The Making of Them: TV Documentary Review (belated)

The discordance between words and body language on the part of both the parents and their sons is, at times, painful to watch. Like these young boys, I was unable to be truthful with my parents during my time at boarding school.
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I revisited my childhood yesterday. I have been reading Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion, a recent book by Nick Duffel, (I'll have more to say about the book in a later post) and came across a reference to a video made in 1994 for the BBC, The Making of Them. I had an exchange of correspondence with Nick Duffell some fifteen years ago, at the time of the publication of my own memoir, While I Am Not Afraid: Secrets of a Man's Heart. I'm no longer sure how it came about, but I heard about the organization he had founded, Boarding School Survivors, and the title immediately struck a chord. I am, myself, a "survivor" of the British boarding school system, and was pleased to learn that someone was seriously addressing the issues I had been struggling with for my entire adult life.

"The Making of Them" is about the earliest stage of the private boarding school system, the "prep" school. Boys--and girls, but I was obviously at an all-boys school; my sister has a similar story--are sent there by their parents at the age of seven or eight, and spend their early education there until about age twelve, when they move on to "public". i.e. private boarding school. What I remember most from that time in my life is the intense loneliness, the homesickness, the sense of alienation and difference from all the other boys. In retrospect, much later, I learned to acknowledge that I was suffering, but would have been unable to formulate such a recognition at the time. As an act of self-preservation, if nothing else, it was necessary to conceal it. Vulnerability was not an option. I created for myself a fine, extremely effective coat of armor--and wore it for another four decades. I still find myself, today, shielding myself from the unkind world out there! I am still uncomfortable with my body. I still "hold myself in."

The BBC documentary brought these memories and feelings back with force. At several points, I found myself holding back (see?!) the tears. Granted, things had changed much between 1994 and when I first went to boarding school, in 1943. I was seven years old. Funny, I often hear myself saying I was six, but I must have been seven by then. These days, to judge from the documentary, the teachers and staff make a far greater effort to be kind and compassionate. I watched with interest, for example, how a small group of the boys themselves gathered protectively around a little lad who was suffering from homesickness. In my day, that kind of vulnerability would have been met with jeers and teasing. Even the school environment seemed friendlier, more open to individuality and expressive freedom. The periods of separation from the parents seemed much shorter: three weeks was mentioned. My own terms lasted an three interminable months, three times a year. With luck, your parents might come down at mid-term to take you out to lunch.

I watched those parents in the video, thinking of my own. How they felt, said, persuaded themselves that this was "the best thing" for their children. But their facial expressions and body language betrayed quite different feelings than their words. I noticed how a mother, picking her son up to bring him home, asked the leading question, "Was it wonderful?" To which the boy could only answer, yes. The discordance between words and body language on the part of both the parents and their sons is, at times, painful to watch. Like these young boys, I was unable to be truthful with my parents: at huge sacrifice, they were buying me the best education they could think of; it was my job to be grateful, not to whine. But at what cost, to live so great a lie?

So it's a slightly more enlightened time, I think. At one moment, I watched with envy how a mother hugged her little boy in a genuine effusion of affection, and told him--in parting!--that she loved him. How, he must have been thinking, if she loved him, could she drive off and leave him? My own mother could never have hugged me in that way at Victoria Station, where they left me off. My father would shake my hand to say goodbye. So, yes, things have changed in many ways for the better. But still... the impact of the documentary is unmistakable: the institution of the boarding school is no substitute for what young children need most at this time in their lives, the love of their parents and the security of home. (I'm tempted to add that it's not only boarding schools that cause the childhood wounds which, unless we work to heal them, we carry around with us for life. But that's another story...)

I note with curiosity that there are two ways of hearing that title phrase. Until I watched this documentary I had heard only one of them--"The Making of Them"--the one with the emphasis on the last word: Them. The boarding school system is geared to creating a specific class of people, them, a peculiarly British elite, the ones who go on to Oxford or Cambridge and who generally end up running the country. O lucky me! I am one of them, and I have traveled many miles on my nice educated English accent, my charm, my finely educated mind. I "should be grateful," and in so many ways I am. I account myself one of Them.

But then I heard one of the mothers say the words in a quite different way: "It's the making of them," she said. I registered the difference with a shock. It was like one of those optical illusions, where you can't see one aspect of the image until you blink your eyes, and then can't see the other. Of course. I had never heard it, in my mind, with this particular emphasis. This way, it gets to be the justification, a positive rather than a negative. This way, the mother could allow herself to believe that the experience was a fine way for her son to build the character he'd need to be successful in his future life.

In this context, I'll confess to a part of myself that listened to the grown men in this powerful and moving documentary, products of the boarding school system, with the knee-jerk response: they're "wet," to resort to the boys' school terminology; they're "pathetic." These extraordinarily privileged men actually feel sorry for themselves. Such was my conditioned reaction; and in this way was my conditioning so powerful, it triggered that judgment over decades of sometimes deep inner work and reflection. Because I recognized myself in them, these men who had come to understand the depth of the wound they had sustained, and the lasting effects it can have on a man's life--including, but not limited to the ability to form trusting relationships and engage in simple expressions of love. Like the hugs my wife reminds me again this morning, as I write, I am too reticent to share...

Please note: you don't have to be a "boarding school survivor" to find deep resonance in this documentary. You just need to have survived your childhood. Which, likely, if you are reading this, you have done.

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