My daughter goes to a great little school. Low buildings barely a mile from our home are scattered around lush parkland whose trees are bedecked with coloured ribbons to indicate the permissible ceiling of ascent for climbing enthusiasts, according to their age. There are otherwise no rules at all. The children self-police in every respect and have done since the school's inception in 1897. The school is non-selective and non-competitive. There is no homework before the age of 11, nor exams before 16. The school is coeducational and there is no uniform. It is OK to be late. It is OK to bunk a couple of days to get cheaper return flights from your half-term beach holiday. In both cases you just email the head teacher and say, "Sorry, Peter," and he emails back, "Don't apologise, life is for living."
The kids all call him by his first name, too. There are no detentions or rustications. No school monitors or prefects. No head boy or girl. They don't play cricket or worship God or do Latin. There is a lot of art and music and drama. Which is all absolutely wonderful. FOR A GIRL. But where the hell am I going to send Sam?
Sam is going to have to support a family
For girls, education is optional. Having won the sex war, they have arrived at a previously undreamt-of position in our social evolution, where they have the choice either to work or to marry a man who does. So, while my Kitty is a clever little thing and will probably do well in her exams and choose to go to university and one day find work that is financially and spiritually enriching, having had a joyfully relaxed, creative and nurturing time at school; if she doesn't, fuck it, she can just marry a banker.
Not so, Sam. He is going to have to support a family. If he wants to replicate the life he knew as a kid, with a couple of nice houses, foreign holidays, pretty cars, private schools and all that, then he's going to need to earn a lot of money. A lot. It's not like I don't want him to feel happy and safe and cherished at school, but is it, for a male child, really the most important thing?
I was sent to a fully uniformed, all-male, old-fashioned, results-driven private school at the age of six and was left there until, well, basically yesterday. I wore shorts and a pink blazer and cap and was mugged by local youth every morning of my life. And in the afternoons I was molested by a teacher. Not badly (although these days, they tell me, "rape is rape") but I was spanked and frotted and tickled, rewarded with chocolates by one teacher for staying in shorts throughout the winter term, punished by another — many times — by having my head buried in his (trousered) crotch until I couldn't breathe.
But from there I got into one of the great public schools, where I was sexually threatened in the showers by senior boys, racially abused by pupils (and one teacher) and kept from the company of women until it was too late to prevent me from being fucked up about women for life. And through all those years I was made to feel academically dense, punished incessantly for minor lapses of attention and spent many an afternoon wondering whether a speeding train or a high window would be the less painful route to joining that term's roster of attempted suicides.
But who cares? I got straight As, got into Oxford, got a great job and now earn, if not a banker's salary then between two and three times what the prime minister does, for about four mornings' work a week. A position I have got to, I believe, not despite the pressure and misery and borderline rape, but because of them. I truly feel that it is only because I was torn from my family, deprived of the company of girls, bullied and tortured and told I was worthless, that I ended up amounting to anything at all (sad it was so relatively little — from the tenor of this paragraph you'd have thought I ended up Elton John or Ella Fitzgerald or something).
Is it more important that my son be happy or successful?
For ever afterwards, I was determined not to inflict that misery on any children I might have and when my daughter came to school age I was as good as my word, sending her to the little piece of heaven I have described, where happiness always comes first.
But to send Sam there? Would that not be a betrayal of the responsible, wage-earning, family-supporting man he needs to grow up to be? I don't know. I can tell you only this: despite everything, I took him to my old prep school the other day for an entrance assessment and they offered him a place. And so did Kitty's school. And now I don't know what to do.
Is it more important that my son be happy or successful? And are the two really mutually exclusive? Is my responsibility to the chirpy little dork I am about to turn out of doors for the first time, whom I just want to be happy? Or to the 30-, 40- and 50-year-old man he will become, who will need all the skills and connections and crazy fucked-up incentives there are, to come even close to making a life for himself in this cruel modern world?
Deep down, I know which I favour. I know which will have him skipping to class with joy every morning and which will have him stammering and self-harming with stress and anxiety before his age is in double figures. But at my back I always hear my inner conservative, whispering, "Latin, cricket, morning prayers, big school, Oxbridge, money, money, money…"
Sam is on the launch pad, the rocket points skyward. In the dim haze above, two very different worlds are dimly visible. I have only to set the course and start the countdown. But into which future do I send the poor little bastard? For the life of me, I cannot decide…