A Happy School For Bright Girls, That's What They Called It

When I was eleven, as I have mentioned, I left my family and my life in Hong Kong to attend an all-girls boarding school in the leafy village of Bramley, England. To this day, if you want to make my mother cry, you can say "hey, remember in 1991 when you sent Holly to school 6,000 miles away? When she was eleven? Because you wanted her to have a better education?" Sometimes I bring it up when I really want something from her. Then I hand her a suitcase and some carry-on luggage and say "Bon voyage! Have a good guilt trip!"

You should know that everything you've heard about all-girls English boarding schools is true. We french-braided each other's hair and had midnight feasts and helped each other with our math homework by flashlight. Some girls snuck out after lights-out to throw up in the toilet stalls, some snuck out to hang out with the Bramley Boys, a troupe of local young men who made Kevin Federline look like George Clooney. I knew several girls who made out with the gym teacher. The female gym teacher, that is.

Apart from the first year, boarding school was sort of like one long pajama party, except with way more Latin and Chemistry than one would normally ever want at a pajama party. We were sequestered, during the first year, in the junior boarding house, which smelled perpetually like boiled knickers and was run alternately by a cranky old bitch called Mrs. Wales and a curiously pretty but single woman in her early 40s called Miss Cripps, who would often pull back the shower curtains at random and say "Oh! I didn't know there was anyone in there!" (Yes, Miss Cripps, that's why the water was running in the stall. AND WHY MY FEET WERE VISIBLE BENEATH THE SHOWER CURTAIN.)

We had special tins called "tuck boxes" which were kept in a locked cupboard under the stairs; on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights, we were allowed to choose one or two pieces of candy from them, and consume it in front of the television (which was off-limits on all other nights.) We were allowed our gameboys and walkmans over the weekend only. If we were caught talking after lights-out, we had to stand in Mrs. Wales' hallway for half an hour, while she watched the evening news in her room. If we were caught twice in a row, we had to get up at 6am to pick up litter from the school grounds. While we were allowed, thank goodness, to shower every day, we had to do so in a shower cap; Mrs. Wales washed our hair over the bathroom sink once a week. (YES, ONCE A WEEK. I had some damn greasy bangs, I'll tell you that.) We weren't allowed to use the telephone during our first year, although luckily I had a friend who was several years older and thus had telephone privileges. In a covert, complex, underground move that would rival Operation Desert Storm, she'd often sneak me upstairs and pace nervously outside the phone room, keeping a watchful eye out while I shakily dialed my family in Hong Kong. The food was awful. When I went home for the first time at Christmas break, a couple of months before my 12th birthday, I'd lost ten pounds.

But like I said, this was all in the first year. Once, aged twelve, we left the junior boarding house and got into the main boarding house, life was a fucking picnic. We ate what we wanted, when we wanted. We used the phone when we felt like it---to make and receive calls. We watched all the TV we could handle, and we did the Cher workout video in the evenings after we'd done our homework. We could walk down into the village to buy candy and meet boys and---for those who wanted to, and frankly it never held much appeal for me---sneak cigarettes behind the old people's home, while keeping an eye out for errant teachers, who would often walk down into the village themselves. We had to wear our blazers at all times when in public. We frequently got in trouble for rolling up our skirts.

The weirdest part was the tradition of "raiding." When I look back on it now, I realize that it was probably totallly illegal---in fact, the school officially banned it the year I left, after having turned a blind eye to it for decades and decades---but this was the early 90s in a small village in the south of England, and no-one really knew any better. Raiding was just a tradition, handed down over generations of tough-spirited English school girls, and it was pretty much just what you did. During your first year in the main boarding house, you could expect to be raided at least once a week by the girls in the years above. This involved anything from them ransacking your dorm while you were at supper and piling the contents of your wardrobe onto the floor, to stealing packets of cereal from the dining hall and emptying them into your bed while you were at class. Sometimes they came in during the middle of the night and squirted you with water guns. For a period of several weeks, one particularly malicious 15-year-old would barge into the room religiously at 2am, turn the lights on, and then leave. Sick of it all, we finally fashioned a device with which to catch her out: we fixed a wad of molding putty to the light switch and planted thumb tacks in it, pointy side out. Unfortunately, that was the one night she didn't come in to taunt us. Instead our boarding house mistress was the one who slammed her palm into the thumbtacks at 7am the next morning, when she came to wake us up for breakfast. I've never heard such swearing in my life.

