Bullying, xenophobia and war

Palo Alto veteran, engineer releases new memoir

Born in Paris in 1930 and sent to an English boarding school as a child, Alan Holmes grew up just outside the reach of World War II's destruction. While other parts of the European continent were plagued by gunfire and military struggles, he fought his own personal battles against prejudice, bullying and xenophobia in England.

Now a writer and resident of Palo Alto, Holmes has made those battles a prominent theme in his new memoir, "A Serious and Proper Education: Misadventures at an English Boarding School." Published last month, the book is his second memoir and a follow up to 2009's "In the Moon: A Memoir of a 1930s Childhood in France," which covers his early life.

In his second memoir, Holmes details his experiences starting at the age of 9, when he left France in order to attend Abinger Hill School, a boarding school in southeast England. His father had decided that he would be able obtain "a serious and proper education" at an English boarding school, and he brought him there despite Holmes' protests at being taken away from his home.

"My life in France had almost been idyllic," Holmes recalled during a recent interview.

Unfortunately, his time at Abinger was not as glamorous as his father had anticipated. "A Serious and Proper Education" recounts his experiences of being bullied by English schoolboys and facing the xenophobia of his schoolmaster.

Throughout the book, Holmes highlights differences between life in England and his life in France, illustrating various aspects of each country's culture. In England, he observed a strong resentment toward the French, and despite his English heritage, he became the target of ridicule at Abinger for his French background.

"(The) English (didn't) have a great respect for the French," he said.

One episode in the book recounts how during bedtime, one boy lunged at Holmes and knocked him off his bed. The attacker then bent his arm behind his back and threatened to break it unless Holmes gave him some of his toys and his food.

"It was quite an experience being plunked there in England," he said. "I considered running away from that school a number of times."

In addition, he was worried about his parents' well-being and safety back in France when the country was invaded in 1940.

Holmes spent 12 years writing "A Serious and Proper Education." He wrote an initial draft of the memoir, but decided to rewrite it because he did not like the resulting tone, which he felt made him look too much like a victim of the war in Europe (something he was not, he said, in comparison to many).

There is a humorous tone in the published memoir, something Holmes said he enjoys employing in his writing.

One passage in the memoir particularly stands out to the author. When he was at Abinger, all of the boys had to choose poems to recite from memory. Holmes was not assigned a poem by his teacher until the last minute, and consequently did not have enough time to practice before the recital. Distressed by the lack of preparation time, he asked his teacher to reschedule his recital. The teacher agreed, but only after insulting him and the French for their lack of intelligence.

In addition to his schooling in France and England, Holmes also went to school in Canada and later attended Yale University, where he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in civil engineering. He went on to become a U.S. citizen and served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War.

Among the cultural differences between France and the United States, Holmes feels, is the way food is valued. People in France place more emphasis on food, he said.

"(The French) live to eat, while (Americans) eat to live."

He also noted how differently people live their lives in Europe as opposed to America. The culture in the United States, he feels, allows its citizens more freedom in choosing their paths in life.

"People have much more predictable lives in England. Life is less structured here," he said. "This country is much more easygoing."

Over the course of his career, Holmes has worked as a test engineer for the army, field superintendent on a large construction site, senior structural engineer at a major architectural firm and staff scientist at an aerospace company. In addition, he performed structural design and analysis for the U.S. Air Force Academy Chapel. Even though he focused on engineering throughout his schooling and career, he always had an interest in writing.

Upon moving to California in the 1950s, he began speaking about his early life with his new peers. They were intrigued and encouraged him to write about his experiences.

"I've had writing in my blood for most of my life," Holmes said, noting that he wrote many letters to his parents when at Abinger.

After moving to California, he soon settled in Palo Alto, where he has been a resident for 57 years. He finds Palo Alto to be "a lovely community."

Now 85 years old, Holmes lives at Vi, a continuing care retirement community, where he said fellow residents and employees have shared positive feedback about the new memoir.

Holmes said that he hopes people learn from his life experiences from reading the book, and that they understand that anyone who endures bullying can get through it.

"There's a way to survive bullying," he said. "There are tough times, but as long as you hang in there, there are ways through things like that."

"A Serious and Proper Education" is available for purchase through Amazon.

Jamauri Bowles is an editorial intern with the Palo Alto Weekly.

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