At this time of year, you may be receiving invitations to return to your old boarding school to revisit, celebrate and meet up with fellow old pupils to reminisce about the good old days.
Perhaps you have a curiosity to revisit, to see what has changed, and to catch a glimpse of old friends. For others, the thought of returning is the last thing they would want to do. Nick Duffel outlines three typologies that he says boarders fall into. Crushed, Rebels, and Compliers. Depending on what category you identify with may influence your feelings about returning.
Last summer, I went back to my Old School. It was time and something that I felt was important for me to do. Having immersed myself in this work, and hearing from a client how healing she found her own recent visit, I decided to do the same. It had been 15 years since I had visited the school, and a lot has emerged in these past 10 years with regards to the prosecution of many of the teachers for sexual abuse which was brought into the public eye, which we as pupils had known and normalised for years.
I wasn't completely sure of my intentions in returning but they became clear once I was there. I decided not to return with any school friends as I felt that had the potential for me to regress to my child state and instead went with my partner, who ironically works in social services. This helped me to feel grounded in the here and now.
Quite quickly I found a stall in which I was asked to sign up to pledge money to support children with their welfare. I found myself asking enquiring questions as to what is actually being done pastorally to support children in the school. At one point the woman was suspicious and asked me why I was actually there. I must have given off the impression that I wasn't wholeheartedly supportive of the school, which I imagine she wasn't expecting on a day to celebrate the school.
In another incident, whilst viewing the theatre, a couple were telling me how their grandfather went to the school and what wonderful memories he has always shared with them. "Did you have a wonderful time?" They innocently asked. "There were lots of happy moments, but there was a large pedophile ring that was operating whilst I was here, so that had quite an influence." They didn't quite know how to respond to that....
I realised then, I was still holding a lot of anger towards this school and I couldn't play the card of denial, brush it under the carpet and just see the wonder in this institution. However, it also wasn't necessarily appropriate to be shouting this to everyone I came into contact with....
I came across some old fellow pupils, one whose son was at the school who questioned me on why I did what I did, working in this area. I explained the levels of trauma that people have as a result of boarding school. He went on to tell me tales of teachers bringing other men into the dormitory when he was there. Ha ha....Didn't do me any harm....
I walked into the Chapel. I got so far towards the pulpit when I noticed my heart racing and recognised this was a place I didn't feel safe to be. I listened to my body and retreated.
I visited my old boarding house and met the current housemaster. This was a very positive experience. He appeared to be very excited to meet me, (not knowing my profession) and rummaged around in the back of a cupboard to produce an old frying pan. "I found this when I took over, and I have no idea what it is. Can you tell me?" When I was at school we had a pancake-flipping race with the opposite boarding house each Shrove Tuesday and the winner was inscribed on the back. He was delighted with this information, telling me he would pass it on to the museum. I felt old. However, it was a reminder of a happy memory from the past. I liked him. I got a sense that he cared about the pupils. Obviously unable to provide the care to 50 girls as a father could, but at least I felt he wasn't out to do harm. That reassured me.
As we walked around the school grounds I took in all the pupils. All were happy and smiling and appeared content. As I often was at the time. What really struck me was how they were growing up in this society that only consisted of children aged 11-18 and teachers. There were no younger children, no elderly people. A constructed society that is so different from the one outside the ring-fence. No wonder so many pupils struggle to adapt to being in society when their time at school is over. There is no preparation for it. One minute you live within this closed community and the next you are thrust out into the world. For some they continue to repeat the formula - This may include Oxbridge, the military, priesthood, the bar, the city.
Those who may not have been able to strategically find the skills to survive - may find themselves in places such as rehab, or AA where they find another community of peers to which they belong. Some, such as Bear Grylls - purchase their own island so they can retreat and live in isolation when they need to. For many pupils, their boarding school itself becomes their primary attachment and It can therefore be incredibly hard to leave and becomes put up on a pedestal and idealised.
Last week I saw several posts on Facebook from some of those who returned to the old Alumni Day at my former school last weekend. One man had written a gushing post to the school thanking them for providing him with such a wonderful childhood and saying how grateful he was. I noticed confusion rising within me. Yes, I get that you may have had nice times - but can you really separate all the horrors that occurred at this school? Put them in a box and not be aware of the impact of those? Many do and many can.
In psychotherapy, we can call this splitting. This refers to a tendency - usually unconscious - to view most or all aspects of one's life in a false dichotomy of either good or bad. Pierre Janet was one of the first psychologists to identify splitting as a psychological defense mechanism in the face of overwhelming situations.
Although this behavior may protect the self from emotional pain, it can have a serious "gaslighting" impact on other pupils whose experience was not so great. This can cause them to question the truth of their own experience and the validity of their pain. The institution gets away without being questioned as an appropriate way to bring up children and the child is blamed for being unable to thrive. This may play a part in how many of these schools continue. The pupils who suffered greatly in these institutions stay silenced and feel there is something wrong with them for not thriving. It is hard to stand up against the rhetoric that society and the establishment proclaim.
When people begin to explore the impact of their schooling, share their stories, and allow themselves to acknowledge some of the pain or difficulties they may have experienced they can often flip from only seeing the good to only seeing the bad. With time and safety, they can slowly move to be able to hold more integrated balanced viewpoints and can hold the ambivalence of their feelings towards the school and their time there.
Returning to my school was an important part of my healing journey and something I'm glad I did. For me, it was part of that integrating piece of work. Being able to see the school as it is now and not as it was in the 1980s. I do not need to return.
Should you wish to visit your school on such a day, make sure you go with a trusted loved one whose hand you can squeeze should you need to, to help ground you in the here and now.
Tune into your body and notice how you feel. Your body can tell you if you feel comfortable in certain places or with people. Honour yourself and your feelings and leave when you are ready. You now have the autonomy and freedom to leave as you did not as a child. That is important.
I realised that I personally went needing to know that the children at the school were safe from predatory teachers and that element of the school had changed since my time. I did feel that which was a huge relief to me.
However, just removing the abusive teachers does not make a boarding school an environment in which children should be raised. The impact on the emotional development of children growing up in such an environment is so huge and detrimental and has far-reaching consequences for generations of children that follow and society as a whole.
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