“This is the court of hops....and hops must be obeyed”
It’s funny, I had forgotten that phrase until a friend reminded me of it recently, and then slowly, but surely, my blood started to turn cold....
A couple of days ago I joined an old school group; I was resistant at first, as I thought it would bring back some pretty bad memories. I was right in some ways, and wrong in others.
It’s amazing the way the mind filters our memories. Some of the girls loved the school, and remembered it with rose tinted glasses, others felt more like me. Memories that we find traumatic, we either file them away somewhere, or we use them to shape the people we become as adults.
When I was eleven I was sent to an all girl’s boarding school in Garboldisham for 2 years, then Felixstowe College for five years. Felixstowe closed it's doors for good in 1994.
Before the stereotype of ‘rich girl’ is thrown about, there were alot of international students, a few on scholarships and others who had been funded by extended family members or other educational funds. There were also those of us, who's parents were breaking their backs to afford the fees as they thought we were getting an excellent education. I can tell you, for the record, we were not. The school was actually not too bad if you were academic or sporty. If you were creative, or different in any way, they threw you to the wolves. So I basically had the pick of the lot. Disabled, single parent family [at the start] AND I was creative. Well, just shoot me now I say!
You spent 3 weeks away from your parents at a time. Phone calls weren’t permitted until you were older, as the teachers thought contact would make us more upset. Sleepless nights, in a strange place, homesickness crashing over you like waves. You were only allowed to wash your hair once a week, and bath twice a week [to save water] we had to strip wash at sinks in a mouldy bathroom between our much cherished baths. It is no doubt why I love my baths today. Being not particularly sporty [surprise surprise] my hell was a double hockey lesson, in winter, and being told to run around 2 hockey pitches just to ‘warm up’ Oh and by the way, all we were wearing was aertex shirts and PE skirts...that’s it. Then there was the lovely initiation ceremony that we had in our house for the younger girls. It was a riddle that had to be solved. We were told to stand on a table facing the girls in the year above us. Every time we got the riddle wrong, we had to remove a piece of clothing. This was to humble...and humiliate us. And it worked. At my prep boarding school, if we were naughty, we had to stand outside our dorm rooms with just a night dress and slippers on, facing the wall, for much longer than was actually necessary. If we were REALLY naughty you were hit with a slipper or hairbrush. Then, there were the bullies. Oh how they loved me. “Come on Lisa, chase us, did we upset you, poor diddums....come on spazzy, chase us, because you can’t hop along, can you? RETARD!” Lucky for me, over the years, I learnt to fight back with my brain. Not my fists. [Although every now and then, they would come in useful]
Enid Blyton.....Oh how she lied.
Before this begins to sound like a case for child abuse, I do have good memories. I still have friends today from that time. One of the definitions of friendship I hold most dear, is the memory of my friend Emma picking me up after one of my ‘falls’ which happened quite often. [You also had to be virtually dying before they sent you to the school nurse, when I used to faint with period pains, they told me to ‘go for a run’ Painkillers were not allowed] In fact when I started my period in maths class at 14 [ironic as Maths was also my idea of hell on earth] my house matron at the time, literally threw a pack of sanitary pads at me, and told me ‘to get on with it’ A tearful phone call to my father that evening managed to make me feel more human. I got a hug over the phone, which was the best I could hope for.
I had one of my predictable falls walking from the dining room to school one morning. Every girl either walked past me, or over me, or ON me. Except Emma. She was the only one to stop, pick me, brush me off, and walk with me the rest of the way, walking on the outside to catch me in case I fell again. In fact 26 years later, she often still does it by default when we walk down the street. If you want a definition of friendship. You have it. Right there.
