Boarding School Syndrome

Back in early 2018 my understanding of my own life and upbringing changed. I began to support an old school friend who had been abused when he was young. I quickly realised that the place I had felt safe and creative in, had felt anything but that to far too many young people in its care. The school is very different now, but still criminal charges have delivered 8 members of staff to prison.  This week I see announcements of arrests at Edinburgh Academy and we have already seen Fettes and other UK schools embroiled in the despicable activities of an array of teachers over the years.

Over this last 6 years my school friend has championed, pushed, researched, and demanded acknowledgement and support.  He has been joined by a group of survivors across thegenerations. The current Head has embraced our challenges and for the last 2 years there has been a steady, planned and most welcomed programme of work to allow survivors to have a voice.  Many have been silent for 20 30 40 even 50 years of their lives.   We have met some resistance along the way – “oh its all so far in the past”, “oh that was just how it was in those days”.  But in the main the school, my peers and friends, and all those who have been in touch with the independent mediator we arranged to be engaged, have welcomed the process.  For many it is knowing, at last, that they are not alone.

I was not abused. I navigated my way through boarding school from the age of 8 by being a helper – the 12th man scorer in the cricket team at my first school – marking out the pitch rather than having to do the exercise. I eventually found my world, and future career, as a key backstage part of school plays and eventually a professional theatre in our grounds.   The Drama department became a safe haven for many young people – little did I know then how many of my peers needed it so much.

In the last 6 weeks I have found a therapist with an understanding of boarding schools. She has challenged me to reflect on my long held rosy image of being sent away to boarding school at 8. To connect back to the 8yr old boy left alone in a strange place after a comfortable time living with my grandmother.  I have taken time to read a really accessible book exploring the challenges of Boarding School Syndrome by Joy Schaverein

In the book our ‘sister’ girls school gets an exposure for its brutal enclosed world, but I also loved finding one of my old bosses in there, who was a teacher for years, tackling a moment of bullying with delicate good humour – defusing the situation.  It is filled with illustrations of therapeutic pathways and personal stories.  I recommend it to anyone who has been to boarding school or is interested in our political leaders of today.  

Poignantly, as part of my process, I have been uncovering old photos boxed away in the attic when my mother died 10 years ago. Photos I never knew existed of me as a small child going away to school for the first time. I am still hunting through to see whether there are any of me as a baby and tiny child – I have a vague memory of seeing them when clearing my mother’s house.

[Image me 1966 first day at boarding school age 8]

Why am I doing this ? It is making me tender and bringing up emotions which I have not felt since I quietly boxed them away to get on with being a boarder.  It is reminding me of the many good fortunes I had – many good and caring teachers, a safe boarding house free from abusers, and the escape into the theatre world which has been my emotional centre for all my life.

I am doing it so that I can feel stronger holding space for people who were victims to talk openly about what happened.  I’m not there as a councillor or therapist, but what we have set up is a support service so that we can offer a signpost and a listening ear to anyone who needs guidance going forward.  Some people have held what happened to them in their souls for so many years, and now feel able to seek some help. They realise maybe that they are not alone and that this confidential and welcoming support group can be a stepping stone to a quieter life going forward.

I am also working with others to see how best we can support those who, like me, had our understanding of our safe world turned upside down when the first court cases and awareness grew of abuse to others.  Some inevitably had an unpleasant time at the school for all sorts of other reasons – normal boarding school reasons – but many of us left the school feeling grateful and inspired from our years there.

It is deeply disconcerting to find that we were living inside a very different place for many people.  We also have to come to terms with this refracted view of our childhood.  The work I am doing on myself and in reading and thinking about school, will hopefully strengthen me as I continue my role of helper to others in the group of survivors.

I’ve found some amazing mystery photos in my mother’s albums – Was that her and Ernest Hemingway outside the bull ring in Spain?  Was that a picture of my father who I only met once when I was 18 ? I mainly only know him from an unpublished novel my mother wrote about meeting him, and the headlines in the Daily Express when they were arrested, just before I was conceived.  Fascinating to see her with her own father who I only met once at age 12 and from whom I get my Scottish ancestry.  And lovely to see my grandmother in her youth looking carefree and joyful from whom I get my part French ancestry.

So many stories to re-evaluate as I continue to explore my own beginnings.   Thank you for reading.

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