– the reality of an educational institutional traumatisation called boarding schools –
Tomorrow I go back to my boarding school. This time not only with dread in my guts but to meet the safe-guarding team. Through an unusual confluence of events, my return to living 10 miles away from the school (even writing its name is difficult for me) was accompanied a few months later by my brother sending me an email about an enquiry the school was conducting into past abuse due a recent scandal. I volunteered and talked to the consultants on new structures for the school. I mentioned that I would be open to contributing further to the school if it was appropriate. One thing led to another and to my return there.
2 days ago in supervision I fairly casually thought I would explore my feelings about this upcoming visit. The degree of feeling still latent that emerged was surprising and the anger underneath my hurt also unexpected. The casualness itself is an indicator of not being in touch with my feelings, in turn a classic consequence of boarding schools.
More curious was to follow at dinner, where I was invited by my friend to her neighbours. When the conversation came to boarding schools un-typically I didn’t hold back. And I received it back multiplied too. It made me realise more of the entrenched power behind what is not just an educational centre, but a form of repeating trauma on succeeding generations, a way of buying and maintaining privilege and an institution that is obsolete.
In my school I was bullied on a daily basis. I also experienced sexual harassment, which though I was not physically touched, was traumatic. I lived with a constant atmosphere of horror and hyper vigilance. I remember a speech the headmaster gave to the whole school about why a parent had withdrawn his son, and he listed the bullying that happened which was horrific; including heads in toilets, thrown down steps and more. What astounds me in hindsight as an adult is that nothing changed. Which is why I am skeptical of my school’s wish to tackle abuse. You can institute policies but can you change the culture? Who will notice the subtleties of a child’s behaviour when they are struggling in the way a parent can?
The core issue
If you take kids away from their parents they lose a rock of love and care that can never be replaced no matter how good the school is. Everything else I write pales behind that simple sentence. Implicitly children are told that values of achieving success in life through studying well in a good school are more important than a parent’s care. This percolates into a difficulty with feeling, because it negates the innate wish to be loved and held. If you define emotional literacy as the ability to feel what you feel then going to a place where certain feelings are validated such as independence or having character and some others pushed away, such as crying, sadness and dependency, this will result in emotional confusion and splitting off of what you are actually feel. I stopped crying and feeling for many years till studying therapy. Boarding schools bluntly put, leave its products emotionally cut off.
Self censorship and internalised oppression
Although I feel energised by this writing, there is a part of me not too far away which questions myself. Was it my fault? It’s so long ago. Am I being a victim only? The school is better now. I was weak and too sensitive. Move on. How can I talk about abuse when I was absent from my son’s life in another continent. My parents meant well. Mum is too upset to talk about this anymore. Why rock the boat. It was privileged so shut up. Others suffered more. In Process Work these questions are seen as personal and collective edges to addressing trauma. By agreeing with them we side with the trauma and the system that created it in the first place. These beliefs are how social division is perpetuated in this case in myself and in all cases of oppression, to stop questioning.
There are always good reasons to not mention pain, but the way to wholeness and healing lies in acknowledging how we feel. I and we need to go beyond the way we marginalise the pain and feelings in ourselves and know that personally and collectively it is by addressing difficulties and speaking up about them that change will come. Not only that, the trauma of boarding schools is perpetuated by the pact of silence that is so strongly part of the culture. ‘Snitching’, ‘over emotional’, ‘gay’, ‘sensitive’ were all seen as the worst things to be when i was at school. So standing up for having had a difficult time as a sensitive lad directly clashes with an unspoken but palpably strong internal and collective ethos of not questioning.
The system of made up of people
So back to the dinner party. It became clear that two of the mothers were sending their children to boarding school within a year and they had no problem in taking me and my views to task. I was called a misfit, was told I went the wrong school. They pointed out that some families’s home life were worse than the school (a tacit admission that schools are not what they are meant to be). Finally they asked everybody around the table whether they had loved and enjoyed their school. All but me put their hands up. (aka shut up). It’s clear both mums have personal reasons from their own history why they are invested in their kids going to a boarding school. Yet it was refreshing to meet the system in the flesh being represented by people and not just tilting at the windmills of my past. If I take their accusations one by one, here are my answers. I am a misfit. I would imagine everybody is in some way. That we all have individual characteristics that need nurturing in order to be our own unique self. To be straight with how they meant it, I was a misfit in school too, because I was an especially sensitive lad in a brutal system. So yes aged 53 I carry the scars that label me a misfit. And I am proud to. Secondly I went to the wrong school. This makes me angry, when the system itself is at fault. There is truth in that my school was considerably worse in bullying. Even accepting that my school may have been an outlier, the culture that condones an education away from parents is still there. I understand some people loved their school. I used to give tours of my school and could wax lyrical about its specialness, but I now see this as a type of Stockholm syndrome, so am not convinced when people say they loved their school if its actually true.
