“Can I ask what you are going to write darling?” Asks my husband at tea time. “I am going to write my goodbye post on my blog” I say, “Unless you want to do it?”… I have been asking him for a while if he wants to do a guest post here. He has had a sore arm for ages and has been seeing a foxy physio who makes him do strange excercises leaning on all the door frames, and he also went for a massage, where the masseur said she thought it might have an emotional root. He thought maybe it was a sadness that he doesn’t get to be more creative, he doesn’t get to express himself in that way. The body does clever things like that. I said he could write here, he can even take over if he wants, but I liked the idea of him finishing something that started with him in his own words. But I was worried about what he might say too: I have always thought this must have all been pretty awful for him.
“That’s very sweet” he said “but to be honest I don’t really have any inspiration just now, and I can see you want to keep the momentum going”. I agreed, yes, I just want to get it done. “Tell them,” he said, ” tell them that your husband is very proud of you”. I was immediately choked with unexpected tears. “I am proud of you too mummy” said a tiny voice, my small daughter, smiling at me, and a couple of drops of briny seasoning fell into my Bolognese. “Mummy looks sad. I mean, happy-sad.”
Happy-sad, a fair assessment I think. Those things I am always so desperate to hear, much closer than I thought. The pain of getting what we actually want, or realising it was there all along, that makes us do crazy things to avoid it. It’s scar tissue, this boarding school stuff, said sword-fighting man to me earlier this year. And I think that is one of the most astute descriptions of it I have heard. The hardening, the body protecting itself from the painful bits, adapting, surviving. The body does clever things like that, as does indeed the soul. I have one shoulder that is always sore because I have been carrying my unusually solid babies for years on the other hip, I have buckled and warped to protect myself. Or I remember doing the only singing lessons I have ever had a few years ago, a gift from a friend when I had post-natal depression. Singing up the scale, my voice entirely cut out for one or two notes then cut back in again. We worked and worked at it, and when the notes finally sounded tears streamed down my face, something that was stored up, finally moving. You can see boarding school syndrome and strategic survival personalities as scar tissue, toughening up, masking the sore bits but there is danger too that the whole ethos of this campaign. I have sometimes feared that for the people involved it directs anger and sadness that belongs at the feet of parents at faceless institutions, or if they fight to avoid healing, but that is not really my call to make or any of my business. I just know that for me it had certainly become a way of running, of avoiding the intimacy of my family and loved ones, or not facing my own painful bits, and for that reason above any other it was time for me to move on.
And so in the end I managed to leave Boarding School Action, to walk away from my baby, in a reasonable un-angry way, save for the fact that due to a dislike of remembering passwords I had changed all the administration logins to case sensitive variations of KISS MY ARSE which made handover slightly more aggressive than I might have liked. So now I am going cold turkey from all things boarding school, including this blog. All my note books will be filed on the same dusty shelf as my phd, with the comforting thought that knowledge, much like love, is never wasted. So too will be the manuscripts for BSA the novel, although perhaps not forever, perhaps only until such time when time has brought its own measure of perspective and wisdom, and any casting suggestions for BSA the movie or the musical would be greatly received. I will also re-emerge in due course over at sallyfraser.net, because I don’t spend all my earnings on bras and haircuts, I have also purchased a new domain, but at the moment all you find there is a rather nice pencil drawing and the poignant words nothing found, try searching for something else. I have a final few non-angry, non- ranty thoughts to share before I go though. I had considered deleting some of my more rage-induced posts from the last while but I don’t think I will, because they are part of a journey which taken as a whole probably make for interesting reading.
And, while I no longer feel like creating a giant mural of my ex-colleagues with my own menstrual blood, a kind of gory public school Mount Rushmore, there is anger to be had here. Class, inequality, patriarchy, all hold much rage in a world where too often the politics of justice are mislabled the politics of envy. I believe in polyphony, in carnival, in mixing people of different backgrounds, ages and classes but when this happens anger at systems can easily be levelled at individuals. To what degree individuals must take responsibility for systemic injustice and inequality I am not sure, but I do think this campaign will always struggle to gain widespread support while the issue goes unchallenged.
“Nobody will feel sorry for us poor little rich kids” is the argument ex-boarders often give for not fighting their own corners, “we are seen as privileged”. This is only partly true. Everyone is ready to sympathise with children separated from their families at a young age, but the desire to help and change always centres around the vulnerable. If that vulnerability is only transient, a child that grows into a man who then rejects it and takes his position very much within the very hegemonic and patriarchal structures which punish other vulnerable people, the desire to help is reduced if not lost altogether. All those who know how it feels to be hurt by those who are bigger and stronger than them can connect with the suffering of children in boarding schools, but we don’t all get bigger and stronger, and to finish where I started, we don’t all get to be prefects: in order for outsiders to fight for those directly affected we probably need an affirmative answer to the question, “but would they fight for me?”.
