Sunday, 10 March 2013

The reluctant boarder 1984-89

The town where I went to school. The imposing school buildings are on the far right, up on the cliff

In 1984, I started at an all girls boarding school in a seaside town. Just like in Enid Blyton's stories, the school was perched right on the cliffs of the coast. There was a rough shingle beach, the North sea in which we were strictly forbidden to swim, and beach huts behind which people went to smoke and snog boys.  (That sure didn't happen in Malory Towers).

I had an idealised vision of what boarding school was to be like. The girls would be tomboyish, and full of pranks, always up for a midnight feast. Teachers would either be firm but fair, or eccentric and tease-able. We'd be having so much fun we wouldn't have time to miss our parents. Would we?

I think my heart first started to sink when we arrived at the first year girls' boarding house and noticed a "bath rota" pinned to the noticeboard telling us at what point in the week could we have our bath. Basically, three times a week, once with a hairwash. There were no showers, not even a shower attachment, so you had to wash your hair in a sink and rinse it with a cup.  (It turned out that the first year girls were instantly recognisable in school from their greasy, unwashed hair.) And the bathroom doors did not have locks, so that Matron could come in and check you were actually in the bath (as if you wouldn't be, considering how infrequently you could wash).

Then there was our housemistress, Miss J. She was a  Northern Irishwoman in her mid 40s, with chalky white makeup and a cross around her neck; creepily charming to the parents, but with unsmiling bird-like pale blue eyes that hinted at a bitter core. It turned out she was renowned throughout the school as an utter sadist.

She spent her time drumming into us that we were horribly spoiled, and that if we were homesick, we were awful girls for letting our parents down. In the first three weeks, three girls tried to run away. Others sobbed themselves to sleep at night. I wasn't one of them - the initial excitement hadn't yet worn off - but after the first half term back with our parents - after which mine returned to Hong Kong - it dawned on me that a)I lived here now b) I didn't like it and c)I really, really missed my parents and my home.

The next few years were tough. In the first year, Miss J made my life a misery; no doubt she saw me as a spoilt, privileged little expat and my lively streak was ruthlessly suppressed.  Later on, while I made some good friends at the school, and there were some pranks and mischief and fun and and hilarity in the dorms I never really came to enjoy boarding, and basically lived for the school holidays. (If you want to know how I feel about my own kids and boarding school, I wrote it about here).

In the second year, I was finally rid of the grim Miss J and moved into the senior boarding house. This was much less strict (you could have luxuries such as a shower, and a hairdryer! and you could phone your parents more than once a week!) and our housemistress was firm but fair, more in the Enid Blyton mould.

Unfortunately, I happened to have been grouped with a handful of spiteful, snobbish bullies who made my life a misery for at least two years. Together with three other girls (who became my close friends, something I posted about here), I was mercilessly picked on. Looking back the reason is clear; we were misfits. Unlike them, the three of us were not from a Sloaney, East Anglian county-type background that involved dogs and horses and hunting.  We were also all relatively "brainy".

At one point, I begged my parents to move me to another school and I believe they seriously considered it. Might it have changed things? I just don't know. I guess it was a learning experience. I learned to avoid the bullies, and meanwhile forged a strong bond with my friends. But for a few years, I became a quieter, more withdrawn person, losing the confidence I'd had as a child. My self-esteem plummeted; for years thought of myself as an unattractive "swot" - well, that was what those bullies said about me. Looking back, I can see that this was just not true; I was a perfectly good-looking teenager (thought not in an obvious way - I didn't know how to apply make up and my dress sense tended towards the unfortunate Laura Ashley style popular at the time), clever and still good at acting (I was always in school plays and gained high marks in my LAMDA drama exams). But, like an anorexic looking in the mirror and seeing a fat person, I just could not see it.

At least back in Hong Kong, I felt like my old self ; confident and outgoing, rather than the shyer person I had become at school. As teenagers, my friends and I had a ball: roaming the streets of Hong Kong buying cheap clothes and plastic jewellery with our pocket money, or hanging out at the club playing tennis and swimming. Christmas holidays were the best.  There were New Year's Eve parties (which always involved Scottish dancing and charades), Christmas carols and cocktail parties galore. At 14 on New Year's Eve, I had my first kiss behind the garages behind our new home, a colonial block of flats up on the top of the Peak.

