My boarding school was awful, and it still is


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The Independent Online

I went back to my old school on Saturday. My boy's school was playing rugby there and I'm an enthusiastic observer of him being trampled upon and kicked by other children – I think my old school called it character-building. I turned down the familiar road and the memories came flooding back.

There was the boarding house where my parents dropped me off at the age of eight. I remember thinking that the couple that lived there had a lot of kids. Then my parents said goodbye, I don't remember them explaining that I was going to live there for five years. It was all quite confusing. To break the ice I flipped open my tiny little grey suitcase and started laying out my shrapnel collection on the bed. This was the playground currency of Beirut and I thought it would be a conversation piece with my fellow inmates. It didn't go as planned. A boy ran and got the housemaster. He, in turn, summoned the metalwork teacher who had some undisclosed military background that had clearly ended in some institution. He confiscated my entire, precious collection and talked darkly about "unexploded ordnance" and "controlled detonations". I never saw my collection again but was slippered by the housemaster who, just a couple of hours ago, had been sipping tea and chatting with my now departed parents.

I drove on and parked by the playing fields. I hadn't been back since 1981 and I think my ego half-expected the place to have stopped once I left. It was very much the same, except everything looked a lot smaller. I felt like some awkward giant visiting Smallville. There was the woodwork class where the red-haired sociopath that taught us had made me run around for 20 minutes looking for "elbow grease". He had a curious obsession with recording us. He had one of those long-distance microphones and used to always have it on … God only knows what he did with the recordings.

I wandered over to the pitch. My son's team was still getting changed but the opposition was already there, being given a pep talk by their coach. "What do I not want to see today? Handbags, mincing, I want commitment, proper tackles." I couldn't believe it. It was like flashing back to that long, hot summer of 1976 when we would use words such as "spastic, flid, mong" and admonish friends with remarks such as "don't be so Jewish". Girls were known as "hags" and if you were seen speaking to one you had "hag pong". Oh, the casual prejudices of the upper classes. Nobody ever even hinted that these terms might be wrong, insulting, ignorant. Instead we were shown such films as Where Eagles Dare and Bridge over the River Kwai and taught to relive the fading glories of Empire while teasing the poor German kid whose parents had sent him to a place that had become his own personal Colditz.

My boy's team was slaughtered, 54-12 I think, although I lost count after he was kicked hard in the nose and had to go off to the side weeping. At the match tea, I met an old teacher who recognised me. "Why aren't your brood here?" he asked. I didn't answer.