5 lessons I had to unlearn after boarding school


I find it difficult to write or speak critically about my time at boarding school. That's because I'm aware that my parents sacrificed to send me there and going was considered a great privilege. Somehow, sharing about the negatives seems ungrateful or disloyal, but I have discovered that mine is a very normal response from ex-boarders.

I was sent away at eight-years-old to a mainly boys' prep school in the Sussex countryside. I can remember my first week vividly... the strange smell of floor polish and boys' socks that seemed to permeate the ground floor of the building. I can still recall the book that was hurled across the classroom at a cowering boy in the corner, the freezing dormitory with nine other girls, several of them sobbing quietly under their duvets, and the superior air of the prefects who weren't allowed to let you go to the loo at night. I can picture the face of the teacher who would whack us on the back of the knee if we got our homework wrong and the lack of adult love, attention or kindness. It made Hogwarts look like a walk in the park.

I learned Latin, public speaking, archery, rifle shooting and how to shake hands firmly. I was a dab hand at making Airfix models, throwing pots, playing golf and reading an Ordnance Survey map.

However, while there were some upsides from my experiences, I eventually discovered it was also an emotionally damaging time during which I picked up some very unhelpful lessons – lessons which I have spent years having to unlearn.

Here are just a few of them in case you or someone in your life has experienced something similar:

1. Don't show negative emotions

I cried every day for the first two weeks but when I realised no one was going to rescue me I learnt to survive by closing off my emotions and focused on fitting in and getting on.

I gradually became self-sufficient. Outwardly confident, driven, capable and socially adept... but totally unable to experience true intimacy.

It was only really when I was 21 that I started to understand the impact of what had happened to me. At the time I had lots of friends and a busy social life. But then my older and only brother died suddenly and I realised that it wasn't the friends that I could count that mattered, but having friends I could count on. I didn't have the depth of relationships that I longed for and didn't know how to create them.

Shortly after my brother's death I became a Christian and started the long journey of learning that God made us with a whole spectrum of emotions and feelings. It was an amazing relief to discover that God and those close to me don't need me to be happy all the time. It is OK to show up as I am – whatever I am feeling and they will still love me and accept me.

2. Look out for number one

Kindness and compassion were rarely expressed at boarding school and I soon learnt that the only person I could really trust was myself.

I remember, in the early years of marriage, finding it difficult when my husband David offered to carry my bag or drive me somewhere. I found it a challenge to ask for help or to believe that someone else wanted to care for me.

Part of my un-learning was to realise I needed to be able to give and to receive. I didn't find either easy but as I opened myself up to receive from the Holy Spirit and allowed my heart to be healed I found it easier to love and allow others to love me.

3. Avoid vulnerability

Not a day goes by when I don't hug my six-year-old son. Aged eight I went weeks without any affection or hugs from anyone (except the rather creepy music teacher). With the exception of letters (which were read by the teachers) we had no correspondence with our parents between exeats or holidays.

Nowadays at boarding schools you hear about pastoral care. Back in my day it wasn't mentioned and rarely demonstrated. Whether it was swimming at six o'clock in the morning in an icy cold lake or being forced to do handstands in the bin if you failed to correctly decline your French irregular verbs, we were being taught to toughen up and "get on with it".

As an adult I was convinced I had to show my best side to the world and that I needed to cover up any weakness and vulnerability. How refreshing it was to discover that I can drop the armour and follow Paul's lead in 2 Corinthians 12:10: "That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong."

4. You are what you achieve

Success was prized at school. I remember each term we had to sit in the order we had come in the tests at the end of the term before. Come last or near the bottom and you were reminded of that fact every time you went to take your seat at the front of the class!

I soon learnt that if I wanted to be recognised or acknowledged then I needed to do well and succeed. Those were lessons I took into adulthood. I grew up to be a workaholic and a perfectionist – driven and determined to do well. It was exhausting.

When I first became a Christian I felt a great need to please God and to be doing the right things (or trying to at least). It was several years before I understood his grace and unconditional love.

I still have to remind myself now that my worth is not tied to results.

5. Reflecting is for wimps

At school our life was timetabled and run by bells. We had no privacy or time on our own. I was constantly in the company of others and even at night I had eight or so girls sharing my space. Even our bi-weekly showers were communal.

Growing into adulthood I would always keep myself very busy. I found it awkward to spend time being still or on my own. When I became a Christian the one verse that practically everyone who prayed for me would share was Psalm 46.10: "Be still, and know that I am God."

God knew what I had to re-learn and I had to discover how to take time to rest and reflect. It was hard and painful but it was as I did that, I started to heal and re-discover the person God had created me to be. I learnt to value connection over protection.

In the years since school, God has turned my mess into my message and it is why I have become passionate about helping others to discover what it means to live, love and lead authentically. Perhaps the greatest lesson I have learnt is that change is possible. 2 Corinthians 3:17: "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom."

Sarah Abell is a relationships coach and the founder of Naked Hedgehogs. Her passion is helping individuals and couples live, love and lead authentically. If you want to find out how authentic you really are – you can take her free quiz at www.nakedhedgehogs.com.