The biggest raid of all was the Upper Fifth Raid, which was conducted at the very end of the summer term by the girls in the equivalent of tenth grade. It was a tradition awarded them as the oldest girls in the main boarding house (those in eleventh and twelfth grade---otherwise known as Sixth Form---had their own boarding house.) The thinking behind this grand poobah of raids was that everyone who was doing the raiding had had to suffer the indignity of the raid themselves in years past; thus, anything was fair game. For weeks---sometimes months---beforehand, they'd prepare for the momentous occasion, stealing everyone's knickers from the laundry room so they could string them in great long lines across the front of the school, drawing up "hit lists" of girls they planned to target particularly harshly, and stealing eggs from the dining room, which they cracked on top of our heads. One year, the girls from Upper Fifth threw everyone in the school pond. Another year, they chased us around the school grounds with hoses spouting ice cold water, throwing handfuls of flour at us until we were all unidentifiable sticky messes. Once, they put green food coloring in the milk at breakfast; another time they planted a huge pile of steaming manure on the headmistress' front lawn and diverted traffic through the school's driveway. The raid always took place at six in the morning. You stayed up all night preparing for it. Or, if you weren't in Upper Fifth, worrying about it.

When it was our turn, we toilet-papered the front of the school, moved all the furniture from several classrooms outside, and stayed up all night strewing pilfered knickers and bras through hallways. We rang the school bell at six a.m, then made everyone clamber over an obstacle course of desks and chairs we'd pushed into the corridors of the dorms. We chased everyone around a bit and threw things at them, and then it was over and we had to clean it all up. That was the last year the teachers turned a blind eye to the Upper Fifth raid. After that, it was banned.

If life in the main boarding house was a piece of cake, the two years I spent in the Sixth Form house were a blast. For a start, the Sixth Form house had a bar. You could buy little drink tickets with money your parents put into an account at the beginning of term, and on Friday nights, if nothing else was going on, you could request the keys to the bar and help yourself to whatever you wanted. Most weekends, I didn't stay at school, though. By that point, I was what they called a weekly boarder---I lived at school from Monday to Friday, and I spent the weekends at friends' houses, going out to pubs and eating Sunday roasts cooked by other people's mothers, or holed up reading Shakespeare at the empty apartment my parents had bought close by.

It was a funny way to grow up, and sometimes I miss it. After all, I lived with the same girls, day in and day out, for seven years. They had parents in Kenya and Atlanta and Paris and Athens and Nigeria, and sometimes their parents just lived right down the road. We shared clothes and secrets and boyfriends and teachers, we saw each other in towels and school uniform and all dressed up with fake I.D.s in our pockets, ready to go out on a Friday night.

I still have a bizarre urge to walk on the right hand side whenever I'm in a place with a corridor, and every so often I smell the perfume of the deputy headmistress, or remember a fragment of a hymn we used to sing at morning assembly, or catch myself wondering if my shoes are shiny enough or if I've remembered to sign out for the weekend, or whether or not I'll get up in time to grab the best shower, the one that never runs out of hot water. And then I remember that those things don't really have anything to do with my life anymore. And sometimes I'm sort of sad about it, but most of the time, I have to say, I'm fairly glad.

Apr 27, 2006

What fantastic writing! I felt like I was right there with you. You do know that growing up in Boarding School makes you seem even more interesting and exotic, right? I can't even imagine sending one of my kids to another country at age 11 and trusting that total strangers will look after them and keep them safe.

I can also completely understand your last two sentences. Just today I had an email from a High School friend wanting to know if I wanted to get together with her and some of our old gang. And honestly, no I don't. That was a long time ago and not what my life is about now. Great post.

