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.