Me and My Girl
By KATE WHARTON n NE of the joys in keeping up with magazines ki and newspapers today is the staggering amount of information one learns about oneself. It's all so splendidly revealing. Hardly a week or a month goes by without the Queen or the Observer or the New Statesman coming out didactically from their respective corners to tell me that as a middle-class Englishwoman in my thirties I am sexually frigid or if not frigid then repressed, that I'm frightened of black men, am obsessed by the kind of snobbery which finds its outlet in the writing paper versus notepaper lunacy, am socially ambitious, overbearing, un- friendly and so on and so on until the cows come home.
For all this I am most, grateful since they are things I didn't know before. And nowlatest in this list of home truths is the new addition that I don't enjoy my children as much as my American counterpart (see Eleanor Wintour in the current issue of the Twentieth Century). One of the argu- ments advanced in this long-winded tendentious piece of cross-Atlantic philosophising is that I send my children away to boarding schools: this, in Eleanor Wintour's simple reasoning, is obvious proof that I don't enjoy them. What is even worse in my case is that,I send a girl away to boarding school. Yes, a tiny little baby girl of eleven years. Oh, brute that I am—this is obviously carrying non-enjoyment to the point of sheer naked dislike. How can any mother commit such a dastardly crime and still call herself by that sacred name?
Well, I do and I think justifiably. It is precisely because I enjoy my child so much that I came to the conclusion paradoxically that she would be better off at boarding school. Nor am I the only woman behaving in this odd way. I can think of a number of friends who have all spent this last week packing up school trunks,' buying huge quantities of biscuits and cakes and standing on station platforms talking cheerful gibberish whilst feeling like hell on earth. Why do we do it? Well, simply or really not so simply we do it because we consider it better for them and not as some say because it is better for us.
Few people, I think, in this day and age of self- conscious • parenthood arrange things for their children simply in order to serve their own conveniences. Rather it strikes me that so anxious are we to get on well without offspring that we will twist ourselves into any contortion to please them. At all costs we must be friends with them even if it means turning our houses into Beatle- screaming madhouses, spending half our waking hours ferrying them from one record session to another and spending far more than we can legitimately afford on them. All this we do so that the poor things can look back on their child- hoods without hatred.
Oh, what a rat-race have those miserable auto- biographies written by people with unhappy childhoods made of parenthood today! We read them and determine that our kids are going to grow up actually liking us and in our simplicity we reason that the best way to achieve this is to reverse all the old rules. Thus we let them stay up later and later each night till the bags under their eyes nearly reach the top of their thigh- length boots. We encourage them to watch any- thing they like on television, be it a play about a golden-hearted tart or a discussion of abortion,in the North-East, because we're terrified that they'll feel there are secrets about life or love that are being kept from them and this will lead to complexes later on. We sit down to dinner each night with them because by the time they've reached grammar-school age it's pointless not to or damned hard work preparing two lots of meals. And then suddenly blowing a chill wind across this land of parent-made delight we notice (that's if we can tear our minds away from discussing abortion in the North-East to notice anything) that our children don't look particularly happy and in fact aren't. They want to be children, instead of which we're falling over backwards to turn them into psuedo-adults.
It's here that boarding schools come in. They provide small secret hideouts in a frantic world of advertisements and pop singers where children can still be children; where they can be as silly and as giggly as they like at their own level rather than trying to keep up with ours; where they can learn the kind of truth about themselves which only their contemporaries can teach them. And since it happens to be true that absence makes the heart grow fonder there is just the right amount of it to store up enough love to make living with their parents a happier business when they do come home. There are, of course, the ob- vious advantages to boarding schools like, pleasant Surroundings to live amongst and friends to talk to whenever you want them. This last point ranks high in my own particular case where my eldest daughter, because of the age difference between her and her sister, is virtually an only child, but I was surprised this week to hear it also made by the father of a large family. Mind you, loneliness is probably more felt by London children who often live separated from their school friends by, if not large, certainly tiresome distances. In London, too, anyone who has been sardined up against a schoolchild in the tube or on a bps during the rush hour might well have considered that boarding school was the lesser evil.
What is so extraordinary, I find, since sending
a girl to boarding school are the ideas some people—even intelligent people—have about girls' boarding schools. A few days ago I was talking to a man whom I would have considered pretty knowledgeable about most things. The conversation got on to boarding schools—girls' boarding schools—and at once his face took on that sharpened lOok some people's faces acquire when they're talking about subjects like sexual perversion. Indeed his voice changed to the same note he would have used for the kind of sentence that begins 'A friend of mine, a doctor, told me . . .' What he told me however, was that all girls' boarding schools modelled themselves on boys' schools and as such were hells on earth and that most likely my daughter would be turned into a raving Lesbian. 'And dog breeder,' I added under my breath, but he didn't catch it. I explained that this hadn't happened to me (or so I'll assume until some article pops up to tell me that as an Englishwoman of the middle classes in my thirties I'm a raving Lesbian plus all the other things I now know) and that I didn't think it would happen to my daughter. Far from it. The last time I had been to see her the sixth form had been twisting happily with the sixth form of a local boys' school and I hadn't seen a Lesbian for miles.
In one of those rare moments when an English mother was on friendly speaking terms with her English daughter and a stranger who was not Mrs. Wintour might have detected an odd note of companionship, even enjoyment (we'll be devils) in the air, the English mother asked her English daughter if she was happy at boarding school or would she rather leave and go to a day school? 'Oh, no,' said the child emphatically, 'don't do that. I'd much rather go to boarding school.' Why?' asked the mother. 'Because,' replied the child, 'I love the feeling of stabding on my own. I like the fact that I can be me.'
If the proof of this particular pudding isn't to be had in the eating, then I'd like to know from Mrs. Wintour and others how else it can be got. Or are we supposed not to try this pudding at all but rely on the diet of nonsensical generalisations they dish out? In which case I can foresee an awful lot of hunger strikes.