I’ve been skirting around this subject because it’s a thorny one and it’s also personal. I already have one child at school overseas (yes, I/we actually sent her – cruel hearted and callous I know) and more horrors, the next one down is due to join her in September. Our ‘second born’ will be leaving home in a few months at the grand age of 13 years old. I still can’t believe that it’s really going to happen. Disbelief and yet I am the initiator of all of this!
‘Keep them close, once they’re gone, you’ll lose them forever.’ A stranger advised years ago and I thought at the time, yes, sage advice. I’ll keep them at home. Simple. Then a couple of years later I changed my mind. To be honest, it still seems mad to send our kids away for secondary school. We miss them horribly but since our British parents almost killed themselves to endow us with a private school education in the UK, the unspoken onus is on us to do the same. We don’t have to do it but we want to do it.
Kenyans understand because school fees are a universally heavy burden and we are often asked to chip in. French and many other Europeans often don’t get the concept of either sending their kids away, or paying through the nose for the privilege. Why? Because boarding schools where they come from often tend to be for ‘special case’ kids; the tricky ones. But the Brits have been doing boarding school for hundreds of years now and there’s no denying that, on balance, they’ve perfected the art of doing it pretty well.
Having sent the kids away, parents like us behind console ourselves with the somewhat blind faith that the kids are happy ( but they can’t be happy 100% of the time can they?) however the separation is definitely painful. A mum who sent her son away last year told me yesterday that she feels that it’s actually a physical pain, though she admitted that it has improved a bit with time. I communicate mostly with my eldest through imessage. This is often in the form of a link or photograph of an item of clothing she sends that she would love me to order for her online. And normally I grimace because, sitting here in Nairobi, of course I cannot believe that flared jeans, body suits and bomber jackets are back in style. Overseas kids are nowadays in the minority. There’s the pain of knowing that other kids can just ‘pop‘ home and their parents might actually show up for parent meetings, while you never will.
On a practical level, I find that the worst aspect of educating our child on a different continent is the travel arrangements. Long lines of expensive flights to book and that’s only after getting your head around school dates (the first flights I booked for my daughter were all wrong because I hadn’t factored in the fact that you had to fly the day before term starts for an overnight flight – duh). Then there’s impossible task of getting them home for Christmas and back to school on that eyewateringly expensive and oversubscribed January flight. How will your child get to the airport from school? Who will collect her? If, by some miracle, school lays on transport, how will she get to the meeting point? What happens if there is a flight delay, or worse? A storm, high winds, snow? Perhaps she will get hauled over by passport control again, who last time weren’t at all happy about her travelling alone.
Then another spanner is thrown into the works. School closes early due to an outbreak of flu or adverse weather. Your child is ill. British Airways announce that they will not offer their ‘unaccompanied minor’ service any more. And we haven’t even started on where they go for exeat weekends? And how will they get there? Will it be by train? Does she have to change trains? Which friend/family member is she going to? Do the friend’s parents even know she is coming? Then when my daughter is actually on the plane I pray silently that she will land safely. All this and I didn’t mention those horrific school fees, did I?
Meanwhile, how does she/he feel?
So while this anxiety goes on our end, your child is expected to deal with a lot worse. Jetlag, culture shock each time she steps off the plane. At school she is expected to fit in with her friends and look right, even though she never gets near any shops and her new friends know nothing about the overseas life she’s had up until now. Common reference points are expected, and it’s up to your child to bridge the gap. And that’s not all. Right now the UK is cold and Nairobi is in the midst of an almost insufferable heatwave. She will arrive in the morning, tired and I will nag her about the size and weight of her bag. ‘Why did you bring so much stuff!? The rest of the family want to go on holiday for Easter but she just wants to collapse at home – away from the constant chatter of boarding school and she also needs to revise. She actually WANTS to revise and frankly, as parents, you just don’t understand.
And guess what else. Right now she’s sitting at Heathrow airport, one day after the Brussels bombings. Eating a sandwich in a cafe right at the entrance to the airport, because the school bus got her there early and the gate is not open for check-in yet.
My heart is in my mouth and I know that this is not going to get any easier.
- Try to get organised and on top of your child’s flight bookings well ahead of time – even if you are not a very organised person.
- Reach out to school matrons and other staff to get as much information as possible about who else might be travelling from the airport on the same day etc. and what escort services they offer overseas kids etc. (airport transfers, escorted trains etc).
- Chat to other parents whose kids are also away at school, or who have been through the experience. Definitely try to buddy up with any parents whose child might be at the same school as your child at the same time.
- Get the numbers of a couple of friendly taxi services based near your child’s school recommended by school or other parents.
- Pin down a couple of friends/family members who you think might be able to step up in an unexpected emergency. (your child will need a UK guardian anyway, though there are guardian services that you can pay for).
- Remember, your child might call you just to ‘download’ about all that is difficult about her life at that moment and the call will be terrible. But take heart, at least they will feel a lot better afterwards, (while you are ready to slit your wrists!) – thanks to my sister-in-law for warning me about this one.