Monday, 20 October 2008

Boarding call

“So,” said a well-meaning, upper class Italian friend of the Doctor’s family to me recently, “You’ll be sending them to boarding school, then?”

I laughed back gently. “Oh no,” I said. “That is one decision we will never have to deliberate over.”


Because, even if they succumb to the ‘Harry Potter’ effect and beg to go, even if we could ever afford it, even if we lived on the moon, I will never, ever send my Littleboys to boarding school.


Reluctant Memsahib, out in the bush, has been reflecting beautifully on how empty her house feels now that her children have gone back to school. And it made me think: how lonely my own parents must have felt, but how strongly they must have felt they were doing the right thing.


We lived in Hong Kong, and my parents were convinced that the schools out there were Not Good Enough. So, aged 11, I was packed off to a girls’ school on the windswept East Coast of England. I was actually excited about going. I had read the entire collection of Malory Towers, St Clare’s and Trebizon boarding school stories, and I couldn’t wait for the midnight feasts, the swimming galas, and the practical jokes played on unsuspecting French Mam’zelles.


What I didn’t expect was the reality; the rules, such as only being allowed to speak to your parents on the phone once a week because too often ‘might upset you’; the hateful rotas of bath and hairwashing; the sadistic housemistress who had no sympathy for homesickness; the ghastly food.


Then there was the total lack of privacy, which, coupled with the bitchiness of adolescent girls, meant that you reached puberty in the full public glare of thirty two commentators, scrutinising everything from bra size to starting your periods. If anything awful happened, my parents were two airmail letters away (there and back) so I wouldn’t hear back from them for about a week. Friendships become ultra important in this environment, so the usual cliques of teenage girl-ery are intensified and bullying is rife. My school was littered with privileged, snobbish girls who took delight in picking out anyone who didn’t quite belong. (I qualified in two areas – coming from Abroad and doing well academically.) And when you’re a boarder, bullying doesn’t stop at 4pm when you go home.


I can still conjure up the sick, nervous feeling in my stomach that lingered throughout the second half of the holidays, knowing that I would have to go back. And the envy I felt for anyone, anywhere in the country that wasn’t at boarding school – I remember looking into the cosy lighted windows of people’s homes in the local town and thinking miserably of the harsh strip lighting and hospital beds in my badly-heated ‘dorm’.


When I had to go into hospital for a month before the birth of Littleboy 2, everyone asked me how I could possibly endure living on a hellish maternity ward in such proximity to total strangers? Only my friend from Boarding School understood. Rather as Old Etonians say they adjust well to prison life, it was a grim experience, but one that reminded me that I had been here before.


Were my parents really doing the right thing? When I ended up at the same University with several friends from Hong Kong who had attended the local school, I think the answer was pretty obvious. I don’t blame my parents, but what a shame things couldn’t have been different for all of us.


Now, I know that boarding schools have probably improved immeasurably since the 1980s. And I know that some people have a wonderful time at boarding school. I know it’s not all bad.


But, looking down at my innocent blond Littleboys, the answer to the question about boarding school is one I don’t even have to think about.

34 comments:

Paradise Lost In Translation said...

I think I've inherited my mum's utter hatred of her boarding school experience, despitehavign read all the Mallory Towers bks etc & loving them. We live abroad, Sri Lanka (06-08), now Albania since the beginning of this year, but that conversation is not even up for grabs.I'd go home tomorrow if it was even raised!
You capture the misery very well. My father simply adored boarding school & deeply regretted he cdn't afford it for my 2 brothers, who didn't regret that at all!

Just discovered your blog via Not Wrong Just Different & Reluctnant Memsahib. Will be back to dip in again!

International Escapee Mummy said...

Oh my goodness, Alex, it sounds absolutely TERRIBLE! I loved all those Malory Towers books, too, but the real thing sounds like hell. Michael, who also went to boarding school, mentions it every now and then - I think as a joke, but I'll be making sure the topic is a non-starter in our household, too. The only experience I have of boarding school myself is of getting smuggled in to Michael's boys' school as a teenager - and even lining up for the ghastly food on one occasion!

Iota said...

An American-in-England blog I follow has been talking about this subject recently. You might find it interesting. http://multitude-audrey.blogspot.com/2008/09/boarding-school-blues.html

If our kids were ever being difficult, and we were running out of patience, we used to say "you'll have to go to boarding school" - as a joke. We realised that it really was a dangerous joke, as there might come a day when one of their friends was going off to boarding school, or they might talk to their uncle, and raise all kinds of family yikes (broke my mum's heart to send that boy off, dad insisted), so we dropped the joke. Pity, as it really was very effective in getting them to behave!

It's off the agenda for us too.

The Dotterel said...

It's actually becoming more popular these days, strangely. A local (state) grammar school has an expanding boarding house (pre-Potter, too). I think it's better than it used to be, but I'd still not want my children to board.

reluctantmemsahib said...

thanks for the mention nappy. a beautiful written piece. and one that tugged at my heartstrings especially ''And when you’re a boarder, bullying doesn’t stop at 4pm when you go home". we took our eldest out of boarding for exactly this reason. He was at day school for six years before i had to send him back, something i did with my heart in my mouth. He has survived. Indeed he might even have flourished. I, on the other hand, barely do! x

Mom/Mum said...

