While I want to use my blog as a platform to talk about subjects and causes that I care about, I always think it can be useful to get to know a little about the person behind the profile picture and understand their perspective on the world. So I thought I should, perhaps, introduce myself properly to anyone starting to follow me on this new writing journey of mine. Despite still being young, I feel like I’ve had experiences that have taught me valuable lessons – and if they can be helpful to anyone else, that would be very rewarding.
The last thing I want to do is become one of those people who’ve seen and done it all, receiving eye rolls from anyone reading. However, I hope by reflecting on things that have affected me – positively or negatively – that others may find something they relate to or use to approach similar situations.
I see my life so far, at the age of 22, split into three distinct phases, defined by where I’ve lived and my circumstances at various points, each with their own highs and lows. A trilogy, therefore, seemed appropriate – and these will probably be some of the most personal posts I write. This post, the first, will cover the longest period (and not a particularly happy one): my early childhood and high school experience- before I moved to Wales. So here goes nothin’…
Introducing: Stephen Proudman
The story begins 22 years ago, in East London, South Africa. I was born fairly late in the evening and was quite hefty, coming in at about 8 pounds. My family had moved between England, South Africa and what had been Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) a couple of times over the years. In 1999, it was time for another journey – back to the UK. Sadly, therefore, I can’t say I remember any of my time in the Rainbow Nation, but I hope to return one day to see where it all began. All that transcontinental travel did, however, have a profound effect on other members of my family – and some of the tales they have to tell make for very entertaining listening. Some small quirks have also inevitably rubbed off on me; fancy a braai, anyone? (South African for barbecue – the latter of which I just can’t bring myself to say.)
Back in Blighty, we first lived in Reading for a short time. Again, this isn’t something I can recall much about; my most prominent memory is being mesmerised by a Christmas display in the Oracle Shopping Centre – complete with artificial snow. Leaving behind England’s largest town, we were soon on the road again.
The next stop was further “up north” in Merseyside, where mum hoped things would be more like her childhood home of Yorkshire. That didn’t turn out to be the case, but even so, it was here we stayed for the next 12 or so years – quite a respectable period judging by our record. These would be my formative years, and I would go through so many trials of growing up. At 4, I was enrolled in the local state primary school, and so began my educational journey, on which I would encounter my main passions in life and develop a love for writing, technology, music, computing and history.
Hitting the books
To begin with, I loved school. I was often told as a child that I was ‘bright’, or ‘talented’, but none of that really ever mattered to me. Pop a book in my hand, and I was happy to bury my head in it for hours. I completed the entire course of Key Stage 1 (age 4-7) reading books in months rather than years. Fantasy stories, books about Ancient Egypt, an encyclopedia of the gemstones in the Natural History Museum in London… all read over and over again. The latter even inspired a gem collection of my own. I finally got to visit the museum earlier this year (only 16 years later!) and would be lying if I said the trip wasn’t a tiny bit emotional.
Maths and PE were my weak points. For some reason, I could never fathom whether you began adding at the number in the sum or the one after. And don’t get me started on kicking a ball. Being short, scared of flying objects and generally introverted, I was always the last pick for any team.
I also wasn’t particularly artistically proficient, as was proven when my ‘draw Florence Nightingale’ homework was RIPPED from my sketchbook and thrown into recycling – by my favourite teacher, too! Apparently, my likeness of the nurse imagined her a little too large and with the wrong hairstyle. This traumatic experience caused me to begrudge picking up a pencil for years to come, and it also meant mum suddenly had to summon her artistic flair for future projects.
I navigated most of primary school quite happily, until the final two years when I started to find myself lower in the class pecking order compared to some of the more boisterous personalities. In an attempt to become more comfortable as ‘one of the lads’, I was pushed by a teacher into the school football team (it didn’t bode well – see above). Although reluctant, I threw myself into it – and even began collecting Match of the Day magazine; don’t ask me why. I still haven’t worked out which part of me thought that was necessary, or at all convincing. I was more concerned with which team’s pop-out kit was the nicest colour than who was top of any of the leagues.
It’s fair to say my tenure as a star Left Back (‘in the changing rooms’, according to chants from my classmates) was not one of note and markedly short-lived.