Apr 27, 2006

My entire life growing up, I wanted to go to boarding school in England. Considering that I was a) American and b) broke, as was my family, there was basically no way on fucking God's giant green earth it was going to happen. I can't remember what I was reading, but it was something along the lines of Harry Potter, if Harry Potter were around when I was a kid. I romanticized the whole idea and spent the better part of a few years begging to be sent off to a quaint boarding school in the English countryside. I hasten to add that I had great parents, so it wasn't an escape as much as a desire to experience what you just described. And, be Harry Potter-like or whatever it was I was reading (wtf WAS that? It will drive me nuts)

And see, you're making it sound as romantic as I thought it was then. Bah. I can now use it to make *my* parents feel guilty, "Remember when I wanted to go to an English boarding school? AND YOU WOULD NOT LET ME?"

Or not.

Irony Queen
Apr 27, 2006

How exactly does one find a boarding school? Because methinks that after a decade with children, I will be ready to ship them 15,000 miles away to be somebody else's problem!

Also, as someone who attended a TEENY TINY private school for those formative middle school years (and lived to tell the tales), I'm curious to know how many girls were in your school/class.

Apr 27, 2006

What a great story, sooooo unlike my teen school experience.

I freaking loathed virtually every minute of high school.

Nothing But Bonfires
Apr 27, 2006

Jonniker, was it the Malory Towers series by Enid Blyton? Or St Clare's? Those were the books that made me want to go to boarding school. They had midnight feasts, like, EVERY NIGHT. They constantly drank ginger beer, and hid frogs in the French teacher's desk, and they all had names like Gigi and Carlotta.

Apr 27, 2006

Oh, and screw anyone who busts your chops about the ads.

Apr 27, 2006

YES YES, Malory Towers. YES! Thank you. Because God, there would not have been any sleeping going on until I remembered that.

And I also remembered that it was this movie called The Worst Witch, starring Tim Curry, and I was pretty sure if I went to boarding school, not only was I going to be having midnight feasts and be named something elegant, but I would also be a witch. In a uniform that had a smock, preferably black.

Apr 27, 2006

Holly, have you read Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go? Read it. Now.

Apr 27, 2006

Ha! I too, had a deep and (mostly) unfounded desire to go to a boarding school - there were a couple of posh, co-ed ones in our town that cost the earth, plus no English or French accents, so ... why bother, right? You've totally reminded me WHY I wanted to attend in the first place - also "Upper Fifth" sounds far more posh then "freshman" or "sophmore". (Really... considering the fact that sophmore means "wise fool" .. why would one ever want to be called that? Ugh!). Well done! Please m'am, can we have just ONE MORE boiled sweet?

Apr 27, 2006

I must say this was a great post. Your childhood is truly unique and I look forward to hearing more stories. I went to private school and I must say your "prank" reminded me of the war that went on between the boys and girls in my school. I once came out to my car to find it overflowing with newspapers. The newspapers were coming out of my sun roof, I opened the driver’s door and all of a sudden I was swimming in papers that exploded out of the car. Fun memories.

Apr 27, 2006

Are your parents British? Just curious as to whether the British accent that I remember to 'use' when reading your posts is solely the result of these (somewhat strange) boarding school years, or if you always had it

Apr 27, 2006

Also, I haven't been seeing the banner on your site since the redesign, yet my browser (Firefox) settings should allow it. Is it just me....?

Apr 27, 2006

I was obsessed with Carlotta and her Spanish, circus ways. She could ride a horse bareback, you know.

Apr 27, 2006

De-lurking to say, great post!
I went to bording school in England too, and I have to say you captured it perfectly. My school was co-ed and in Surrey, but nearly exactly as you described. Your last two paragraphs about missing it sometimes? I couldn't agree more.
I wouldn't trade the experience for anything in the world.

Liberal Banana
Apr 27, 2006

It must've been hard to be away from your parents and to deal with those strict rules in the beginning - but once things got better it sounds like a total blast! It's completely different from what those of us who grew up living with no one but their immediate families experienced. We'd all have to make special arrangements just to go play with a friend for a few hours after school. So constantly having friends around, growing up with them right by your side, sounds absolutely wonderful to me. Do you still keep in touch with the girls you were closest to?