I just couldnt imagine sending my boys away either, but for different reasons.
I too was an avid addict of the Malory Towers books and begged my parents to send me away to boarding school, but alas, it was the local comprehensive for me.

Samurai Beetle said...

Wow I'd love to hear about what Hong Kong was like in the 80's. I wish you could have grown up there, it's such a unique place. I've had the privilege to travel there frequently for the last few years and it's a great city.

nappy valley girl said...

Paradise Lost – hi and welcome to Nappy Valley; I will be over to take a look at your blog soon, it sounds fascinating. My own father also liked boarding - but he didn’t have a great relationship with his own father and said it was easier to be away from home…

Hello lovely IEM (how’s that new baby doing?) You tell Michael that on no account is he allowed to send them anywhere!

Iota- thanks for the v. interesting link and for introducing me to Audrey. Yes, that’s a dangerous joke to make….

Dottorel – I know, although can’t believe that it will become any more popular over the next few years with money tight for fees etc. Every time I read one of those articles about the Potter effect and about how great boarding is for kids, I wish they would talk about the negative side too.

RM – thank you. I am glad your son was eventually OK with boarding. I guess I survived it too – and I did make some very close friendships, some of which continue to this today. Who knows how we would turn out if we had taken a different path?

Mom/mum – I would have loved to go to the local comprehensive. I guess the grass is always greener!

Hi Samurai Beetle – yes Hong Kong in the 80s was a brilliant place to grow up. I haven’t been back for a few years but deep down I still think of it as home.

Expat mum said...

Well thank goodness you can blog about it - sort of cathartic in a way.

Wife in Hong Kong said...

When your sport-hungry boys go to school on the side of an escarpment so steep that they spend their days running up and down stairs with never a blade of grass in sight; when long distance running means 20 times round the inside of a sports hall; when fresh air means being outside in a polluted smog; when boys of your son's age are leaving his class by the dozen to start school in England; you start thinking that huge playing fields, space and fresh air might not be so bad after all....... My husband was at boarding school in England while his parents were here in Hong Kong in the 70s and he loved it; both the boarding and the travelling out for the holidays. That may be why we are here now.

Mud in the City said...

I think different things are right for different children. My colleague is going through a divorce with a nightmare ex-wife who is very unbalanced and makes life a misery for his 2 children.

For them boarding school is a place of solace; where there are boundaries that don't change on a whim, where they don't get yelled at or pulled into emotional fights, where meals and play time are regular and they aren't a part of an adult's guilt trips.

It is giving them an opportunity for a childhood.

Millennium Housewife said...

There with you, never never never, no matter what Enid Blyton says.

Hadriana's Treasures said...

Fascinating story. Funnily enough Arabella Weir, comedienne and dipolomat's daughter, who was educated privately, will not educate her children privately. Wants them to experience real life. I don't know whether she boarded or not. Just that the newspaper piece has stuck in my head. It's certainly interesting hearing the flipside!

A Confused Take That Fan said...

Sounds like you went to the same school as one of my friends...
I went out with a boy who went to boarding school, I say boy, because it kind of institutionalised him. He loved boarding school and I think found it very hard to adjust not being there, even in his twenties. I have had friends who have loved the experience and those that have hated it. I could NEVER send my children to boarding school, purely because I am selfish and would miss them far too much. Not that we have the money to do it anyway. So not a tough decision to make. Great blog post nappy v.
x

nappy valley girl said...

EM – yes, it is. In fact, I’ve always thought I would write a book about it one day….

WIHK – I am sure my parents faced all the same dilemmas (although not the sports one – I was rubbish at games!). And, yes, I do accept that some people enjoy boarding. However…most of my friends from HK also boarded, and I recall that most of them, though they put on a brave face and ‘survived it’, were also pretty unhappy. There used to be terrible scenes at the airport when kids’ were going back for the start of a new term – such misery. I hope things are different now.

Hi Mud – see above. I agree that for some children, boarding can be a way out of a bad home situation. But unless the school is supportive and looks out for those who are having a tough time at home (which hopefully your colleagues kids’ is) it won’t necessarily be a better environment. Boarding school can be really, really lonely.

MH – thank you. (And I don’t believe Enid even went to boarding school herself – although her children did.)

HT – interesting about Arabella Weir. I’m not necessarily against private schooling (although I used to be – but that was for political reasons) but I do agree with her that being confined to a boarding house for one’s teenage years is not ‘real life’.

CTTF – I would miss them too much too. I want to be there for all their teenage strops just as much as I am for their toddler tantrums!

that girl ? said...

god that sounds hideous! You are so right not to send your boys too. I'm not tarring everyone with the same brush but the ex Toad went to boarding school which explains an awful lot really!

Audrey said...

Hi and thanks for the visit. I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiments and it breaks my heart hearing about your experience. It's good that you have learned from it, and it's shocking how many people I have met who haven't.

chris said...

