Rosie Waterland wrote this post in response to another scandal at a high-profile private school. Today, in the light of what’s happening at Sydney’s Ravenswood School For Girls, it seems more relevant than ever.
I thought that private school was going to change my life. It did. Within a month of leaving that place, I was so broken I tried to kill myself.
“Studies have shown that students from private schools are more likely to get into Uni and end up making a lot more money; while wife-beaters and rapists are nearly all public-school educated. Sorry, no offence, but it’s true.”
That gloriously offensive quote can be attributed to the brilliant Chris Lilley creation that is Ja’mie King – the snooty private school girl who slums it for one term at a public school in 2007’s Summer Heights High. The humour, of course, comes from the outrageously hyperbolic nature of the quote. I mean, private school students often have a reputation for being a bit snobbish, but nobody actually thinks and talks like Ja’mie, right?
“The amount of retarded people on this page make me so happy that my parents bothered to send me to a good, private school instead of a poverty-stricken sh***** in Pakenham. People often say that paying to send your kids to a private school is not worth it but when I read what you povo fucks post on this page I’m eternally grateful to my parents.”
That quote can be attributed to a real-life private school boy, who attends the elite Xavier College in Melbourne. He was referring to the public school students supporting each other on a Facebook VCE (Year 12 exams) forum.
Ladies and Gentleman, Ja’mie King exists, and she is the niggling sense of entitlement and superiority hidden in the dark corners of the brains of many elite private school students.
I was not shocked at all to read the comments left by that Xavier College student, just like I’ve always known that while Ja’mie King’s quotes may be outrageous, the attitude behind them is something very, very real. I know, because I’ve experienced it.
I’m one of a rare group who got to experience both extremes of the education system. Growing up with mentally ill and addicted parents, I was shipped from family member to rehab centre to foster home and back again, over and over and over. That meant by the time I graduated Year 12, I had been to about 17 schools (honestly I lost count, but I think that number is pretty close). All those schools were of the public or ‘public-with-Jesus’ variety. Some kids were more well-off than others, but nobody even came close to being higher than middle class.
Then I found myself at one of the most elite private boarding schools in the country. After such a tumultuous childhood and inconsistent schooling experience, my uncle, who was quite wealthy, decided to step in and send me to a ‘good school’ for years 10,11 and 12. And let me tell you, this school wasn’t just ‘good’, it was fucking spectacular. The campus was like nothing I’d ever seen. It was so big, it had streets with actual street names. There was an aquatic centre. A TV studio. Countless theatres. An art centre, art gallery and fully equipped photographic studio. About ten different sporting ovals that I didn’t really understand the difference between. A music centre. A massive gym. Computer labs with endless Macs. A library that needed elevators because it had three freaking levels.
I had come from a school with one dial-up computer that you could only book for twenty-minute slots. We often didn’t have enough chairs in classrooms, and now I was at a school with a bloody AQUATIC CENTRE. I had entered an alternate universe, and I was over the damn moon. I thought that private school was going to change my life.
It did. Within a month of leaving that place, I was so broken I tried to kill myself.
You see, the private school I went to was filled with a lot of very nice facilities, but it was also filled with a lot of not-so-nice kids. I was bullied mercilessly, pretty much from day one. Abuse yelled at me everywhere I went. Humiliating pranks pulled at my expense. I started having panic attacks, developed social anxiety and became a shell of a person. For the first time in my life, I started having suicidal thoughts. I write in my recently published memoir that I felt like I was being ‘hunted’, and that word is really the best way I can think of to describe it. For three years I was hunted, in the place that was supposed to be my sanctuary after a childhood filled with trauma.
I complained to teachers constantly, and nothing was done. I was told that the boys doing it ‘probably just had a crush’ on me, or that maybe I should ‘just relax and have fun with the joke’. I was basically being told I needed to modify my own behaviour if I expected others to treat me like a human being. I cried myself to sleep every night, and became one of those weird kids who pretends to be sick all the time so she can hide in the sick bay (which, of course, at this school, was a fully-equipped 7-bed clinic). I was defeated, and I was broken.
School girls are being told their skirts are too short. Post continues below…
Here’s the thing: Bullying is common to all schools, I get that. I’d had my share of stupid, childish bullying experiences (on both the receiving and giving end, which we all have). But of the 17 schools I’d been to in my life, I’d never before been faced with the level of cruelty I had to deal with at that private school. And that always surprised me. This was meant to be not only the ‘best’ school I had ever been to, but also one of the ‘best’ schools in country. And it was the only school I’d been to where I was treated like I was less than a human being.
There were some good times there too. I loved art and drama, and was able to do incredible things with the epic facilities at my disposal. I loved cadets – a camping (and somewhat bizarre) army tradition pretty much only available to rich kids. But even though there were parts I enjoyed, every day I felt worthless, and I had never been to a school that made me feel that way before. I would have traded in all the facilities and expensive programs just to go back to one of the ‘crappy’ public schools where I had been treated like a human being with worth.
So, I guess that’s why that Xavier College student’s awful comments didn’t surprise me. My time at an elite private school allowed me to see the bubble from the inside, with the kind of perspective only a poor, public school kid can have. And the main thing I noticed was an absolute cluelessness about life outside that elite bubble, and an absolute sense of entitlement to being inside that elite bubble.
It’s important to note though, that while all the private school kids I came across had the same sense of cluelessness and entitlement, it didn’t affect all of them negatively. A lot of the kids were lovely, if not a little too sure about what kind of future they deserved and expected, and there’s nothing wrong with that kind of confidence. But, for some kids, that cluelessness and entitlement takes a very dark, nasty turn. It’s a fine line, and to put it bluntly, some private school kids end up falling on the side of that line that makes them cruel fucking knobclouds.
Whether it was my bullies thinking they had the right to break me until I tried to kill myself, or the kid this week thinking he had the right to tell public school kids ‘you’ll be working for me one day’, the elite private school bubble turns some of its students into pretty awful people. And after attending 17 schools, 16 of which were public, that is a phenomenon I only saw in the private school world.
That is why, 12 long years after I escaped (and yes, I use the word ‘escaped’ instead of ‘graduated’) a private school, I wasn’t surprised when I heard the awful things that Xavier College student said about those ‘below’ him on the society food chain. Nothing has changed, and nothing ever will. When you grow up relatively clueless in an extremely elite bubble, there are always going to be some students who take that entitlement to heart.
What were your experiences of public and private schools?