules (two pairs of knickers at all times; regular
inspection of said underpants by hulking great gym teacher with damp
palms); the girls who kept pictures of their ponies or country estates on
their bedside tables, instead of, say, pictures of their parents or
friends. Also the endless church-going; the sadistic house-mistresses; the
being sent to detention for reading Macbeth (Macbeth!) after lights out;
the constant, palpable pressure to conform to some fantastically misguided,
antiquated notion of Ideal Womanhood (best encapsulated as Be Good at
Tennis and Marry Well, which is odd since the school prided itself on its
academic prowess it still tops all the league tables).

I loved the friends I made at school - I still do - but I loathed being
there. I was always in trouble for no reason at all - being two minutes
late, saying "bugger" ("What did you say?" "Bugger." "WHAT did you say?"
"Bugger. B-U-G-G-E-R"), hating lacrosse, refusing to eat things that made
me gag, laughing too much. I didn't do any work, ever: my academic career
had hitherto been the least of my worries, but here unhappiness made me

Eventually I decided to get into trouble properly, but only after asking my
parents to send me to a day school after O-levels. They declined, and I
started really misbehaving. I smoked so much pot that I would fall off
chairs in lessons, beside myself with hysteria at some perceived absurdity,
screaming with laughter, the tears pouring down my face.

School, perversely, suddenly became fun: everything was a challenge. My
accomplice and I would sneak off to a Rastafarian pub in the town, score a
bag of grass off a man called Jimmy and smoke the entire bag at one
sitting. We'd drink disgusting concoctions in the woods: gin and rum and
vodka mixed up in a jam jar. We'd down bottles of sweet sherry in one.

Eventually - though it took longer than one might expect - a teacher
noticed our frankly unmissable state of permanent inebriation. My room was
searched while I was out, my diary read by my housemistress - I still feel
outraged by this - and that was that: one phone call home later, I was out.
The headmistress wrote to my parents suggesting I might benefit from
visiting a psychiatrist. She simply could not understand why a nice gel
like me might not like her stultifying, suffocating school.

Expulsion was the making of me: I was happy in London, at a tutorial
college. I somehow managed to find my brain again, dusted it down, sat my
A-levels and sent a mildly offensive, babyish but deeply satisfying letter
to my former headmistress when I got an exhibition to Cambridge.

I still always like people better if they have been expelled from school,
preferably serially. I see it as shorthand for what used to be called

This is an unfashionable view: one is supposed to admire the former
prefects, the former heads of school, the former sneaks who reported one
for smoking, the former tell-tales, the incessant sucker-uppers whose
meanness of spirit was always so richly rewarded by teachers. But I think
kicking against the pricks is an integral part of growing up, and I am
happy to have been a kicker rather than a kickee.

My kicking was by today's standards rather pitifully soft core; I expect
that if I were 16 today, and caught smoking pot, I would probably suffer no
worse punishment than a little lecture and a slap on the wrist, which would
be terribly disappointing.

I am not, by any means, condoning drug use, but it remains a fact of
late-20th-century life that the vast majority of teenagers take drugs at
some stage, whether they frequent a "top independent school" or not. It's
nothing new, and it's not that big a deal.

More to the point, being expelled from school certainly needn't be the end
of the world. It can even be its beginning.

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