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I went to Dulwich College Preparatory School in South London – a real academic powerhouse in terms of prep school education. From there, I went on to Dulwich College at the age of 13 – a very well known school, famous for its rugby and indeed its acting alumni, including Rupert Penry-Jones and Chiwetel Ejiofor in recent years.
Because I won a half-fee scholarship, I was put in a so-called ‘intellectual hot-housing class’, where we did our O Levels in two years instead of three, and took them at the end of the fourth year before then being promoted to lower sixth.
It meant we never had a fifth year, which looking back, wasn’t particularly helpful in that we lost a year of emotional maturity. I certainly don’t feel I’ve had any life advantages from being academically accelerated in that way at secondary school.
People always think of public schools as being posh, but you never quite appreciate just how much posher prep school is until you’re in it. I certainly sounded a lot more posh when I was 12 than I do now, thanks to developing a distinctive prep school accent that I’ve managed to lose over the decades since.
At the beginning I didn’t quite fit in. I was around 13 when I first started hearing jokes and talk about women and sex that I felt I couldn’t join in with because I was gay. I wasn’t ‘one of the lads’, but because I was quite funny and witty, I wasn’t generally considered to be ‘one of the nerds’ either.
Those was the very formative years when I changed from being an extremely shy teenager into quite a confident one. Growing up gay in the 80s was complicated. I didn’t know anyone else in school who was gay, and whether it was something that was just going to disappear one day.
I’d have liked to tell myself back then not to panic, and that your adult years are going to clarify everything…
I really enjoyed languages, going on to do French and German at A Level, and I always found maths ridiculously easy. The one thing at school that would always earn someone credibility over anything else was being good at sport, but Dulwich College was actually quite enlightened in another way, in that staff would find the things you were good at and encourage them.
There was one particular teacher, Andy Archibald, who was my house master when I was 13 and a bit of a celebrity, because he’d won an Olympic gold medal in 1976 in the modern pentathlon. I remember him asking us all what we liked, and then doing these mental calculations to work out how we might take those interests further.
When I told him I really liked general knowledge, he became visibly excited – “You’ll be good in the house general knowledge competition!” Because that’s the thing – you’ve got to make everyone feel they’re doing something that’s valued. School shouldn’t be a solitary journey – you ought to feel like you’re part of a team.
I represented the school in competitive chess, general knowledge and mathematics, and when you got good results they’d be announced in assembly and applauded. I’m pleased to say that other students respected me because of that – ‘Oh, you’re the chess guy.’ And we were good – in my last year at school, we placed among the last 16 in the country. The assembly applause after that was one of my proudest moments.
Looking back on my school years now, my feeling is that everything was sped up a bit too much.
Important life decisions were being made by individuals who were quite young and immature, which wasn’t helped in my case by being from a family of medics. So I went to medical school, but it was just the wrong career choice for me. Of all the things I was good at, science really wasn’t one of them.
I think I was destined to try and make people laugh, and to show off knowledge. The chess is now gone, but I’m still interested – watching The Queen’s Gambit last year reminded me a lot of those junior chess tours I did as a kid…
Paul Sinha began his career as a trained medical doctor before becoming a successful stand-up comedian and broadcaster, appearing regularly on Radio 4 and becoming one of the ‘Chasers’ in the popular ITV quiz show The Chase; for more information, visit paulsinha.com or follow @paulsinha
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