|Me, the same month I started boarding|
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to go to a boarding school? I bet you have, haven’t you? Maybe you’ve read Harry Potter and you like the idea of having banquets in a big dining room or having a house common room where you can snuggle down in your pyjamas and chat with your friends in front of a roaring fire before heading off to bed to continue the chat after lights out.
It’s nothing like that.
Well, maybe it is a bit.
My parents sent me away to boarding school when I was 7 years old. One warm, sunny afternoon in September, I was loaded into the car with a trunk and driven for about an hour to the school where I was to spend the next six years. In my memory, with forty long years of distance, this came completely out of the blue: one minute I was playing at home and the next, I’m being sent away, never really to return before I moved out for good. That can’t be right though. I’m sure I must have known it was coming, because that trunk in the car was packed with a school uniform and towels and things like that, all with my name tape sewn neatly into them so they wouldn’t get lost in the school laundry. I must surely have visited the school itself too, although I have no memory of that either. All I remember is playing happily by myself all afternoon before being packed into the car and then, about an hour later, being dropped off at my new school.
I was a pretty young seven, to be honest. I’m six foot five now, but I was small and nervous then, with NHS glasses and crooked teeth. I can still remember that first night so clearly. I was assigned to a dormitory called “Irving” with all the other new arrivals and my bed was right up against the window. There were around fourteen of us, all around seven or eight years old. The old, iron-framed beds had squeaky springs and were spaced about 2m apart. We were allowed our own duvet covers (I must have learned how to make the bed at some point over the summer too, as this is not something I had ever done before). If my memory isn’t playing tricks on me, the two covers I had brought with me were a union jack and a Peanuts cartoon featuring Snoopy, Charlie Brown, Linus and the gang. Lights went out on a strict timetable and we were left alone in the dark. A few people in the room started to sob. I think we’d been warned by the kindly matron or housemaster that some of us might feel homesick. I had wondered what that was, and now I was listening to the quiet sobbing of children missing their own families and their own beds, I still wasn’t sure. I hadn’t been away from home on my own before; this was all new, strange and a little frightening, but I still didn’t feel like crying. Perhaps I should be grateful that I never experienced home sickness in my time at school, but I do remember wondering at the time why I didn’t feel like that. Was something wrong with me? Shouldn’t I be missing my parents?
We didn’t talk much after lights out, but none of us were really ready to sleep yet, so I suppose a bit of chatter was inevitable (if you weren’t crying yourself to sleep). I discovered that I could talk to the boy on the other end of the window if we both stuck out heads behind the curtain and whispered along the windowsill. I spent nearly every day of the next six years with most of those boys, but I don’t think I’m still in contact with a single one of them. I can still remember their names: Robert Munn was the boy across the other side of the window; Tim Smithson was the most homesick. In fact, Tim wasn’t able to shake off that homesickness in all the time he was at that school and he cried most nights. It seems a peculiar kind of torture to inflict on a small boy, doesn’t it? It’s character building, I suppose. Perhaps it’s far stranger for a seven-year-old separated from his parents to remain entirely unmoved.
Now I’m older, I wonder how hard this must have been for my parents, especially my mother. To take your seven-year-old son – and I was a very young seven - and to drop him off at a boarding school for weeks at a time when you have never previously spent a night away from them? How much of a wrench must that be? You can console yourself all you like with thoughts that you’re doing the best thing for them in the long run, that this is going to be the education that gives them the greatest opportunities in life, that this will be the making of them… but on a very human level, you’re wrenching your own flesh and blood away from your side and leaving them to sink or swim in an alien environment that’s a long, long way from home. Mind you, I suppose that if not every boy was crying themselves to sleep with homesickness every night, it stands to reason that not every parent was sobbing over their lost babies either. Some families, after all, have been doing this for generations. It never did me any harm, etc.
All my life, I’ve felt a kind of low-grade shame about my educational background. Obviously, it’s not something that I ever had any say in, but even now, I feel embarrassed about my schooling and I’m quite happy if it never comes up on conversation. I hate people’s preconceptions and I hate having them applied to me. Again, they’re not really my problem and they’re not something I can control, but if I can drift through life without anyone guessing that I had a private education, then so much the better. I’m happy to wear this invisibility on my sleeve as a badge of honour, which given how much my education cost, seems a bit of a strange reaction to say the least.
As far as I’m aware, nobody in our family went to a fee-paying school before me and my brothers (I’m the middle of three. My elder brother started at this school on the same day as I did). My father is the child of publicans from Plymouth and he was never expected to go to university, never mind to medical school. The grades he got would be nowhere near good enough now to get him anywhere near a degree in medicine, but he studied at Barts Hospital in London, met my mum who was a student nurse and became a GP on the Northamptonshire/Buckinghamshire border. Fairly quickly, my mum gave up work to become a full-time parent and my dad became a GP in a busy rural practice. Clearly, to send all of your kids to a private school, they must have been doing alright, but I don’t remember us being especially affluent. We didn’t have fancy cars (not as fancy as most of the other parents’ cars in the school car park when we were picked up for half term, anyway) and we never went abroad on holiday. At the start of every winter term, kids would be talking about how they had been to Disneyland or wherever, and I’d probably spent a week in wales with my mum’s parents and a maybe also a week in Devon above my dad’s parent’s pub. Oddly, this never bothered me. I’ve never wanted to go to Disneyland.
Maybe I should care more. My parents clearly made enormous sacrifices to send their children to boarding schools. For a fifteen-year period from 1981, my mum and dad put three sons through a private education. They did this to try and give their kids what they thought was the best possible start in life. They sacrificed their money and they sacrificed watching their children growing up. For what? For me to spend my time pretending that it never happened and, worse than that, telling them to their faces that there is no way on God’s green earth that I would put any child of mine through the same treatment. What an ungrateful little shit I am.
I wrote this for my writing group in April 2021. I usually write some magical reality type stuff with talking animals and things, but I'd just finished Pete Paphides' "Broken Greek", and was inspired to write something a whole lot closer to home. Since I wrote this, there seems to have been a spate of people writing about their own experiences of boarding school, the complete opposite to how you imagine someone like Boris Johnson talks about his schooling. Lots of damaged adults still suffering the emotionsl repercussions. I'm not sure if that's exactly my story, but I did think that I had a story to tell. So here we are.