Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Tales from Argentina - The Boarding School (Part 1 of 2)

I was five and a half years old when in March 1959 I was sent to a boarding school for three years.  It was located some 200km south west of Buenos Aires, in a flat corner of the country prone to scorching dusty heat in the summer and heavy frosts in the winter. Worse still were the rainy periods when the dirt road that went past the school turned into a quagmire.

Towards the end of their lives my parents felt differently about the decision to send me there, but at the time it was their considered opinion that it had three mayor factors going for it. 

Firstly it was both a school and a working farm with horses to ride and nature with which to commune.  This outdoor life, they felt, was the ultimate healthy environment in which to grow.  Secondly its biggest draw for them was that it was run along British lines by an English family, Mr & Mrs G, a couple in their fifties, and several of their children at various times.  In some ways it was (then) a miniature example of a British public school.   Thirdly, it was inexpensive – I would be getting a pseudo British education at an affordable price.   

The grounds consisted of a main house, with several outhouses and a smallish hut which served as one of the classrooms.  What had once been a barn was used as a makeshift dining-room with trestle tables on Parents’ Day, the Sunday once a month when our parents were allowed to visit.  In the afternoon it would be cleared of tables, and benches lined up to turn it into a hall and stage for us to perform our Parents’ Day show.  There were also fruit trees in the grounds and a small wooded area with, at one end, a couple of tiny playhouses made of mud and straw large enough for children to stand up in, and at the other, in a small clearing, an Australian tank which served as a swimming pool in the summer.

Surrounding the compound were paddocks with grass or stubble for grazing – I remember only ever seeing horses there, which were kept for riding.  The property lay on the main road between a town and a village, but in those days it was years away from being paved, so getting to the school was to a little girl like me a frightening adventure.  At best it was a slow and bumpy progress, at worst feeling we were isolated by the thudding rain and fearful of skidding in the mud; occasionally getting stuck and waiting for a kind passer-by to help push us out.  I remember mixed feelings about wanting to delay arrival and the beginning of a new term as long as possible, and on the other hand wanting the car sickness and the inevitable all round discomfort to stop.

In the late nineteen fifties there were about 36 pupils in the school.  Most children came from the farming communities where life was tough anyway; few of us were ‘townies’.  There were four dormitories two and even three bunks high, for junior and senior boys, and the same for girls.  Small chores were allocated to each child every day, such as making their own bed – no joke when it was a bunk – taking it in turns to empty the slopping chamber pot (shared by 8) in the centre of the room every morning, tidying the hairbrushes on the dressing table, and so on.  Few people would have had central heating in those days, and we had small kerosene stoves in the classroom to keep us going in the winter, though not in the dorms. Temperatures were often below zero - I remember seeing the frozen water troughs in the fields when we were out riding in the late morning. 

We were instructed to call the couple who ran it Aunt Rose and Uncle Ed.  They shared the teaching duties with other young women who came and went – they never seemed to stay for very long.  There were only two classrooms with the classes split by tables, so various levels were all together.  The cacophony of knowledge around me left me in a permanent state of scholastic bewilderment, and there were no textbooks.   

I remember sitting in front of a history paper looking in perplexity at the question “Why did the Tuscans lay siege to Rome?”  because the only bit I understood were the first two and the last two words.  I wondered what a siege was, and what involved laying it.  I stared at it in misery until my seven-year-old common sense prevailed.  Why does anyone do anything?  So I wrote as my answer “Because they wanted to”, though there was a niggling doubt in my mind as to whether Uncle Ed would consider it a proper reply.  Fortunately they found it amusing, and told Mum and Dad on Parents’ Day – who continued to laugh about it down the years, but I could remember the feeling of utter ignorance.

Our daily lives started each morning with breakfast consisting of a piece of bread with a pre-allocated scraping of butter and honey and watery mate cocido, South American green tea which when served to children is boiled with milk.  One week our bread tasted strongly of kerosene (paraffin) and we learned that a bottle of the fuel had spilled on the bread bag.  We were given it anyway so as not to waste it.  Once a week we got a boiled egg.

