• A Very Private School: A Memoir

    May 6, 2024
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    By: Mary-Eileen Russell

    (Courtesy of Amazon)

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    In my mid-twenties I taught at a Catholic boarding school for girls in Frederick, MD and spent several months living in the dormitory with the boarders. The school was owned and operated by nuns of the Visitation Order who, while insisting on strict obedience, were known for their patience and kindness with even the most difficult students.

    As one of the nuns told me: "Mary, the world is such a dangerous place. We want this school to be at least one place in the world where the children feel safe and happy." In spite of Sister's sincere words I resolved that no child of mine would ever go to a boarding school. Not because of the nuns but because of some of the students. There were girls from very wealthy families as well as girls who were sent there by social services because they had no where else to go. One thing I learned is that there was little difference between the pupils with money and the "charity" pupils in that, in many cases, both came from highly dysfunctional homes, had been abused in some terrible ways, and hardly ever saw their parents. In the winter they were at boarding school and in the summer at camp. I saw very quickly that money and privilege cannot protect people from sorrow and suffering.

    So when I began reading Earl Charles Spencer's memoir A Very Private School, I understood why in the beginning of the book the Earl made a point to acknowledge that he knew that others had suffered much more than he had and that his recounting of childhood trauma in no way was meant to denigrate the ordeals of those who had endured much worse. Spencer probably felt he had to say that because many people, especially Americans, are under the impression that money and privilege are enough to cocoon a person from all trouble. I know from my studies of royals, as well as from my experiences at the boarding school, that such a wide misconception is far from the truth. Studying Spencer's own beloved sister Diana, the late Princess of Wales, is to glimpse terrible emotional turmoil. Both the earl and his sister practiced self-induced vomiting, for difference reasons, and endured intense feelings of abandonment due to their parents' divorce, with their mother moving far away.

    Being sent away from home to be educated is nothing new. From the Dark Ages both well-to-do boys and girls in England were often educated in monasteries. By the high Middle Ages the monasteries were replaced by universities which were still run by the clergy. Girls did not go to university but were taught at home or by nuns. After the break with Rome, the Anglican Church, as well as the lay people, took over the schools. The present system of "public schools" for boys and girls has been customary since the seventeenth century. By the nineteenth century, the severity of the schools for boys was seen as being vital to producing a warrior class who would defend the growing British Empire. I can understand the austere military discipline but some of the schools definitely overused corporal punishment. Plus, in some poorly run establishments, there was bullying of the younger boys by the older boys as well as students and faculty who preyed upon the others for sexual gratification.

    I commend Earl Spencer for speaking out about some of the various forms of abuse that he endured as a child at boarding school. He is, of course, facing the shunning of his peers and former classmates for an apparent attack on one of Britain's oldest institutions. But I think at this point he does not care. I gather that for his own emotional healing he could not remain silent.

    The home sickness alone would have done me in, let alone the beatings and the sadistic name-calling. Plus the cold, drafty building and the repugnant food. Hogwarts it was not. I do not understand the purpose of adults calling children degrading names, which only encourages cruelty. Worst of all was the young assistant matron who molested the boys at night, including Charles Spencer, pretending it was a romance. It was incredibly devastating to Charles, leading to difficulties in forming lasting relationships, for which he had to seek years of therapy to overcome. I am glad that he and his wife Lady Karen have done so much to preserve the history and heritage of Althorp, the ancestral residence of the Spencer family, where Princess Diana is buried. I have learned a lot from their videos.

    A Very Private School should be helpful to anyone who has endured bullying at school, any school. And not all boarding schools are bad. In the school where I taught I saw wayward teens turned around by the loving firmness and consistent guidance of the nuns and lay teachers. Even Earl Spencer says that at his boarding school the history teacher helped inspire his lifelong love of history. I have certainly profited from reading his books. The new memoir is genuinely moving and insightful, reminding us that we were all once children facing an often scary world. While the past cannot be undone, we can work to help the children of today. The current problem in American schools is not the stringency of the rules but the lack thereof. We hope to find a happy medium where children have boundaries without being terrorized.

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