spending time with my boys

In the late nineteen sixties a team of sociologists lead by Royston Lambert conducted an in-depth study into boarding schools. They conducted interviews, gave out questionnaires and were shown countless diaries and personal writings, entirely voluntarily on the part of the pupils. They published an in-depth analysis of their findings, but they also published The Hothouse Society, a collection of the quotations from the boys, some four hundred pages, and it is in this remarkable volume that I have been immersed for some time in the quiet solitude of the national library.

Largely without commentary or explanation, these voices are haunting, they portray a world which is at once surprising and familiar: they echo many of the preoccupations of the accounts I read from the nineteenth century to the present day, and the often high-brow style of writing is reminiscent of my husband’s teenage diaries. And they always back me up, if I have an idea about something I can count on these boys to give me a dozen quotations more perfect than I can possibly imagine to illustrate it. My notes marked “WOMEN” for example were so extraordinary that all I could think of was that they could just be listed simply, with Batman-comic-style captions. But alas my technical abilities do not allow such a thing.  Here follows a selection of insights from public school boys aged seventeen and eighteen, asked how they think single-sex boarding education has effected their response to women:

It makes us more masculine. If we are to be males, for god’s sake let’s go the whole hog. Lets learn to understand, command, live with males. We MUST understand our own sex fully and cannot if females are tripping and flirting around.   (BOOM!)

One comes to view women as an optional extra – in my view the right attitude.        (KaPow!)

I haven’t become a rabid homo nor do I avidly collect pictures of nude women. I find a game of darts and a drink in the pub with your friends releases most tensions.                                 (Splat!)

Most mature boys with sufficient intelligence should not be interested in such dull creatures. Those who are infected in this way are obviously only those who are incapable of controlling their carnal desires.                                                                                                                          (OUCH!)

They are an unknown quantity – one imagines them as too perfect, idealises them, they seem godesses far away. Girls are human beings: segregation for long periods warps the mind. (crunch!)

One tends to look at a girl and say ‘oh, she’s good enough to go to bed with…’ and that’s that. Sexual experience is the ultimate goal. Knowing a girl for the sake of knowing a girl is practically never the case with me or my friends.                                                                                       (BAM!)

I have a girl-proof screen around myself . I can’t break out of it and life at school re-inforces it. (ZAP!)

It has just accentuated my contempt for them – school dances make me feel they are just sex-machines. I realise this is not true but I feel that not seeing them has shown me quite well that one can do without them. The only girl friend I had gave me up while I was away in term time – ‘frailty thy name is woman’.                                                                                                          (SHEESH KEBAB!)

It pretty chilling stuff isn’t it? Of course it is only a selection, but broadly speaking the boys comment that single sex education either makes them feel completely unable to relate to women, or makes them view them only as sexual objects. For pupils who board before the age of nine, the number who have either one of these extreme views rises to 80%. A number of the boys also referred to women when asked what worries them most, and I find the following account incredibly uncomfortable, my stomach quietly churns in empathy for the poor girlfriend:

“I have enjoyed being here – its mainly the people you meet, but I’m not sure boarding is good over a long time.  You don’t see many girls and I feel awkward. Life with my girl friend has been difficult. I was very fond of her for three years but never really said anything, you couldn’t say that you loved her, in fact it took me ages to put my arms round her. I felt that I would die with embarrassment. In fact, we just used to sit and look at each other… I just don’t seem to be able to talk to people. I went to bed with my girlfriend but though it all went all right I just couldn’t talk to her and afterwards I just sat and looked out of the window in a daze, she burst into tears. We had a row in the end. She said I was too self-sufficient and cleared out. I haven’t heard from her for ages. I worry about this sort of thing a lot, there are sorts of high walls that separate parts of your life. I can be affectionate to my parents, they’re both quite old seem very sort of tired and you can be kind by just sitting and talking but with people your own age it is much more difficult. I get in a bit of a panic sometimes and feel that there is something wrong with me.”

This is textbook boarding school syndrome, as is the following:

What worries me most is that I can’t be natural. How do you show you like someone, what sort of kindness do you give to parents and relations without seeming utterly soft and wet. Sometimes I feel I am empty and unable to feel things.

