by Christopher G. Nuttall
When I tell people I went to a British boarding school, I am commonly asked about two things: the cane and sexual abuse. School corporal punishment was banned in 1987 and I was never sexually assaulted while I was at school. And yet, boarding school was a foretaste of hell. Being in boarding school – I had the misfortune to attend a particularly bad school for four years – was like being in prison, only with worse food.
It’s difficult to explain this to someone who has never experienced boarding school. I’ve had people tell me that it must have been very exciting, shortly after reading Harry Potter; I’ve even heard kids ask to be sent to boarding school. (If someone read one of my boarding school books and decided they wanted to go to boarding school my first response would be ‘what have I done?’) It is simply incomprehensible to most people, save perhaps those who joined the army and went through basic training. And even they were older when they joined up (and they got paid).
The boarding school I went to would have been lovely, if it hadn’t been a school. It was set within vast grounds, a third of which was devoted to a golf course and makeshift running tracks.) The remainder was forest, which I would have enjoyed exploring if I hadn’t lived in constant fear of being caught away from school. But the closest outpost of civilisation was a small village, nearly forty minutes away on foot. There were no buses to the closest town, no taxis one could use to get to the nearest railway station; there was, in short, no way to leave without permission. It was, to all intents and purposes, a prison for my twelve-year-old self.
It was not like this
When you go to regular school, you can go home at the end of each day and relax. You can leave the teachers and bullies and everyone else behind. You are not obliged to endure their company outside school. You also have a chance to think about what happened in relative privacy. But in boarding school, you cannot get away. You are forced to endure the company of your fellow inmates and the wardens … sorry, teachers … for weeks on end. Even if you are lucky (?) enough to enjoy a school with vast grounds, there is always the prospect of being caught by one of the bullies and beaten or humiliated. There is no safe space. You certainly don’t have the chance to relax, take off the mask and think about the day.
It’s easy to idealise this sort of environment. Enid Blyton certainly did, when she wrote Malory Towers. The series is sweet enough to rot your teeth; midnight feasts, jolly pranks and japes, etc. And yet, if you look beneath the surface, even Blyton admits that there is something fundamentally wrong with the average boarding school. If you fit in – if you play up and play the game – you have a jolly good time; if you don’t, like Gwendolyn Mary Lacey, you’re a social outcast right from the start. Guess which one I was?
Hogwarts, for all of its magic, is a very accurate depiction of the less pleasant aspects of boarding school life. The teachers turn a blind eye to bullying, spitefulness and even pranks that nearly turn into outright murder. (Sirius Black got away with a prank that could have resulted in two deaths; in hindsight, the years he spent in prison for a crime he didn’t commit could easily be seen as a karmic punishment.) Fred and George are not harmless pranksters – they’re outright bullies, who are responsible for crippling at least one fellow student and driving their older brother out of the family.
And the teachers, too, are quite unpleasant; Snape, for all of the sympathy he draws from people like me, is simply not a very nice teacher. I don’t fault him for hating James Potter, but taking it out on Harry is unacceptable. Both Flitwick and McGonagall have their darker moments; Hagrid, as likeable as he is, shouldn’t be teaching at all. And Dumbledore is clearly more preoccupied with the war than doing his job. My head teachers didn’t have that excuse and they were still unwilling to actually do anything to change the school.
Boarding schools are simply not very kind to those who are different. This is true of all schools, of course, but boarding schools are the worst because you can’t get away. I don’t think there was a single day when I wasn’t insulted or beaten or generally treated like crap – I even came to hate my surname, because it was an easy insult. Even writing this down brings back the feelings of helplessness and worthlessness that made it hard to adjust to normal life, after finally being released from prison … sorry, school. And I know that others never recover completely. Some of them even turn into school shooters.
You see, if you are trapped in boarding school – or any sort of school – it is easy to come to hate everyone. You hate the bullies because they bully you, of course, but you also come to hate everyone else; your fellow pupils, because they are silently relieved that you are the target of the bully, and the staff, because they do nothing. Indeed, I can testify that many of the lower-ranking pupils picked on me, while the staff found it easier to punish me than the bullies.
