Sally Fraser reflects on what led her to become Director of Boarding School Action, an organization for troubled boys.
“I’m just so enormously grateful to be able to lie here,” says my husband. We have stolen an hour on a Friday evening, between parcelling our children off to bed and the first one thudding through to our room to tell us her covers have wrinkled up or she’s too hot or too cold, and ask why we don’t have our pajamas on.
It’s not a massively romantic statement, he doesn’t mean to lie in my arms gazing meaningfully into my eyes or anything, he simply means that he is able to lie doing nothing, just being. “For years I would have had to rush off and find something to do”, he says. At the end of a busy week it is music to my ears, and feels like a triumph of sorts.
The reason he struggles with nothingness is because, aged eight, he left home to go and live in an institution. The kind of in institution where, as a melancholy Christopher Robin tells Pooh bear, you are not allowed to do nothing. Presumably because if you do nothing you might notice you are sad, and that you miss your mummy, or enjoy some kind of blissful intimacy with your imaginary teddy bear friend. My husband suffered no hideous abuse or trauma in this place, but his letters home were censored, and he has only just started re-reading a copy of Paddington which he was told by a teacher not to read because it was childish. When he was nine.
It is this kind of quiet injustice which as lead me to campaign against the practice of sending young children to boarding schools. I have no experience as a campaigner, I learn on the job, and I am still not entirely sure how I went from full time mom to Director of an organization. Boarding Schools are better now, we are endlessly told. They have weekends at home (well, 13% of them do) and mobile phones and kids can put posters on their walls and bring their teddy bears–but they don’t have parents, they don’t have cuddles and they don’t have love.
All activism is about love in some form, and usually borne of a desire to protect or fight for those in some way less able to protect or fight for themselves. But this is about the actual value of love, whether we should consider deliberately raising children without out it to be an abuse rather than a privilege. I agree with you on a human level, I hear from the ministers and officials I approach. Well, can’t we operate on a human level then please?
As a mother, it bothers me that parenting is undervalued to the degree that institutions claim they can do the job I have poured my blood sweat and tears into. As a woman, it irks me that it should be seen as a good idea to raise men whose only contact with women is the mothers who abandon them or the servants who make their beds.
As a member of society, I am troubled by the fact that in the UK at least we educate many of the most influential people in society–in such a way that they are forced to repress their vulnerability, their need for love, their ability to empathise in favor of some perverse form of hyper-masculine stoicism and the illusion of some kind of ‘independence’. The stiff upper lip is heralded as a strength or at best dismissed as curious British eccentricity but it is toxic: you a teach a little boy not to cry and you are teaching him that his feelings are wrong, and when later life calls on him to need those feelings he might not be able to find them anymore.
I could tell you about the theory of Strategic Survival Personalities, but you would be best to look up Boarding School Syndrome as described by people who put it better like Joy Schaverien or Nick Duffell. But theory can’t come close to how describing the effects of how it actually feels to be surrounded by people living strategically; it can feel like being in a big chess game where you are only allowed to move one piece. Glimmers of intimacy are rewarding but they can be withdrawn at any time, and can be punishable offenses.
I re-watched Pretty Woman the other day in a moment of adolescent nostalgia and was struck by how Viviene’s strategies for self-protection seemed to mirror that of so many ex-boarders: they say who, they say where, they say how much. And there can be a strong sense of not having anywhere to just put your feelings. But I feel very blessed to work with lots of amazing and courageous people who I have come to love very dearly. And, moreover, I learn a lot about myself, and I believe that has to be a big part of anything that’s worth doing.
Especially when the issue of selfhood and self-awareness is so central to the problem we try and tackle. The Headmaster of Eton recently said that raising boys in a single sex environment ‘allows them to be themselves for longer’, suggesting that their innocence is preserved. This seems an absurd suggestion, that sexuality can be somehow postponed, that men are more themselves in masculine vacuum, that women are corrupting influence with no positive values as friends or, companions. Well, maybe he’s right. Look at my husband, lying there enjoying the moment when he should be out oppressing vulnerable people or justifying the murder of civilians. That’s my bad influence, but I’ll keep at it.
Photo Credit: las – initially/Flickr