But sadly I fear the answer might too often be “no”. Because I do think that one of the most insidiously nasty elements of boarding school programming is the impulse to keep quite as long as someone else’s head is being flushed down the loo, and sadly without pretty rigorous discipline too often the best way to make sure you are not the one crying onto your pillow at night is to make sure someone else is. I worry that if this is not tackled, or if the people involved cannot commit to casting aside the more favourable elements of privilege as well as the more unpleasant ones, sympathy will ultimately wain. Certainly I believe that for the movement to flourish there needs to be a cohesive attitude of doing things differently, rather than operating within traditional structures of hierarchy and bullying: politics, the media, the legal system, these are all just more of the same as far as I can see, all just more boarding school. I may be completely wrong however, but either way the cool and dispassionate head needed to separate out these issues and argue plainly and cleanly for an end to the practise of sending small children away is ultimately not mine. Or perhaps it simply goes against my own experience to approach it such a way, and after all it was personal experience that got me into this in the first place.
Because I genuinely believe my husband is the most healed of all the boarders I know and while the appropriate therapy has certainly helped I genuinely believe that is mainly because of two things. Firstly, the fact that he as walked away from the whole damn lot of it and lives a life consistent with his values, even if that means inviting friends whose castles he played in as a child to sleep on the sofa bed in his crap flat in leith, embracing a world of blessing people when they sneeze, cuddling his kids and writing poems about vaginas in a way that would horrify his parents. But most of all because he is fastidious in the practise of his faith. Each day he reflects on all of his practises in terms of whether they bring him closer or further away from the God he believes in. He lives radically, in a way that I believe genuinely inspires change. But of course I never said this. Because I didn’t think my vision for a catholic socialist utopia would go down very well. But, again, I think ultimately my own beliefs could not be seperated from my aims, my why, my how and my what could not be lined up.
But there are courageous and determined people at work on this issue and I wish them well. I am also heartened to know that Boarding School Anonymous has been set up, and am fascinated by the whole idea. Because at the root of twelve step programmes is the need to acknowledge powerlessness, and powerlessness is, as far as I can see, the big ugly painful bit that most boarding school survivors grapple with, passed round like a baton on the athletics field.
I did the programme myself years ago, and should probably have been better at sticking to it. I remember the conversation that led me to embark on it, watching telly in my shared flat with my older, wiser, Norwegian flatmate. “I don’t want to watch this horrible swearing man” she said, reaching for the remote. “Oh, I quite fancy Gordon Ramsay” I said. “If you fancy Gordon Ramsay you have ISSUES WITH MEN” she said, and was quite right. That’s of course not what I did the twelve steps for exactly, there is no group where you stand and say my name is Sally Henderson and I have issues with men, it was for being what in AA circles is called an Adult Child. This is probably central to what the draw of the boarding school survivors movement was for me personally, the idea of a people who missed out on something they needed and do all sorts of stupid things to try and put it right, or a people who for some reason had to grow up too early and so in some ways don’t grow up at all. But this is probably also at the core of why I was ultimately unable to carry out this work: the little-woman-with-daddy-issues/ big-bunch-of-middle-age-men-with-psychological-problems interface was ultimately too fraught.
But I gave it my best shot, we all did. And I am thankful to those people who have been part of a journey which has in the end brought me closer to my husband, my family and myself, and to those I have hit out at along the way I apologise. Hurt people hurt people. Fucked up people fuck up. I believe passionately that we see God in other people but we can also see our own demons, and it isn’t always clear which is which. Either way the work of confronting whatever it is is our own responsibility. Because what I am pretty certain of is that when I stepped out into that enchanted place where those little boys will always be playing with their bears a little girl stepped out with me and has been running around there ever since, tying strings round all the trees, always desperate to find out whether there are sixty-four or sixty-three. It is to her I must now turn my attention for a while, because she won’t find her answers there, and she is the only one I have the power to take care of, the only one I can bring home. Or at the very least, meet her gaze, and what would I tell her?
I saw an A A Milne quote written down somewhere the other day which seemed perfect, but on closer expection it is falsely attributed. But perhaps it is a fitting sign-off to this blog, from me, who lives according to a Bakhtin quote that Bakhtin never said, and likes to believe anything is possible. And maybe accuracy of sourcing is not necessary in that mysterious world of addressing our inner children. So, as I place her on a strict diet of gardening, singing, colouring in and sitting by the radiator reading Rumi poems, I whisper:
“Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”