Last weekend I attended a conference about boarding schools. This meant that I went into a big room with about a hundred ex-boarding school kids and me. I stood out because I was wearing too much lipstick and, being from a northern comprehensive, my chip on the opposite shoulder to everyone else. I also spent almost the entire day desperate for the loo. People who have been effectively institutionalised since childhood, it seems, lose all need for bodily functions and hence do not schedule toilet breaks. When I eventually took an unscheduled one the middle-aged lady sat next to me interpreted as some sort of heroic, courageous act and congratulated me, which left me wondering if she had expected me to wet myself and get caned for it in some sort of George Orwell style escapade.
So what was I doing there? Well, a couple of years ago my husband seemed to be suffering from more problems than even I could possibly blame on my mother-in-law, and I discovered the notion of Boarding School Survivors and Boarding School Syndrome. The notion – which on reflection is not that surprising – is that sending little children away to boarding school completely messes them up. My husband has to struggle very day of his life with the consequences of being sent away from his family and institutionalised from the age of eight. And I have become fascinated and appalled by the history of what our nation has done and is still doing to its children, and the consequences this may have had for all of us. Little children suffering is not something to ever be lukewarm about. There are currently two four year olds in boarding school somewhere in the u.k. and I can’t bear it, and you shouldn’t be able to either. And if, as Dostoevsky suggested, “spending time with children heals the soul”; what has happened to the ‘souls’ of a people so determined to banish their children?
The people at the conference were all very much wounded and traumatised by their experiences, and it was chilling to see this trauma so close to the surface and yet so skilfully repressed. One gentleman gave a talk where at various points his eyes filled with tears and his voice waivered, and it was like watching a unicyclist, any minute now, any minute now he’s going to go…But then with practised mastery he would pause, swallow it all back down and carry on. I had to sit on my hands to stop myself getting up and giving him a cuddle, every fibre of my being longed to squeeze his big sad head between my over-maternal bosoms and say its ok sunshine, let it all out.
But in some ways these conference delegates, and men like my husband, are the anomalies, the misfits. These gentle, sensitive souls were churned out the machines incomplete, unlike the thousands of others who bounce out as fully-fledged floppy haired little stock-brokers, cabinet members and lawyers proudly declaring that it never did them any harm. Because boarding schools break children, and when they have completely crushed their spirit they set about replacing it with ideology. They teach them to be busy every second of the day so that won’t have a moment to reflect on the fact that their parents have abandoned them, and this is of course excellent preparation to become the coked-up money makers of the future. Because we may not be an empire any more but we still need broken men, to go abroad and kill people, to command other people’s children to kill people and to exploit brown people, and of course to manage the machinery of economics and government to make sure these processes and values still triumph.
And while we may not worry quite so much about all those backward, sensual and bestial foreigners any more we have a whole new set of backward sensual, bestial poor people closer to home who need dominating for their own good. So we need structures and hierarchies more than ever. All elitism in education perpetuates the idea that people with money deserve better than people without, but within boarding schools the tools for transmitting these ideas are so much more powerful. Children who board are denied agency of their bodies and their labour, they must run when they are told to run and be beaten and make toast for people when they are not allowed to eat it themselves but that’s ok, because one day it will be their turn and that is the order of things. A bit of domination is ok because everyone gets to do some dominating themselves eventually. But of course that is a big fat lie, the people in the job centre are never going to be Sixth Form, the people at the food banks will never be prefects, we never get our turn holding the cane or ordering the toast, we are emphatically not all in this together.
But there are yet more powerful forces at play here than even greed, and prejudice. There was one moment on the BBC’s recent ‘a very English education’ documentary which was for me much more powerful than any other. One ex-boarder, sitting with his ex-boarder mother, quietly explains that he would not send his own children to boarding school. His mother nervously points out that this is mainly because he can’t afford it. There is a pause, before he gently and courageously asserts that no, even if he had the money he would not send them. The look on his mothers face is one of pure cold fear, and one I recognise from being on my mother-in-law’s face ninety percent of the time since I came into her life. It says please don’t let this be a lie, please, please don’t let me have sacrificed my childhood, and my children’s childhood, for something that was a lie. Well I’m sorry love, but you have.
Therein lies what will be the biggest obstacle to dismantling this archaic system. Not the greed or wealth of the institutions themselves, nor the society which needs an endless stream of emotionless workaholics and military men to perpetuate its hierarchies, not the class superiority and inferiority complexes which have been centuries in the making. There are many man and women who have to defend boarding schools, and the systems they rest on and support in turn, withy everything they have because the pain of realising they might have been wrong, that they may have been wronged, and what they might have lost, is unbearable. Personally I would be happy to stand on the side lines handing out cuddles, Yorkshire puddings and general nurturing, for anyone who has the courage to accept it.