Magical boarding schools: A RANT

Someone told me the other day that boarding school enrollment had been on the decline in England, and then the Harry Potter books came out and they got more popular again. See, kids loved Hogwarts, and they thought real boarding schools were like that.

My stomach sank to my shoes because that happened to me.

A picturesque brick building with a green lawn
My school. It’s a winery and wedding venue now.

Okay, I’m not going to blame Hogwarts for that. I already had my sights set on boarding school before I’d read any Harry Potter. I’d seen The Trouble With Angels and The Little Princess, and anyway home was boring and summer camp had been fun. What could be better than summer camp all the time?

Well, it was an abusive nightmare. Some of that was because the boarding school I had been recruited for was an actual cult founded by a pedophile. But some of it, I realized much much later, was not uncommon for boarding schools.

The British tradition of boarding schools goes back centuries. They were places where wealthy children went, around seven years old, and came out polished adults, theoretically. But with the amount of bullying, caning, and so on that went on, it could be argued that they came out broken, repressed adults. I have a theory, personally, that a great deal of the horrible things the British Empire did back in the day were mostly carried out by traumatized adults who had had their empathy thoroughly excised in boarding school.

But say we don’t get that far into it. Forget the bad old boarding schools of back in the day. What about boarding schools today? Have they been responsible for trauma?

Yes. One person made it her mission to research it, and there’s even a book. In general, the classic case goes like this: a child goes to boarding school at a young age. This breaks their attachment with their parents, without necessarily replacing it with any similar bond. The child suffers homesickness and trauma, and importantly, at that traumatic time, they aren’t emotionally supported except by peers. These peers may be unsupportive, or may even bully children who show distress. The child is trained into repressing negative emotions, relying on peers for identity, and needing to demonstrate strength at all times. The softer parts of the person–vulnerability, empathy, emotional awareness–are repressed in order to survive in the institutional environment of a boarding school. Very often, the child grows into an adult who describes boarding school as “good for me,” “a great place,” “the making of me.” They don’t recognize the changes in them as negative until much later.

Now, not all children who go to boarding school have bad experiences. Children whose home life was unstable may be relieved to find a place where there are rules, routines, and predictable adults. Outgoing, cheerful children may adjust easily. And children who start at a later age tend to do much better than children who start young.

Still, given the harm boarding schools do, I don’t think I would ever recommend a parent resort to one in any but the most dire circumstances.

Given that, what responsibility do we as authors have when writing boarding school environments? I feel like most authors understand some things shouldn’t be glorified: getting beaten as a child, sexual abuse, and so on. And other things should only be written by people who experienced them. Should boarding school be on the list?

Personally, I don’t see myself ever writing a boarding school book, and if I did, it would be the most grimdark mess you’ve ever seen. But I don’t think I’d lay down the law that you can’t have a book where generally happy kids have a good time at boarding school. I just think there needs to be at least a nod to realism in there. I think before you write about boarding school, you owe it to yourself to talk to at least one person who’s been to one.

I’m going to throw out a few of my boarding school experiences to give you a taste of what I’m talking about.

The first week. Some people are horribly homesick. Me, I felt derealized, depersonalized. Lack of sleep was a factor, and the complete change of absolutely everything. Without any familiarity to lean on, I felt uncertain in my identity and unclear on the passage of time. My mother, on the other hand, was frantic because I didn’t call her. Only I didn’t know how to get permission to call her!

Nighttime. We slept all in one room. There was no privacy (though we learned to change without showing a thing). Some people put their heads under their pillows and cried very quietly. Others talked in their sleep. Getting up after lights out wasn’t allowed, but one time, when I felt overwhelmed by the rules, I got up and snuck down to the gym and danced in the moonlight. Highly recommend.

Lack of free time. School admins are generally aware that groups of children, without any structure, quickly get up to no good. So they structure all your time, but that leaves you feeling controlled and trapped. I don’t know how to describe to you how it feels never to get half an hour to flop on your bed and read a book. But of course, if you’re writing a story, give those poor children some free time. That leaves room for interesting plot things anyway.

It was a school full of teenage girls, of course at any given time quite a few of us were having some kind of crisis at any given time. We were discouraged from sharing our problems with each other (this is not universal) so I have many memories of waiting in a long line to talk to an adult, hoping I would get two minutes to tell her how bad I was doing before the next bell rang. Naturally most boarding schools, not having this rule but still having an adult : student ratio somewhere below 1:10, will end up with most students leaning heavily on their peers. This can lead to everything from terrible advice to further harm when that peer can’t actually provide the level of emotional support you need and abruptly pulls away when they’ve had enough. Kids have very hard limits on how much they can support other people, and they aren’t always great at communicating these except by pulling away or telling the sad person to quit being such a wet blanket.

Crying around your mom is normal. Crying around strangers, not so much. I locked myself in bathrooms to cry, hid in closets, and self-harmed. The amount of emotional repression it takes to train yourself never to cry is . . . not good for a person. I am still unlearning this. I’m a person who’s heavily emotionally repressed and keeps even my closest, most beloved friends at a distance. I don’t want to be that person, but I don’t know how not to be.

Keeping a relationship with your family once you’ve left is very difficult. I hated calling or going home, for reasons I couldn’t explain at the time. I guess it felt bad seeing places and people that had been so familiar, but weren’t anymore. It was hard to explain to my family any of what was going on in my life, because the context of school wasn’t something they understood. Even after I came home for good, something had been broken. I didn’t really see my parents as parents anymore, because I couldn’t fathom needing parents.

Now, I don’t want to leave the happy memories out. These girls were basically my family. I’m still close with some of them. You got to know the names of everyone’s siblings, the sound of each person’s voice. I could recognize anyone in school by just their shoes. I remember going to the beach together, going on hikes, singing endless songs. We made up songs with ridiculous lyrics. We made up silly names for each other and broke the rules in all kinds of ways.

If you’re going to write about boarding school, don’t forget to make it real. Make there be one teacher who’s super mean. Let there be some bullies, and the teachers don’t notice because they can’t be everywhere. Let there be one child who’s having a really hard time adjusting, and, because you’re writing a happy book, have their peers group together to support them. Show how children maintain their humanity in the face of an institution which wants to streamline everything. Have some teachers be like loving parents, but spread too thin. If you want to really jerk the tears from someone like me, have that wonderful momlike teacher LEAVE.

Just, whatever you do, don’t provide free advertising for boarding school recruiters. Show the good and the bad.

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