First day at boarding school
Glancing around the Cathay Pacific lounge at London Airport last week, I realised I wasn’t alone. Grown-ups who looked like they were usually perfectly calm and collected were taking anxious phone calls and gulping large gin and tonics. Typical conversations went: “Yes, he/she was fine, no, no tears, don’t worry, half term is only a few weeks away.” They too had just deposited little Englebert or Alopecia in an expensive British detention centre, otherwise known as boarding school. This group of nouveau pauvre Hong Kong parents now numbers 5,000 and is forking out about pounds 30,000 a year per child for five years. And that's for a mid-ranking public school, as British private secondary schools are confusingly called. Really posh ones like Millfield or Harrow cost much more. Add on pounds 1,000 for uniform and more for sports gear, dental and BUPA. And then, the “extras,” such as guitar and golf lessons. Thank goodness my daughter won a scholarship, which lightens the financial load somewhat.
Dodgy mobile phone signal
Nevertheless, I am officially Mean Mummy, having vetoed an iphone: a landline phonecard being way cheaper. “But everyone has a smartphone Mum,” she wailed. “There’s only a mobile phone signal in the middle of the rugby pitch, so I’d hardly use it,” she said, as if that proved her point. So then you don’t need one, I parried, thinking this school sounded very attractive indeed. She changed the subject. “But you can bring your own horse. AND you can keep your own ferret. For rabbiting,” she said, helpfully. I began to wonder just what sort of establishment Grandma had chosen. I had visited Milton Abbey School only once, fleetingly.
Trunks and Tuck boxes
With thoughts flitting between Hogwarts and Mallory Towers, we rocked up to the enormous historic edifice, its chapel dating back to the early 10th century, all set in rolling Dorset parkland. It was a far cry from the YMCA Christian College in Tung Chung.
Friendly fathers helped lug the trunk and tuck box up to the bright airy dormitory, kitted out IKEA-style. If one of them no-showed, I wondered if they’d take me instead. The house parents greeted us warmly in the big kitchen– where girls can cook and entertain friends, no less – and politely cautioned against contacting our little dears before they had settled in. Homesickness spreads like wildfire, we learned. I asked my daughter if she thought she’d feel homesick. She gave me the 13-year-old “Oh Mum” eye roll-plus-sigh and replied: “of course not, think of it like a long sleepover,” and reminded me she'd "sort of" be bored at her previous school.
Parents were ushered into the awe-inspiring Milton Abbey chapel. The new boys and girls had crowded into pews, ostentatiously apart from their parents. The headmaster reassured us that nerves would soon turn into confidence, and that walking into the Abbey had already transformed them into Miltonians.
An extraordinary building
“Sitting in these very pews for the last thousand years have been monks, villagers and pupils,” he said. “During the Civil War, Oliver Cromwell used this very building to house his horses.” In fact, they’d discovered a statue in his garden that Cromwell’s troops had chucked over the fence. Everyone looked suitably impressed. We could picture our boys and girls in these hallowed pews, meeting and worshipping together as a community.
“Mums and dads, it’s going to be nerve wracking for you,” he continued. “Take lots of photos, show your emotion, make sure you reassure your little ones.” If I tried that, I’d get “Ewww Mum, stop embarrassing me.”
The new students had entered this symbolic building as fresh-faced young girls and boys and they would leave as adults in five years, fully prepared for the big wide world, he continued. All very reassuring.
He thanked us for entrusting our offspring to the school. “For giving them the wings so that they can fly.” I started humming the Cathay Pacific theme “I can fly” and pondered the pounds 1400 the airline wants for an economy class Unaccompanied Minor ticket home to Hong Kong at Christmas.
Beware Kevin and Perry
He then warned of gathering teenage hormonal storm clouds. The “effervescent, joyous young men and women that you see today haven’t yet hit adolescence. And they may change over the coming couple of months.” Oh no. We must forgive the school if our wonderful angelic child had morphed into Kevin and Perry by half term. A nervous titter went round the chapel. I recalled the Kevin and Perry Go Large movie. They were two 15-year-old boys, obsessed with girls and losing their virginity. The headmaster quickly moved on, before parental imaginations ran riot. As regards communication, email is good, he said. Message received. One of the best things about being in the depths of the Dorset countryside was the dodgy mobile phone signal, he chuckled. So, any problems, email the house staff, not him.
One final request. “If things aren’t going so well, and if it gets to 10 o’clock at night and that second bottle of Burgundy looks exciting, and you think oh, I’ll just have that and write an email; please pause. Put it in “Drafts” and send it the next day.”
We headed out into the late afternoon sun, armed for tearful farewells. Parents mingled on the manicured lawn, but the potential Kevins and Perries of both sexes had scarpered. Finally, the new girls emerged from somewhere, in a giggling knot. They paused briefly, to pose for photos. I stopped mine as they sped off again, and told her that as Grandma and I were leaving soon, we should say goodbye. She hardly broke step. “Bye Mum, bye Grandma, kiss, kiss. Love you. Sorry. Can’t stop - I’m socialising. ” And raced off after the others. Grandma and I decided we should not worry.
I have received one email from daughter, boasting that she is in the top set “for everything.” The school sent news that the new third formers were all getting along fine. They sent photos of a bunch of griming 13-year-olds, decked out in climbing gear, busily bonding at adventure training camp. School has changed a bit since my day.