What I wish my family had known before they made the decision to send me to boarding school.
It’s been a few years, and I have had my eyes peeled, but the only book, movie or show that has borne any semblance of truth to my boarding school experience is Wild Child.
You feel abandoned, you feel trapped, they take your phone off you (so you get a decoy phone to hand in), snack foods are currency and the fellow students you live with become your family. You learn which matrons will make you caramel popcorn if you get them in a good mood and which matrons will yell at you if you turn your light on in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom.
I was 12 when my mother asked me whether I wanted to go to boarding school. I was floundering at the school I was in zone for in Auckland and my application to go to another nearby school (closer than the one I was zoned for) was denied. So we looked at boarding school. The only information we really had to guide us was the school prospectus, covered in staged photos of adorable, smiling students, and the word of a family friend, a day girl at the school, who loved it. My dad didn’t get a say in whether or not his only girl got sent away. He’s still unhappy about it. My brother also missed out on having a sister for a while there and I came home after five years to find he wasn’t the person I left behind.
My family and I made the decision too quickly; we didn’t have enough information on what boarding school is really like and I don’t know if we would have made the same decision. I’m writing this so that you will have enough information to make an informed decision.
The chances are your child will not fit in
The school was, in my eyes, in the country. There were paddocks with sheep in them on the actual school grounds. There were woods next to the school pool. The school chapel was quaint, with roses growing up the exterior. It was a culture shock just being there. But more than that, I’d never milked a cow, I asked when the buses went to town and, my cardinal sin, I was an Aucklander. For those of you who haven’t gathered, they do not like us south of the Bombay Hills. We’re Jafas. Just Another Fucking Aucklander. Lattes and pollution. That annoyed them. And it made them even madder when I wouldn’t put my hometown down. I asserted (stupidly), in the face of a whole classroom full of farmer’s daughters and fourth-generation orchard owners that Auckland was pretty damn cool, actually. That didn’t win me any friends and for a while after that, nothing else did either.
If you are going to send your child to boarding school, this is likely going to be the situation. You’re sending them away from home to live in a place where people have different lives, different values and in all likelihood, your child will stick out like a sore thumb for a while. That could, one day, be good for them or build character but for a while it will be horrible. Advice for if you’re sending your kid south? Repeat after me: “I’m from Huntly.”
Your child will have religion in their life whether you want it or not
My school had a saying that they repeated to us till we were all blue in the face: “Our school is a lolly shop and you can’t just eat the liquorice.” That meant, we have education, sport, art and religion here and you can’t opt out of any of those. But as you might note that’s actually an awful metaphor. You can absolutely go to a lolly shop and just eat the liquorice. You can go to a lolly shop, decide you don’t actually like lollies and go down the road and buy some chips.
It seemed to me that they didn’t want to hear that. They wanted me to sit quietly in chapel, say prayers, sing hymns, and write in my chapel journal. My mother admitted after I left that she had hoped that sending me to a religious school would galvanise me against ever becoming religious. I knew something was fishy. That seems to have worked.
Yet I still had to sit quietly and respect someone else’s beliefs for what amounted to hundreds and hundreds of hours. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, I’m not saying that’s a good thing. But whether you’re religious or not, keep those hours in mind when you’re choosing whether to send your child to boarding school.
There will be lots and lots of old-fashioned rules
Unfortunately, with these old schools comes a set of what many teenagers would consider ‘old-fashioned’ rules. They may have loosened, but they are still there. We had to parade in our outfits across the stage before a school social to make sure our adolescent bodies were covered enough. When we were about 14 we had disastrously problematic sex education classes that had us pull the petals off a rose to represent how we became less desirable with every person we were intimate with. We got told weed would make us insane and maybe kill us. And, funnily enough, we weren’t allowed to talk to boys.