Inter generational bullshit passed on
I went to boarding school aged 11, despite my German mother having to be persuaded by my father to do so. My father had gone by boat from Australia to UK aged 7 and would return to his parents every 2 years. I write that sentence so easily but for all those like him it was a form of systemic parental and emotional abandonment resulting in a trauma of neglect. It’s outrageous that it could happen and I am furious on his posthumous behalf. He did not interact so much with us, more when we got older and with my brother who like him was an excellent sportsman. With my therapeutic hat on I see him now as an emotionally abandoned man who did the best he could, yet was somehow distant in being with his sons. Generations of children were traumatised by abandonment. They have passed that on to their children in how they themselves are emotionally and directly in sending their children to the same suffering. Having been divorced i am vigilant with my son to not repeat the sense of distance that came through my paternal lineage. I and we need to end this cycle and look squarely in the eye the results of how we marginalise feelings in favour of a form of pedagogy that is fundamentally unsuited to creating emotionally healthy children and adults.
As a therapist I see in myself and others a trait from boarding school survivors. We can be cut off from our feelings, distant at times, emotionally ambivalent. There is a diffidence, sameness and a coolness in boarding school products. Bluntly put if mummy and daddy abandon you, it affects you because you are being told this is best for you, but everything in you is screaming ‘this is wrong, i want to be home’ so a fundamental schizophrenic experience results. You get used to coldness because that is how the world and school is. More subtlety but still potently is a propaganda that that ethos of ‘independence’ makes you part of an elite and so to complain about it is not right because it was a privilege, and that belief can stop you actually feeling what you feel.
Lack of the protector and witness
In Process work one way we can unfold pasts is by noticing the lack of a role which then needs learning how to build up. In boarding schools there is a lack of a protector, a lack of a model for emotional fluency, a lack of a witness of the hurt and suffering that occurred. I have been witnessed by a peer as I go through this remembering school time and her witnessing as well as my peers in the supervision session was healing as it breaks the fundamental belief of carrying it on our own. As therapists our work is to help these missing roles grow belatedly. I cry now more often, and acknowledge my feelings. This writing is in itself an outburst against the lack of protector and the culture that sent me to my hell hole school. Feelings are and continue to flood back.
As if all the above were not bad enough, the system in UK furthers a class system that leads to separation and a divided society. Why were the mothers so invested in sending their kids to board? They listed the reasons why: save on travel time in London to school (seriously). The way the dormitories were mixed age so it was caring (seriously). But then my reason that my father gave – your brother went so you have to so its not unfair (when we are as un-similar as could be imagined) was infuriatingly frivolous for something with such fundamental consequences. They did not mention and neither did my parents what was the real reason, buying privilege and a sense of an elite upbringing. We all want the best for our children, but to do so at the expense of a loving home comes with consequences not just personally but society-wide. This sense of elite privilege is so corrosive as it contributes to isolation personally and socially. It leads to the politics of division. It leads to Brexit and the legacy of Empire.
Boarding schools were set up to supply the empire with its administrators and soldiers. Some explicitly so, like Haileybury, also known as the the East India college. The empire needed emotionally cut off foot soldiers who would not question their orders but follow them through in the various tropical lands conquered to make the map pink. They would then send their children back to the ‘home country’ aged 5 or 7 to in turn be emotionally traumatised. The old boy network was created to support the prevailing power centres. It creates an ethos of separation from other classes, nations, languages, foods (this has changed!). British exceptionalism made the empire and led directly to Brexit I believe. In my school we were implicitly told we were to be the governing class of our country leading to predictable results of unconscious privilege, presumption and distance from society. It also on a personal level means challenging the validity of the school system more difficult as it also then challenges a social power grouping. Do we want a society of inclusion where there is as much a level playing field as possible or do we want one where elites continue to buy their position. I like the principle of the German school system where there are different streams but all based on merit not on payment.
