Boarding school breakout by Roger Knight
It was the year that Procul Harum’s Whiter shade of pale was number one in the charts for nearly 12 weeks, that I decided after 3 years attending a Methodist boarding school founded by Charles Wesley in 1812, that enough was enough.
Dr. Pritchard the despotic headmaster had already told my parents that I was something of an enigma and would never make it to university. Fortunately, I was able to prove him completely wrong and with the impetus of adolescent defiance and determination went on to study at four universities, one of which was at a post graduate level.
This account is not a look back in anger, but more of a philosophical reflection of an event, perceived at the time as probably weak and even shameful, but that can sometimes reset us on a different trajectory that can result in a far better outcome. In retrospect this was my probably my first watershed moment in my life, a turning point from where there was no turning back.
That event recalled, was to break the norms of public school tradition, it’s intransigence, subjugation and belittlement, all thinly disguised by that euphemistic mantra of character building. This supposedly results in us all becoming thoroughly decent chaps as exemplified by some of Britain’s prime ministers.
Aspiring to be a successful absconder was the last resort to throwing the gauntlet down to tradition, and a measure of desperation, was not by any means easily achieved. One’s whereabouts were closely monitored and those that did manage to make it as far as the railway station would be quickly intercepted by the prefects and hauled back to face retribution. This was usually in the form of a caning followed by long term ‘gating’, a term used to refer to constant monitoring, which meant reporting to the prefect on duty during one’s free time every 30 minutes.
This presented a challenge not unlike trying to escape from Alcatraz. Instead of sharks impeding your swim to freedom, there was a cohort of prefects ready to hunt you down like a team of frenetic bounty hunters.
A carefully planned escape strategy needed to be thought out if I was ever to succeed in being the first boy in the school’s history to hit a home run. Clearly using the railway was not an option, but Leeds / Bradford airport at Yeadon was about 12 miles away and seemed to be a better prospect. As I was already gated for insubordination to a prefect, my window of opportunity to effect an escape was now very limited.
I had now decided that flying down to London was my best option. I would arrange a rendezvous with a taxi somewhere at a recognized location to take me to the airport. In the interim, I had to sell off most of my prized Carnaby Street gear to fund the taxi and airfares. As well as this, I needed to improve my level of fitness and train up in one of the cross-country running teams. I had only 30 minutes to sprint to my rendezvous before my escape would be alerted.
My level of planning had given me a degree of confidence that I might succeed, so when I reported to the prefect on duty for the last time, I was fully prepared to enact my escape. I ran like a frightened hare across the fields not daring to even glance back in case I was being pursued and the further I got away from the school the more I felt emboldened as my yoke of oppression began to lighten.
Thankfully the taxi was there waiting for me and we made the short distance to the airport in plenty of time. By now I assumed that the bounty hunters were already looking for me and would have headed for the railway station. My destination was my uncle’s house in Sutton where I eventually arrived unannounced.
Having reached Victoria station in under 2 hours from leaving school, I thought that I ought to notify my housemaster as to my whereabouts.
‘It’s Knight here sir. Just to let you know that I am now in London and won’t be returning.’
Mr. Bryant the housemaster replied. ‘Don’t be so silly boy. Where the hell are you?’ ‘I’m at Victoria station,’ I said. ‘That’s impossible,’ Mr. Bryant replied. ‘If you don’t return immediately, you’ll be expelled.’ ‘Then you will have to expel me,’ I said and hung up on him.
And so began my transition from institutional to organizational life. I was now able to forge an identity that for once afforded a degree of self-esteem. The control, coercion and intimidation was finally over.
I was now able to take my rightful place in society and begin to set a course for myself and to measure myself against the world that I was unable to do before. This was my coming of age, I was free at last. The breakout had achieved its objective.