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I went off to boarding school at eight, the youngest girl there. I went off to summer camp, eight weeks at a stretch, at the same age. I saw my mother on weekends, my father (from whom she was divorced) whenever he was around, which was intermittent as he was a film-maker who often traveled far away for months for his work.
So, there you are, surrounded by a sea of strangers, whose rules and regulations — and kindness, compassion and goodwill — will make or break the rest of your childhood and/or adolescence.
Here’s a recent editorial from The Guardian on sending young kids off to boarding school — considered perfectly normal behavior by some Britons:
So I want to try once more to begin a discussion about an issue we still refuse to examine: early boarding. It is as British as warm beer, green suburbs and pointless foreign wars. Despite or because of that we won’t talk about it. Those on the right will not defend these children as they will not criticise private schools. Those on the left won’t defend them, as they see them as privileged and therefore undeserving of concern. But children’s needs are universal; they know no such distinctions.
The UK Boarding Schools website lists 18 schools which take boarders from the age of eight, and 38 which take them from the age of seven. I expect such places have improved over the past 40 years; they could scarcely have got worse. Children are likely to have more contact with home; though one school I phoned last week told me that some of its pupils still see their parents only in the holidays. But the nature of boarding is only one of the forces that can harm these children. The other is the fact of boarding.
In a paper published last year in the British Journal of Psychotherapy, Dr Joy Schaverien identifies a set of symptoms common among early boarders that she calls boarding school syndrome. Her research suggests that the act of separation, regardless of what might follow it, “can cause profound developmental damage”, as “early rupture with home has a lasting influence on attachment patterns”.
When a child is brought up at home, the family adapts to accommodate it: growing up involves a constant negotiation between parents and children. But an institution cannot rebuild itself around one child. Instead, the child must adapt to the system. Combined with the sudden and repeated loss of parents, siblings, pets and toys, this causes the child to shut itself off from the need for intimacy. This can cause major problems in adulthood: depression, an inability to talk about or understand emotions, the urge to escape from or to destroy intimate relationships. These symptoms mostly affect early boarders: those who start when they are older are less likely to be harmed.
It sure ain’t Hogwarts, kids!
The very notion of daily, familial emotional intimacy — whaddya mean I’m supposed to share my feelings? Feelings?! — is as alien to me, even now, as Jupiter. It’s no accident I married a man who is very affectionate, grew up in a normal family with two sisters at home and easily says “I love you” a lot.
I have only one friend who also had this experience, a man a bit older, who has some very similar emotional patterns. At best, we can tough out almost anything without sniveling or whining. At worst, we come across as (and may well be!) cold, bossy, disconnected.
Some of what you learn:
You rarely cry. There’s no one to cry to. Bluntly stated, no one cares. There’s no one offering a comforting hug or a hand to hold if you’re anxious, ill, homesick or scared. You share a room with four to six other girls, some just as miserable, whose distant parents live even further away than yours, in Nassau or Caracas or North Bay.
You rarely share your feelings. No one in authority has the time or interest to sit with you. No one asks. “So, how was your day, sweetie?” They check your name on a list to make sure you are present. i.e. not missing, not a problem, not a liability. Your assigned room-mates? They might hate you, or use personal information against you. Best not to offer them any ammo.
A vicious tongue. Because you cannot fight physically and cannot leave and cannot find privacy from those who are making you crazy, you learn to wound verbally. Not pretty.
Television and radio are impossibly exotic treats. This was back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I got to watch television at school maybe once a week, with a bunch of other girls in the common room. I laughed really loudly — probably at a sitcom — and was admonished for not being ladylike. (You should hear how loudly I laugh today!)
Food and drink take on additional importance. Every meal, including snacks, is served on a schedule, in a pre-determined location. We were told each week at school what table to sit at. Between-meal hunger? Deal with it: sneak food out, keep some in your room. Tip: trying to carry oranges, apples or grapefruit in your baggy, saggy bloomers is not an effective strategy.
Privacy is the greatest luxury imaginable. Every waking hour, you’re surrounded by other people, some of whom you loathe and vice versa: in your bed, in the bathroom, in the dining hall, in the classroom, in classes and sports.
Your self-image is shaped by people who make judgments about you with incomplete information. I was asked to leave my boarding school after Grade 9 for being, (as I was that year), disobedient, rude and disruptive. But no one ever bothered, kindly and with genuine concern for me, to ask why. In high school, my nickname was the Ice Queen, so little emotion did I show. Go figure.
Self-reliance. Independence. A stiff upper lip. I know to make a bed, iron wool, tie a tie. (Part of our uniform.) Whistle with two fingers. Swear like a sailor. An excellent education with ferociously high standards. Tons of homework, as early as fourth grade. No boys to distract us. The automatic assumption that smart girls rule, that men are not to be deferred to simply because they expect it and the expectation that every girl is capable of, and will produce, excellence and leadership.
All good things!
Did you leave your family at an early age?
How did it affect you?