Sunday 4 October 2020

Boarding Schools 5: Why I Was Expelled

A school, organisation or religion has a few completely pointless rules. But they are markers: if the children, flock, workers obey the pointless rules, they will obey all the others. Because “a school must have rules”, and “to break one is to break them all”. And “if you doubt one item of Catholic doctrine you are not a Catholic any more and will go to hell and burn for all eternity”. Some of the flock adore the pointless rules and really enjoy forcing the others to follow them “because it’s the way we do it”. Result: most people follow the rules in public, break them if they can avoid being found out, impose them on others, tell everybody how important they are; while accepting the “hell” element as “metaphorical” – ie “imaginary”. But I didn’t know all that at the time (the mid-60s).

I was told not to think about what other people were thinking about me, so I didn’t – until recently. It’s like suddenly acquiring a sixth sense. I never wondered what the nuns were thinking about me, but they must have added up all my odd, or “bad”, behaviour, and I acquired a reputation. I had to be rigidly controlled. When I was told to get out of the swimming pool, and swam to the opposite ladder instead of taking the nearest, I was banned from swimming for the two hottest weeks of the year.

There were hockey, netball and tennis matches against other schools. I never watched them. Winners were announced at an interminable ceremony, with a lot of cheering, at which the whole school were present. I used to bunk off. During one of these farragos, I went for a walk up to the hockey pitches, and came home through a rainstorm, singing at the top of my voice. I was happy. But then I was hauled in to see the Head Nun again, and underwent more hand-patting as she smilingly explained I couldn’t just “follow my bent” but must fit in with society. That was after she’d told me off for getting my clothes soaking wet and making the laundry room nun dry them. I wasn't aware this had happened – I probably changed into my never-worn games clothes.

We had a rather ineffective drama teacher who never managed to put on a play. We read a historical drama which she wanted us to act. She thought it would be a big joke to cast me as the Archbishop of Canterbury. I thought this would be utterly humiliating and begged not to have to do it but she giggled a lot and insisted. I went alone to our classroom and lay face-down on the rug and sobbed. Eventually the school nurse came in (an elderly nun devoid of bedside manner). She made me get up and go to bed, and gave me a sleeping pill. The incident wasn’t mentioned again, and the play was never put on. I was rather too old for toddler tantrums – but it was the only way I knew of getting out of doing anything I simply couldn’t face.

So, how did I get expelled? Let me explain the layout. The school was housed in a Victorian Gothic stately home, with much oak panelling and carving. There was a large room with a fake Tudor fireplace, a minstrels’ gallery, mullioned windows with seats, a TV and a grand piano. Three doors led off it: one to another Gothic hall with a magnificent staircase (pictured), one to the new-built “cloisters” and one to a classroom. It was 9pm in the summer term, and still light. I was in the large room when the Head Nun appeared like a vision in the minstrels' gallery and told me to go to bed. Instead of going through the door into the cloisters (that led to my bedroom), I went into the classroom, which had no other exit. Some younger girls (who’d been playing in the big room) came in and told me that the Head Nun had ordered them to tell me to go to bed immediately. I sent them back to tell her that I wouldn’t. This happened several times.

Eventually I climbed out of the window, and walked round to the building that housed my dormitory. You have to understand that we weren’t allowed outside after a certain time and what I did was simply unthinkable. No more was said about the incident.

Then my mother rang the Head Nun to ask if she could take me out at the weekend. The Head Nun replied: “Take her away and I don’t care if you never bring her back!” My mother, again, was mortified. So I had to leave school, and have my education – academic and social – severely disrupted.

And what had I done? I suppose over the years I’d clocked up a record of “difficult” behaviour. These days wouldn’t somebody send me to a psychologist? Wouldn’t my parents appeal – or ask for reasons? All they knew about our school lives was a report at the end of term. My maths report always read “Must try harder”. I sat in the O Level class with an entirely blank mind for two years, and then was quietly withdrawn from the exam. Nothing was said about it. My ability to do maths (completely absent) was never tested.

And people think I’ve been taught how to do everything – the “proper” way – and don’t need to be told what to do or how to do it. But we had all the advantages and privileges.

From the Head Nun's obituary in the school magazine: Things of which she disapproved were stamped on immediately, but on those which she either thought unimportant or harmless fun, a blind eye was turned, provided of course one was not actually caught – a most valuable lesson for life of the importance of observing the 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not be found out.

More here, and links to the rest.

When Sister April O'Leary contacted me for a contribution to the history of the school she was compiling, I wrote back that the most important lesson the school taught was hypocrisy. She used everybody's offerings without editing or much editorialising. It's a brilliant book. Did I learn the lesson? You decide.

On reflection, I'd obeyed the Head Nun while appearing to disobey her, so she could do nothing about it.

Convents, digested.


  1. Oh goodness it sounds awful. Do you ever compare notes with others who were at the school at the same time as you?

  2. We got back together in our 30s, and spent many happy hours remembering how ghastly it had been! And we're back in touch now, thanks to the internet. My sisters went to the same school and sometimes we vent.

  3. A fascinating narrative and beautifully written. You really were very unfortunate in your schooling

    1. And people persist in thinking I was privileged!

  4. great . Do you compare notes with anothers who were at the school, collage at the same time as you?
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    1. We got together in our 30s and talked a lot of it over.