Apr 27, 2006

It sounds like a REEEEEALLY extended summer camp - to me, the worst part would have been being so far from my family. Good idea to write all your memories down, catch all those little details for later. I bet as you get older, those memories get fonder.

jenny lee
Apr 27, 2006

i really enjoyed reading this post. not that i don't enjoy the other posts, but this one had sort of a 'dead poet's society' ring to it.

Apr 27, 2006

Your always a joy to read. This post reminds me of the time at college we filled a guys dorm room to the ceiling with spanish moss.

Apr 27, 2006

Just stumbled onto your blog and what a great post! I went to a private girls school in Canada (of the British tradition) and this is the first time I've read a piece that really captures the spirit of that time and place. I've never found the same kind of fierce friendships since leaving there, but I'm with you--even though sometimes it makes me sad to think about, I'm mostly very glad I've moved on.

As well, if I learned anything at that school it was how to handle any skirt in high wind which has proved to be an invaluable life skill.

Apr 27, 2006

I have been waiting for you to write this entry since you first started blogging - I AM SO GLAD YOU FINALLY DID IT! I totally feel like I'm living vicariously through you, and I can imagine myself in your place in everything you described.

Except I can't imagine it in an English accent, because I don't have one. That takes more concentration than I'm willing to give.

Apr 27, 2006

I, too, have been wanting to hear more about your boarding school days. This was awesome. I can't believe those raids, though - that the teachers actually turned a blind eye to that for so many years! Wow.

Apr 27, 2006

Oh, Holly, I loved this. That was a brilliant look into a world I know little about, having gone to fairly perilous public schools all my growing up years.

And as someone who worked at rich-kid summer camps for three months every summer from age 15 to age 27 -- when I became the director! -- let me tell you that summer camp is a) way more lax; b) way more full of owls; and c) much, much more full of boys (why do you think I stayed so long?)

Apr 27, 2006

I LOVED that story. I've been fascinated by boarding schools ever since I was a child.

The molding putty and the thumbtacks - priceless.

Apr 27, 2006

My boyfriend was sent to boarding schools in South Africa and England as a child, and I always thought that was rather mean, like his mother didn't like him enough to keep him around or something. Did you feel that way when you were there? (For the record, he said he loved it.)

Apr 27, 2006

Wow. It sounds just like I read in all the books. Thanks for sharing -- you brought it all to life!

Apr 27, 2006

Wow. It's just so completely different to the way I grew up. All that hazing sounds SO exhausting! I suppose it's a good thing you're female, because all too many of the boys' boarding school stories I've heard involved buggery -- I recall one guy complaining that "they buggered me senseless." (I suppose if you're bored and looking for trouble to get into, you just use whatever materials are at hand, so to speak.)

Apr 27, 2006

Anyone else grow up having a profound desire to go to boarding school based entirely on The Facts of Life and having a house mother like Mrs. Garrett?

jenny lee
Apr 27, 2006

not me, but i always wanted to be blaire lol

Nothing But Bonfires
Apr 27, 2006

Liberal Banana, I'm in touch with a few of them here and there. It sort of comes and goes, depending on who can be bothered to e-mail. I'm hoping to catch up with some of them when I'm back in England next month, including one or two I haven't seen since I was 16!

Caroline, No, I never felt like I was being "sent away" or anything, or like my parents didn't love me. If anything, I think they felt FAR worse about it than I did. It was just kind of the right thing to do. Of course, I got horribly homesick, but for the most part, I had a good time, and I'm glad I went. I mean, I turned out okay, I guess.

Apr 28, 2006

I have read your postings before on other peoples' websites, but hadn't made it here. Great story! I wanted desperately to go to boarding school after reading "The Girls of Canby Hall" and watching the "Facts of Life." I actually did for one semester in southern MN, and it was a blast. Too expensive for my parents ultimately, but great fun. And my all-male English class was probably the best part. Hee.

Apr 28, 2006

That was a great post. I agree with what some of the others have said. I felt like I knew where you were coming from in a way.

