And no, that title is not a typo. BSS is the acronym for Boarding School Survivors, an organization founded by the British therapist and author Nick Duffell in 1990. Its purpose is to "offer therapeutic help for ex-boarders; raise public awareness about boarding; and provide specialist training for therapists." The reason I know about it is because, well, I'm a boarding school survivor. And so was my sister, Flora.
Almost anyone of my generation who attended boarding school in what used to be called "Great Britain" will share this memory: a smoky, greasy, uniquely smelling London railway station (Victoria, in the case of Flora and myself) where literally thousands of school age children gather with their parents on "back-to-school" day in an unruly mob of colorfully competing uniforms. Each school is identified by its particular jacket, its striped tie and banded socks, its woolly sweater. (Flora's school color was cornflower blue, mine black and white.) Everyone has two items of luggage, also identified by bands in the school colors: a "trunk" for items of clothing and a "tuck box" for whatever goodies his or her mother managed to pack in there for the beginning of term (3 terms per year).
It's a chaotic scene. Trains depart the crowded platforms with clanking wheels, clouds of smoke and hisses of steam. Railway porters rush this way and that, their carts loaded dangerously high with trunks and tuck boxes. Parents dash hither and yon, searching for the right train to the right destination, clutching on to children's hands--or more likely refraining from so doing, for fear of the embarrassment it might cause. Fathers shake hands with sons. The more daring mothers offer them a kiss goodbye. And the children, like myself, and I'm sure much like my sister, hold back the tears that might betray a sign of weakness to their fellow boarders on the way to school--a weakness that might well result in unrelenting ridicule.
Then the train pulls out of the station. Parents stand on the platform, waving to their offspring, some of whom will be hanging out the windows for that last glimpse, that last wave, whilst others are already squabbling over the best seats in their compartment. The feeling, for this one boarder--I can't speak for all--is one of intense loneliness, a desperate sense of isolation combined with utter misery, a sense of dread and, yes, fear. Because these feelings are themselves dangerous. You show them at your risk...
And this is precisely what BSS is all about, the emotional damage wrought by these events upon the tender psyche of six-, seven-, eight-year old boarders, and the way these deep memories affect, infect, sometimes poison their later life. Well instructed in the art of concealing vulnerabilities of any kind, boarders typically hammer out a virtually impregnable suit of armor that insulates them from both incoming and outgoing feelings. Many live long enough to be buried with that suit of armor intact. Many, thanks to their socially acceptable background in the upper middle classes and their excellent education ("public school and Oxbridge") end up in leadership positions in government, industry, the church... These are what Nick Duffell calls Wounded Leaders in his recent book of that title, subtitled "British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion." Readers of The Buddha Diaries might remember my review.
But back to me and Flora. She became aware of her inner wounds long before I became aware of my own. For both of us, thanks to that armor, they remained long concealed--even from ourselves. But both of us, in the course of time, discovered that we could not live in such emotional isolation, not without further damage to ourselves or those we loved. When Flora set off on her "hero's journey"--the journey of self-discovery--I looked on askance. And of course from a great distance, because by that time I had already lived for years in America. California, even! You'd have thought I might have picked up something from the culture. But no, my exquisitely-crafted suit of armor protected me from anything that looked like inner work. I judged her a little wacky, a little self-indulgent.
It took me years to understand--and to acknowledge--that she was years ahead of me. It took, indeed, a great upheaval in my own life to set me out along a similar, if not parallel path. But once embarked on it, I soon came to respect the work that she had done, and was continuing to do. Readers of recent entries in The Buddha Diaries will know how much I have come to appreciate the value of the kind of inner emotional and spiritual work that I once so heartily (and fearfully!) despised. It opened up a path for the kind of mutual love and understanding that my sister and I came to share increasingly over the past twenty years, and proved the greatest blessing for Flora at the end of her life. Too long in denial of the lingering shadows of those railway journeys leading us away from home, we were fortunate to have come to recognize them for what they were and to have found ways to exorcise their subtly concealed, deeply noxious grip on the psyche.
For Flora, of course, the work is done. Recalling my last visit with her, just a week or so before she died, I later used the word "radiant" to describe her. I believe she died with great integrity, and in a kind of joy. For myself, of course, the work still lies ahead. There's always more of it to be done. At least, for all the grief, her example reminds me not to shirk it.