The Boarding School Girls
The Book Brigade talks to co-authors Soosan Latham and Roya Ferdows.
Posted Oct 13, 2017
Soosan Daghighi Latham and Roya Movahedi Ferdows were both born in Iran and sent to boarding school in England at age 12. They did not attend the same school but met in 2013 at a gathering in San Francisco and realized their early cross-cultural experiences shaped shared trajectories of identity formation and adult development. Latham is a professor at York University in Toronto, Canada, and Ferdows is a life coach in private practice in Bethesda, Maryland.
What did you wish to accomplish in writing about the culture of boarding school?
The book began with a reflection on our past and the desire to make sense of why we were sent away; we wanted to understand the impact of boarding school on our lives as women, on who we had become. We realized that there was limited and controversial research on the psychological and developmental implications of the children growing up in boarding schools. So we set out to bring to attention the impact of this experience on young girls in particular. Rather than taking a prescriptive approach as clinical psychologists and therapists may, we chose an interpretive narrative approach to provide researchers with rich data and a source of understanding of their own stories and the decisions they make as researchers, educators, parents, and women.
Any useful insights from the collaborative, co-author process?
This book would not have been possible without our joint collaboration. First, because the idea came about as a result of sharing our mutual boarding school experiences, and second, we were co-leaders in this project, each placing a hundred percent of ourselves into it (not 50/50), leaning into each other and taking advantage of our personal skills and capabilities and drawing on our lived experiences. We took responsibility for different segments but were both deeply involved in the writing in its entirety, respecting each other’s competencies. We found intense two- and three-day working periods writing, reading, reflecting, and debating the issues enjoyable but also nostalgic. As ex-boarders, it was as much a process of personal discovery as it was engaging in research and creativity.
What is the main point or reflection you’d like readers to have on completing this book?
Our storytellers trusted us with their stories and had the courage to dig deep into their memories. As they reflected on the impact of their experiences and on who they are today, they made themselves vulnerable but found a new awareness of their own past as they attempted to connect the dots of their lives.
Everyone has a story and many go through life without owning theirs. We hope to provoke readers to reflect on the decisions they have made and their relationships with their loved ones, parents, and particularly their children, as a way of making meaning. We encourage them to own a positive story because, as Thomas King would say, “the truth about stories is that we live the life we create.”
Can you capture an overall boarding school experience, or did it differ from person to person?
There were both positive and negative experiences in the stories we share. Those who had a generally agreeable personality and positive outlook on life appear to remember a more favorable experience. Others, more sensitive, found it lonely and continue to be perplexed by their parents’ decision to send them away. There seems to be perpetual sadness, blame, and confusion that linger for them.
The general consensus was, however, that we would not be the independent, self-sufficient women we are today had we not been sent away to England. Boarding school taught us discipline, responsibility, and maturity from a very early age, which of course also has positive and negative elements.
Many of us were forced to immigrate to different countries after the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Our exposure from an early age to an unfamiliar culture gave us the advantage to integrate, fairly seamlessly, into the Western cultures we later adopted.
How have these experiences impacted your life?
We live every day with the familiar reactions to the voice of authority, aroma of a particular food, a nuanced British accent, or a nostalgic TV show. The psychological implications are arguably evasive but the social and educational experience exposed us to a world of different cultures and races. It molded us to become more open, adaptable, and accepting of others. By learning to cope alone, we became self-reliant even though this sense of independence may have impacted our ability to hold on to intimate relationships! By contrast though, we have maintained long-term friendships with those with whom we bonded at boarding school.
Are there any downsides that you now notice as a result of having been sent away to boarding school when young?
The most apparent downside of the experience was to grow up in an unfamiliar environment without the day-to-day nurturing and guiding love of parents during important developmental years. Many of us shut down emotionally, unable or unwilling to be in touch with our feelings because we learned to believe that showing vulnerability was a sign of weakness. This remains a modus operandi for many of the high-achieving women whose stories we shared. It’s a double-edged sword really. We have become strong, independent women shouldering the burden of every weight but we do ourselves an injustice in that we don’t allow others to share this responsibility with us.
How did attending school abroad impact your Persian identity?
An area where we have fallen short is being distanced from our native Persian language and culture. The need for affiliation and belonging is at the core of human needs but this separation from our home culture and family contributed to what seems to be a pervasive feeling of not belonging, even as we have made our homes in other countries. This feeling is accentuated by the lack of an extended family network, which is also at the core of our Persian collective culture.
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