And so your development becomes stunted. You do not develop basic empathy – why should you, when no one has ever shown you empathy? I know, all too well, that I am not as empathic as I should be – I can rationalise showing empathy, but not emotionalise it. Nor do you learn basic social skills, because you are ruthlessly mocked (or attacked) for being socially unskilled, ensuring you don’t have a chance to learn from your mistakes. (Every geek knows he or she will not be given the benefit of the doubt, while a jock will be.) You tell yourself that you don’t care – you cripple your own ability to feel emotion – and yet, all you can do is bottle it up. I’ve had all sorts of emotional problems over the last seventeen years because the emotions I thought were contained were starting to leak. I’ve had times when I’ve overreacted to something because it brought back emotional memories that convinced me I had to fight – or flee.
And while this is true of many day-schools, it is far – far – worse in boarding school. If you attend without a considerable degree of emotional maturity – and physical strength – you are in deep shit.
Going back to the Hogwarts example, it is clear that Harry benefited from going to school (not least because it took him away from an emotionally-abusive home.) Hermione, too, might have benefited, although she never lost her less-attractive character traits. Ron, Draco, Neville, Percy, Fred and George, on the other hand, did not benefit anything like so much. I would go so far as to argue that they were actually harmed by the school system. Ron and Percy had to endure the mocking of their twin brothers, resulting in Percy actually walking away from his family; Neville had to put up with Snape’s bullying and a massive crisis of confidence; Draco got too much handed to him on a silver platter until he finally bit off more than he could chew. And Fred and George were allowed to have fun – boys will be boys – instead of having their more dangerous traits sharply curbed.
All of this, it should be noted, is probably the most realistic part of the series.
But why did this happen?
The English aristocracy believed, on one hand, that boys were wild animals who needed to be tamed, not sensitive snowflakes who needed to be coddled. And, on the other hand, they believed that adversity built character. A child brought up under strict discipline would be more easily able to handle the rigors of adulthood, in what – it must be admitted – was a very harsh era. Furthermore, as the vast majority of aristocratic children attended places like Oxford, Eton and Cambridge (nineteen future prime ministers attended Eton; twenty-seven went to Oxford; fourteen went to Cambridge) attending such a school/university would offer a chance to make contacts at a very high level. If you went to Oxford around 1968 or thereabouts, there is a chance you might have met Theresa May, the current Prime Minister. The merchant classes, therefore, had a very strong incentive to push their children into those schools.
It wasn’t just education, you see. It was everything from social attitudes and manners to language and everything else one needs to fit in with the aristocracy. An Oxford ‘Old Boy’ would have something in common with every other ‘Old Boy.’ He’d see a Cambridge student as an equal, even if they attended different schools. He wouldn’t say that of someone who attended the local comprehensive. Classism has always been a powerful aspect of British society. Indeed, you could argue that this is also true of the fictional Wizarding World. Everyone goes to Hogwarts or faces immense social exclusion. The students may be ethnically diverse, but they are not intellectually diverse.
The problem with these attitudes was not that they were necessarily wrong. A Drill Instructor would argue that recruits have to be broken down before they can be built up again. And yes, the world is a tough place. Learning to handle pain and disappointment is a skill best mastered before one is out of one’s teens. The problem was that they were enforced on children/early teens who didn’t have the maturity to handle it (or, if nothing else, the grim awareness that they signed up of their own free will.) And when it went sour, it went really sour.
Worse, the system is tailor-made for abuse. Apathetic teachers do as little as possible, particularly after hours. (Only one teacher remained on duty after classes in my school and he was often hard to find.) Bullying is rife because there is little real supervision, a problem made worse by the powerlessness of most of the teachers. Even suspending particularly unpleasant kids can be difficult these days. But predatory teachers can be a great deal worse; boarding schools offer all sorts of opportunities for preying on one’s charges. I was not remotely surprised to hear about sexual abuse scandals. I know, all too well, just how much can be done in boarding school that parents never hear of. And when the facts do start to leak out, the impulse is often to circle the wagons and protect the school rather than the students.
I can see the appeal, in so many ways. Hell, I practically embraced it myself before I actually went to boarding school. (In hindsight, I should have committed some awful crime and got myself sent to jail instead.) But in reality, boarding schools are hell. I don’t blame my parents for sending me – they were told there was no choice, if I wanted to overcome my problems – but, if I had my way, sending kids to boarding school would be classed as a form of child abuse.