Wednesday 9 December 2020

Boarding Schools 6: More about the Convent

In my first few weeks at the Convent (I was 10), a much older girl told me to tell another girl (Pippa Leonard) that there was a phone call for her. I couldn't speak to older girls. I couldn’t say “No”, or “I don’t know who she is”, so I just didn't do the task. Later the first girl found me and said "I told you to give her the message and you didn't, did you!" She was furious. She said, “Ooh, I could crown you!”

In that first term, one of the younger nuns got us to choose and prepare a piece from a book, and read it into a tape recorder. I chose a little Victorian girl talking about her lovely new outfit and “merino fan”, and read it in a squeaky affected voice. Afterwards, older girls were cruel to me about my performance, claiming they couldn’t hear a word I’d said. (I was at the back of the room and the nun didn’t think to bring us up to the microphone.) Of course they were trying to test our reading skills without our being aware, or humiliating anybody. The older girls were still at the “thee – cat – sat – on – thee – mat” stage.

When we were about 14, we were made to memorise 25 lines of poetry once a week, and recite them one after another in class. Our teacher, Miss Kirby, endured 20 children reciting in a monotone without any expression or understanding. One week we were given “Friends, Romans, countrymen”. Independently, Antonia and I decided to learn the whole speech, not just the 25 lines ripped from the middle. Separately, we stood up and delivered the oration as if we were Marc Antony, with great emotion (“You blocks, you stones, you worse than useless things!”). No reaction. At the end of the class Miss Kirby said “Thank you everybody, and” (sneering) “a special thanks to Lucy and Antonia”. No smile. Exit. Soon after that, we were told to write out the lines instead of reciting them. After several decades, I put two and two together: we had raised the bar too high.

Our marks for the week were averaged. I couldn’t do maths at all, or physics or chemistry. I was OK with the sciences to start with, they were even interesting, but then one day they became maths. I must have got low, or no, marks for these three subjects every week, so my average looked terrible. I was taken aside one day by an elderly nun who drew me a map on which to record my progress week by week, and told me I must “try harder”. I never filled in the map – I didn’t care what my marks were. And wasn’t it rather dense of the nuns not to see what the problem was?

When I first went to school, we had “tests” at the end of every term. Other girls would “revise” for these. I didn’t know what the word meant. I thought they were testing us on what we remembered. Eventually I began to grasp the concept of revising, so I decided I would do it too, to be like other people and join in the conversation. A friend saw me in the corridor carrying an exercise book. I felt very pleased to be able to show off this badge of normality. But she looked at it and said, “Why are you revising that? We didn’t do that this term.” At the end of one term the art teacher, Miss Walker, told us to “write about a picture”.  I picked Moroni’s The Tailor. She sneered at me and said “But we haven’t studied it this term.” But she’d said “a picture”, not “a picture we’ve studied this term”?

I arrived back at school one September, and we were eating lunch when an older girl (she was supervising our table) asked me: “You must be doing O Levels now?” I replied: “What’s an O Level?” The nuns decided which subjects we’d do. Thankfully I was no longer in the Physics and Chemistry class, but I had to do Maths for two years. The lights came back on when we did geometry, and once a term the maths teacher would set us logic puzzles. Otherwise I just had no idea what was going on. The nuns also had the bright idea of putting us in for exams a year early, so we didn’t do as well as we might have. You'd think my parents might have mentioned O Levels?

Nobody told me that when answering an exam question, you should plan what you're going to say and write a structure. Nobody told me to read over what I’d written. When I’d answered the question, I used to stop, and be terribly bored and play word games because you couldn’t leave the room. Another ex-pupil adds that they barely mentioned external exams to anybody. You just did the curriculum, then sat the exam.

The school didn’t, deep down, really care about our academic progress. Very few of us went on to any kind of higher education. We were all supposed to marry young and have lots of Catholic children. Apart from me, of course – I was never going to get married. That was something everybody just knew, my family included.

I dropped out of doing two of my A levels. Did the nuns ever discuss that with my parents? Did they ever discuss it with me? No. You’d think they would. You’d think they’d ask me what subjects I wanted to do instead. I had a year in hand: I could have moved down a year and done history and French.

Aged about 11, I was leaving the refectory after tea and the nun in charge – let’s call her Sister Mary – told me to stand in the corner. Sister Mary was terrifying. She had a pale face and glittering specs, and shouted at us and pinched our arms as we processed into chapel. She stood in the refectory while we ate, oversaw our behaviour and clicked a fearsome castanet to signal “Stop talking. Clear the tables. Stand up. Say the Angelus”. I stood in the corner by the window and the fruit stands sobbing until my handkerchief was soaked – at least I had one. Pippa Leonard came and asked me if I was all right, but I couldn’t speak. Sister Mary didn’t release me, and eventually I just walked out of the room, and the incident was never spoken of again.

“Exemptions” was a ceremony that took up most of Saturday morning. We sat in the hall with our knees and feet together – no crossing legs or even ankles. The three head nuns sat at a desk with a little box of coloured cards. A fairly high-up nun would read out our names in threes, together with a judgement of our behaviour for the week. (How did they compile the reports? Did the prefects report back? Was there some kind of surveillance network?)

The judgements were printed on the coloured cards: Very Good (dark blue), Good (pale blue), Fair (beige) and Unsatisfactory (I don't think these cards existed). We went up in threes, curtsied, then approached the desk individually to get our card. We curtsied again and went back to our places. Getting “Fair” was a bit like being sent to Purgatory. Unsatisfactory or “no note” were the equivalent of Hell. I can’t remember what I got “no note” for.

Why did Sister Mary put me in the corner? Probably for being "uncontrolled". (A frequent judgement during Exemptions was "Good, for being uncontrolled in the cloister".) It meant "running and shouting", or "raising your voice and dancing about". We were supposed to be "controlled" at all times: walk calmly, keep our elbows in and our voices low.

In the winter, I never went outside, because it was too cold. I dropped out of sport, and hid. They must have known, but they never did or said anything about it. What did my report say? Why weren’t there activities for people who just couldn’t do sport? We could even have done sport with people our own age, instead of a year or two older. Now another ex-pupil tells me that if you didn’t want to do sport you were allowed to go for a walk. Well, for heaven’s sake.

More here, and links to the rest.