I was eight when I arrived at Boarding School (see my article describing this, dated March 2015).
At some point in those early days, seeded by that first lonely night away from home, I made a massive but unconscious decision that would have far-reaching effects for the rest of my life. But first I need to describe a little more of my story and some of the psychological awareness I have subsequently been able to bring to it.
I left my family home, mother, father, sister, pet dog and two cats, plus all the animals on the small farm that was my world since the age of two. I left the fields, the trees, the hedges and ditches, the ponds and streams, the sheds and agricultural machinery, the nearby village with my primary school and the little village shop, where I spent my pocket money on sweets and lucozade. I left the friends I made at primary school and the adventure games my sister and I played on our farm in rural Dorset.
The stark reality I faced was the loss of all that. I was thrust suddenly out of the only world I knew into another alien world, where all the boys spoke with an upper class twang. I did not know it, but I arrived at the school with a west country accent. Not a strong one, I don’t remember being teased about it, but when I went home for the four days of half term after seven weeks away, my father teased me about the new ‘posh‘ accent I had acquired.
In order to fit in and feel that I belonged at school, I was unconsciously emulating the style of the other boys who were mainly sons of lawyers and other professionals or from the ruling class, with fathers overseas governing what remained of the British Empire.
I found myself stranded between two worlds. The world of my parents, was modest and narrow, yet it had afforded me security and a sense of who I was. Returning to it from this point on was never quite the same. Returning for the holidays I began to feel like a ‘visitor’ in my family home.
At school I pined for the familiarity, warmth and security I had known at home. I later found that being at home on the farm for the holidays was a wonderful release from the prison-like routines and regulations, a time to let down my guard, replenish my sensitive soul and just be me, away from the relentless proximity of male bodies and the constant striving for achievement. But from the day I left for boarding school, I never again felt fully a part of my family and I lost the spontaneous innocence and openness of my early childhood. I don’t know if this showed. In our family we were all good at keeping up appearances.
However harsh and alien my new world seemed, it was also a more privileged and monied one. I knew I had to find ways to try to belong there. It became embedded in my nature to adapt and fit in and, as if it was familiar to me from a past life, I quickly emulated the ways of these posh boys and passed myself off as one of them. But my parents weren’t of the same background as those of my new peers, and my father’s teasing joke about my acquired accent, augmented the painful feeling that I didn’t properly belong in either camp.
The money for my expensive education, by the way, came from a trust fund set up by our great aunt. It was all spent on me, because apparently my sister was doing well at the local school and was considered too shy to manage away from home, whereas I wasn’t progressing well at the village school, my teacher found me disruptive and my parents thought I would benefit from the extra discipline of a private school. They had sat me down and asked me if I wanted to go to boarding school as if I, age eight, could know what that was. I think I probably did say yes, without any idea of the implications. How could I have?
But back to my memories of those formative years and the events that so effectively set me up to create the conditions I experienced in my adult life.
The school had a cruel but effective policy for ‘breaking in’ new boys. We weren’t allowed to see our parents for the first three weeks, at the end of which we had an ‘exeat’, the name for the sundays when our parents could come and collect us and take us out for the day. That first three weeks seemed endlessly long. Some boys showed obvious signs of homesickness, and the plaintive sobs from some of the beds after lights out continued on and off during that time.
Once a week we were given writing paper and instructed to write a letter to our parents. It was carried out in the classroom with a master supervising. My only clear recollection of this was of the deputy headmaster’s wife supervising us. She was one of only four female figures in the school. the other three being Matron, her younger assistant and the wife of our latin teacher, who lived in a house in the school grounds; but she had young children and rarely came into school.
As we sat contemplating this written contact with our parents and home, we were given ideas as to what we might say about our week and then we could add our own thoughts, like asking, in my case, how George my cat was doing? When we thought we had finished we had to show it to the supervisor to be checked. If there were glaring spelling mistakes or crossings out we might be made to do it again, or advised to change something we had said. We had to learn how to address an envelope and then it was posted for us.
I imagine this thinly veiled censorship was also a way of assessing if any boys were particularly homesick or disturbed about anything. I found the whole process tedious and upsetting, realising at some level that thinking about home had the potential to bring unwanted feelings to the surface.
My mother managed to write to me regularly, trying her best to keep me connected to what was going on at home. I looked forward to those letters but they mainly contained facts, with little on an emotional level; not enough to fill the hole I felt inside. She undoubtedly had to distance herself to manage her end of our loss.
My sister wrote sometimes, which was lovely. We had bickered a lot before I went away to school but I soon began to appreciate her and value her as a sister once I was away from home. I think I was a bit jealous that she was getting all the attention and advantages of being at home (she continued her schooling in the state system). I imagined her getting all the love perhaps. But years later she told me that she too found our parents lacking in their physical expressions of love. This was quite a shock to me and shattered a projection I had been carrying for decades.
And my Dad? He wrote very occasionally. He tended to stay in the background and left most of the parenting to my mother.
The amazing thing is, that in spite of all the challenges and distress that I found myself facing at that time, I made remarkable academic progress in my first term. I had been placed, as a result of my entrance exam, ninth in the class out of twelve new boys. I faced the reality of being three places from the lowest, smallest and dimmest boy in the whole school. They made sure with their publicly displayed charts that we all knew our place!
But I must have buckled down with a determination to prove that I was better than this. They must have inspired or perhaps scared me into trying to prove them wrong. By the end of that first term I was top of the class and during the next term they moved me up a class. The teaching style and disciplined regime must have suited me in this sense.
I have little memory of those times, other than a sense of learning to respond to what was expected of me, of wanting to please everybody and prove myself to be the successful achiever that we were all being groomed to become. And most of all, I see now that I was striving with the belief that to gain the love and approval of my parents, who had abandoned me and thrown me out of the nest, I had to show myself worthy of the perceived financial and emotional sacrifice that they made to ‘allow‘ me to be at this expensive privileged private school.
In other words I must have come to believe, to my detriment, that love was entirely conditional, and so I conducted my life on the basis that if I failed at school I would be letting my parents and teachers down, I would suffer humiliating shame, further rejection by my parents and teachers, and therefore lose the (conditional) love that I could allow myself to feel. Not a recipe for childhood happiness; and this was just the first of ten years in a boarding school environment.
To be continued soon.
In the next episode: ‘Toughening us up’, the emotional effects on me, on my family and for intimate relationships in my adult life.