There were lessons in the morning, then lunch which was either gristly tough boiled meat and vegetables or rice (puchero), pasta in a thin tomato or beefy sauce or polenta with tough pieces of meat in it, and a milky pudding such as semolina to follow.  Then we queued for the highlight of the day – a boiled sweet each.  The afternoon could be a few more lessons or sports interrupted by a mug of very sweet black tea and a piece of bread, or we were left to our own devices.  After a light and early dinner we went to bed.  On rainy days we played with the collections of English games the G’s had – pick-up-sticks, tiddlywinks, draughts (checkers), halma, dice and cards.  There were a few old English books to look at, but they had no stories in them.

On Saturdays there was embroidery or Scottish and Irish folk dancing for the girls, and at lunch time we were each given the necessary to have a sort of basic barbeque-cum-picnic.  Sometimes you were allowed to go and cook it in one of the two playhouses, other times you had to make your own fire, then figure out how to cook your meat and potato in the saucepan provided.  On Sundays you wrote your weekly letter home, checked and read by the staff, and then went riding.  There might be swimming in the afternoon if it was warm enough.   

Sunday evenings were dreaded because we had a Sunday Service in the room which doubled as classroom for the older children, rainy-day dining-room, dance-room and Church.  We sang hymns in time to Aunt Rose’s harmonium playing, said a few prayers, and then came the tough bit.  Uncle Ed would stand up with a piece of paper in his hand, on which he had noted the list of misdemeanours committed during the week.  We had to stand up as the accusation was read, account for our bad conduct and public shaming would follow, with punishments doled out accordingly.   I  think these tended to be lines to write, and being left out of treats, fortunately there was no caning in the school.  In any case, being embarrassed in front of 36 children was probably punishment enough.  If you knew you were safe that week you shrank back on the bench with relief, guiltily enjoying the fact that it was someone else’s turn to be in trouble.

Every fourth Sunday our parents were allowed to visit.  Sick with excitement we would stand on the fence in our red checked pinafores waiting to see whose parent was the dot in the distance weaving ever closer, dodging from one side of the rutted road to the other. 

On Cloud Nine, Parents' Day

They would arrive at midday, weary from the appalling dirt roads, and full of stories of the number of hours it had taken.  We were allowed to join them after lunch, though not for long, because there was usually some entertainment prepared for them – sports day, a gymkhana, a little concert, a musical or a play commemorating a national holiday.

We would all have tea together and then the desperate sick feeling would return – our parents had to leave in daylight because of the terrible roads and the long journey home.  It was a very long and draining day for them.   I remember several parents days when I spent the afternoon trying not to be sick, and not succeeding.

There was little to fear from the fauna, aside from the non-poisonous snakes, which we learned to look out for, and a creature which still makes me shiver when I see it – the horned toad, or Ceratophrys cranwelli, (known as an escuerzo), a large, plump, brightly marked toad with an aggressive disposition, a liking for fresh meat for which it was willing to jump surprisingly long distances, and a propensity to give you a very strong and painful bite if you got too close. 

(From the internet)
(Fifteen years later when I saw a stuffed one at a Bristol museum – I had not expected to come across it - I jumped involuntarily, even though it was clearly dead and the other side of the glass.)

I learned to recognise the plants by smell and appearance.  I didn’t know what they were, but learned years later that the trees whose shape I had admired were weeping willows, and that the trees covered in fragrant blossom in the Spring were peach trees.  Other trees were good for climbing, and I would get as high up as I could to reach the canopy and feel far away from adults and other children down below.  I did fall off once, I don’t remember from what height, and landed sitting down.  That was my first experience of being winded, and understanding what it meant to take breathing for granted. 

We were very isolated from the outside world, and a great treat was to be taken to the nearest village in Uncle Ed’s old blunderbuss (as we called it).

