Saturday, 20 August 2011

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

I have dredged through my mind to bring every positive and interesting fact into the open, because my overpowering and abiding memories of those three years I spent there were unhappy. 

I was always hungry and dreaming of mashed potato; I was permanently cold in the winter months - at 5 I didn’t know how to tuck in my clothes to ensure I didn’t get a freezing draught round the middle; I had chilblains on the fleshy part of my hands at the base of my thumb, and suffered from constant earaches.  I was lonely and sometimes scared, because there was a touch of The Lord of the Flies (1) about my life there.  We were left to fend for ourselves and I remember feeling constantly anxious. 

In this show celebrating the national day in May, we were dressed in pale blue and white crepe paper, the colours of the flag.  This was autumn, and I remember the prickly grass underneath, hence the expression on our faces.  I'm second from the left.

Bullying went unchecked and I had to be careful to keep out of the boys’ way, particularly after an incident when I had climbed a willow tree and by mistake knocked off an oven bird nest (they are made of mud, and the oven bird abandons the nest each year, so there are many empty ones around stranded on tree tops) which glanced off the shoulder of one of the girls.  The boys all gathered round the foot of the tree and yelled at me that they would not let me get down.  I explained – then cried – that I had not done it on purpose, and I was sorry, but in vain.  I was kept up the tree for a couple of hours as I got increasingly frightened and wanted to go to the toilet.  They sat and watched, and eventually drifted away when dinnertime came and they must have got bored.
Oven bird nest (internet)
I don’t know if I was clumsy or just unlucky, but some time after that I unknowingly slammed the bathroom door on the finger of a little girl (who carries the scar to this day), and the following Sunday it was my turn to be dragged before the courts at Sunday Service.  I had to stand up and be told that I was cruel and careless, and had made the child cry.  Red-faced, I whispered sorry and sat down feeling thoroughly humiliated.

I was always frightened of the boys, who did exactly what they liked with the children such as me who weren’t good at standing up for themselves, though I would clarify that the bullying was never s.exual, probably because they weren’t old enough.  On my eighth birthday they took me behind a barn and gave me the bumps – one boy at each leg and arm, and bounced me up and down, then pulled my ear eight times, with the last pull being particularly vicious and which left me – again – with an earache.  It was a violent experience.

When it was hot enough to swim in the pool I couldn’t wait to get in, yet often found myself clinging to the edge because those who ventured into the middle got vigorously ducked (repeatedly) by the boys, terrifying for those who were still learning to swim.  We were organised to swim there in two batches, so there were at least fifteen children in the pool at any one time.  The adult in charge would look on impassively.

When as a child these things happen to you in the presence of adults and no remark is made, that's when you feel truly alone because you assume that their lack of response indicates that they are normal behaviour.

The same thing would happen when we were out riding.  The juniors like me were not given saddles, and we had to manage with a piece of sacking and a strap.  We therefore had no stirrups which would have helped us protect our spines, and at one point I had a permanent running sore on my coccyx which nobody noticed for some time.    But in those days, Sunday mornings and the mandatory “going for a ride because it’s good for you” would make me long to be ill and be able to stay in the dorm.  I was always the last because I was one of the smallest and couldn’t kick the horse into action, besides it hurting the base of my spine.  If I wasn’t last it would be because some of the boys would come up behind me and whip my horse, which taken by surprise would sprint off at great speed and fill me with terror. 

This was certainly because I was a 'townie', but at no point did anyone try to teach me how to cope – at any level.  Riding didn’t become a pleasure until many years after I left the school.

The country girls were tough; they had brothers and knew how to give as good as they got, and I’m afraid I wasn’t in this category.  However the worst thing you could do was ‘snivel’ and I struggled hard all the time not to – and usually succeeded - since I knew I would be held in contempt.  Nobody taught me how to keep warm, or told me that bullying was wrong and I was right to feel scared, that it was wrong to feel hungry, that it was OK to cry when I had a bruised coccyx and no one to look after me.  Maida my rag doll was my only proper link with home, and I was devastated one night when during a pillow fight in the dorm someone picked her up and threw her, and she landed in the middle of the room, face down in the half full chamber pot.  I rescued her and washed her face as best I could, and she still has pride of place on a shelf in my bedroom today:

Maida, aged 53

It took me years to work out that the problem with the school at that time was that there was no supervision of the children, no teaching of the basics which might otherwise have been taught by parents, and very little warmth or compassion from the staff.  We were little children of 5, 6, 7, expected to know how to fend for ourselves; it was hardly surprising that some of them developed feral instincts.  Taken together I construe it as neglect, probably because – along with the textbooks - they could not afford the extra staff it would have required.

End of year show 1961 - on a "princess and the pauper" theme

Now a pauper - with the other princess in the background

During the winter holidays in July 1961 my parents finally realised that despite having fed me up at Christmas I was once again run down, and after visiting a doctor for some minor ailment, he warned my mother that I was showing signs of moderately severe malnutrition.  Once again I was at home being allowed to eat exactly what and as much as I pleased, and on returning to school for the next term the headmistress’ response to my mothers concerns was a suggestion that I should be given a tonic.  By the end of the school year in November and following a row between my mother and the redoubtable Aunt Rose, they took me away from the school, and it was the happiest day of my life up to that point.

I have been told by people slightly older than myself who attended this establishment that  ‘townie’ children like me were bound to find it a bit difficult.   My response to this is to say that a verdict can only be given many years later, when its long term effects are judged.  You only have to read a few dozen autobiographies to know that unhappy schooldays are experienced by a great number of people, from the Royal Family and Jane Eyre on downwards, and I’m perfectly aware that I’m one of millions. 