High School; No Musical
Living on a fairly small estate, there was really only one choice of high school for me to attend. My brother had been before me, and I would be moving up alongside most of my peers from primary school – so having had a bit of a rough time at the tail end of Years 5 and 6, this didn’t seem a great prospect. However, I embraced the next phase of my life and, in all fairness, quite enjoyed the experience for about the first year. We got the chance to study new subjects such as German and Design Technology (where I uncharacteristically relished the opportunity to wield a hacksaw and a drill). Cookery was new, too, however, I found no more success in that endeavour as I’d found while drawing in my earlier years. My cottage loaf was a match for even the best teeth, which, I’m told, wasn’t something to be proud of.
Fast-forward to Years 8 and 9, and by this point, I was living in a nightmare. The small-scale aggressions I had started to face at the end of primary school had developed into torturous bullying. Students from that school, now comfortable atop the new social ladder and ruling the corridors, had recruited some of those we hadn’t known before. The year group was distinctly divided: on one side, the desirables, the cool kids. On the other, the targets. I found myself inescapably in the latter group.
From namecalling in the corridors to physical attacks on my way home, the reasons for my increasing apprehension and dislike of school ran the gamut. Insults ranged from the innocuous ‘Geek’, through to the constant homophobic slurs of ‘F*g’ and ‘P*ssy’ – even before I had any concept of what they meant.
Why was I a target? Even now, I can’t quite work it out. I was quiet, studious and had less social contact outside of school with my peers. But do any of these justify bullying? Of course not. I learned the hard way that kids can be inexplicably cruel.
At the time I was going through high school, there was one spectre beginning to loom ever larger over young people: social media. One particular incident brought me face to face with the cruel side of the Internet earlier than I would’ve hoped. I was 12 years old and one day received a link from a rare, but friendly, classmate. It led to a Facebook page that they had thought I should see:
WE HATE STEPHEN PROUDMAN. A page that already had multiple ‘fans’, and a lively comment feed, where people discussed my shortcomings and the fact they would feel better if I killed myself. My mum, luckily, intervened before I dug too deep, but I had seen enough. There was something very sobering to a pre-teen about finding such a page, and to this day I have a very conflicted view of social media that I think can be traced back to this time.
In 2010 we weren’t anywhere near the point in the conversation about cyberbullying that we are today, and there was little action taken. The creator of the page – ironically one of my best friends earlier in life – was politely asked to take the page down and say sorry. All I can say is that I’m glad we’re in a very different place all these years later, with reporting procedures and organisations there to help. But it remains a sad fact that, for many, this kind of bullying is still very much a reality, and there is still a lot to be done.
I clung on at high school until part of the way through Year 9 (age 13) when things just became too much and I left to be homeschooled. This marked the start of a period of profound unhappiness. Distancing myself as much as possible from any feeling of being at school, I spent hundreds of hours on video games and avoiding the work I was meant to be doing, much to my mum’s annoyance. I became completely socially isolated – with not a single friend my own age. It was around this time that I first slid into an unhealthy relationship with food, see-sawing between comfort eating and restricting, and gaining weight at a rate I’d never known. This low point was exacerbated by other factors, too – particularly the loss of my Grandma in 2008, which had had a huge impact on my relatively tight-knit family.
A fresh start?
Homeschooling lasted 2 years before, due to more family upheaval, we felt it was time to finally move on. Mum decided we’d move to Ruthin, in North Wales, where my aunt had settled. Looking back, I wasn’t keen on the idea at all. The thought of moving to somewhere rural, where there’d probably be absolutely no one I could connect with, wasn’t making the proposition appealing. Despite my resistance, though, mum convinced me that it was worth a shot and that we could always move if we didn’t like it – and that we wouldn’t waste as much time before upping sticks again.
However, I needn’t have worried; my fears were swiftly dispelled, and the next phase of my life ushered in a sharp upward turn. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what I’ll shed a little more light on in part 2 of this series of posts.
If you’ve managed to read this far: well done. It’s been a bit of a slog up to now, right? It gets better, I promise. Not only have later years been more positive, but I’ve also discovered more about myself that has shaped me into who I am today. Stay tuned to hear all about it.