At 15, I met my first boyfriend, on the plane to Hong Kong from school. It wasn't a grand passion by any means, but we had fun going to the cinema together and attending our first grown-up "balls". Then another boy came on the scene; we also met on the plane ( a funny story; Jason Donovan, then at the height of his post-Neighbours fame, was on our flight, and he tried to persuade me to come and get his autograph with him. Sadly, the stewardesses would not allow us). He was much older (21), could drive AND his parents had a boat, which he could also drive. While again I wasn't madly in love, the boat and car were definite bonuses. I was beginning to come out of my shell.

And then in 1989, everything changed again.

First: the school announced that they were changing the criteria for the sixth form, a ruse by the new headmistress to make it more academic. (Sadly she failed; five years later, the school went bankrupt). Anyone who did not achieve at least five Cs at GCSE would have to leave and go elsewhere.  I was ecstatic. It meant the group of bullies, who had no hope of this level academic achievement, were forced to leave. Having gained an academic scholarship, I went into the sixth form far happier than ever before at the school, feeling as if a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

But after one half term of the Lower Sixth, there was life-changing news. My father announced he was leaving his job. There were various reasons, plus, my mother was unhappy; she wanted to live in England again. The combination was enough for him to resign and move the family back to the UK, where we owned a farmhouse in Suffolk. That Christmas would be our last in Hong Kong. I understood the reasons, but deep down, I was devastated. Hong Kong was my home; I would never, ever think of England in the same way.


Nota Bene said...

Having known you for so long, I'm so pleased to be reading this and getting to know you more...I hope you are making progress?

Kit said...

Oh bath rotas and hair washing with a cup in a sink! I started boarding school in 1976, the year of a very hot summer and drought. We were only allowed two baths a week and six inches of water. Hair washing was a separate once a week event again with a rota. We also had an Irish matron with a sharp tongue. And county girls with sharp eyes. Must have been even harder for you being so far from home.

MsCaroline said...

I am finding this fascinating - the limited bathing and hair washing especially - I thought that sort of thinking (weekly hairwashes and not-daily bathing) was more of a 50s and 60s thing. Of course, I remember living in Germany in the 80s and our landlord was very cross with us because we all showered daily - water-wasting Americans. The more of this I'm reading, the more I think it needs to become a novel - such interesting/exotic settings. So enjoying reading your memories and hope they're providing a little 'escape.' x

Melissa said...

Well now you've ruined my thoughts on boarding, which I admit always ran towards the Mallory Towers way of life. But it sounds so interesting. Hope you're enjoying remembering it all. I found it a really liberating and eye opening experience as to why I am who I am today

Iota said...

I await each installment of your life eagerly. Such good reading, and a wonderful window into you as you are today.

It makes me feel somewhat helpless as a parent. For all the effort we put into helping our children develop self-esteem, it can all be ruined by a group of mean kids. I think that kind of bullying, or whatever you want to label it, is much more likely to be noticed and stamped on these days, but even so, children have ways of building each other up and tearing each other down. I'm so glad you had those lovely three friends.

I'm so sad about your lively streak being ruthless suppressed. Has it come back? Is it still waiting in the wings a little? When you're back to health, maybe you can tend it!

Expat mum said...

What a shame. I imagine one consolation (if that's the right word) is probably that your mother was just as miserable as you were. It would've been quite hard to think that she was living a glorious expat life while you were squirreled away in England.
Thank goodness most boarding schools these days seem to have wised up and realised that you can't treat kids like that and expect to stay in business.

planb said...

Ah... the sweet smell of cabbage and homesickness.

Takes me back...

Very interesting to read someone else's experiences. I was at the school that allegedly St Clare's is based on, and like you felt rather let down it wasn't like that.

The thing I find most heartbreaking now though is that there were clearly lots of us dotted round these schools that felt like we didn't fit in yet we never found each other...

nappy valley girl said...

NB - thanks, and I will email you separately...

Kit - that sounds even worse! six inches of water, how appalling.

MsCaroline - it wasn't like that in the rest of the school, just the first year house for some reason. Just the youngest, most vulnerable girls....sigh.

Melissa - yes I am finding it interesting. Stirs up things I'd really forgotten!

Iota - the lively streak has always been there. It's a bit buried at the moment, though.

Expat Mum - you are right about my mother, of course. It wasn't a good thing for her at all.

planB - Interested to hear about your school, I wonder which one it was? Yes, lots of unhappy boarders. Today I am sure they would have their own social network!

Michelloui | The American Resident said...

How sad, but how beautifully written. I do find these stories of British Boarding school life really tragic. But I can see there was no other option, not really for many families. My husband boarded and it was the best thing for him, but his circumstances were very very different--both before he arrived at boarding school and while there.