Imagine you had never heard of a boarding school before, and I explained to you that parents would not only choose, but spend huge amounts of money (the equivalent of the average UK wage after tax), to remove children from their families and instead hand them over to a large, loveless institution where these youngsters would be tended by adults in a ration of ~1:20, far from home, with far less comfort. You would assume I was preaching a kind of dystopian nightmare. A ‘Brave New World’ of education.
Yet because boarding school is so familiar to us in the UK – synonymous with cricket, stiff upper lips and the class system – we are immune to its freakishness.
Unfortunately, there is no control experiment for a child who went to boarding school. Which means determining its impact is a problem. Certainly there are patterns, but the combination of nature and nurture ensures that there are almost infinite permutations. As with other aspects of growing up, no-one knows its impact on the specific individual and with that views diverge wildly.
Plus education is so important that we must make considerable sacrifices, right?
To many, boarding is highly beneficial, resulting in a world-class education and ‘preparation’ for the world (hence a ‘prep’ school). Or at least it is benign – a sacrifice worth making. To others, it is mildly or deeply harmful – the source of immensely damaging and lasting trauma.
For many years, I’d not given a huge amount of thought to the process or impacts of boarding on me or others. It seemed to me in context, as it is to most of those who participated, normal.
Yet through therapy, reading and exploring, one looks at the ingredients that make up the recipe of ourselves and try to determine the effects of significant past events and circumstances. At dinner the other night, I was reminded that I’ve been banging on about boarding school for some time. It has become ‘a theme’ and in the spirit of only really understanding something when I have written about it, I want if I can, to shift from ‘banging on’, to a more thoughtful, considered perspective.
To be objective, it is first important to eradicate any guilt: let’s forget about the perceived ‘privilege’, for a while. Complaining about boarding school can be seen as deeply ungrateful or unfair, considering the opportunity and that privilege. I don’t give a monkeys. To sweep impactful experiences away because we ‘should’ feel something drives us toward too many emotional follies. To ignore these problems because of some perceived luck only serves to perpetuate and amplify these issues.
I don’t feel guilty about going to boarding school. I would also hope that I can eradicate any guilt if I conclude that boarding school is, as I fear it was/might be, extraordinarily harmful. I don’t want to shy away from it just because it might offend or upset people – especially my parents. I fear that much isn’t talked about because of guilt, avoidance and, of course, some of the perceived positives that come from the system, such as creating those that are stiff-upper lipped, tough and unemotional. Character traits that are in fact a source of pride to some British. Boarding schools teach survival, so those who’ve been through its process tend not to complain, or rock the boat because it was instilled in us that such behaviour was weak and disappointing. In addition, there is a danger that for those who feel the effects of the human condition more keenly, especially those who had an unhappy schooling, it becomes an easy scapegoat, something to blame or use as an excuse.
Plus, my experience is of course, only that.
I first went away to school at 8 or 9. Whilst I don’t want to write an extensive memoire, it is worth exploring some of the feelings it provoked… When I think back, I remember many things – although much I had/have forgotten (deliberately?).
There was a marked transition on arrival from my happy, tactile home life into a cold, austere high-ceilinged dormitory (that looked very like the below, although we were lucky enough to be allowed to see in colour) with squeaking beds, itchy nylon blankets, fierce matrons, and twelve other children. I remember rows of sinks, a perpetual clinical smell, shorts in winter, frozen mud-caked fields, fear and missing. The opposite of a home.
Whilst the change was extreme, there was also a continual reminder of privilege, of excitement. It wasn’t all bad. As an eight-year old I felt grown up, I felt ready. There was the camaraderie of being part of something, of embarking in an adventure. I wasn’t ‘sent away’ – my parents are loving, kind, caring people – they just thought it was was the best thing for me. They thought the trade was worth it. They hadn’t boarded themselves, so they did not have first hand experience – although those that do often believe it was ‘the making of them’. I wonder if those people know themselves very well?
Yet there are some things that I have begun to see, with 25 years perspective, that are just plain abnormal. The unrelenting missing of those that you love. As hurtful as it might be for any parent to hear, there is a huge pain and misunderstanding associated with, essentially, becoming an orphan 6.5 days a week, even if it was a mutual decision to go away, a child isn’t capable of anticipating the pain.
A deeply intense hatred of the singing I had to do burned within me – so much so that I used to scream into a pillow to lose my voice. Strangely, the only respite that gave me was turning pages in an organ loft at the very same service that I was hoping to avoid – but it was enough of a rebellion and a change from the routine that it somehow helped and so I screamed and screamed. I longed to and loved to get sick, to stay in bed for a few days. I broke rules wherever I could, somewhat pathologically, my youthful spirit deemed harmful and dangerous.
When I look back, I simply didn’t know that the strength of the emotions I felt – the rage, anger, apathy, boredom, annoyance, missing, desperation – were caused by something external to me, or that they were abnormal. At that age, I had no tools to deal with or understand them, nor anyone save for remote, unemotional masters to model myself on or to seek solace from. There was no soft respite from school in the evenings or even when other normal children were on holiday. I thought the feelings I felt meant I was failing, a disappointment, that I was the problem, and because everyone else was hiding theirs, it was just me. So I just swallowed those emotions and learned to ignore them, to bury them away.
As a 9-year old you don’t have a clue what emotions are coming from where or how to stem those that are most painful. I didn’t know that the outside environment might be the problem. I thought I was alone in them. So much so that it took me many years to recognise that this wasn’t normal. The weakness associated with homesickness, in turn led to ignoring emotions because they were a noose that tightened as you struggled. Instead, I simply learned to survive, as best as I could… and the easiest way was to cauterise the pain.