Or the patience of my friends Caroline and Vicky when I insisted covering my walls with Skid Row, Aerosmith, Guns n’ Roses, Pantera, Iron Maiden, LA Guns and Alice Cooper posters. They endured my ....as they put it ‘terrible taste in music’. To be fair, they had a point. The acceptance of certain girls, despite my difference. The care and compassion of some of the older girls, who hugged me for hours while I was sobbing with homesickness. The younger girls who thought I was ‘cool’ for being different, and who I looked after in turn when they were having hard times. The sense of loyalty we felt towards each other when one of the teachers turned on us. To be a snitch, was never an option. The lovely feeling of having your own personal space when you were sick, and sent to bed early. The whole dormitory to yourself. It was bliss. Boys [who we were told were ALL undesirables] smoking, and drinking were all a part of our later years. Although I had been ‘asked to leave’ by then [ahem] I was invited back for the official leavers ball. There were boys. Lots of them. Army boys, boys from the local schools, friends brothers. It was like Sodom and Gomorrah. By the end of the night, girls had put all the common room tables together, and what can only be described as an orgy was taking place. Meanwhile, I was busy in a cupboard somewhere snogging my friend Rachel’s brother, wearing knee high suede boots, and a tight red short velvet dress. I looked like a hooker. How I got out of the house looking like that, I will never know. This is still problem with single sex boarding schools I feel. Too many heightened hormones, and no real understanding of sex or relationships. I’m surprised not more of us got pregnant. It wasn’t until my 6th form college that I learnt to be friends with boys. Their advice and perspective on things educated me greatly, and I still value it today.
And then there was my English teacher Miss Bullock. Possibly the most terrifying teacher in the school. Hard as nails. Smoked 2 packs a day, thin as a rake and with eyes that could pierce your very soul. You either loved her...or hated her. She didn’t suffer fools, and would quite happily chuck things at you if you were being idiotic. Her lessons were approached with dread, but inspiration, for me at least. Most of the other teachers [bar my drama teacher] saw me as a stupid girl. So stupid in fact that they didn’t allow me to do Maths GCSE [I no doubt would have lowered their overall scoring as a school, and they couldn’t possible have that] I sat in the library learning reams and reams of Shakespeare for a local drama competition, whilst my fellow classmates were writing about algebra and very long division. And quite rightly, my father kicked up merry hell when he found out. Truly terrible educating when you think about it. Not Miss Bullock. She would trawl the lines of girls, throwing the exercise books down on the desks and poking them with a tar stained finger saying ‘this Lisa....THIS was good. Well Done’ it was the best and only compliment that passed her lips, and it was like gold dust. One afternoon, she called me back after class. I assumed I was about to get a bollocking, and I was frankly, shitting bricks. I still remember her words:
‘Lisa, you are not stupid. At all. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are. You are articulate, you can use words well. You have a great future ahead of you. Don’t waste it”
To this day, she is still the most important teacher I have ever had.
Or my drama teacher, Mrs Dann, who for some reason, thought I was quite good and made me do all my L.A.M.D.A exams, which were the preliminaries to get into RADA in those days. Regardless it gave me confidence to speak in public [a skill I have completely lost these days unfortunately] and allowed me to express myself when I felt silenced by everything around me. It transpired that RADA would have never cast a ‘Juliette with a limp’ so my future as a world famous actress playing Kate in Taming of The Shrew was cut short after A Levels.
If I had children now, would I send them to boarding school? Absolutely not. To start with, the fees have quadrupled. Even if my child requested to go, I would ask myself why they didn’t want to be at home in the first place. However, a couple of my boarding school friends have sent their children and they are thriving. It really depends on the child and the personality. Of course boarding schools have changed immensely now too. What did boarding school teach me? To emotionally survive. Also to make my bed, 3 layers deep with perfect hospital corners so you could bounce a 10p coin on them. To shine my shoes, the old fashioned way. To cope on my own. To be independent. To know, understand and respect people from all four corners of this earth. To live with pain, both emotional and physical. To understand that your parents can’t always be there. To realise just how strong you can be.
There is much more to write here, and perhaps I will at a later date, these are just the memories that have been swimming around my head in the last few days.
As my friend Emma said - ‘It was a rotten school, but it built character’
I have mixed feelings about that, and I always will.