“Mummy, I think I have forgotten something.” Eustache, 15
We are in the middle of our 800km journey back to school: one frazzled mother, four over-sugared, gangly teenagers, two hot and hairy dogs and several hastily-packed suitcases, all squashed together into our rather dirty car. Of course, when our first child started off on the British boarding school adventure everything was meticulously organised; each item on the school list name-taped, folded and neatly arranged weeks ahead.
Five years on, and times have changed: I now take turns at the wheel with my two elder children (thanks to driving lessons taken whilst at school), giving me time to run through my long-neglected to-do list and to scrabble around in my cavernous hand-bag for a needle and thread. One son is attempting to write a long overdue thank-you postcard, the novelty of holding a pen proving a challenge. Another is gazing happily out of the window as though this is another day out to the beach. Pink Floyd’s “I don’t need no education” accompanies us along the motorway…..
Two delicious, barefoot months have come to an abrupt end; it is time to knot the school tie once more. There has been a mad dash to the dry cleaners with several dishevelled suits and the vigorous polishing of black leather lace-up shoes. Long-forgotten hairbrushes have been unearthed and hasty last-minute shopping trips made on discovering that each child appears to have shot up another 5cm during their long and lazy summer. An alarming number of pieces of clothing have an unfamiliar name on them; my husband went off to work with socks labelled “Johnnie H. Travers”. Every Bédier sock seems to have vanished into a Black Hole.
A fat volume of “War and Peace” is jammed under one of the back seats; it has spent most of the summer there. My attempts to keep up my children’s cultural education during the holidays have met with some resistance; I would be surprised if any of them can remember how to spell their name.
Children will be arriving from all corners of the world to start the new school year at boarding schools across Britain. For many, the journey will be longer than ours, even with the progress of modern global travel. A friend described to me her trips, at the age of 12 in the 1970s, from her home in Morocco to her boarding school on the Isle of Wight. This involved a ‘plane, a night in London, a train, a ferry crossing, another train and finally a taxi. She didn’t see her parents for months on end.
I cannot say that my children are actively looking forward to going back to school: few people, I think, would choose to get out of bed at 7.30am rather than 12.30pm, or take up revision of German verb endings instead of idly flicking through a magazine whilst sprawled on a sofa, hammock, beach, boat or similar relaxing location. There is, however, a certain positive anticipation in the car as to what lies ahead.
A new school year at a British boarding school brings with it not just hard work and the conforming to school rules: it also gives pupils the chance to build on successes already achieved or to have another go at things not yet mastered, as well as the opportunity to take up new ventures. Above all, however, is the reunion with close friends. Facebook has been in full use over the summer, but nothing – I am glad to report – beats the real thing.
By the time I am back behind my desk in France a few days later, I have already received several happy messages from England. Single room status has been achieved, as has membership of the Cheese & Wine Society and a place in the senior squash squad. Preparations for a raft race and involvement in charity fund-raising are under way; a busy school year is up and running once more. One son even remembers to add, as an after-thought: “They have already given us so much work to do”. I am reassured.