we don’t all get to be prefects

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.

12 thoughts on “we don’t all get to be prefects

  1. Sally – as one of those ex-boarders at the conference [60 years on], thanks for your straight-talking breath of fresh, bosom-laden air – by God do we need it.

    Alas, for some of us it started almost from day 1 when we were handed over to Nurse-with-bottle: you’re absolutely right this goes much deeper than greed and prejudice – there’s an unspeakable emptiness and pain lurking here – a “black hole” which if you fell into it would swallow you up…

    Keep the cuddles, Yorkshire puddings and your warmth coming!

    Simon Partridge

  2. Hi Sally, it’s Paddy here, a most insightful piece I thought.
    I went to an Irish Catholic boarding school at the age of 11, this was an expensive school and paid for by my father’s employer, Viscount de Vesci he had been to Eton school and disliked it immensely and left my father in no doubt that I would not enjoy boarding school either. Given the state of Irish secondary education in the 50s my father nonetheless thought it would it would be a good idea to send me.
    His Lordship was entirely correct I despised every moment of it and learned to despise Catholicism, its cruelties, the cruelties of its priests with a zeal which will never leave me.
    We called the brutes who were in charge of our education, “father” which was a most singular irony.
    All the vileness of a Catholic education were to be had in abundance. It would be tedious to chronicle them all.
    Like a great many boarding school victims I learned to build myself a shell and have spent the rest of my life trying to climb out of it.
    When your childhood has been stolen and the relationship with your parents irrevocably damaged it makes for a wound which is forever beyond healing.
    My parents, both very loving people, where wounded also.
    My parents are now dead and what abides is a great sorrow for what might have been and, alas, can never be.
    It remains impossible for me to view those priests who held me captive for so long with anything other than a mixture of pity and loathing. Pity because they themselves were trapped inside their hypocritical ideology and loathing because of the extent to which they took their mean spirited cruelties.

    1. thank you paddy for your powerful and humbling response. I am very interested in the horrible ways priests and school chaplains have abused their power, and the effect it has on their pupils. For example, roal dahl writes about how the most brutal and violent of his school masters went on to become archbishop of canterbury, and the whole business made him feel that the chruch was inherently dishonest. And George Orwell, in ‘such were the joys’, provides a stunninng description of praying to God that he would not wet the bed, his prayers not being answered and receiving a beating for wetting the bed, and then finding that the bed-wetting stopped. God will let you down, mindless violance and tyrannical authority will not…

  3. Hi Sally… Great to meet you at the conference and sorry about the lack of breaks or time to sit and talk for longer …

    You say this in your blog; “..there are many man and women who have to defend boarding schools, and the systems they rest on and support in turn, with 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.”

    For the most part this is an accurate description but although I believe those of us who boarded do at some time in our lives spend time defending our childhood, we do not all support the system. I was ‘guilty’ for many years of the defensiveness but I never supported it and would never under any circumstances, ever, have sent my children away.

    The pain is huge, but my message is that it is not unbearable. The ‘black hole’ did not swallow me up nor did I disintegrate although it felt at the first tellings of that pain as if I might.
    So many of us, and all those in contact with Boarding Concern, have taken those first steps and have had the courage to start looking back at our own childhood.
    What is needed then, so that you can move forwards, is unalterable love and support … and the knowledge that the pain is bearable, the trauma can be healed and the pain can stop.

    And that you can reach peace and ease.

    At Boarding Concern we have been standing on those side lines for 10 years , as part of all of that process, for former boarders who no longer want to ‘go it alone ‘

    1. thank you Margaret, and thank you for bringing up the excellent work that Boarding Concern do, I hope that people who have been effected by these issues know that they can get in touch with you for support. And I hope that some of the people who are in complete denial might eventually get involved too.

  4. Wonderful meeting you on the day and Fabulous piece.. When I write about boarding school I censor myself endlessly so as not to offend too much, or seem too judgemental.. I am on my boarding school tightrope..but in my heart this is how I feel. Thank you for seeing it all so clearly and the lightness and humour you bring in voicing it 🙂 Here’s to bright red lipstick and saying it as it is!

    1. thanks so much caroline, and wonderful to meet you too. must have just been writing a new post about our women’s workshop while you were writing this comment, spooky… thank you for your encouragement, have been having a rubbish few days but will break out my red lipstick tomorrow with new vigour 🙂 xxx

  5. Last comment was nov 2013 but I am a relative new girl, having discovered Boarding Concern a year ago. I’m coming to the conference next saturday !

    Sally, what you say about the biggest obstacle to reform of this iniquitous system, rings true for me. The pain of realising that we who are ex-boarders may have been wronged, were indeed wronged, often by parents who meant no harm. I was in denial for many years myself. Although I do not now know many people who went to boarding school, having cut myself off completely after I left (50 years ago) when I only maintained one friendship for a few years after school, but out of those I do know, including my own brother and sister, the denial is strong, and what is more it is also from people who do not actually agree with the system and have not sent their own children to boarding school (would not have, even if they could afford it), but nonetheless are quick to defend themselves with a constant desperate need to appear normal and in control of their lives, the ‘no nonsense’ approach i.e. “I’ve been through the phase I thinking about what was wrong with it, and I’ve come to terms with it, and you can’t blame everything on boarding school”. They never want to allow themselves or others to admit feeling fragile. They would prefer to find other reasons for mental health problems, leaving issues from boarding school at the bottom of the list.

    I myself do not blame everything on boarding school. But I do now understand how it effected my life negatively, how I still have trouble with workaholism, how the many actually positive things I enjoy in my life are carried out through the consequence of boarding school i.e. travelling (not needing to go to the loo often comes in useful !). I often think the only skill I learnt was how to pack my bag and catch a train – but that is also tainted with the feeling that there is no place called home. I attended a Survivors Workshop last year and the truths of these consequences became very clear.

    Thanks for your blog Sally, it’s great.

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