Like any challenge by taking it on, and being vulnerable in acknowledging the struggles, change comes in fully being in the experience. nothing is permanent with awareness. Therapeutically wholeness is our natural home and we will constantly be wishing for that which we were denied. So let us jump into the things we struggle with, personally and also collectively create a new culture which does not collude with a system that creates suffering. As I went to the same school at him, at the dinner party one of the mums said it explains why Prince Charles is like he is implying a troubled person, different. I agreed at the time, but actually I think he is a great example of someone who hated his school, but has used the sense of a (in his words) “prison sentence” to make things better (putting to the side the huge contradiction of his sending his sons to one). His interests in alternative therapies, organic farming, and alternate world-views show me someone who has alchemically changed his experience to one of going beyond the culture he grew up in. My supervisor spoke to me recently of Chiron the mythic wounded healer, (which i misheard as leader) and its a motif that still flows into me. In that sense i see Prince Charles as a wounded leader.
After the event
On my visit back there, one funny thing jumped out, which is how up everybody i met was about the school. The receptionist and the PA were lovely and exuded that presumption that the school was the best thing ever with beaming smiles. “Did you have a great time here?” “No i didn’t.” “Well its changed a lot now.” Its like a hypnosis that steals over. The school, rah rah rah.. My guess is its ultimately to do with feeling special and different to others. We’re elite and better. Of course in principle its good to have enthusiastic teachers, but in this context it feels forced. If this were a religious cult, it would be creepy the way people refer to their boarding school.
The meeting went really well. I felt heard, I said all that i wished to, how to safeguard kids today, my skepticism, my own experiences in the past. There are genuine safe-guarding procedures in place from what I was told, I pushed, naming my scepticism and realised that things have changed. Four sincere people met me, pastoral care, the clinical psychologist, safe-guarding teams. Hurray! I am so happy that its changed. Bittersweetly, that brought up my own pain at why this wasn’t the case when i was there. They could hear that too. I pointed out that you can never replace a parents love, and that is something hard to answer but they seem to be doing their best. I still believe its a system that is fundamentally creating trauma through neglect but the overt bullying and abuse appear to be tackled with systems in place to tackle and discover problems.
I still feel that the coolness and emotional distance from boarding schools will continue. That the alluring propaganda of an elite education will make parents, children and teachers alike be less open to noticing where they are unhappy, struggling and emotionally sad from abandonment. The systems may be good enough to flag up where a child struggles now but when the issue itself is the nature of boarding i wonder how they handle it? I genuinely don’t know but pray and hope that schools can recognise when to say, ‘this is not working for the child, they seem to be unhappy’.
They praised my calmness and measured tone, and also my courage and floated a possibility of returning to speak. I tried to not burden them with my feelings, as none of them were there when i was there, they were the representatives of the institution but also human beings. When I left in my school I felt a rage in me and a vulnerability. Of course it should, even though the meeting on one level went well, I was back in a place of horror. They thanked me for coming back to the cavernous room we were in, and my courage in doing so, and in that moment they were more aware than I was of all my feelings. So the rage is needed not just because it reflects an injustice of the past. But because the ethos in my teens was one of shutting down feelings, and here they could roar back again. I went out twice to walk things through and the second time in a snow storm in night lit by a full moon. That storm reflected my own feelings, the coldness and the churning in my guts, the dark this time lit by a light, the light of trusting that what I am going through has worth and is needed.
My feelings of rage and upset do not match the actuality of the people I met in the school. So I did inner work with the school as a system. In my dreaming, Gordonstoun (now i can write it) is the big stone house i was in yesterday. Thick C18 walls, inpenetrable, uncaring, cold, distant, far from the warmth of tropics and even London, self interested and self reflecting as befits a pile built to show the standing of an earl. Who knows how many horrors it has seen. A seeming grandeur with its long drive way and big lawns is built on the back of repression of people and students alike. When I dare to stand up as i have in this blog, it squashes me, nothing will threaten its existence. It stands for values that i rage against.
The ethos of specialness is so corrosive, so distancing from life itself.
But my revenge is to stand up to it. To be myself and to let my feelings flood me, to be a misfit, to be sensitive and outrageous; all the things that were implicitly disavowed. To meet that stoney power in my own terms. I stand for different values and will die doing so. I become the Gordonstoun house in me, finding that stone of strength. My agitation stops after this piece of work. Therapeutically i needed a slice of the stoniness strength to meet them in my own power.