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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Making of a Child Psychiatrist (2)

I was not particularly aware of it at the time, but I must have been both a bright and a confident child.  In primary school this was seen as a problem, and led to several punishments. As an example, in third year (aged 7 in 1951), our teacher left the classroom for several minutes to get supplies or perhaps go to the toilet. The class gradually became more and more noisy, and I (self-proclaimed leader) stood and tried to get everyone to quieten down. When this did not work, I climbed onto my desk (presumably to give myself authority) and shouted to everyone to be quiet. At that moment the teacher returned, and it appeared that I was the one making all the noise. I was taken to the headmaster for a reprimand and subsequently, laying across his lap and having my short trousers pulled up, I was spanked several times on the upper thigh in front of the whole school. Maybe I was hurt (I may well have cried) or mortified. I cannot remember whether I told my mother, but I am fairly certain that it was never discussed between her and the headmaster. Home was home, and school was school. It left some sort of a mark on my thigh (and maybe on my psyche), but it did not stop me; I continued to be somewhat bumptious with an apparent disdain for authority.
I can remember two later occasions when I was punished with a slipper for being part of some ruckus in the playground. There was also an occasion when I was 10 when I got the cane on the palm of my hand a couple of times. It must have been school based behaviour, but I cannot remember what. Being noisy and bumptious probably. Despite all of that, I was in a competitive high achieving small group in the senior class, and always seemed to do well without much effort. Ultimately I passed the Eleven Plus examination, and was offered a place at Chatham House Grammar School in Ramsgate.
I suspect the confidence came from being an only child up till the age of 7. My father was in the RAF, was rescued off the beaches at Dunkirk in 1940, survived the war, and decided to continue his service career post war. Ten months after I was born in 1944, he was posted to Egypt, and did not return until I was 4 years old – an immense shock to my system (but more of that later). So I had my mother to myself. After her mother Louie (née Barrett) died in 1945, she had moved from Feltham, Middlesex to Kent, and we took up residence in the top two stories over a photographer’s shop (affectionately known as Charlie Pearce’s), in Cuthbert Road. This backed onto the railway and the local station, and began an early interest in trains. The narrow stairwell was lined with brown linoleum, and I can remember the smell to this day, as well as the sound climbing those stairs.
There was a baker at the end of the block. The smell was always enticing, and the visits enthralling; I can remember the oven, and the heat, and over the years developed a special relationship with the baker and his family – which always led to extra small rolls. Coming home from there one day, I have a visual memory (from about the age of three) of an older gentleman who stopped my mother for a brief social chat. On parting, he patted me on the head, made a friendly comment, and then waved from a few yards away. I poked my tongue out, and was soundly told off by my mother.
Again, I can see an emerging attitude of refusal to accept older male authority. And I can see that in my career. It has always taken me a time to get used to males in authority, and I am sure I have been at times resistant, at times difficult, and at times rude. I am sure psychoanalysis would say I suffered from an ‘Oedipus Complex’, wishing to own my mother, and wanting to kill my father for being in the way. I am sure I did not have such wishes at the time of his return, but I know there were times later in early adolescence when I was angry enough to have such thoughts. Of course to have such thoughts invariably leads to self-doubt and depression. I can certainly remember these from time to time, but have always thought of them in retrospect as my ‘4% Syndrome’.
Let me explain. At the end of my first year at Chatham House, I had topped the class. The maths teacher, a Mr. Jacobson (‘Jake’ to the boys) called me into his room and explained that not only had I been good at Maths, but also he had given out marks for good behaviour during the year and in total I had scored 104%. He explained with his slight speech impediment: “Of course the headmaster, even as an English scholar, will know there is no such quantity as 104%. So I have decided to reduce your mark down to 96%. You will still be top of the class. You will still get the prize for mathematics for 1st year. I hope that is OK?” So, what do you say at 12. “Yes Mr. Jacobson. Thank you Mr. Jacobson.”
All the way home on the bus from school, I had a pleasant sense of achievement. I smiled rather frequently to myself. When I arrived home, I raced through the house and found my father: “Dad, dad, dad, I got 96% for Maths...” to which he responded: “What happened to the other 4%?” Well what can you say? It is rather lame at that point to try and explain the whole conversation and context. I was crestfallen.
Of course this is what can be called a ‘screen memory’ – the archetypal memory which draws on all those prior occasions when I was not quite good enough, had not achieved enough. Again this is very Oedipal. However, I am convinced that it led to my constant need for achievement over the years, my never being satisfied with my own achievement, and my sometimes deep despair when I believed I had ‘failed’.

More to come...

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