10 Things I Wish I'd Known Before Sending My Child to Boarding School
Make them responsible for packing and unpacking. It was this time last year that I felt that I had really failed as a parent. The amount of stuff that was required for the first year at school was overwhelming. It needed an adult to oversee everything, and his mum took charge efficiently and systematically. However, when we were helping him to unpack, I hung his school trousers on the same hanger as his shirts. I thought it an obvious place, but to a child coping with boarding school and in a completely new situation, I may has well hidden them in on a distant planet. On his very first day of secondary school, he couldn't find his trousers and went to to lessons wearing a pair borrowed from a class-mate. We now help him to get everything ready, but he has the overview of what goes into which bag. We leave the unpacking entirely up to him. While other parents are busy settling their children in, I sit in a chair watching him organise himself. Of course I assist by making 'helpful' comments, or 'sarcastic remarks' - depending on your point of view.
Everything needs labels. If it doesn't have his name on, it doesn't get taken to school. We have found ingenious places to stick them: inside the battery covers of calculators and torches; inside covers of dictionaries; the heels of shoes. This is not to suggest for a second that a ballet school is a den of thieves. It's not. However, stuff goes missing; these are children and their heads are full of chaos regardless of how ordered their lives might be. And all their stuff is identical - their calculators suffer the same regulated uniformity as their leotards and character shoes.
It is not what we expected. Regardless of what we anticipated about having a child at boarding school, it has been completely different. His response to being away from home was more dramatic in the first term than we had ever imagined. I had not imagined that there would have been so much crying from one small child - or one confused parent. We always allowed the tears to occur without judgement. It took a long time to realise that he would survive best by coming home as soon as school finishes at the weekend, and to be taken back on Mondays, just seconds before registration starts. It seems that we are not alone. There are a few of us - frazzled by the early start to the week, but fortunate to live reasonably close - throwing our children out of cars at the front door of the school at 8am on a Monday morning. A camaraderie has developed; we wave to each other from behind our windscreens. Before this started, I would never have imagined that our confident and seemingly independent child would require such a rigorous structure. I would also never have thought that every week would begin with a 5.30am alarm, and obsessing over the volume of urban traffic. I don't anticipate my car surviving another winter of this; I might have to upgrade to one that is ten years old - exactly half the age of our current vehicle.
It happens every year. The fact that he has gone off again this September came as a complete surprise to me. For some strange reason I was only pacing myself for three terms. Getting through year seven was my only aim. Starting all over again has been a genuine surprise. My intellect understood the situation, but forgot to inform my emotional and visceral understanding of reality. I guess this means I have to pay the school fees for another year.
Learn the postcode of the school. Before I decided to learn the postcode, sending stuff to the school, or giving family and friends his postal address was irksome. I am relatively literate, but I am unable to learn sequences of numbers. So it took some effort to learn a simple postcode. However it was efficient to have done so. Writing the address out without thinking has improved life's natural flow.
You're not there when you need to be. Stuff happens. Children can be cruel and adults can be careless. When an incident occurs which requires some 'unpacking', we are not at hand to help. Amplification becomes the risk. An issue that could have been talked through in a few minutes bloats to an impossible size and then needs several conversations to be punctured and siphoned. The drainage can sometimes take all weekend, or if it is half-term, all week.
Communal living while at home. I've noticed that boarding school life is infiltrating his behaviour. He ends each meal with taking his own plate into the kitchen. This is something that we haven't asked him to do, and we don't pass comment on. He has also developed the ability to shut down almost completely and focus on an activity while ignoring all distractions around him. He has become a Zen master who can mentally transport himself to a higher mental plane; a necessary skill when living with twelve hyper-active boys and the only tranquil space is one which can be found in his own head.
The end of innocence. After a year at boarding school, our son has been introduced to many things that I would never have imagined him being aware of; unless he were to be joining in with the adult banter at an army barracks. He can curse using lucid and eye-watering imagery ... in French. He seems to have learned the names of items that one might come across in an Anne Summers catalogue, and he has been asking about some double-entendres which fortunately couldn't be explained in front of his younger sister. I know that this is expected for a healthy twelve year old boy, but still the ingenuity of the double-entendres surprised me. I had to think about them, before I 'got them'. It seems that his generation can take the art of school-boy suggestiveness to a completely different level. Kenneth Williams would be proud.
Weekend overload. It took several months to realise that doing nothing in the house that he considers his home, is a luxury. I used to pack the weekend with activities which I thought would be treats. Weekends are a time for him to do nothing, reflect and rest. Sometimes he doesn't move away from a chair for hours - book or iPad in hand. Even walking the dog is too much. The activity of the week needs to find a balance with the inertia of the weekend. It is also an opportunity for him to reconnect with his sister. They only have one childhood, and it is important that they fill it up with memories of each other.
Don't do it. If I could have done anything to not have a son at boarding school, I would have. Not letting him go would have broken his heart. Even though he is thriving and fulfilled, I would selfishly have preferred to see him everyday. My advice to anyone thinking of sending their child to boarding school without good reason, would simply be, 'don't'.