Boarding School – Here’s Our Truth

It was April last year when I wrote about our eldest heading to boarding school. The reality had arrived. I couldn’t keep pretending it wasn’t going to happen. We’d not only said it out loud but we’d paid the deposit (ouch) and it was time to get my head around it before she started at her new school in February.

In Australia private schooling is always up for debate. I listen to friends and fellow parents continually justify their position either way. In the expat world boarding school has its own level of judgement – it’s not only the choice to remove your child from their international world but the fact that you’ll be living in another country? Have you no heart? Wow, I could never do that.

I’m sure I felt that way when she was eight or nine years old. But by the time she was 14 and we were looking more and more like being in Qatar for the next few years I realized we had to consider her options in Australia. She wanted to go, she wanted to be an Australian teen living an Australian life, and I couldn’t argue with her. I’d had that life, I knew what she was missing out on. And every time I dropped her at the mall with friends to roam the shops and grab a latte at Starbucks (with her knees and shoulders covered) I wondered how differently her life would look if she wasn’t living in a compound in the Middle East.

The decision was made. Uniforms were bought. And an invisible countdown began. My heart developed a dull ache every time I thought about her not being with us. She on the other hand developed a bounce in her step and a plan for the future that involved driving lessons, a metro card, and the ability to walk to the shops with the dress code of her choice.

To make things a little more interesting we threw a breast cancer diagnosis into the mix. In late August I made plans for chemo and radiation that would work with being close by for the first few weeks of her new boarding life. I’m pretty sure that on the day that we arrived at 9am at the Boarding House she was the only kid who’d accompanied her mother to radiation that morning.

“Would you prefer it if I wore the wig rather than the headscarf?” I didn’t want to embarrass her.

“Mum, you do what works best for you. But it’s probably better we don’t hide anything, I think I’d prefer that people knew what we were going through.”

She is beyond amazing.

Which was why after a long day of setting up her room, meeting the other girls and laughing with fellow parents I completely fell apart. When the time for goodbyes came and her cheeks began to wobble there was nothing I could do to keep it together. So there we sat, on a park bench in the school grounds, sobbing. The two of us unable to speak. Both looking at each other nodding in agreement with tears streaming down our faces. Yes, this is the worst. Yes, this hurts more than anything. Yes, we have to do this.

In the first week I visited every day until she told me that it was probably best I didn’t. “Mum, I think its really hard for a few of the girls when you keep popping up.”

I took her advice and just rang and texted continuously.

The first weekend we went out for the day together, we shopped for the things she needed and ate the things she loved. Boarding school in one week had made her obsessed with good food because as any boarder knows, boarding house food is terrible and should only be talked about with a gag reflex and an eye roll. She giggled with stories about the girls, I learnt new names while feeling sad about missing the connection of school pick ups and drop offs. We cried at goodbye but this time we could speak through the tears. It was still awful but it was a better awful.

The second weekend she stayed the night and while she slept I stood at the end of her bed and stared. Much the same as I did as a new mother and her my first baby. I’d looked at that empty bed all week as I’d wandered by to my own room each morning and night. The room had looked so ridiculous when it was childless. But she wasn’t a child. She was a young woman who in two weeks had grown into a different girl.

To start with she now spoke Australian. With a rising inflection at the end of each sentence her vocabulary had developed to Australian teen. King William Road was now King Will, and everything was shortened.  She now caught the bus into town to meet friends, went to socials held by other schools, walked on a Friday night to the local gelato place for a scoop, and kept to a boarding school roster of cleaning, table setting and basic chores. She’d mastered the art of getting out of bed as late as humanly possible while still getting a hot breakfast but was still working on how to get her uniforms to the laundry each week.

The third weekend was our final before I headed back to Qatar. It was fairly monumental. I was finishing radiation, moving from part-time to full time work, and leaving my child for four weeks until I returned for Easter. Emotional? We excel at emotional.

Those four weeks were long but thanks to amazing friends and family they ran like clockwork.

Each weekend a different friend or family member took her out for dinner. She played sport, went into town with friends, and rang us every time she was with someone familiar so we could skype together. Aunty Suzie flew in from Sydney and provided the comfort level that sometimes only family can bring.

We made it to the end of term unscathed. She has a school report card to be proud of and a new group of friends who she counts on for support and giggles.

We flew back to Qatar together yesterday, her first trip back from school. And as we sat preparing for take off she showed me pics from her Snapchat and Instagram – friends from all over the globe, two homes, two worlds, she now matches us in our geographical schizophrenia. I’d asked her awhile ago how she was feeling about it all. How she felt about being at school in Australia with a life here in Qatar that appears to continue on without her.

“Mum I’m in exactly the right place for me.”

They say a mother is only as happy as her saddest child. She’s beaming. I still hate the goodbyes but the sobs have moved to mild tears with a pang of regret that she’s no longer three years old and constantly by my side. I’m comforted that because this is boarding school and not college or university our break is gentle and softened with exeat weekends, term breaks, and permission slips that have to be signed by parents.

I am bursting with pride over who she is and where she takes her place in this world. Bizarrely it was going home that made her realize how international she is. While she’s captured her Australianess, she will always be an expat kid; she now knows what the opposite looks like and can see both worlds for what they are.

We now have her home with us for the next 2 and half weeks and it feels like a treat to be enjoyed slowly and deliberately. Every breakfast, every fight, every eye roll and every giggle between siblings.

Maybe that’s been the biggest gift?

Did we make the right choice? For us. Definitely. Does it make it any easier? Yeah, it does.

“I’m exactly where I’m meant to be Mum.”

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