This rule was put to the test one sunny Saturday afternoon near the school when one of the girls had texted and arranged to meet up with a boy (gasp!). We all trooped over to the agreed-upon area, chatted for about 10 minutes, then he went on his way and we returned to the boarding house. It was a non-event until later when all the girls who had been present were called in to the principal’s office for a talking to. We had been seen talking to a boy, it wasn’t a good look, it wasn’t appropriate for girls of our age and we would all be punished.
I piped up “would you be reacting the same way if we’d met up with a girl?” The principal smiled and looked at me as if I was the most naive and innocent little chicken in the world. “No,” she said. “There are certain romantic implications between boys and girls that just aren’t there with other girls.”
Little did she know, she was the naive one in that conversation. I had actually been hinting to her that the kind of behaviour she thought she was stopping was out of her control. There was far more “romantic implications” going on between one or two girls in the boarding houses than there was between anyone and that poor, hopeful boy.
My point? The people raising your child might be (cough, will be) out of touch on some points. Talk to your child. Make sure they are informed on the important issues. Make sure they read books and for god’s sake if anyone tries to use rose petals as a metaphor for their sexual desirability (like, really what the fuck even was that nonsense?) make sure they know to stomp on the rose and demand proper sex education.
If you aren’t careful, your child will miss out on some things they actually really need
If you were a fan of that no-boys rule, answer me this: Having been in a no-boys fishbowl all your schooling life, did you think these young women were going to get to university, demurely find the most honourable of these young men, talk to him for three years then share a first kiss on their wedding day? Or do you think it’s more realistic that after up to 7 years of an entire gender being taboo, you might not know how to deal with attention and either be horrified by it, intoxicated by it, be unsure how to handle it all and swing to extremes? Not one of my boarding school friends has ever said “hey, wow, not talking to a boy for 5 years really made living with boys at uni super easy!” And I imagine boys at an all-boys boarding school would have a similar, confusing experience.
Or what about driving? Why oh why oh why driving isn’t taught at school in New Zealand is beyond me. But it isn’t. And because I wasn’t home enough to learn to drive in school (yes, Mum, you bought me those 5 lessons but then I never even sat in the front seat of a car for 5 years), I didn’t learn till I was home from university. When I was 22. Bloody inconvenient, I tell you.
Or time with adults in an adult setting so they know how to behave? Or learning to cook? Or being able to stay home sick and just have a day off once in a blue moon? Or getting any life experience that didn’t happen physically at school (I really struggled for material in my creative writing classes for a very long time because I never bloody went anywhere)?
Missing out on these is dire. They’re important ingredients in becoming an adult. Luckily, you can help your child not-miss out on these by bringing them home often, letting them be a teenager, getting them a summer job and teaching them to drive.
They will not get that feeling of being able to fully relax at home
Looking back, all of our transgressions that we ended up being punished for were out of yearning for normalcy. We barricaded the matron of the boarding house so we could sleep in on a Saturday; we rode bikes to the village even though we didn’t have any helmets; we got caught going to the dairy in our PE gear so we could get fried chicken. There are so many rules at schools that even if you’re only there during the day, they get overwhelming. But if you are at school 24 hours a day, all week every week until the holidays, they encroach on your ability to be human.
I don’t mean the rules that are eye-roll stupid (if you’re in the dining room you have to wear a skirt) or health-and-safety gone mad (no bare feet allowed at all, ever (keep in mind, this is in a place where I had to live), I mean all of the rules. The silly ones (only year 13s may wear their hair out?!) and the ones for safety, order or our own betterment; they are there all the time in the place you live. The cumulative, constant press of all rules, all best-behaviour, all the time make you feel like you cannot be a person and that you’re a number on their list and that’s all. As my dad puts it, “it’s like prison but the uniform’s nicer.”
Your child will be starved for teenage rebellion and they will find it in the end
It’s a pretty well-founded idea that the risk-taking, rule-breaking and idiocy are things that teenagers need to develop into well-rounded, normal adults. Those stifling rules I mentioned? To a teenager, those are just begging, gasping and pleading to be broken. And not in a naughty, “oh lets have some fun and break some rules” way. But in an “oh god this place is so bloody boring, I am 17 and it is Saturday night I need to go and drink an RTD or I will DIE” way.
