What happened with Rooms of Our Own
I cannot count the amount of times I have tried to write this all down, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to explain the pain it has caused me, but in March the Rooms of Our Own campaign celebrated its two year anniversary, so I decided that it’s finally time to tell you the full story. Please keep in mind that when this all started, I was only fourteen. What you are about to read is the story of my feminist journey over the past two years, and how dramatically it has changed my life. The gross misuse and abuse of power by my headmaster is shocking to many, and reliving it is, in all honesty, absolutely traumatic. To any young people reading who have faced any sort of backlash for their views and would like to share their story, please visit the link below. I hear you, and I understand.
No people, schools, or locations will be named.
When I was eleven, my family and I moved from Wales to England. When applying and looking for secondary schools, we did not yet have an address in England, so catchment areas and acceptance was tricky. Whilst researching our options, my mum came across a new school, where my year group of 80 students were to be the first intake. For my young, socially anxious self, this seemed perfect. We emailed the headmaster, and he was able to give me a place at the school, despite our lack of address, and we were so grateful.
Time goes on, and largely the school is okay. There are friendship dramas, I don’t get along with all of the teachers, I struggle with maths - the usual. For someone who generally despises everything about school and is horrified by the current state of the education system, it could have been worse. One downside was that, because it was a brand new school, we didn’t have a real school building, and for nearly four years we were cooped up in our local community centre. When the day came that work finally started on our actual school building, we were all so excited. All of the elements started to come together and the school told us that the new classrooms were going to be named after inspirational people. This is where it all begins.
Talking to a few of my GCSE teachers, I started to get a feel for who the rooms were being named after - men. My music and Spanish teachers told me that their whole departments had put forward all male room names, and that the headmaster had told them that there needed to be at least one woman. Just one, in a collection of four/ five rooms per subject. I was baffled. Were there really that few inspirational women from history? From Spain? In music? Surely not. I wasn’t going to stay silent.
So came Rooms of Our Own. The name of the campaign came from Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’. Like, classrooms… get it? Created one weekend in late March, the intention was to get as many fellow students as I could to sign it, and take it to the headmaster at the end of week to show him how many of his pupils supported the equal naming of the rooms. Safe to say it didn’t play out the way that I had hoped it would.
I had decided to use Change.org because it was just so much easier than making a paper petition, obviously. My mistake was including the school’s name. It was only supposed to be seen and signed by students at my school, and I hadn’t even considered the possibility that anyone else would ever see it. Of course, I was wrong. I’d put it on Twitter, and a freelance journalist happened to stumble upon it. Without contacting me first, the journalist researched my school and phoned my headmaster. I’m sure she meant me no harm, a story is a story I suppose, but it really did turn my world upside down. I was taken aside by my history teacher and told to go to the headmasters office, where he sat me down and told me that I was a disappointment to the school and to all of my female teachers. He told me that he was supposed to be at an event speaking about opportunities for women, but had to instead speak to me. He told me that because he has a daughter and a wife, obviously he’s a feminist. I was told that gender blindness and equality are one and the same, because he knows more than the UN, who say that gender blindness fails “to recognize that the roles and responsibilities of men/boys and women/girls are assigned to them in specific social, cultural, economic, and political contexts and backgrounds. Projects, programs, policies and attitudes which are gender blind do not take into account these different roles and diverse needs. They maintain the status quo and will not help transform the unequal structure of gender relations.” and is in fact NOT the same as equality. I was not given the chance to speak, I was lectured and sent away in disgrace. I ran to the toilet, cried my eyes out, and got my mum to come and pick me up.
Somehow the petition made its way onto the timeline of none other than journalist and author Caitlin Moran, my IDOL, who shared it for all of her 791K followers to see. The number of signatures soared into the thousands. I removed anything that connected the school to the petition. I didn't go back to school until after the Easter holidays.
I was invited to be on an episode of The Guilty Feminist podcast with Deborah Frances-White to talk about my experience. The episode was recorded on my 15th birthday, and for someone feeling so downtrodden, being sung to by a room of feminists definitely lifted my spirit and left me feeling supported. The episode was with Yardley MP Jess Phillips, who has been an inspirational figure to me ever since. Despite the torrent of online abuse I was facing from the other students, when I returned to school I was determined to continue the conversation and expand my platform.
The headmaster began a vendetta against me, and ensured that every day spent at school was hell. I was not formally punished, because what was there to really punish me for? I was treated like a villain, and reminding myself that I was not in the wrong began to get really difficult.
My communications with teachers were blocked, anything that my mum or I sent to a teacher was then sent to the headmaster and he replied.
Any emails to teachers were about my GCSEs and not the page, I was not allowed to know about my progress
I was barred from attending parents evening, my family and I were deemed a threat to the teachers. The school only has one parents evening a year so we were forced to miss the only opportunity we had to discuss my GCSE progress with teachers. I will reiterate that I did not want to talk about the page or feminism and I wasn’t going to fight any of them, I just wanted to know how I was doing.
What was supposed to be an issue strictly involving the school became very personal
I was openly criticised on staff and school Facebook pages (All now deleted, as far as I’m aware)
The headmaster’s daughter made comments on my Facebook
I was threatened with libel months after removing any detail about the school from the campaign
My music teacher, who I loved with my whole heart just stopped showing up to my singing lessons. My parents emailed her to ask about the money that they’d paid for the lessons she hadn’t done and it was passed on to the headmaster who stripped me of my lead role in the annual school musical.
