There are some days which are worth writing home about.
Often much maligned and viewed with suspicion, private boarding schools find themselves constantly having to justify and sell themselves to sceptics for whom the whole world of boarding is either something from a Victorian nightmare, or a scene out of Harry Potter.
But selling boarding is not difficult when you have days like today.
After an ‘in-house’ continental breakfast, I led my year 9 and 10 students for a weekly Mindfulness session. We spoke about the notion of choice and not allowing yourself to fall victim to negative thoughts. Now, I am not so naïve to believe that this is what gets these teenagers going first thing on a Wednesday (hell, I don’t know what they do when my eyes are closed), but credit to them, they generally give it a go and are also confident in each other to articulate what they find easy, or difficult about meditating for up to ten minutes at a time. Believe it or not, several have told me they have used the techniques in their day-to-day lives.
An antidote to Affluenza
Wednesday is ‘Service’ day, with the majority of students heading off to local primary schools, nursing homes and churches to help those in the local community. Our entire year 9 joined forces with our sister Academy to work in groups led by older pupils around the issue of the Syrian refugee crisis – it was heartening to see active engagement and enthusiasm in an independent/state activity, and largely teacher-free. Elsewhere, one of the boarding houses continued its award-winning partnership with a school for children with learning difficulties. It is hard to tell who benefits more from this partnership – the so-called ‘disadvantaged’ kids, or the oft-criticised, ‘entitled’ elite school pupils for whom reaching out to others gives much-needed social perspective and altruism – an antidote to the ‘affluenza’ which can be an affliction of overly-cosseted establishments. I don’t know if this is what is meant by ‘character education’ but I know it is good.
Food for thought
It was when the boys returned to my boarding house that I really felt the sense of what it means to see boarding at its best. What starts with a gentle hum as camouflage-clad year 10s drift in in dribs-and-drabs from CCF shortly grows into a general hubbub as hot dogs are grabbed and cups-of-tea are brewed in the communal kitchen. The boys are abuzz with the news that two of last year’s leavers are to be talking tonight in ‘Food for Thought’.
‘Food for Thought’ is a major USP of our house. Every fortnight or so, a speaker is invited to deliver an address on a topic of interest, whilst a small group of lads is responsible for cooking supper for twenty. Places are on a first-come, first-served sign-up basis and go in the blink of an eye – there is no hierarchy to this – you snooze, you lose. One designated senior boy is responsible for the event, which has seen talks this year on urology, service in Iraq, the future of social media, taekwondo, dyslexia, stem cell research, the Baha’i faith and an open debate on world affairs in which the callow views of a third former are treated with as much respect as those of an Oxbridge candidate.
Talks have been from students, staff and parents and tonight’s was from two lads who had applied for a travel fund to take them to Cuba to investigate the post-communist, post-Castro way-of-life there. The common room was packed with boys keen to hear their stories, but above all to catch up with their old prefects – it was not hard to feel the warmth and joy in the room.
A modern ethos
For those who read the word ‘prefect’ and think immediately of fagging, institutional bullying and behind-closed-doors boys’ own banter, they should think again. These boys led with compassion and kindness, putting others first and caring enough still to offer the branch of support and friendship over the social media airwaves even from the distance of university. I could not ask for better role models of service leadership and setting the tone for a modern ethos in boarding.
With dishes and pans tidied up with the minimum of fuss (and certainly no staff involvement or directed instruction) the house settled down for an hour’s quiet study before having the choice at 9pm of supporting the house quiz team in a University-Challenge style competition or heading to the school’s café where an upper 6th boy is singing in an acoustic session, accompanied by one of the 4th form on guitar (the former happens also to be prop for the first XV).
To top it off, and to add an international flavour, another of the sixth form – an Italian-Argentine – hosted a Burns’ Night supper for fellow students with a range of readings from Burns, Shelley, David Niven and more.
In the end, the opposition house for the quiz failed to turn up and so an impromptu boys v staff quiz took place, accompanied by interludes of comedy dance music and a finale which had everyone dancing, to great hilarity.
Once the house was in bed, I was able to share a beer with the returning old boys and a chat about where life was taking them and how their mates were getting on. The boys I had known as inky-fingered prep-schoolers were now men, and it had happened before my eyes.
You don’t get that every day.