And if you think sending your child to boarding school is going to keep them away from the nasties of the world, then you are sorely mistaken. There is always someone with an older sibling, or a fake ID or a dodgy neighbour where they can get a bottle or a joint. If they want to sneak out to a party, they will.
If keeping them away from things like that is your endgame, keep the kid at home. Sending them to boarding school actually makes it easier for them. Keep in mind though; they’ll have to leave home someday.
You can make lifelong friends anywhere – don’t send them away for that
“But you make friends for life!” is what I hear most often when I try to explain the complicated, many edged sword nature of boarding school to someone who didn’t go. And yes, I did. But the fact that most of the friends I am still close with now were day girls, (who I only saw during school hours) tells me that the boarding school part wasn’t the bit that forged the life-long friendships.
You can make lifelong friendships at any school. That’s not a factor you should be considering.
The school officials are only human
For the matrons and school officials, looking after the students and deciding the big and small aspects of our lives is their job. Sometimes they fuck that up. Sometimes when they think they’re acting in your best interests, they make awful mistakes that will change your life forever. When I was in year 12, a fellow boarder’s dad was diagnosed with cancer. She sat and cried for hours on end. Far away from her family at such a difficult time, what she needed was space, leniency from the strict routine, support and permission to just not be ok for a while. They unfortunately didn’t give her that. She had to continue with bedtime, up time, breakfast lunch and dinner under supervision, supervised prep (homework) time, chapel sessions. She was (understandably) sad so the school made her go to a councillor (not a terrible idea) and when she spent the whole hour crying, they immediately sent her to hospital for suicide watch without the consent of her parents.
It was an awful situation and maybe they chose wrong. Her parents were under enough stress with the issues they were going through but it didn’t make it any easier for us, her friends to watch this situation unfold and be powerless to help her. If you’re going to send your child away for boarding school, please don’t hesitate to bring them home for a week in a crisis. She’s still feeling the effects of that. I’m still feeling the effects of watching her go through that.
At boarding school, there is no hiding from education
This is why I went there in the first place – because before boarding school, my grades were okay. When I arrived at the school, it had a 100 per cent University Entrance achievement rate. In the younger year groups, they make the boarders go into classrooms after dinner and study or do homework every school night. For the older year groups, there was a quiet hour when you were expected to study. I hated it and I wasn’t alone in that but everyone did their work, studied hard and around exam time, got sincerely competitive. Everyone figured out their desired direction and worked toward it in earnest whether it was sport, art, vet science or cheffing.
As absolutely stupid as a lot of the rules and practices of the school were, there was a hive mind single goal for every student to find out what you want to do and do it. I wanted to be a writer and here I am. Writing.
It was tough. It was a hard place to live, but my school results were good, I’m in the career I wanted and so are most of the people I knew at school and I don’t know that I could say the same had I stayed in the city. But I don’t look back at boarding school fondly. I was isolated from my family and barred from any kind of normalness. Yet if I could change about the experience to more bearable, it wouldn’t be that I wish I could have gone to more parties, it would have been that I wish I could have gone home more, gone to the beach with my friends (without a supervisor!), been able to see my family, been left alone to be sad sometimes.
Send them. Send your child away to boarding school and get them the best educational performance you can possibly get out of them if, and only if, you are willing to be reasonable about it. If you are willing to welcome them home often and allow them freedom. If you are willing to fight in their corner when the school makes a shitty decision. If you are going to send them a letter and a box of cookies at least once every fortnight. And maybe most important, only send them if you are okay calling it off after a year if it doesn’t work out.
Sending your child away isn’t time off from being a parent. And if you can understand that, internalise it and remember to bring them home sometimes, then I give you my permission to send them.
This story originally appeared on Now to Love, and has been shared with permission.
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