Of course, feelings, emotions, family, women, all belong to the world of Softness, all can be condemned as wet, that horror of all horrors, to be avoided form early childhood. I leave you with the worlds of an eight year old prep school boy, perhaps the most haunting in the collection:

If a boy cries everyone laughs at him or goes away because he is a baby and very wet.

3 thoughts on “spending time with my boys

  1. I learned not to respect men or boys…they were tedious and petty in their interests and conversations, indeed I find most men of my acquaintance still are….empty car and sport discourses, an insistence on the shallow…I guess books were my salvation where I encountered subtle imaginations and glimpses of a possible richer inner life…by the end of my stay at boarding school I had retreated from the life of the school completely…… living elsewhere in my head….. it was not entirely “lost time” but once women were encountered the archytypal male world and its values seemed a great waste of time…..my resentment remains that I was isolated from women for so long..

  2. I just have to disagree with this. I have personal experience in boarding schools and see this as almost a joke. Let’s start from the top shall we:

    The first thing wrong is the fact that these studies were carried out in the ninety sixties for Christ’s sake! These quotes and this information is outdated and can hardly be brought up to argue your point.

    I also feel that these findings are largely biased and swayed by your own opinion. Where are the remarks of those that enjoyed the boarding school life? Those who happily approaches girls? Those who see their years at a single-sex boarding school as some of the greatest times in their lives?

    I myself went to a single-sex boarding school some fifteen years ago and loved my time there! In fact I still look back at the many find memories I have of the experience and the way it shaped me into the man I am today.

    And of this fear, or objectivisation, of women? I never had a problem with either of these two issues. A major point that you seem to be conveniently missing from this information is the fact that although you go to a single-sex boarding school, girls don’t simply disappear. At my time at school, we had a social event with a nearby girls school nearly every weekend and often met girls when we went out in outing, giving us ample opportunity to develop and talk to girls.

    I’ve been married for almost three years to my beautiful wife Eliza and already have one child, a son by the name of Harry, and another on the way, both if whom I fully intend to send to boarding school. I have a multitude of friends who I went to school with who I am still very close with, and they are nearly all married and with their own kids, many of them planning to send their own children to boarding school if they can afford it.

    Neither I, or any of my friends from school, have been scarred by our experiences and while I feel for your husband if he has, this point you are driving seems to be largely based on a handful of experiences and outdated information.

    1. Many thanks for your comments Jack, I really appreciate you taking the time to write them. I understand that these particular quotes are from the sixties, they are used here for two reasons. Firstly as a writer I work with a variety of sources from the nineteenth century to the present day, but this particular collection stands out to me as particularly beautiful and moving, and so I wanted to a piece just working with these quotations. My blog is my creative outlet, linked to but in some ways separate from my research, and I like to play around with ideas, formats and styles. Play, art and creativity are important you know Jack ;-)! But I see that if you were trying to read this as a reasoned argument that would be frustrating. However secondly I would argue that a lot of my interest lies in the legacy of elite boarding education, and that is why the voices in this collection are entirely relevant. These boys are the ones who are now in government or controlling the media, the law and the economy. All these things effect me, and if I believe that they may be run in such a way as to ignore my interests as a woman, or negate the value of my role as a mother, then I certainly want to explore the underlying ideas which may be at play.
      I am very happy for you that you do not feel scarred by your experiences at school and that you had a nice time. I am sad that you would send your own children away, not just for them, but for you and your wife missing out on the joy of being with them. I don’t claim that everyone is scarred by boarding. However I do imagine an awful lot of denial goes on. However I would like to add that even if it is not harmful, even if my husband and the many other sensitive and intelligent men of my acquaintance who believe that it is are just whingers, I still vehemently oppose boarding education because I believe bringing up rich young people in such away as they are unable to spend time with poor people is harmful to society and creates lack of empathy and massive social injustice. I also believe that the mere fact that people are able to afford it in the first place is symptomatic of a gulf between rich and poor in this country which is frankly repulsive. So I’m afraid whatever way we look at it jack you and I are not going to see eye to eye on this one.

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