On one occasion we were given the exciting news that the road in front of the school would be part of the route used by a national cross-country road racing team (Turismo Carretera) the following day, and that we should not even think of venturing beyond the gates.  Up until the early 1960’s these races were held on local dirt and asphalt roads closed for the occasion.  However there was nothing to stop us climbing the fence or perching on the gate to watch them go by in a cloud of dust.  That is until one of them stopped and shouted to us that he needed water as his engine was overheating.  One of the boys rushed for a bucket, and the catfish in the fish tank got a big surprise when the bucket was plunged in and the driver rushed off with it.  The boys later always claimed it was the famous Argentine racing driver Juan Gálvez.  If it was I never knew, though my research shows that he did participate in this particular race in 1959, which was held in the area near the school.

(From the internet)
Picture taken at the beginning of that race in 1959,
with Carlos Menditeguy in pole position.

(To be continued)

Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's non-digital archives

Argentina 1994

Sierra Grande, province of Córdoba

More of Nancy's garden
(see post before last - The Healer)

Sierra Grande, province of Córdoba

Cheeky Benjie, one of my friend Michèle's sons



Unknown said...

This was a fascinating read Caroline.....sitting here on my balcony in France in the sunshine....and imagining you as a 5 year old at always you described it so clearly.

I couldn't help but keep thinking what a enormous difference to your life now in Bristol...what a memory. I wonder if you have ever been back there....

You say that your parents had some regrets about sending you there.....I wonder how you feel as you look back, it's an awfully young age to be sent away isn't it? Something which I'm sure must have affected you all your life.

I can't wait to read the next part :)

OneStonedCrow said...

Hehe ... great read and images Caroline - I spent six months in a boarding school as a kid and hated every minute of it ... I vowed never to send any of my kids to one ...

Lonicera said...

Ooooh I'm so envious. I love the idea of a balcony, sort of cosy and my own bit of fresh air combined...
About going back - a few years after I left there was a possibility of returning, but Mum forbade it because of the row she had when she took me away. I know that it would have been her embarrassment not mine, but I feared being cold shouldered by Mr & Mrs G and I backed out.
Being young to go there: yes, it's a question I occasionally asked Mum, and she would just say that they thought it was for the best because they had heard good things about it. But what wasn't what I meant - I wanted to know how they could BEAR to be parted from me at such a young age. The only answer that occurs to me is that her own childhood was way more bleak than mine, and she had had to acquire a shell to survive it.
I would have loved to have children if only to verify for myself that there's no way I would have been parted from them at 5.
Thanks so much for - as usual - your generous comments.
Enjoy your hols!!

Lonicera said...

Thanks Graham - I vowed exactly the same! Even if I never had occasion to put it into practice. Maybe you should write about it in a post one day....??

Tina said...

I have a friend who is ready to send hers off (at an older age however). It is funny really because here parents were sent off..hated it...vowed to keep their kids home..She wanted to is planning on sending hers. It is a pendulum I think.

Is Benjie upside down? I miss the chocolate already :) but I gained almost 7 pounds in the end so it is a good thing I have left all that goodness behind and come home.


Joyful said...

I really enjoyed reading your reminiscences of boarding school. You told the story well and it makes me appreciate how lonely it must have been for you and all the other children in a similar situation.

Lonicera said...

I think the pendulum effect is also because the intervening generation doesn't really understand how you feel abandoned at boarding school, she/he hasn't experienced it and therefore wouldn't recoil from the very idea. There are reasons why people do it - and then there are underlying reasons too. Are they willing to be account for them all when their children are adults?
Yes, the pic of Benjie is upside down. I thought it was run of the mill the right way up, and more fun upside down...

Lonicera said...

Thanks Penny - that's the point: I know I was one of many, and I also know that there were other contemporaries who don't agree with me, because they coped very well. I think schools have to be aware that much as they would like to, they can't excpet all children to react in the same way.

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