A little while ago, I wrote about having gone to the 112th Founders Day at my old school. I shared the piece in our class’s closed Facebook group and on my personal page, tagging a number of “old” girls who are not members of that group. The responses ranged from delight at being reminded of happy times, to horror for those less happy and for whom school days hold no good memories.
They are not alone. I started writing this long before I wrote that piece and had to stop and come back to it. I’ve written it as much for myself as for those for whom going to a school reunion is beyond contemplation.
It took thirty years for me to go back to school – willingly – and even then, I was petrified. I have very few happy memories of school. I was a different child and felt eternally uncomfortable. I only went to my first reunion because I had made a promise and because The Husband agreed to hold my hand.
I began school in 1969, at five, going on six; a little mite, I’m told. My father’s description, for years was that I had been, “All hat and suitcase” (all the photographs are slides that need to be sorted and converted to digital – a job for another time).
That was at Clarendon Preparatory School for Girls in East London: I distinctly remember (partly because I was never permitted to forget), my first day at school. It was exciting – an all-new uniform, said suitcase and a hat as well as a hovering mother whom I apparently summarily dismissed.
I soon realised that I spoke differently from the other children: I had learned to speak in Yorkshire where we had lived before arriving in South Africa in 1966; I recall making a conscious effort to talk like the other children. Years later, but still a child, I found and played, an old reel-to-reel tape recording my parents had made of my sister and me playing: broad Yorkshire we were. I don’t know what happened to those tapes, but suffice it to say that, by the time I found them, we had both adopted relatively neutral South African accents with my mother constantly admonishing us if we seemed to be adopting too much of a regional accent. Why she worried, I don’t know: our home was a mishmash of accents – my mother’s Oxford, my father’s Glaswegian and her children’s South African. I find that still now I unconsciously, adapt the way I speak when around Britons, Australians and Americans.
My first teacher, Miss Welton, drove a bottle green bubble car, during that year, became Mrs Monson, and died early the following year (a clot (thrombosis) after a minor op, I was told). This was my first encounter with death; I recall being shown her picture in the local newspaper and it’s being explained why.
Afternoons were spent at Mrs Butler’s boarding house, swinging and playing under the trees with two other girls, eating huge chunks of white bread slathered with either apricot jam or Marmite. We had too much fun swinging and jumping off in mid-air, so much so, that one of the girls ended up with a nasty gash on the back of her head and having to be rushed off to hospital. We were all a bit subdued after that, especially as she didn’t come to school for a couple of days.
I remember going to my first birthday party (there were others), at which the birthday girl wore a green party frock. I also discovered my love for singing Christmas carols and remember learning all nine verses of The First Noel, and all of Good King Wenceslas. I was really ill during one of the rehearsals for the carol service, and remember being cradled by Mrs Monson while she conducted the practice.
Mrs Monson dying and that swing accident were the only really bad things that I remember about Clarendon.
Then my father found a new job – in Grahamstown. So I had to leave Clarendon at the end of the first term of my second year at school, but not before I had had my first party – for my seventh birthday – and one of only two that I remember from my school years.
I was sent to Victoria Girls Primary School. Starting at a new school is one thing, but not doing so at the beginning of the academic year is another. Again, I was different and over the next few years I was made to feel very different. With hindsight, I now realise that I was bullied, and with my parents’ Victorian “do-your-best”, “children-should-be-seen-and-not-heard” approach to parenting, it never occurred to me to tell them (or anyone, for that matter) what was going on. I took refuge, on my bed, in books. Series of books. Beginning with Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and Famous Five, The Faraway Tree and moving on to books about Saddler’s Wells and ballet, and another series about a family who lived next door to an abbey, among others. The worst “punishment” was enduring my book being confiscated (my Mother’s word) and put on top of the fridge – her strategy for getting me outside to play with my sister, another activity I loathed.
So, misunderstood and unhappy at home because, among other things, it was impossible to express myself, and miserable at school, the end of primary school approached. Around the same time, the long-time headmistress of the senior school was due to retire and her designated replacement was to be, horror of horrors, from my parents’ point of view, a man. I was asked, and I remember this vividly, “If you pass standard 5 (year 7), where would you like to go to school?”
Without missing a beat: “Clarendon.”
“Well, that’s settled, then.” My reasons were never interrogated, as this suited their plans and their view that it was wholly inappropriate that a male should run an all-girls’ school.
So, at the end of standard 5 (year 7), I left VG*, and in January 1976, after my initial excitement and with quite a bit of trepidation, off I went, “back” to Clarendon. Boarding school was an escape from home. Even though it, too, came with its own rules and regulations – I already had a tried and tested strategy for dealing with them. More significantly for me, I was going back to a school that had, by comparison, been very kind to me. But would I remember any of the girls, and they, me? As it turned out, one or two did, but that took time, and didn’t really matter in the end, anyway.
I recall feeling quite lost, to begin with: I was the only girl from Grahamstown and there was no-one in East London on whom I could call if I needed anything. What I really needed, within the first week, was help to make the mandatory apron for the domestic science class. Our class teacher, and the school’s legendary dragon, Miss Chew**, came to my rescue. She evidently had a softer side, very rarely seen. Somehow, she sensed my distress, called me to one side and relieved me of the terrifying bits of white fabric and, in time for the weekend, presented me with my apron. All I had to do, was embroider my name on it, as instructed, ahead of the next class. With my apron, name embroidered on it, I was just like everyone else.