When I was younger, I wanted to be home schooled like my best friend and next door neighbor was. However, my parents understood that her folks were crazy Bible thumpers and that home school was not the place for me. So, I did public school all the way through and I know for a fact it made a difference. My friend from back then eventually got married. However, she never dated her husband. Instead he courted her for exaclty one year, through her father. They got married without ever kissing. Yeah, it's just one of the reasons that I never got to do home school.

Apr 28, 2006

What about the time those girls were talking after Lights Out and the houseparent yelled QUIET, YOU'LL WAKE THE DEAD GIRLS!! And though she meant to say, you'll wake the dead, girls, it instead sounded as if the school housed some sort of closet of dead girls who were sleeping.

Apr 28, 2006

I just wanted to introduce myself. I've been reading you for a while now and thought it only fair to say, "HI!" I absolutely love your writing, which provides me with a little zest on otherwise mundane work days. So thanks for that!

Apr 28, 2006

I just want you to know that I still cannot get over the whole washing-your-hair-once-a-week-thing. I think I had a nightmare about it last night. And then I got up and took a shower and washed my hair.

Nothing But Bonfires
Apr 28, 2006

Oh, it was awful. After a while, we started taking our shower caps off in the shower and washing our hair ANYWAY, and then if Mrs. Wales asked why our hair was wet, we'd say our shower cap had accidentally fallen off. Then my friend Beth's mother wrote a strongly-worded letter about how ridiculous it was that we weren't trusted to wash our own hair. Nothing changed though. I think Mrs. Wales always harbored some secret desire to be a hairdresser, and she just liked washing our hair over the sink. Of course, Miss Cripps liked it MORE, but I always managed to dodge the days she was volunteering.

Apr 28, 2006

What an excellent post, Holly!

My older sister went to boarding school, and I came so close when I began high school -- but ultimately decided to stay in the same little local private school I'd been going to since pre-kindergarten. I think I stayed because of what you talked about -- these were the girls (and boys for me) that I'd grown up with. We left to go home at the end of the day though, and part of me feels a little envious when DK talks about that "in it together" comraderie of boarding school, the finding the little (now so innocent-seeming) ways to subvert the rules, the rituals.

Apr 30, 2006

Oh! I'd forgotten about only being allowed to wash hair once a week. This was at prep school rather than senior school though, so probably not quite as vile, having not yet hit puberty.

May 02, 2006

OMG! Stop. I'm having too many flashbacks and I'm starting to panic.

I thought only WE had specially designated tuck times in which to choose only THREE pieces of 'tuck'?! You mean this was actually a boarding school-wide practice?! Oh, this brings back SO many memories (most of which I made a hypnotist quite a lot of money to make me forget)!

The walks into the village to meet with 'townies', ciggies (fags), Latin class, blazers, itchy tweed skirts, game skirts (remember those?!). Yes, I'm fairly certain we, at one point, played netball against each other. And, if I recall correctly, we did fairly well in the sport. Except, of course, against those Rodean girls. Damn those wenches.

Wait. WE too had a Mrs. Wales at Wadhurst College! Did your Mrs. Wales have dyed blond hair, teach English and speak as though she'd just had a bad (really really tight) face lift? Oh my. LMOA re: the gym teacher. Yes. There's something about leaving a bunch of girls holed up in a junior boarding house with nothing to do that makes you wonder...

And oh yes, who could forget those hymns? To this day: I still know all the words to "In the Bleak Mid Winter", "Tell out my Soul" (all versions), "The Magnificat", "Onward Christian Soldiers" and various other Anglican songs that only a girl who's survived boarding school in Southern England could possibly know; I remember boarding school when I hear songs by AHa or other Brit Pop songs in the 80s; and to this day, whenever I hear the word 'coach', I think not of a football coach, but of that long bus that ferried us Under 14s back and forth to various netball matches, toting trays of sliced oranges ready for our mid-play refreshments.


A million thanks for the (funny, lucid, scary at intervals but nevertheless endearing) trip down memory lane!!! Best of luck to you!


May 09, 2006

I loved this post. I also looooved Malory Towers and St. Clares when I was younger and wouldn't mind reading some of them again now for a bit of fun. You've even got me yearning for ginger beer and anchovy paste. Not that I've ever had anchovy paste.