Reflections on life

LEARNING TO CONFORM

It started with the uniform. A very long list arrived from the boarding school I was to join in a couple of months time, to be bought at a certain department store. It was 1960, I had just turned thirteen, and the world was about to wake up to a fashion revolution centred on the young. And I was to be dressed in brown for the next five years. 

A brown tailor made suit for Sundays – box pleated skirt, fitted jacket, white shirt, gold tie, beige tights, brown lace up shoes. White panama for summer, brown felt for winter, and gloves. Weekdays were less formal, but still shirt and brown tie, covered by an overall. The one redeeming feature that I loved was a capacious full length cloak with hood, made to measure, brown of course, but something to throw on with a flourish. 

Custom built in a straight line in 1912, the school building, four residential houses, each for fifty pupils, and a chapel, ran the length of a windswept hillside on the outskirts of an affluent town. Red brick, absolutely uniform, and each connected by a covered walkway, they were bleak, cheerless and without a hint of comfort.

The dormitory was one long room with a central corridor, each side of which was divided into tiny cubicles. They all had identical spartan furnishings and only a curtain for privacy. At seven a.m. an electric bell hammered into life for several minutes, and we filed to the communal washroom, in silence. Then we dressed, went downstairs and lined up in the numbered order we were given every term, whilst matron checked that each of us was clean and tidy, in silence. Shortly after, the breakfast bell sounded, we trooped into the dining room, and once grace was said we were allowed to speak. And thus each day began.

Hierarchy was all. The top ranks were known as Prima, the year below as Secunda, and then Tertia. Beneath that you were no one and spent every walk to and from the school building looking over your shoulder. The covered way passed through several doors, so if anyone senior to you was coming up behind, then you must shout “Prima!”, stand back and open the door for them as they swept through. Of course your turn came as you got older.

Classes were formal, taught largely in an “I speak and you listen” manner, by middle aged to elderly single women and widows from academic back grounds, the generation whose odds of a husband and family were shortened by the war. Subjects were traditional, with Art as the only hands on exception. Games were compulsory for two hours a day and highly competitive, netball and la crosse in winter, cricket and tennis in summer.

The beautiful chapel was the one exception to uniformity, and we had our own priest, an affable and well meaning man with no natural ability for commanding attention. His sermons were an opportunity to day dream, and use my gloves to polish the penny we were each given for the collection plate. There were prayers in the main hall every school morning, a twenty minute service in chapel every evening, thirty minutes on Saturdays, forty five on Sunday morning and an hour in the evening. I’ve rarely been to a church service since.

My first term was a culture shock so extreme that I often found myself in trouble. Coming from a childhood in the country where my parents were both working long hours, I had no idea how independent and self sufficient I was  by comparison with most children. I had loved my friendly and informal day school, and outside of that had lived much of the time in my own world, at my own pace. This was entirely at odds with this new and alien culture. Every minute of every day was scheduled, and to be late anywhere for anything was punishable. 

In my early confused attempts to understand the system, it felt as if everyone else bar me knew exactly where to be, why and when. And it was expected that we team up in twos and never go anywhere without our best friend, sitting beside them for every meal, walking to and from school, sharing break time. That first term I went through four best friends because I just kept forgetting them and striding off on my own, which seemed incomprehensible to everyone.

Academic ability was prized above all else, with discipline coming a close second. Order marks were given for rules that were broken, and detention was handed out for homework not up to standard or completed on time. Both rained down on me. Every fortnight the whole school gathered in the main hall and the results for each pupil were read out by the head mistress, along with any offences. She came to reserve a certain tone of voice for my name, and everyone sat up eagerly to hear how far beyond the pale I was this time.

It took about a year to learn to fully conform, and by then I had gained a certain notoriety and was seen as someone who would casually flout the rules, when actually I’d just been trying to remember them. And whenever I did break them, like secretly bringing a packet of ten Black Cat cigarettes back to school to smoke with my friends on Sunday walks, I was caught. On that occasion my mother was summoned to the head mistress and was so alarmed by her imaginings of what I must have done, that when told, she  said “oh thank God that’s all!” I expect that was confirmation that my upbringing was questionable at best.

Each house had common rooms, divided by rank of course, where we had a very small locker for our personal belongings, usually no more than writing paper and pens for the obligatory letter home to be written each Sunday, between eleven thirty and twelve. We spent an hour there after supper each evening, a few chairs, a table and a fireplace, and each other, no radio or TV. Although I was eventually accepted and made friends easily, I longed for a quiet space of my own.

This was why the library, a large and airy room in the school building, became my favourite place. Two walls were lined with books, teachers were rarely there, and we were to be silent. Peace. When I should have been doing my homework I was often absorbed in poetry instead, loving the flow of words, the tide of emotion it allowed, and the escape from my present reality.

English was my only strength, academically I was considered less than satisfactory, even though I gained eight O levels and English A level by the time I left. It was well below the achievements of my friends who were all headed to leading Universities and promising careers. My success was Drama. I was a lead in every school play, taking on that character with ease, loving the opportunity for expression.

In my final year the headmistress advised that with my limited ability my options were slim, maybe I could become a nurse. Shaking hands with me before I left at eighteen, she smiled distantly and said “average, young lady, just average.” Saying good bye to my parents, my house mistress said genially “I remember the day she arrived, she was wearing her gym socks!” Mum and I thought the tights were for Sundays only, so we’d guessed that the socks must be for the rest. A misfit from the start.

At the time I didn’t analyse what was so alien to my nature about being there, survival had the upper hand. It took years to understand that it was the extreme conformity, the repression of individuality, and the removal of choice from almost everything. In fact it was pretty close to military training. Coupled with puritan functionality and greyness, no colours anywhere, no sight of a flower, it was for me a bleak existence. And yet I convinced myself that it was I who was out of step, for it appeared to me that everyone else was quite at home. I expect there were other lonely souls, we just didn’t talk about it, there was nowhere out of earshot where you could.

I wasn’t broken, but certainly crushed, and my true nature subdued as I became moulded into someone dutiful, unquestioning and submissive. My education was a massive gift from my parents who had both worked hard to secure it, and give me opportunities they never had. It was my job to become a success. Although I couldn’t have put my feelings into words then, I left convinced that I was of little value, destined to blunder through life not understanding the rules, and a natural outsider with no prospects. So I’d better settle for whatever I could get. In fact the very opposite of what education should instil.

But it was not all bleak despair, nothing ever is. The English teacher was lively and encouraging and helped me shine in Literature classes. The Art teacher was a kind and gentle soul, persuading me with infinite patience that I could draw. Drama, the library, and access to so many books was not only solace, it allowed me to feel, and opened me forever to a love of language, and the worlds we can create in our imagination. 

Fifty four years later I think the most significant gift of those five years was developing the capacity to endure. I was at odds with my situation in almost every way, but there was no choice – it had to be endured. And there was strength to be gained from that. I found that whatever else I encountered in life, I could survive, and that’s quite a gift. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And what a lifelong blessing it has been to live in a world of colour, style, individuality, choice and freedom, having known what it is to be deprived of them all.

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