EDUCATION

Home truth: The side of boarding school you don’t see

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“People really underestimate what goes on in boarding. There was a girl a few years above me who kept drugs under her mattress. Girls with eating disorders because they could get away with not eating anything because no one monitored it. A few were cutting themselves. And the housemothers had no idea. It’s so easy to hide things.” – Former boarder of 6 years.

These destructive events, such as eating disorders, drug use and self-harm, are sadly too common in Australian boarding schools, and are incredibly alarming. I too was a boarder for five years, and whilst I graduated a happy, healthy and strong individual, it’s the events during that time that shaped the experience.

It’s the fragile minds, the happenings behind closed doors, the unspoken occurrences in the dark of the night throughout the boarding house that are far, far from home.

Someone I know who found boarding very damaging, and got to the point of being suicidal, shares:

“I was in year ten. I’d been there a couple of years. And I hated it, still. I wasn’t really friends with anyone, so I kept to myself a lot. I felt like Mum and Dad didn’t care about me, and I remember waking up one morning and just wanting to end it all. So, I got several packets of Panadol and Nurofen and just ate them all.”

This is an example of the personal battles that can be faced by a child in boarding school. And this isn’t a once off occurrence. Whilst these examples are extreme, they offer a disturbing insight into the troubled nature of some boarders. As someone who has been through boarding, I know how tough it is.

I remember my first day in boarding, whisked away from my weeping mother before we even had a proper chance to say goodbye. At the tender age of twelve, I had been told what I was to expect. But, as I walked the winding staircase that would lead me to the place that was to be my home for the next five years, I was led away from everything I had ever known. Alone in the affluence of Perth’s western suburbs, a far cry from the town where I grew up, every ounce of familiarity I had of the world had been left downstairs with Mum.

Don’t get me wrong, boarding school comes with a large base of staff members whose sole role is to make students feel as comfortable and ‘at home’ as possible. The websites and endless pamphlets that you receive in the mail make sure you are aware of this.

Smiling students in immaculate uniform are portrayed to be having the time of their lives in a spotless, almost too perfect environment.

In many instances, boarders create close bonds with those they live with, establishing a close network of sibling-like relationships that thrive in the absence of actual family members.

But there is, and always will be, a difference between your own mother and a boarding house mother.

A glossy pamphlet can’t describe the pangs of homesickness that sweep through your body in unpredictable waves. A newsletter won’t detail the feeling of not fitting in and being out of your depth in such an unfamiliar place.

And a website certainly won’t display the reality that a child will often hide these feelings from their parents.

High school is a time of mental and physical development, a period of self-exploration and realisation.

The trials and tribulations that come with becoming a teenager are arguably amplified when those who you would usually turn to are no longer present.

Living in the country presents its fair share of problems. The hardships of farming, fuel prices, the distance from simple necessities. Whilst the value of establishing a life and raising a family on a farm or in a small rural community should not be underrated, there comes a time when tough decisions are vital for the future of your children.

Parents must decide the best possible way to equip their children for the ever-intensifying whirlwind that is life.

Education for children is an investment that is vital for their future, but often the options close by are not feasible for such a critical role. Education is vital, but also a choice.

For some, this decision is far more than a financial choice or contemplation of proximity. For some, looking further than the shires of our neighbouring communities is the only option.

For some, babies are enrolled in prestigious institutions before they are old enough to walk, not unlike the generations before them.

Either way, the decision to send your child to boarding school is hardly ever an easy one, nor is the experience of boarding school itself.

Home is a powerful word. Home is the familiarity of the place that you spend a majority of your existence. Home can be a person, place or thing, but ultimately home is somewhere that you exist in your own sense of self. Somewhere that you can be truly comfortable and feel safe. Can boarding school ever really be home?

It is incredibly naïve to assume that all children will take to boarding like a duck to water. As parents, it is imperative that you make informed decisions regarding the education of your children. Communication is key, between you, your child, and the school itself. Find out if they’re struggling, because let me tell you that many suffer in silence.

Boarding is like a sport; some people just aren’t good at it. Try as you may, you can’t force a twelve year old to be able to live away from home without a hiccup or two. Sure, they can get used to it one day at a time…and most do. But we cannot be assuming that everything we choose for our kids is in their best interest. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but it doesn’t always make a child grow stronger.

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