Reflections on masculinity, mental health and trying to make a difference
Birkenhead, September 1969
“They [the products of the British public school] go forth into the world with well-developed bodies, fairly developed minds and undeveloped hearts. An undeveloped heart – not a cold one. The difference is important” E M Forster
If you’d asked me on leaving boarding school after seven years what I’d got out of my schooling, I’d have said (and I can actually remember saying it at the time) it was self-confidence and independence. Following a ‘year off’ after leaving school, I felt I was well prepared for further education. The maturity that came from a privileged education, followed by work in Handsworth Birmingham and the south of France was confirmed in my first term at university when I was astonished by the number of people who guessed I’d been to public school. “You just have an air of self-confidence about you” they’d say.
Yes – I had a very privileged education – public school (I’ve never worked out how private schools came to be called ‘public’) followed by university in London in the days before loans. In my defence I would say that, even then, I was well aware of the exclusivity of the education and I made every effort to invest in that education for the benefit of wider society in the years that followed – grand ambitions indeed!
It’s taken the best part of my adult life since leaving secondary school to understand the impact of that period – my formative years. Unbelievably perhaps, it’s only in the last 12 months that I’ve really found out about its impact on others with whom I shared those school years. This probably speaks volumes about my own and other contemporaries’ reluctance to think, let alone talk, about it. I know I’ve found writing this blog post the most difficult to date.
If you ask me now – 50 years after starting at secondary school aged 11 – what I feel about my boarding school experience, I focus more on the downsides. It robbed me of an important part of my childhood – the emotional development associated with puberty – I couldn’t be myself. Until my years in the sixth form I was living two lives – at school in term time and at home in the holidays. A school friend came home one holiday and he was amazed to see ‘my other side’; he recently confirmed this observation of my double identity. “I remember thinking that you had two personas – school and home. At school I recall that you were well behaved and rule-bound and somewhat the opposite in your home environment (nothing extreme though)”.
As I mentioned in the previous blog in this ‘No man’s land’ series, it was a single sex school. There was an equivalent girls’ school on the other side of the city and relations between the two (and the school students within them) were carefully controlled. It was almost as if, until the sixth form, we were ‘let out’ at different times by design. But if love does really conquer all, it gave me that tingling-down-the-spine sensation as my mind wandered to thoughts of my first ‘true’ love. When the relationship ended I was devastated. I went into a slump that, looking back, was something more than just feeling unhappy. I seem to remember the girl of my dreams got some sort of pastoral support from her school over the breakup while I was probably expected to man-up. But the love story has a happy ending – we’re still friends, in touch, and happily married (just not to each other).
Did you know there’s a website for ‘survivors’ of Boarding Schools? I learnt this many years ago when helping to organise some of our annual school reunions. I say ‘organise’ but apart from some major gatherings (25 years was the first big one) they organised themselves around the official school reunion weekend. Our gatherings continue to run alongside it and a hard core are regular returners coming back to complain about their time at school – being on tranquilizers in their final year, surviving only because of their love of sport, and other such revelations that have come out over the years. This might seem like a contradiction – returning to the scene of unhappy experiences – but maybe it’s something like criminals returning to the scene of their crimes?
Guardian journalist George Monbiot, who himself boarded from the age of eight, is vociferous in his condemnation of boarding schools for young children brandishing it as ‘child abuse’. He says “We end up with a [boarding school educated] elite, of people in positions of power, who are emotionally damaged. That’s a very dangerous place to be because children who are taught to deny their own feelings, also learn to deny other people’s feelings… “
I’ve kept in touch with a good number of my former school mates through our re-unions, but only recently have I made it my business to share experiences of those distant but potentially still influential years. A number have contributed their views, but I’ve assured them their anonymity – we still live in mysterious times when unguarded or misinterpreted remarks can come back to bite us.
So, what have I learnt about inter-actions in the school – in particular antisemitism, bullying, sexual discovery – and being away from home? To be continued…
For earlier blogs in the ‘No man’s land’ series click here https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/no-mans-land
George Monbiot and Alex Renton on the abuse that is boarding school education https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/video/2015/feb/11/boarding-school-early-age-child-abuse-video
The Boarding School Survivor’s website http://www.boardingschoolsurvivors.co.uk