This musical was then cancelled, and the headmaster told members in the cast that it was my fault. Another (very angry) cast member told me that the headmaster ‘would not cancel the production if the emsil easnt so serious because he would think avout evry8ne else over you if [the headmaster] hates you then that’s nothing to do with us or the production because he is very professional and knows how to do his job [sic]’ haha.
Many of my teachers stopped interacting with me in class, I was never called on and my questions were never answered. I don’t know if this was anyone’s doing or if they all genuinely thought that I had done a bad thing but either way it left me feeling hugely alienated.
The headmaster defended another student’s parent harassing me and my family on social media (the other parent was a Freemason… no wonder he had an issue with feminism)
He harassed my mum, despite her continuous requests that he stop emailing her. She ended up having to block his email.
He also emailed her work and .
I was bullied by some other students, both online and in person, it was reported to the school and ignored; the students were not spoken to and the abuse continued.
It was hinted in emails from the headmaster that I could be facing expulsion
An official complaint was made to the school on April 2nd, 2017 but the procedure was not followed. As it is a free school, the highest authority is the headmaster, so he was the only person we could make a complaint to, even though the complaint was about him. We contacted the Department of Education but nothing ever really came of it and I was out of hope. I was self harming and suicidal, and all I wanted to do was get through my second year of GCSEs and get out of there.
Over summer, I worked with the wonderful Polly to create this website! I figured that all the pain I’d be through couldn’t just amount to nothing, and whilst the thought of coming back to school was terrifying, I decided that I could manage - it would be too difficult to move schools now, and I didn’t want to leave my friends. However, the beginning of the year didn't exactly work out as well as I had hoped. Looking back now it’s all just a blur of being too scared to come in, breakdowns in class and useless counselling sessions.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was the ‘OJ situation’. I cried in Spanish and was sent out into the corridor by my teacher. As I was stood gathering my thoughts and trying to calm down, I heard two teachers talking about me around the corner, saying that the ‘OJ situation’ had to be dealt with. In that moment I just decided that I’d had enough. I went home that night and started looking for new schools. It’s pretty difficult to find a school that will take students half way through their GCSEs, exam boards and content differences usually leave the student with too much to catch up on- I was worried about this, but stayed hopeful. Lucky for me, my mum is magic, and found a small school in the area that did all the same exam boards. I moved in the October half term, ended up needing to drop two subjects, and then had to balance making new friends with teaching myself a whole history unit, the English lit poetry anthology and chapters upon chapters of the biology textbook.
I finished my GCSEs and had a great summer, then on my first day at sixth form the headmaster (who had moved to teach in another country) left a comment on a year old post on my mum’s Facebook page. He mentioned how he was 'Just thankful that your misguided little hate campaign against the school fell in deaf ears and with your daughter's departure achieved such amazing results'. On the morning of what was meant to be a fresh start, the new me started to feel far too much like the old me and seeing his name and face again made my skin crawl. We don’t know if the timing was a coincidence, or if he truly was still bent on tormenting a student that he hadn’t seen in nearly a year
Leaving that school was definitely the best decision I have ever made. I made the best of friends at my new school, then did well enough in my GCSEs to get into the next school I wanted to go to, and now I’m braving A-Levels as well as a few other really exciting projects. The experience has changed me a lot as a person- I have lasting mental health issues, I no longer trust adults, and I am much more cautious about expressing my views. But I am still better for it.
I try to focus on the present, but I can’t help dwelling on the unfairness of it all from time to time. So if by any miracle this has found its way to any of my old teachers, I’m happy to let you know that I’m doing much better now, but I have to ask why you did nothing. I am sure many of you saw my scars and my tears, I hope you know how much a kind word from any one of you could have changed everything. I bet most of you don’t even know what he did and the lies he told. Those of you that left, I wonder if any of you did so because you could see him for the horrible, psychopathic individual that he was. I hope none of you would ever dream of making a child feel the way you made me feel. I imagine things have changed there since he moved. I hope you are all doing well.
And of course, for anyone wondering, the rooms were not named equally. There were 14 women out of 38 classroom names- here's the master list that I made on our first day in the new building:
Elvira Notari (F)
Alistair and Jonny Brownlee
Jess Ennis-Hill (F)
Darcey Bussell (F)
Mary Cartwright (F)
Stevie Nicks (F)
Billie Holiday (F)
Mary Berry (F)
Carol Ann Duffy (F)
Mary Shelley (F)
Alfred Russel Wallace
Rosalind Franklin (F)
Grace Hopper (F)
Information Centre (Library):
Malala Yousafzai (F)
(plus another male and another female that i fear are too closely linked to the school for me to name)
I hope that me finally writing and publishing this opens up a new chapter for Of Our Own. I also hope that it's a satisfactory conclusion for those of you that have been here since the beginning, I'm so grateful for everyone.
At the end of the day, whatever your opinion is on all of this, the fact is that a 14 year old girl asking for some classrooms to be named after women did not deserve a backlash this harsh. I did not deserve this.