Monday 4 January 2021

Boarding Schools 7: Yet More about the Convent

Jolly hockeysticks
The convent gave us a list of clothes and equipment which every pupil needed, including a trunk to carry it all in. A sandwich tin for sweets (I still use if for sewing kit). A hockey stick. Hockey boots. Plimsolls. A tennis skirt. A tennis racket. In the summer term of my first year we had one tennis lesson and I discovered that the tennis racket was almost too heavy for me to lift. I suffered through a few games before giving up. There were tennis tournaments every summer, and I and Georgina used to be put down as “reserves”, and tacitly allowed not to join in. But the tennis racket came with me to school every summer term.

We were also obliged to buy an expensive camel-hair coat. These were only worn on outings or when arriving or leaving school. With them went a corded silk scarf in royal blue or mustard – the school colours.

Hockey wasn’t so bad: you don’t have to throw or catch anything, or hit a flying object. We had house matches, and I was once put in goal. I was small and frail – always the smallest in my class because I’d been pushed on a year (or was it two?). Strapped into the goalkeeper’s outfit – shin pads, padded body armour and lead boots – I could not move. So I didn’t. The worst moment came when we had to change ends at half time. I struggled to walk to the other goal, passing the other goalie, a large girl called Nicky. I wish I had fallen over and just lain there.

I was even in one of the teams, but then I heard that we were going to play against Worth, a boys’ school. I was terrified. Boys would be big and rough and probably beat us up with their hockey sticks (I’d already experienced being painfully hacked on the ankle). So I deliberately played very badly and got dropped from the team. The boys came – they were two years younger than the girls and rather sweet.

One day up at the hockey pitches a family of gypsies walked past, carrying pillow-cases full of primroses they’d picked in the woods. There were two children – twins with long curly blonde hair, about our age. We caught each others’ eyes and they looked at us blankly, while we looked at them blankly. How I wished we could change places.

We were aware of the Cuban missile crisis, and feared that the Russians might drop an atom bomb on us. I lay in bed thinking “I’ll never have a future. I’ll never go to art school.” While walking up to the hockey pitches one day, we heard a loud shot in the woods. I walked towards the nun in charge, thinking “This is it. I am going to die in the next minute”, although nobody else seemed concerned. The young nun read my mind and said, “Don’t worry, the crisis is over.” (Nobody had bothered to tell me.)

I arrived back at school one September and everybody else was going on about the Beatles. We watched them on Top of the Pops and suddenly you were supposed to “bop along” to pop music (that’s why it was dangerously subversive). So I did, and somebody said “Look at Lucy!” and everybody laughed.

In winter, we wore blue serge box-pleated skirts, mustard (“gold”) blouses, a tie, and a navy cardigan. We changed our shirts every week, but wore the same cardigan, skirt and shoes all term. The shoes were lace-ups – pinchy, because you don’t want your feet to “spread” like a barefoot peasant. For games we wore box-pleated divided skirts.

Every summer we had a “retreat”. A priest would come and give us talks several times a day. One year it was a smiley black priest who told us we had to believe in Hell, but we didn’t have to believe there was anybody there. The rest of the time, we built altars in the grounds, decorated with holy pictures and wild flowers. But the real point of the retreat was not talking for three days. If you said anything, you had “broken” the retreat and you might as well go on talking. I kept forgetting.

We thought we didn’t miss our parents – because we forgot about them. Life in the holidays was not like living together as a family any more. Most of our lives happened at school, and at home our education was barely discussed. They didn’t even ask us who our friends were, or what we did at weekends at school. We would walk to the village and buy sweets, or sliced salami. There were no activities or clubs.

When you’re in prison (driven to school, driven home), your jailers can tell you anything about the “outside world” and you’ll believe it. It was made out to be a scary place, and we had very little first-hand knowledge of it. What was the point of this brainwashing? What were they trying to achieve? After all, “the outside world” was where we going to live eventually.

Parental interest can compensate for a lack of financial power to some degree: the children of the most interested and involved parents on a low income may do ‘better’ than wealthy children whose parents are less interested. (London Review of Books, May 2016)

More here, and links to the rest.


  1. Parental non interest is not exclusive to the privileged. Some of us were born poor and still neglected