A friend of mine went to boarding school. We met at university and have got drunk together, cooked together, holidayed together and we are Godfather to each other’s first-born children. Once, we nearly died together.
And yet, through the forty years I’ve known him, I’ve never once seen him display a single emotional reaction to what’s happening in his life; not when his children were born, not when his parents passed away, not even when we nearly died in an avalanche. He’s a big, lovely man, but he’s the most closed off, least empathetic, least responsive person I’ve ever met. A few years ago, having read a piece on how boarding school has affected some of the people who went there, I decided he showed all the symptoms of being a ‘boarding school survivor,’ a term used in the article.
It never once occurred to me to apply that term to myself.
You see, I too went to boarding school; not because my parents were rich, but because my father was a middle ranking civil servant (equivalent to an army Major) and the government provided financial support for me to go to a not especially distinguished boys boarding school. It meant I didn’t have to change school every two years as he was moved round the world. The school was chosen to be near to my grandparents so that I and my brothers could see them occasionally at weekends. I was, I think, ten years old when I went there, maybe eleven.
Only now, as I approach sixty, am I looking more closely at myself and wondering how my own life has been affected by my time at boarding school. I might have done so before, had not my memories of that time all been positive ones. I remember enjoying the camaraderie and the routines, the sport and the music. I remember there being two main groups of boys, two “cliques”: the choir and the rugby team. I, almost uniquely, was in both. Perhaps that’s why they made me head boy. At the end of my last term, I made a speech to 500 people. It was pretty good. Doesn’t sound like a damaging experience, does it?
And yet, here I am, contemplating the ending of a second marriage in which, as with the first, there’s been no big bust up, no huge falling apart, just a gradual degradation, an accumulation of issues not dealt with and a paralysing failure to communicate. When she had a problem she’d tell me and I’d mumble some incoherent response and change the subject as soon as possible. When I had a problem, I’d generally keep it to myself and lock it away, adding it to the festering little pile of resentment I was building up.
I don’t think I’ve been a bad parent, perhaps even a good one in many ways. I loved my sons and still do. I’ve been tactile with them and done my best to show them how important they are to me.
So why go back and revisit my boarding school experience now? In part because I am finally, through my exploration of kink, through the blog and through the relationships I have developed in these worlds, finding that it is OK to bring my emotions to the surface and express them to others. I suspect even Elita may not be aware what an important moment she created when she pushed me over the edge in a heavy BDSM session, helping me realise that to break down and cry in front of another person was not just permissible, but was a normal, healthy response to the intensity of the situation.
Perhaps more importantly, both my boys are having challenges. I don’t want to explore them here but, as a parent, it’s hard not to seek answers to their challenges in my behaviour, to blame myself for their unhappiness. Do I perhaps have some of the same lack of emotional empathy as my friend? Am I too a ‘boarding school survivor’ and has that affected my children’s lives?
I’m trying to dig past the general sense that ‘I enjoyed school’ to find memories that will provide a more complete sense of how that time was for me, pointers to my later emotional development or lack of it.
They’re not there.
Perhaps surprisingly, there’s not a single memory of those times where I could say: ‘Ah, so that’s where I learnt to bottle up my feelings”.
This is not to say that I can exonerate my schooling. Any enclosed institution: prison, army barracks, sports team, school, develops its own unquestioned version of normality built on its own rules and traditions. I dealt with issues and problems in my own head rather than talk about them because that was the normal in that institution and I had no way to recognise that my normal lacked the communication and emotional engagement that others might have grown up with.
I was part of the system, didn’t cause trouble and played by the rules (apart from the occasional trip to the pub in the 6th form – I wasn’t THAT much of a saint). I became in those ways, institutionalised, though wouldn’t have recognised that description at the time. Yes I was part of the two main groups in the school, but that doesn’t mean I had a huge pool of friends, people with whom I was, in any sense, close; certainly not the type of friends with whom I would discuss anything more sensitive than the last rugby match or the next. I knew a lot of people but didn’t know a lot about them.
Having left that environment, it’s taken me 40 years, two marriages and 20 years of parenting, to wonder if perhaps the normal that I grew up in wasn’t normal at all. Perhaps it was repressive and stifling and left me repressed and stifled. Perhaps the normalisation of that clearly abnormal environment was insidiously harmful in inself.
I believe I spent so much time controlling how I expressed myself that it became easier not to have strong feelings, easier to live life on an even keel, neither happy nor unhappy, and just refuse to recognise any sentiment, positive or negative, that threatened that equilibrium. Perhaps it’s taken BDSM with it’s physical and emotional intensity to break down those barriers and let me rediscover those long buried feelings. Elita’s whipping certainly achieved that, stripping away all my defences and leaving me sobbing into her shoulder, an experience that is still with me now, nine months later.
I hate the thought that my character, and in particular those attributes of it which make me a Boarding School Survivor have, in some way, caused hurt to the people around me. I know they have though. My first wife told me she’d given me the best years of her life with nothing to show for it. My second has two wonderful children, but for years has talked about feeling lonely, even when she wasn’t alone; lonely because of my inability or unwillingness to communicate with her. What about the boys? I’ve loved them and done my best to demonstrate that love. Was that, in some way I don’t understand, not enough? The truth is. I’ll never really know. All I can do is help the people they are now to grow, overcome their difficulties and head out into the world.
For a long time I argued that we should send our boys to boarding school. Now I’ve got these thoughts out of my head and written this post, I’m actually, and for the first time, glad we didn’t.
This is an extract from the website of an organisation set up to provide help and support to ex boarding school attendees. You can find it here.
The symptoms of what we call being a Boarding School Survivor are varied and complex. They include difficulties in relationships and parenting, workaholism, inability to relax, isolation, being experienced as a bully, substance abuse, a sense of failure, as well as physical, sleep, and sexual problems.
These and other problems may be due a complicated mix of neglect and privilege, of being exiled from normal family life to an institution with easy exposure to bullying and abuse. Such an education is not a good recipe for normal life and is a disastrous preparation for relationships.
I’m going to add a note here that hopefully isn’t needed. The kink community seems quite political and leans in a somewhat leftwards direction. I wouldn’t like people to assume that, because I went to private school, I am a Trump loving, Ultra Right Wing, Brexiteer. I am none of those things. I feel privileged to have had my education, not in any sense entitled by it.
I’d like to add a post script prompted by further thinking and the wonderful comments below where people have shared their own experiences:
It’s not only my own experience that influenced me. My Mother was a boarding school survivor, probably a more obvious case than me, and she also lost her father early on. She once told my wife (not me) that she hadn’t been openly loving to us when we were small because she knew we would have to go to boarding school and wanted us to be ready. I think that was her way of rationalising the fact that, because of her own upbringing, she hadn’t really known how.
But, in another way, that might have been a good thing. I’m certainly not passing any blame back up the generations for my mother being who she was, and indeed, still is. Perhaps I thrived at school, which I did, because of that preparation. I was certainly happy enough there and that wasn’t true of everyone. Only now do a look back and judge that time through more suspicious eyes.
Who we are is a consequence of our genes and our experience and of the decisions we take. Any influence I can have had on the genes of my boys was set before they were born, but I keep trying to give them the best experience that I can, and help them make their decisions as they grow up. I’m trying to be there when things get hard. I suspect that, when they were younger, when it might have been even more important, I might not have always achieved that. I have to live with that and help them as much as I can now.
The experience of writing this piece and reading the wonderful comments and shared experiences has been positive for me so I would like to thank all who added their thoughts below.