02 October 2017


I once read a blog entry by Amir Hafizi on his blog, The Malay Male. To be frank, I don’t remember how I got to know him, but it is probably just like how I ended up following everybody else on twitter; I met an interesting retweet, went to the source of it, found other interesting tweets by that person, decided that I liked what I see and pushed the button ‘Follow’.

So this blogpost by Amir Hafizi, detailing about his life living in a boarding school. I’m a closeted boarding school opponent, I couldn’t come out because some of my friends in my close circle made it clear that whenever I feel there’s something wrong with my alma mater, it indicates that I am the one with the problem, not the school.

It’s incredible that even though we went to the same school, we could experience different sorts of things.

Amir Hafizi speaks of how in boarding school, you are being broken down into pieces, just so you could be built up again. I found this quote to strike some chords. This is probably the most precise quote about my experience in boarding school that I could not come up with myself.

My friend, a fellow boarding school hater and I had this conversation times and times again. We studied the details of our experiences and the outcome of those experiences to our lives. We both went to boarding school when we were both 12.

We reached a consensus that boarding school changes our family dynamics. And based on my own observation among my closest friends, this is mostly true for friends in a close-knit family with a single breadwinner-father and a stay-at-home mother, with a relatively lower family income bracket.

Friends with working parents, or whose family incomes are significantly higher, usually do not face the same magnitude of the changes. True, they did mention there are changes here and there after they left home for boarding school, but the initial state of their relationship with their parents are usually not, for lack of better term, as closer or unique as those from lower income families, therefore the changes are not that substantial.

Those with working parents are used to being left alone, that they already built their defense mechanism way long before those kids with a stay-at-home mother who spent almost all their time at home with their mother. A working mother would also mean the mother would split the time between her career and her family, while the housewife mother dedicates all her time solely for her household, which will result in different upbringing for the kids. The difference of these two lifestyles might be subtle, but it’s significant.

The kids from a lower income family background, the kampong kids if I may– those kids of fishermen, peneroka FELDAs, farmers, rubber tappers – are usually the one with the most attachment to their family. I believe this is so because the hardship of their family would give these kids a deeper emotional connection to their parents who struggled to feed and clothe them, and this gives an elevated, raw emotional experience for the kids who understood their parents’ unconditional love in the form of sacrifice on a day to day basis.

The same experience may or may not occur to the kids from family who are well off with a steady monthly income.

Once a kid went to boarding school, adapting to an environment where they are no longer protected by their family would mean they have to cope with their life on their own. Like it or not, those kids need to adjust their principles, built up their own defense mechanism, and have to rewire their brain to cope with the sudden changes, and swiftly change their attitude and behavior to suit a life in a boarding school. Most of the pressure to change is attributed to peer pressure and social factors.

Kids who are often being left by their parents found this easier to do, since they already understood the concept that being left by their parents is a fact of life. In fact, some of them are already well prepared and don’t need as much adjusting as their peers.

Kids with a close-knit family bonding are left struggling on their own. It is interesting to note that in order for these kids to adapt to their surroundings, they have to turn off some of their emotions. Emotions that are holding these kids from moving on and adapting to their new environment is ironically, or tragically, is their attachment to their family.

The kids are usually the silent type who often fall homesick. The wealthier kids, whose family can pay them a visit every once in a month and who can go back home during the short holidays have a different perspective of life in boarding school. They understood that they could always meet their parents albeit living afar.

The poor kids, whose parents could not afford the long commute had to live with the fact that family will not come into the picture until maybe 3 months later, and the single connection that they would share during those periods are telephone calls.

In order for these kids to adapt, they would severe, if not reconfigure, their bonds with their family. This is the first step for them to move on and build their defense mechanism to survive boarding school.

They would first start off by understanding that family will not come into help, and no matter how much they cried or suffered, no matter how high they fall, their mother will not come comforting them. They have to accept that their triumphs, insecurities, failures and history will not be shared by their family in real time. They would slowly come into this realization after a few telephone calls, after they felt like sharing those stuff on the phone won’t do the cut.

The second step is abandoning their attachment to the family, and oftentimes, this come off as a natural process. This gradual process involves spending fewer time calling their parents at home, forgetting their family members’ birthdays, skipping family meetups and functions, not that they had the luxury of attending and finally, this conditioning to the absence of their family’s significance in their experience in boarding school would lead to the reconfiguring or severance altogether of the familial bonds.

When they are home again, these kids struggled to fit into their own family to continue where they have left off. Since at this point they spent more time in schools more than at home, their default behavior is the one in boarding school while their personality at home is their second. The confusion could lead the kids to believe that they are somehow hypocritical, and it could make them believe that they have outgrown the needs to express themselves to their own kin.

The kids in their early teens are not well equipped to handle the boarding school environment since they are still in completion of their delicate stage. Their emotional states are not matured enough during this phase that going to boarding schools ill prepared in terms of emotions and mental capacity will do them more harm than good. Going to boarding school when they are barely 13, still developing and in their impressionable stage, in dire need of their parents’ guidance and instillation of family values, the kids are at the mercy of their surroundings to shape their adolescence.  

A documentary by National Geographic once highlighted the increase of elephants’ attacks on human. It seems like these elephants which are known for their gentle nature suddenly have the guts to kill even their caretakers – although it was always a probability, it had never occurred before. Elephants would not attack humans they have bonded with. According to the documentary, once they killed a human, it would forever change the psychology of the elephants after they discovered the true destructive extent of their strength.  

It was later revealed that the elephants that attacked the humans are mostly orphaned. They theorized that without the presence of a mother to nurture and control the elephants to shape their behavior during their pubescence, the elephants would run rampant. An absence of a mother figure in their final growing phase would damage the elephant’s emotional well-being that they are capable of violence. 

This theory seems to quite sufficiently explain the violence that happens in boarding school. Without adequate supervision and lack of maternal love to keep them in check, the kids are left to their own devices. Incidence of bullying, beating, and mental torture are not uncommon in boarding schools. Inability to fit in, to be deemed as an outcast would mean a kid is more prone as a victim to these social clashes.

Not only bullying, the social structure itself in boarding schools favours seniority. I remember once my teacher deemed us as rude for addressing our senior incorrectly, instead of calling them ‘abang’ we called them ‘korang’ – they were one year older. This kind of mentality even at management level is not helping in bridging the gap between the students. Boarding schools are so chockfull with these sorts of idiosyncrasies that a kid could become lost in learning the ropes and navigating the multilayered, confusing structure it could cost them friends, respect, and ultimately happiness.

Speaking of which, happiness is not the basis of boarding schools. We were reminded from day one that boarding schools are where you are going to endure hardships. These hardships would break you down into your elements, and when you are built up again, you are no longer your former self. Your new self would learn how to survive, to live, and to feel happy again by abandoning your past.

Despite all these, I do believe that boarding schools had taught me lessons that are useful in life, giving me great friends who I had cherished all the way till today, and it gave me bittersweet memories to remember for a lifetime. However, if I had the chance to live it again, I would say no.

Nevertheless, I opine that these only apply to boarding schools for children aged below 15. When I was 16, I changed school and though the circumstances were similar in many ways, I found it less stressful since kids at this age were more mature and adaptable. In fact, it was at this school I found that you could be happy and breathe easy in boarding schools despite the hardships.

All in all, I strongly urge parents to contemplate the option of sending their kids to boarding schools after UPSR. If their kids adapted well in boarding schools, perhaps they are the bully.

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