Meditating on my boarding school days

I have recently joined a closed group on Facebook relating to the boarding school to which I was sent in the early 1950s. The issue came up about punishment. I, probably about 10 years old, was given six of the best with a sawn-off cricket bat by my housemaster, for throwing sausages at the music master in the school dining hall. Of course, I was not the only person with a tale to tell and some people in the group went into their own sorrow at the things that had happened to them. One or two replied with the astringent “Get over it!”. I have to say that that is rather like saying to someone who is really (and possibly clinically) depressed “Snap out of it.”

Actually, it was not the beatings [sawn-off hockey sticks, rulers, plimsoles, canes – applied to sundry parts of the body such as heads, hands (palms up; knuckles up), backs of calves, bums, backs of thighs (often carressed before the blow)…] that hurt me most. Rather it was the periods of days, and sometimes weeks, of imposed SILENCE where nobody could speak without raising a hand for permission with good excuse to do so that got to me. (24/7).

I don’t think that anybody who experienced that sort of regime could possibly be told to ‘Get over it’ or ‘Snap out of it’. Some will have done, some won’t. At the time, the stories of what UK forces personnel had endured in Nazi and Japonese prison (and concentration) camps during WW2 was starting to become common knowledge in England, possibly because some of the incarcerated prisoners had come back home and had been encouraged to write books as cathartic therapy. Nobody was going to get upset about a few boarding school boys with red bottoms!

I will attempt to maintain, here, an even-handed memory of my time at that school. There were great moments, in adversity. There were great and binding friendships within the awfulness. My experience growing up at boarding school, from 8 to 18 taught me that I could endure the most difficult times, in my later life. Thus I survived my divorce. I survived moving alone to several strange cities. So, a fucked-up upbringing gives you survival skills. That, I accept.

As for the teaching, it was extremely patchy. There were a few brilliant teachers who faught to shine through the regime. There were hosts of mediocre and appalling teachers, too. The way I have always thought about that, is that the best of the potential male teachers must have died in WW2, as I am sure they did. Some of their survivors were really good, I do not deny. But that doesn’t mean that the school as a whole should be regarded as an especially privileged domain as regards teaching, and certainly not while I was there.

So, I do not want to ‘get over it’ or ‘snap out of it’. However, I do want to recognise what I was given. I was given a certain poise in life, and an ability to face up to hard times. This is no more than a trained soldier might have been given. The school I went to was what it was: a minor public school in the early 1950s. No better, no worse. But, as an adult, I vowed I would never send a child of mine to a boarding school, nor would I ever physically chastise him (or her). And to that oath, I have stayed true. This, I owe to those horrible years that I spent away from home.

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