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Resilience or regression?

Boarding school isn’t just midnight feasts at Malory Towers – for some of us, it was one long endurance test, writes Lulu Sinclair

As pupils from private schools come under the cosh once again for allegedly trying to jump the queue to get into university on not-quite-good-enough grades, spare a thought for those boarders who don’t remember school as the happiest days of their lives…

I went away to school at eight. It was at that time that I think I froze, a reaction to trauma that I unknowingly experienced then and still experience now, so many decades later.

The school was two weeks into the autumn term when I arrived. I remember suddenly feeling very small and very frightened. The headmistress welcomed me, trying to be kind but I was too young to take it in and, suddenly, too confused. It was a blur then and it still is. My mother must have left me and I imagine I said goodbye, but I have no recall of that. Nothing at all. Not kissing her goodbye, not waving the car off. Nothing.

My first term I longed for home. I cried a lot and, each night, held on tightly to my strange donkey bed-mate that I had taken from home. He was as tall as I was and the bed was small but he was my comfort and he stayed with me all the while I was a boarder – at big school too!

I learned new skills, how to make a bed with hospital corners and no lumps (that latter bit was tricky) and I remember certain expressions such as: “Top sheet to the bottom, bottom sheet to the wash.” I became pretty unfussy about food and, I think, got fatter. I was used to leaving what I didn’t want and that was not allowed. We had to finish what was on our plate. I no longer do that but, years on, I am still able to eat pretty much anything.

I made some friends – we used to make dens in the copious woods on school land – and I took part in sports. I was a good swimmer and I loved riding so, from the outside, I got along. And I was a good student.

All in all, things seemed to be okay. But they weren’t, deep down. Something was never quite right. I felt out of place. I realised early on that I was expected to please, and I did try. I was longing for love and approval. But I didn’t quite fit the mould of European aristocrats, Arab princesses and British nobility with the odd bit of flash-cash families thrown into the mix. I don’t think the headmistress warmed to me. She wanted her girls to turn out as well-mannered and well-behaved little ladies. I was a small, feral outsider, ill at ease even then.

My form mistress who saw me through my four years at school, was lovely. She accepted me. She was firm, with a strong religious belief, which she told us about straight away, and kind, with a real fondness of children. Even so, she was a product of her time. I remember my first time in her class when she said there were three phrases she did not want to hear any of us say. They were: “It isn’t my fault”, “I couldn’t help it” and “It isn’t fair.” I was in my forties before I uttered any one of those phrases again. I did it consciously, still feeling a sense of guilt as I forced myself to say it. I don’t say them much, even now.

As for material effects, I look back decades later and can dimly see the dark tiled corridors, full of gumboots and dirty footprints, the dormitories with beds and space neatly arranged for about eight girls and the cold lino floors. The school’s style was quaintly 1950s. But, while I remember some events clearly, I have great gaps in other ways. For instance, I don’t remember the classrooms or where we ate, or where we relaxed. I can’t retrieve those memories. They remain a dark, empty blank.

Strangely, throughout all this period, I don’t remember feeling. I remember existing. I took part, but I was removed. I loathed the school rules. They were absurd. White gloves and cotton dresses in summer, itchy tweed from head to toe in winter. I shudder at the memory of it. I felt cold for one half of the year and claustrophobically restricted for the other.

And then there were the habitual requirements: church on Sundays, etiquette training, no talking after lights out and standing in the corridor if you were caught whispering in the dark. We wrote letters to our parents on a Sunday and they were read before they were sent. Complaints were not permitted. 

And that, too, brings back uncomfortable recollections, remembering that while I submitted absolutely to orders, I could not stand being told what to do, particularly when it seemed unjust. So, it became something of a vicious circle where I complied with all the confusing and nonsensical rules that operated within prep schools in those days but, inside, I was often furious and rebellious. That didn’t make my life easier.

Looking back from an adult point of view, I feel as though the aim was to constrict and restrain each little person so that she fitted into a mould that was suitable for membership of the ruling class of the British Empire. The “uniqueness of the individual” was not on anyone’s radar at that stage. But times had changed, even in those days and this little girl found herself sandwiched between one generation’s longing for lost glory and another’s acceptance that such a life was gone for good.

I must have had holidays and gone back home, but I don’t remember. Looking back, it seems as though the four years of schooling at my prep school merged into one long endurance test. Of course they didn’t, but it feels that way.

So, how has this shaped me as an adult?   

Well, that’s been a bit of a problem. Strangely, I discovered (through my own personal therapy during my training) that I seemed to have stopped my emotional development around the age of 12. The discovery came as I reflected on a proud boast on how I remained, inside, a 12-year-old. I gradually traced back my connection with that age to my transition between prep school and my second boarding school. It happened on that birthday. I was on the train on my first day of senior school, knowing no-one and travelling with others in the same situation. A girl asked me how old I was. “Twelve”, I said. “Today”. That stuck, to my detriment. How can you be an adult if, inside, you still feel you’re 12? I’ve learned to age fast.

There are some positives, I suppose. Anyone who has been away to boarding school will probably agree that it gives you resilience – one of the buzzwords of now. If you can cope with boarding school at a young age, believe me you can cope with most things life throws at your when you’re older. It also often provides you with lifelong friends; my best friends are still those from my (senior) school. 

In the spirit of fairness, I can understand why being a boarder when you’re entering your teens might be great fun, if you’re an outgoing type of girl or boy. You have freedoms and opportunities that might not come your way if you were living at home as a day pupil. But, on balance, I’m not in favour of young children going away early. 

From my own point of view, I’ve come to believe that my early start as a boarder was less of a privilege and more of a handicap. I wished I’d been kept at home.

This is an extract taken from a book of girls’ experiences of boarding school: Finding Our Way Home

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Lulu Sinclair

Lulu is an experienced journalist who has worked in print, TV, radio and digital media. She retrained as a psychotherapist and counsellor some years ago and now combines both her passions. She writes a regular blog on mental health topics for a Harley Street psychotherapy practice.

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