As is mentioned in the documentary ‘The Making of Them’, there is simply no love in a boarding school, which means that for the majority of boarders lives, there is no love. Think about that. Go to a boarding school from aged 8 until 18 and you’ve essentially had a decade of surviving without love, with stunted emotions because you don’t want to feel the various pains associated with being in a non-loving environment, all whilst going through one of the most difficult times of life – puberty. 25-years later, I’m somewhat astonished that this is considered a good thing. Yet it’s so tied into the fabric of our society that even those who were subjected to it haven’t realised the impact or they have subsumed the feelings.
It’s unsurprising that a child shuts down. In my case, those years as a Chorister at prep school where followed by going on to a different school where for 3 years (out of 5), I was both unpopular and bullied. Bullying is unpleasant at any school, but at boarding school there is quite literally no escape. You sleep, eat, work and live with your aggressors and you cannot get away. You are trapped. That’s torture – to be reminded of your worthlessness every minute of every day without respite and, of course, without love or the sanctuary of home or just somewhere else to get away to. I think I’d rather go to prison than relive the 12-person dormitory situation aged 13, living amongst people that hate you and you hate. But I never really told anyone, I just lumped it because admitting you were struggling was a sign of weakness. My parents were no longer a support structure because they couldn’t help (save for extracting me from a school that they reminded me they were paying huge sums of money to keep me in). They would have, I guess, if they’d known, but I never told them. I kept quiet, as most are conditioned to do. So quiet that I haven’t even recognised it myself.
To this day, I think I have almost nightly dreams of rejection and of being cast out of a group. I say I think, because strangely, I’ve only recently become aware of these dreams, despite how regularly they occur. You might think that is an extraordinary oversight, to literally ignore something that happens every night. Yet remember, I have been schooled – for a decade – to carefully ignore these feelings.
I have spent much of my adult life feeling tired and never fully feeling rested, despite getting on average 8 hours sleep per night. I wonder whether this is because each morning my psyche has to painstakingly sweep an emotional basement of cobwebs under the carpet, and continues to do so subconsciously during the day? This might seem extreme, fanciful or just a neat scapegoat for the fact that I’m just not as sprightly as I used to be. Perhaps this is normal. Again, it’s hard to separate out the root causes or contributing factors to a infinitely complex emotional state. But I wonder. Are there scars that are still trying to heal all these years on?
Certainly, I believe there are scars that still significantly effect my love life. My relationships have been few and far between and have generally imploded because I haven’t been able to let go. I tend to have my excuses and my escape plan ready from the start – a self-fulfilling prophecy. There was a single big exception, when I fell in love very deeply, but I think subconsciously I thought that the relationship might make me ‘whole again’. That this feeling of love might cure my childhood wounds of separation. She never stood a chance. I plied so much pressure on that relationship, like a drowning man clinging to another, that I sunk it, the relationship ending with a mighty crack of my broken heart.
Through this prism of analysis, I notice classic symptoms of the effects of boarding in a previous post (Burned Man). Ironically (or perhaps poignantly), I am now in a relationship with the girl/lady who scooped me up after Burning Man, someone who saw me in my raw, unarmored state. Yet it has been a struggle for us both. I am not sure where I’ve put the keys to my heart that is hidden deep beneath my armour. Strangely, whilst I felt like I survived very badly at boarding school, the armour that I needed back then finally solidified many years later in my 20s and 30s, as if wheels had been put in motion for a Frankensinian (come on spell check, that’s gotta be a word) change that in fact took significant time to crystallise and was long past its sell-by date when it materialised.
I was and am sensitive person who has learned to keep my emotional nerve-endings protected. I’ve avoided authority (I’m an entrepreneur), I’ve avoided settling (living in multiple countries/cities as a single man) and I’ve avoided being trapped, or rejected (by being defensive and avoidant). This sounds very woe is me, but I had a fantastic time at University and have many wonderful friends and a deeply loved and loving family. I’ve pulled a huge amount back, but remnants remain. They say that boarding school kids do well in the world because of this emotionlessness, confidence and ability to survive in difficult situations. But I no longer think the armour does anything but weigh me down.
I started this post feeling like it might be a balanced exploration, but instead I find myself just astonished and more exercised than ever by the extremity of such a normalised practice in our society. I never suffered extremes like sexual abuse. Surely it wasn’t that bad? Reading other people’s articles (see below) brings painful memories. Those who didn’t go just simply don’t understand – in fact many who did don’t either. Those who went at 12/13 probably had a different experience from those who went at 8. In fact, everyone had a different experience.
Who knows, my control experiment might have had me suffering more going to a day school. I recognise that suffering is universal. I am not claiming this as my own, by any stretch of the imagination. At some point you have to take responsibility for oneself (like a good boarding school kid).
But today, I’d much rather feel well than do well, be open than be tough, have a heart than a stiff upper lip…
To grow I need to recognise what boarding was for what it was. Deeply traumatic and unhealthy. Now I simply want to coax that emotional me back out again from beneath the layers of armour – to value rather than to fear vulnerability… and, by writing, perhaps I can help others prevent, or at least recognise this problem earlier. I feel like I’m only just getting started with this topic – it is so deeply complex and masked – and yet I feel like I’ve said enough, perhaps way too much. That this is just self-absorption at fever pitch. There’s my boarding school ‘strategic survivor personality’ kicking in. Don’t make a fuss. Jolly good, carry on. Chin up.
But to be clear I’m not asking for sympathy. It’s not about excuses, but about recognition and working to enliven and exercise those deadened emotions, like a physiotherapist with a wounded body.
The accident has happened and it was exactly that, an accident. It was no-one’s fault – no one is to blame. It happened. Sorry Dad, you can’t have your money back. I am a survivor and now I must try to heal as best as I can.
Some further reading: