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Work • Status & Success

The Dangers of People Who Have Been to Boarding School

For many centuries now, in selected parts of the world, it has been deemed a good idea – in fact a substantial privilege – to send one’s offspring to a distinctive sort of school; a school that doesn’t just begin at around 8 and finish at 4 but that goes on – strangely – all the time, in the middle of the night and on a Saturday evening, a school where one goes to live, for months at a stretch, over a decade or so, a school where one is taught to forget home and make everyone proud. 

It may not be apparent – either to those who go to such establishments or to those who, later on, try to form relationships with those who did – that there may be any sort of problem.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

That’s in part because one of the chief legacies of having attended a boarding school is that one forgets much about how one feels. Given that one’s predominant emotions would once have included despair, rage, bitterness, grief, impotence and untenable sadness, it may simply have been easier to grow up not registering very much at all. If one is eight years old, it’s January and one will next see one’s parents in the spring, there is little opportunity or benefit in starting to cry or protest. The more logical and intelligent solution is to forget that mummy ever existed, along with daddy, home, any siblings and one’s inner life more generally. 

That said, one probably smiles quite a lot. Whatever their stated extra curricula interests, most graduates of boarding schools are hugely accomplished actors, they tend to quickly say they are ‘fine’, even (or especially) when they are furious or when there would be cause to register that they miss you. The first that a partner of such a creature may hear about an issue is an affair, a court order or a call from the hospital.

Naturally, trust doesn’t come too easily. Growing up around three hundred or so other wounded people all desperate to spot a weakling and pounce on them for evoking a vulnerability they are in flight from, the boarding school graduate is highly adept at (well camouflaged) detachment and avoidance. They know about relationships in theory; they understand well enough that they are meant at certain points to surrender and depend on another human. It’s just that nothing in their lives has prepared them to want to take such a horrifying chance on another soul again. 

Boarding schools can be exceptional places for children to learn certain things; some have turned out brilliant Latin scholars and put on extraordinary renditions of Shakespeare’s history plays. Where they tend to lag is in instilling in their pupils any notion of the four constituents of an emotionally viable life:

— The capacity to mourn

— The ability to be authentic, especially about anger and dependence

— The desire not to torture the weak

— The willingness to trust. 

It’s a distinct irony that this kind of background should still – despite everything – routinely be described as privileged.

Boarding school graduates know so much about how to survive. What they tend to have no idea about, at least until they have had the benefit of a midlife nervous breakdown, is what going to them may have done to their emotional faculties; how many things they may need to unwind in order to remember how to love.

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