The truth about ‘boarding school syndrome’

Wendy Leigh writes on the lifelong effect of being sent away from home, aged 10.

‘The nightmares come more often these days, but lose nothing of their intricacy for their increase in frequency.

They all begin on a cold morning in 1968, when I am 12 years old and standing on the platform at Charing Cross Station, surrounded by a gaggle of girls dressed, as I am, in navy blue uniform.

In the near distance, my mother’s image is already fading – I’ve long since learned that the last thing I need is to draw any more attention to the tears beginning to brim than having her taking me right up to the carriage before she leaves.

Even when I wake at 4am in a cold sweat in my flat overlooking the Thames, my home for the past ten years, I still can’t shake the smell, noise and desolation of my nightmare’s destination: St Margaret’s, Folkestone, the boarding school where I was incarcerated for four years of my life.

I don’t use the word “incarcerated” lightly; even (perhaps, especially) as a child, it always seemed more akin to Wandsworth Prison than an educational establishment for the upper classes. But it is one that seems all the more fitting now I have read Boarding School Syndrome: The Psychological Drama of the ‘Privileged Child’, a newly published study of former boarders like me, by Professor Joy Scheverin.

A Jungian psychoanalyst, Schaverien first coined the term “boarding school syndrome” a decade ago, after seeing a multitude of former pupils among her patients – characterised by problems with anger, depression, anxiety, a failure to sustain relationships, fear of abandonment, substance abuse, and so forth. She, herself, was following in the footsteps of Nick Duffell, a psychotherapist and author of influential study, The Making of Them  about the wounds such schooling can inflict. Duffell defines ex-pupils, and indeed himself, as “boarding school survivors” – a term that resonates strongly with me, given I still feel scarred by the six formative years I spent attending two of the (minor) cornerstones of the British establishment.

Before St Margaret’s, I was sent to Hookstead, Crowborough, when I was 10; ostensibly because my parents had just divorced, and also because my mother, a teacher, was certain that boarding school would provide me with the best and most gilded start in life.

I was keen it wouldn’t disappoint her, and initially, given I had been steeped in Enid Blyton’s St. Clare series – bracing books about boarding school, populated by top drawer, kind and jolly girls, each one a brick – I was happy to be going.

But nothing could have prepared me for the pain of being far from home, and the mother I adored. A sensitive loner of a child, I struggled with the lack of privacy by isolating myself from the other girls – an odd and ungainly peg rammed into an ill-fitting hole. The only consolation was that I could spend every weekend at home with my mother – the only moments of love and happiness punctuating long weeks of cold baths, regulation knickers and barebones dinners of baked beans and bread.

Much, I know, has changed for today’s pupils, which Schaverien readily acknowledges. But however warm and cuddly modern boarding schools may be in comparison to mine, she insists children sent away to school – no matter how well they are looked after – will still suffer trauma at being separated from those who love them best.

My two years at Hookstead were a holiday camp compared to the four years I spent at St Margaret’s, from which I was only allowed to escape three times a term. These rare weekends at home compensated somewhat for my increasing unhappiness at school – my mother made sure each was akin to a party, filled with my favourite food on hand, a trip to see any movie I wanted (even the musicals she hated). But however pampered I was, I could never forget each tick of the clock brought me closer to the moment we would have to part again at Paddock Wood Station in Kent.

Somehow these partings never got easier. Although I was outwardly stoic and careful never to cry in front of her, the jaunty carefree air I managed to maintain up to the carriage would turn to flood of tears as soon as we pulled out of the station – and then I would hate myself for my babyishness as much as I hated the return to my nightmare ahead.

I never told my mother that I loathed school with every fibre of my being, or begged her not to send me back; even then, I understood her subconscious motives for dispatching me, her cherished only child. I knew she was doing everything she could to give me what she thought was a superior education. And that, never mind money, it had cost even more pride to get her to convince my father – who was dead set against the idea of wasting money on my education – to foot the bill.

It was only many years later, when I was 28, and my maternal grandmother’s death overwhelmed me with enough grief to seek therapy, that distinguished psychoanalyst Dr Erika Padan Freeman helped me join up more dots.

My mother, Marion, had been traumatised as a child herself when, at the age of 11, in July 1939, she was sent out of Germany on the Kindertransport, which spirited her and 10,000 other children to safety in England. The train, of course, left from the railway station, where little Marion was forced to part from her father on the platform, never to see him again.

As Dr Freeman explained, in sending me away at a similar age, and continually re-enacting that heartrending scene on the railway station, my mother was unconsciously repeating the pattern of her past. Putting me on the train, separating from me and unconsciously hoping that I wouldn’t be hurt like she was, I wouldn’t suffer, and that, this time, the story would end happily.

Of course, it didn’t. Instead, just as Schaverien posits, it forged a kind of dual identity within me. She explains: “One of the characteristics of the child coping with leaving home and living without love is that they form a psychological split into two aspects of personality, which I call the ‘home self’ and the ‘boarding school self’.”

So there was the fragile Wendy, beset by separation anxiety, crying late at night under her counterpane. And there was tough Wendy, who developed a thread of steel in her soul, and knew she needed to protect herself from this pain as much as her mother.

Uncannily enough, both those sides of me are currently merging, as my mother, now 87, has been diagnosed with terminal non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She has been in hospital since April, and may have very little time left.

While my softer self is reliving the trauma and heartbreak of that first enforced separation, at just 10 years old, my tough boarding school self would still die before crying in front of her when I visit each day – determined to bring nothing but love and cheer to her bedside. Instead I busy myself, when tears threaten, with the pragmatic details of palliative care.

Here, at least, I am able to see one boon to being a boarding school survivor: however tough it may be when my mother leaves me again, for good, I know that I have already forged the strength I’ll need to endure it.’

If you have had an experience of being sent away to boarding school and feel that it has in some way impacted your life in ways you would like to talk through I have much experience, not only of having been to boarding school myself in the 70’s but of working with clients who have struggled to come to terms with the impact of boarding school on their lives.

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