Asked to write for my old school magazine: ‘Boarding School Made Me Who I am Today’, I was jogged back 30 years to my very happy boarding school life. And, once submitted, I asked my good friend (and REAL writer @AmandaHowe) who had attended a similar school for her memories and thoughts…
Our school days are said to be the best years of our lives. Despite my very happy days at school, this phrase has always slightly jarred with me. What pressure school children live under if this is to be true. However, it is true to suggest that our school days provide the backdrop of our lives ahead and contribute to making us who we are today.
Choosing to attend a boarding school over a London day school was momentous as my first grown-up decision. Aged 10, I had taken both entrance exams and was faced with a choice as to which path I should take. Without any prejudice from either of my parents, I was surprisingly adamant that the boarding option, Benenden School, was to be my home for the next seven years. A confident, outgoing 11 year old with a passion for adventure (and perhaps a little mischievous too), I never worried about missing the home comforts nor how I would live in close quarters with all those girls. In fact, the only wobble I can recall was saying goodbye to my brother who was (and still is) my best friend. Only a year in age apart, I remember feeling a little apprehensive at the idea of not being able to share my life with him in so much detail.
Within weeks, not even months, boarding became a way of life. With no mother to drive over a forgotten gym kit, no reminders of remaining homework on a Sunday night, no listening ear and friendly face when teenage girls get under your skin, I had begun to learn some invaluable life skills. Independence, the non-sophisticated type with only cows and sheep in the immediate vicinity, is the greatest gift you can give your child. Thinking back, it was the older girls in our school house who had the most influential role in those early years. We took their lead to understand what was socially right or wrong and they often disciplined us (gently) as and when we stepped out of line.
I put so much of my ability to organise (slightly fanatical at times), constant motivation and drive and any self-protective mechanisms down to the fact that my teenage years were spent in a semi-animal house semi-Lord of the Flies, but always joyously happy, environment.
I think, most crucially, we learnt to understand people. In essence, there was no escaping them. You could lie on your bed but with up to eleven other beds in your dormitory, there was no promise of ‘time out’. You could watch TV, but with up to 50 housemates in the common room with you, there was no guarantee of seeing ‘the box’. You were never alone. But the company was, mostly, great fun and with the privileged facilities and extensive grounds, we were never at a loss to find something to do or someone to do it with.
On a practical level, my husband jokes that I can pack a case in record time and sleep in the nosiest surroundings. On a personal level, I love a dinner party where I know no one and have no fear of public speaking and socially fighting my corner. Can I be sure that these life credentials are a direct result of my boarding school years? No, but I’m pretty sure that as a London day girl I would have found myself in various hot waters and, while I took to boarding school as a duck takes to water, I realise that it was, without doubt, the right choice for me.
My mum is always quick to point out that I wanted to go to boarding school. My even snappier retort is “ I always wanted my ears pierced but you didn’t allow that dream to come true”.
For me there will always be a reason why I wanted out at such a tender age. In fact I question the psychological fragility of any child who felt so deftly determined to investigate the reality of Enid Blyton’s imagination with the same rabid appetite of the Inland Revenue in search of benefit cheats.
Boarding school… well it taught me a lot. Extremely practical lessons gained from the upper middle class psalm of “KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON”. I could wash my own knickers aged 11. I could change a bed sheet and the forever – tricky duvet cover within days of leaving home. I could survive on less food than a famine and barter for snacks with the skills of a carpet seller in Marrakech. I could blow unrivalled smoke rings by 14 and in fact sharpened ALL my oral techniques to a terrifying level at an even more terrifying age.
And there in lies my problem with boarding school. I learnt too much about life too soon and without the emotional parameters of everyday family life. Yes there was a strong sense of community – but the institutional variety as opposed to the intrinsic sense of love that flows between those of shared genes. We did things and didn’t do others because of rules and respect. Everything at boarding school is conditional. And I’m not sure about the message that sends out.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a lentil loving liberal who is still breastfeeding my 9 year old. I want my three kids to be independent and capable young people. But they have their whole lives to fend for themselves, to lay awake at night not knowing the answers to many of life’s questions and to wash up their own mug of cocoa.
As I kiss my babies heads good night each day, not in my wildest dreams can I imagine giving that up in just two tender years time. Is that selfish of me? Am I depriving them – by depriving them of daily displays of affection? Surely the fuel of love that keeps them going is a right in childhood. I don’t want them to learn to live without love before they get teenage acne. It’s hard enough then. Cuddles, love – even the friendly fire of family breakfast banter is what powers kids up for the day. They have to fend for themselves on their way to school, around school and home. Must they do it all night and all weekend too?
I am not sure there will be any other species on earth that could relate to sending their young out before they need to fend for themselves. The notion of outsourcing elements of my children’s socialization seems wrong and not just because I am a parent myself now.
So despite having loved boarding school myself, I very much put that down to the reality it protected me from at home. Because believe me the alternative must have been pretty ropey if I would rather have hand-washed my own pants.
Therefore when it comes to the magic of midnight feasts, meeting boys on the Downs, smoking in tiny toilets and barely doing any homework for two years, mum’s the word till my kids go to university.
Read more of Amanda’s brilliant musing at The Contented Lady.