Boarding School Remembered
“So what was it like for you, to join the group?”
I’m sat opposite my therapist of eight years, sat back in the armchair slightly angled away from hers, my hands on the arms of the chair, my fingers tracing the contours of the fabric, my feet firmly placed on the floor. The chair envelops me, and I look away.
Here I am, in my late 50’s, midway through my fourth year of psychotherapy training to become (hopefully) a Certified Transactional Analyst (CTA). I’ve known my therapist a long time and recently left one to one therapy, graduating it felt like at the time, to join a group also facilitated by her, with other TA trainees. It was a voluntary progression for me, almost a leaving home if you like, moving on to another experience.
And yet I find myself now, three months later, sat back in her office, the two of us together, having been experiencing anxiety, panic attacks-mild in comparison to the past but present now all the same- my blood pressure elevated despite usually adequate medication. I find myself rationalising to her the anxiety, “it’s covid”, “it’s assignments”, “it’s my sons health”, “its Christmas…” the list is fairly extensive!
“So, what was it like for you,” she asks, “to join the group?”
I’m transported back almost 50 years to 1972, all 4’10” of my 11 year old self, but feeling younger, standing in the entrance hall of the boarding house, a telephone to my left, the front door open to the early September sunshine. There are walls of metal and wooden trunks lining the entrance hall and adjoining corridors, tuck boxes randomly stacked where there is room for them.
I’m on my own, standing in a sea of girls, similarly uniformed, jostling about, calling to each other, walking and running up and down the corridors, welcoming each other back. To the left and right of me the sounds of their indoor shoed feet indelibly imprinted in my mind, sounds of crockery being stacked and unstacked in the dining hall behind me. Its teatime. The sounds muffled by the thumping in my ears. I’m alone. I’m lost. “Where’s my mum?”
“So, what was it like for you to join the group?”
I return to reality. I don’t actually remember being transported back to 1972 when I stepped into the village hall, or the sounds of the feet of the other trainees on the floor, or the sounds of mugs and kettle from the little kitchen at the back but I do remember a sense of ‘de-ja vu’ and anxiety. What will this be like, this sharing of my therapist with others, the experience of being in a group in the village hall and not in her office, just the two of us?
There’s a sense of bravado in greeting people, “let’s be grown up about this”, a sense of a sulky child, “why did you make me come here, what am I doing here, why did I agree to this?” mixed up with the excitement of a new opportunity to experience something different. But the awareness of all this comes as I am writing this now, while the question, posed by my therapist in her office, transports me back to September 1972. My first day at boarding school.
Memory? Or something else?
I suspect the memory described above is more of a composite memory than the single event itself, the details fleshed out by experience, films and books. I have no recollection of that day specifically, but multiple leavings and departures have formed this memory, this sense at least, of aloneness, lost-ness, abandonment which now, with my therapist’s question, returns as the memory of my first day, flashes of feeling, somatic reactions in my body, triggered by the sounds in the village hall three months earlier, and no doubt also by the change in relationship with my therapist from ‘mine’ to ‘ours’ in the context of the group. “Where’s my mum?”
It’s said that group therapy, being in any group really, can lead to the replaying of ways of relating to others learnt in our family of origin. For me, the experience of joining the therapy group, initially at least, replayed the experience of entering an institutional family, an experience that for many years I retold as “it was great after I’d settled in” glossing over what ‘settling in’ actually meant and the impact of that. I honestly believed this, and a big part of my internal Child self still hangs onto that ‘truth’. There were good things for my younger self to enjoy- the routine, the predictability, hockey, the food- however Dickensian it may sound or feel to me now, or to others, but it was a comfort at the time, a preference for predictability and routine, not to mention ‘stodge’, remaining for me.
The impact (well, some of it)
But it also set me up for a life time of challenges in relating to myself and others, in groups and one to one. Something that has been ongoing work for me in both individual and group therapy, not to mention 4 years of training to become a psychotherapist! It set me up for a need for routine, to stay in the background out of sight, to be fiercely independent and to never ask for help, until the point when I was ‘encouraged’ to go to therapy all those years ago after a particularly difficult work related event. That ‘encouragement’ resulted in meeting my therapist, which in turn resulted in a lot of healing and understanding of the impact of the traumas associated with my boarding school experience as an adult.
The experience of others
If you get the time I recommend watching a documentary called “The making of them”. Its not my experience as it depicts small boys but it does demonstrate the experience of being left, of adapting to surroundings, and the seemingly thoughtless responses of parents, mothers particularly, as they try to rationalise their own and their children’s losses. You can find it here.
This post is published here with the caveat that this is my memory, that is neither linear nor particularly reliable, and that others who attended the same school, both within and without of my family may share similar memories and yet remember different details.
Part 2 can be found here.
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