I was completely unprepared for boarding school. For a chubby introvert, initiation which required dressing up as a bunny girl, and other activities, was humiliating. I discovered that I hadn’t got away from the cruelty of other children, particularly girls. I was, to use the old cliché, ugly, and my mother dressed me funny.
The hostel dance was terrifying: I had to find something to wear and more distressing, I had to find a partner. I don’t know who came to my rescue in that department, but one of the senior girls, and a prefect, lent me a dress.
There were other dances and social functions and among the bitches were gentle souls who took pity on me and lent me their clothes – I felt a little more “in” – at least in front of the boys, until I began to assert myself with my mother, to choose and buy my own clothes. The next most memorable dance was the Matric Farewell*** when I again had to be helped to “source” a partner. This time I was helped by a girl in my class. I don’t recall much about the evening, although I do remember shopping for the dress with my Dad. That was a very happy time!
Between those two dances, I developed a few friendships, some of which were quite fraught, but I mostly lived in my head and in my books. I knitted and crocheted and was not unhappy to be in a dormitory with weekly boarders: it meant I had my own space from Friday afternoon to Sunday, and sometimes into Monday morning. I regularly shunned the movie nights, especially if it was what I considered to be a “scary” movie, preferring to curl up on my bed with a book.
The last stretch
Somehow, though, I began to come out of my shell and I distinctly remember this beginning to happen in Standard 8 (year 10). The previous year had been horrible – I know few girls for whom 13 into 14 is not – and at the beginning of that year, I remember during assembly, saying to myself, “You have another three years here, so you had better just deal with it.” I relocated myself from the middle or back of the classroom, to the front and rearranged my head. The results showed, which helped my confidence. We had some fabulous teachers who had a profound influence on me (and others), and one of whom, our Geography and Standard 8 class teacher, became a mentor and friend that I was privileged to stay in touch with, until her death, not so long ago.
In those last three years, I began growing – physically, including losing the puppy fat – and emotionally. I remember writing some poetry which I kept for years until someone borrowed the book and never returned it; I really enjoyed most of my subjects Biology, Geography and English, particularly with the last two that would become my majors at university. While I still agonised about not being part of the “in” crowd, it was less painful so that when it came time to leave, I recall being quite sad.
So why was I petrified to go back?
The journey to healing
The first “big” school reunion was in 2000 and it coincided with some very unhappy milestone events in my life: divorce, the death of one parent and the imminent death of another. I had no children. Although I was self-employed, I didn’t see myself as a particular success. In fact, I saw myself as a complete failure and I no longer had any contact with anyone with whom I had been at school. I didn’t, somehow, see myself as having “lived up” to what is “expected” of Clarendon girls. I thought they’d all be happily married, parents of wonderful children with successful careers, either as home executives or in some or other profession. I was none of the above.
Needless to say, I didn’t go to that reunion.
Then, in our circle of friends, Colleen happened. We looked at each other in amazement, not only that we recognised each other but that we remembered each other. At Clarendon, we had inhabited the opposite ends of the spectrum: the introvert and the rebel. The intervening twenty five or so years had taken us both on very different journeys that brought us to Cape Town. She regaled me with stories of that 20th reunion and made me promise to go to the 30th.
Against my better judgement, I agreed. Before that happened, she moved to Johannesburg, but we stayed in touch: I had to keep my promise.
So, five years ago, The Husband in tow, we set off to East London from Cape Town. I agonised over what I would wear: to the formal dinner of the Old Girls’ Guild, to the Founders’ Day Assembly and to the informal gathering of our class. I had seen no-one other than Colleen, for years, except on Facebook. Real life was another terrifying matter.
We arrived at Harewood Lodge, managed by Ali, from our year, and who had also been in the hostel. Two other girls would be there, too.
Oh my word!
And they were: I couldn’t escape. Somehow, we all recognised each other and so began what was to be a very healing journey.
Clarendon Girls from our year came from all over the world to that reunion. I discovered that there is more that connects us than makes us different: over thirty years, I suppose we have all mellowed, but more importantly, we have come to accept ourselves and in doing so, are more accepting of others. I had not expected the warmth and genuine interest in me and my life from my contemporaries. I had not anticipated that we had some shared memories – happy and not-so happy.
Here’s a happy one, about which I’d forgotten, from 1979, and about which I was recently reminded – a farewell dinner in 1979 to the girls one year ahead of us:
What followed, during that first reunion, was two days of smiling, laughing conversation and catching up. At the end of the final evening, the general feeling was that, as we were getting older, we shouldn’t wait another ten years to get together and resolved to wait only five.
So, in August, many of us who had been at that 30th reunion gathered in East London again. This time the same girls doing the organising, included girls who had not necessarily finished school with us, reaching out and beyond, but still with the common Clarendon link. They, too, will be a welcome part of our next gathering.
And so, five years ago was, in a sense, a new beginning: I have stayed in touch with many, some only on Facebook and saw some of the Cape Town-based girls more regularly before moving to McGregor. The 2010 reunion was one of healing, and the 2015, one of affirmation.
As in life, there are some people with whom we have a closer affinity than others, but that apart, what is clear is that we care for each other; that somehow, Clarendon is the centre of a web of fine, silky and strong threads that will always link us together in a way that is more valuable and caring than I had ever imagined.
*I have subsequently re-connected with a couple of girls who came to VG after, and about which I wrote last year.
**Clarendon’s first head girl in 1934, Betty Chew retired in 1982
***the equivalent of The Prom
© Fiona’s Favourites 2015