Hi Nappyvalley girl
I can't for the life of me find an email address for you on the site but I would like to drop you a line. Is there one someone and I'm missing it? I think you can ping me via my googleblogger sign in?

Thanks

C

nappy valley girl said...

TG - it might well explain things...

Audrey - thanks, and I'll be reading more of your blog in future.

Hi Chris - bizarrely, I can't seem to email you either. There isn't a good way of doing it without it being public, so I have just set up a Google mail account: nappyvalleygirl@googlemail.com
Hopefully this will work!

Potty Mummy said...

Good for you, am totally in agreement. Why have children only to let a group of teachers bring them up? Plus, who would we then blame for snaffling all the biscuits and chocolates?

scatterbrain said...

Hello, found you great blog via The Potty Diaries.

Excellent post. I was a boarder from the age of 10 and have been composing a post about it for ages but finding it difficult to write about.

How awful that you were bullied. Although I wasn’t, I was chronically homesick. I would NEVER send my son away - no matter what (although Mud in the City’s comment is valid.)

Kids need to be able to come home and discuss events with their parents to get things into perspective. They cannot form proper relationships with their siblings if they’re hardly ever with them.

Having said all that (gasp!) I have, however, recently enjoyed being back in touch with many from my school year and we enjoy annual fun get-togethers in London.

Tara said...

There is no way on God's green earth I could send my children away to be educated.
It would eat me up not being their to hold their hand when they needed it or speak words of comfort or just peek around the door and watch them sleeping for a moment every night before I go to bed.

nappy valley girl said...

PM - quite (and particularly the sort of of teachers that boarding schools, in my experience, have a tendency to attract!)

Hi Scatterbrain - I also enjoy meeting old school friends (far more than The Doctor who went to a day school). I think boarding does bring you closer - after all, you survived it together!

Hi Tara - I quite agree. I think it is as painful for the parents as it is for the children, which is why I was first inspired to write this post by Reluctant Memsahib.

Grit said...

dig's lonely experience at boarding school helped lead us to home education...

strange that he's pushed off to china now while i do the home ed. hmmm.

crunchiemummy said...

I couldn't imagine sending my boys off to boarding school either.

Nota Bene said...

I have to confess to having rather enjoyed life at boarding school...mind you I was 14 when I went, and it provided escape from the emotional confusion of divorcing parents. It was helped by relative freedom to get out and about...often to the pub at weekends! I think boarding suits some, and not others...but it takes a very wise parent to know which child will enjoy life away from home.

Anonymous said...

There is a book called Third Culture Kids which discusses how children are impacted by their parents working overseas. I recommend it highly, especially if you are thinking of emigrating soon with your family.

ella said...

I had a very similar experience at boarding school and would never consider it for my own children. You have captured the misery of boarding school perfectly...

Bush Mummy said...

Hi Nappy picked you up at Potty's carnival. Very emotive subject. I went at the age of 11 having asked to go. My brother went at the age of 7 and didn't want to. It destroyed his already fragile personality but was the making of mine. Our parents had divorced and my mother had re-married into a family with four other children. It was the best place for me I think.

My husband is a grammar school educated Cambridge graduate who has excelled academically his whole life. Whilst he respects my experience of boarding which to this day I absolutely loved, he would struggle to let our girls go. It is a great dilemma but I have to play devil's advocate and say it was the best thing for me and I loved it. My best friends to this day are the ones I made at school.

Great post. I'll be back.

BM x

Martine said...

Hello. I found this by doing a Google search on 'misery memoir' + 'boarding school' because I've just been on weekend workshops for female 'Boarding School Survivors'. It's very interesting to hear about people who enjoyed boarding school. I hated it and it has left me with deep scars (and I'm now 60)!! If anyone is interested, read 'The making of them' by Nick Duffell and/ or attend one of the 'Boarding School Survivor' workshops. Good to think about at least, before you pack your children off to them.
Best wishes, Martine

Grit said...

dig is absolutely with you here ... he endured years of boarding school and hated it. the lack of privacy is the single most affecting factor. and not surprisingly, i didn't have much resistence to my suggestion that we home educate our kids. i just force them to share bedrooms.

Kit said...

Hi, I've just come here after reading the Times Online article on blogging.

I've also sworn not to send my kids to boarding school having had a similar experience to you of boarding school - Enid Blyton has a lot to answer for! It was an incredibly lonely experience for me even though I never had any direct bullying. 11 year old girls can be so bitchy.

Anyway great to read this post and interesting to see all the different comments.

Liz (LivingwithKids) said...

I know a few people who went through the boarding school experience and although they loved being at boarding school, they never really got over being separated from their parents at such a young age and were completely screwed up. I also have friends who have sent their children to boarding school and swear it's good for their children. Not convinced.

Almost American said...

I never went to boarding school - but I've been on the other side of it as a teacher at 2 different boarding schools in the USA. I suddenly realized the other day that a large number of my Facebook friends are former students of mine from those schools! I know it was very hard for some of the kids, but for others it was absolutely the right place to be.

I have to say, it wasn't easy being a teacher there either. No privacy and insanely long hours. My husband refuses to let me even consider returning to a boarding school teaching job now!