Boarding school and the damage done

BOARDING SCHOOL WOES: Pupils in the dining hall of Christ's Hospital girls' school in Hertford, England, 3rd March 1953.
BOARDING SCHOOL WOES: Pupils in the dining hall of Christ's Hospital girls' school in Hertford, England, 3rd March 1953.

There is talk now in Britain of a condition called "boarding school syndrome'' which, according to The Independent, ''can leave adults struggling to form intimate relationships and unable to communicate emotions after being traumatised by forced separation from friends and family at a young age''.

I went to boarding school in Australia one week before my 11th birthday and remained there for six years. I knew it had affected me deeply but, even so, was a bit surprised when I participated in a documentary on fatherhood a couple of years ago and was met with a series of questions which assumed that my formative adolescent experiences had all been within the home, and that my major relationships in this respect were with my mother and father. The more I thought about it, the less true I thought it was for me.

All the major formative experiences of my adolescence occurred over an 18-month period, starting when I was 13. The part my parents played in each of those dramas was simply that they weren't there. I didn't resent their absence. I'm not sure I even thought their presence could solve the problems in which I became entangled, because they were incommunicable.

I'd be 26 before I began to find words for them, and only then because I went into a period of intense introspection after learning that I was to become a father. Wild thoughts started seeping out from behind the closed chambers of my psyche. It would be fair to say I thought I was going mad.

I was glad enough to go to boarding school. My father's family had a history of leaving home early and thereafter not having a great deal to do with one another. Maybe I had a bit of that in me. I had been at odds with my mother over religion since childhood and the dispute was escalating. I was never homesick once during the six years I was there.

People always talk about the cruelty of the priests and masters in such places. What I remember is the cruelty of the kids. I'd been there a week when I saw a boy who was a bit simple singled out. I saw how alone you can be in this universe. I wish to Christ I'd stood with him, but I was 11.

When I was 13, the bullying became more refined. Kids would be banished from the group, no one would speak to them, day or night, day or night, and so on. There was no home, no other reality. When my turn came, I'd never known pain like it. Terrified that I might be singled out for further treatment, I briefly joined the bullies and saw the immediate grief it caused. I learnt that day you can damage the universe. You can make it a sadder place.

The story of my boarding school experience and where it led is a long one which ended when I met Archie Roach and acquired an understanding of the multiple misfortunes inflicted on him as an Aboriginal man of almost exactly my age and a member of the Stolen Generation. I was the lucky one.

I acknowledge I got things out of boarding school. When I see people locked in intense relationships with their parents, I think, ''You haven't left home yet.'' I left home years ago. My parents and I got to know one another again as adults and had plenty of good times. Writing is how I coped with the black hole that opened in my life at 13 and, where that is concerned, there are things no bully can make me say or do.

- Did you go to boarding school? What was your experience like? 

- The Age