But that doesn’t make it any better, or any more excusable.  The old British public school methods taught you to become leaders of men, but not good parents and friends.  They taught you to bear suffering in silence with stiff upper lip, which makes for a stirring story but not for a properly balanced individual equipped to withstand emotional pain and hurt without taking it out on others in later life.

If I must take on the whole of the middle and upper class British establishment as well as the farm children who coped with this life to say this, I will, and with confidence: seeing your parents once a month for a few hours and never alone, is at best quite wrong, and at worst crucial to stunted emotional development.  Can all these people honestly say that they have brought up their own children in the same way or watched their grandchildren being brought up thus?

This year is the 50th anniversary of my leaving the school in 1961.  I was there between the ages of 5 and 8.  Fifty years on I can say with absolute clarity that feeling permanently hungry - not to mention zooming up in weight every time I went home and losing a lot when I got back to school every term - sowed the seeds of what would become a weight problem all my life.  Being bullied by boys gave me an inability to communicate properly with the male section of society for the next twenty years, and a problem with communication itself.  Nobody remembers my stammering before I went to the school, but that I had a very noticeable speech impediment when I came home, which was so marked for the next ten years that I could only really say out loud what was in my head when I was at home with the family.  Not that I was dumb outside home exactly, but I never spoke without a stutter, and got teased a lot, even on occasion by teachers, in front of other pupils.  These issues are all understood better these days. 

All this created a feeling in me of always being left behind, or excluded, not helped by the fact that my schooling at the boarding school with no textbooks was so inadequate that I was a very poor student for the next few years.  However, I do recognise that this, and the fact that my stutter didn’t improve for so long, was also because for various reasons I kept changing schools.  Once I got to secondary school I became a very good student and won prizes – evidence if it were needed.

My parents’ – particularly my mother’s – upbringing had been tough, and the difficulties she encountered lasted much longer than just the first few years.  I imagine therefore that she wanted us to be like her and come out fighting.  Neither of my parents realised for three years that what might have started as my being one of several children slipping through the net,  had become neglect by the school, and she certainly was not aware of how miserable I was.  Her way of making it up to me was to let me eat as much as I pleased, and she always regretted that she had sent me there.

Aunt Rose and Uncle Ed continued with the school for perhaps another decade or so, before retiring to another part of the world, and the establishment was continued by one of their sons and daughter-in-law, until it finally closed in the early 1980’s.  The former pupils hold nostalgic school reunions from time to time and have a FaceBook page.

I recovered – of course I did.  I’m glad it taught me how not to do things, and it left me with a healthy and abiding anger towards bullying.  Telling the story on my blog is not meant as catharsis – I worked it out long ago.  I had just never felt I could write about it fully till now.


(1)   Lord of the Flies is a novel by Nobel-Prize winning author William Golding about a group of British boys in wartime marooned on a desert island following a plane crash, who try to govern themselves, with disastrous results.  They become increasingly savage, until the day a passing British warship sees them and a naval officer lands on the island.  This brings the children’s fighting to an abrupt halt.  In the final scene the main ringleader starts to cry, reverting to childhood once more.


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's non-digital archives

Buenos Aires

The posh Hurlingham Club created by and for the British community and named after its London equivalent, these days more egalitarian but still expensive...

...where polo is played.

The Torre de los Ingleses, gift of the British Government,
and said to be a small version of the tower in London
and the clock with Big Ben

Puerto Madero - part of the clean-up of the River Plate,
about which I have written in past posts.

Nostalgia reigns supreme - the colectivo from the seventies. 
There were still a few around in 1994 when this was taken.

La Boca, a suburb of Buenos Aires by the River Plate.
I submitted it to a competition at my camera club once,
 and called it "She's late", alluding to the man in the window.



Sara said...

I am the same age as you approximately. I never suffered the neglect or abuse you did. But was raised to feel guilty if I did not "clean my plate" -because the were starving children in the world so it was terrible to waste food. I blame that attitude for some of my overeating issues as an adult. Thank you for sharing your stories.

OneStonedCrow said...

Excellent Post Caroline - as I was reading I recalled some of the reasons I hated six months of boarding school ... I think the worst part though, was feeling abandoned by my parents.

Lonicera said...

I know what you mean Sara - in my case the starving people were always in China...

Lonicera said...

Thanks Graham - thoroughly agree. My partner John shrugs his shoulders when talking about being evacuated from Kent to Somerset in wartime - he only saw his parents at the end of each term, which lasted several months. And even if it hadn't been in wartime, all boarding schools worked that way. That's the way it was in those days, presumably boarding school kids thought nothing of it. But I'm sure that daily contact with parents produces a more balanced individual, and ultimately a better parent. And that's better for society, surely...

Joyful said...

I feel for you. As I was reading the post, I recognized that your experiences there were likely the cause of the weight issue you deal with today. My mom also went to a boarding school for a short time in her very young years and so I can recognize some of the things you talk about in your post. She was always hungry too and there was bullying. Fortunately though the boys and girls were separated from one another so the bullying was limited to other girls. This sounds good but it also meant that the boys and girls could not talk to one another. This created a lot of sadness and loneliness for mom as she couldn't even talk to her two brothers that were there in the school also. They were all present at the school after they lost their mother in a tragic accident. They were able to return home when my grandfather remarried a few years later.

Simone said...

I found this heart wrenching Caroline, I hope you don't mind me saying that. Maybe because I have. 5, almost 6, yr old & would no sooner send him away to schoolmthan I would walk down the street naked!

You write -as always - with such clarity and intelligence. You can see why your mother might have thought, following her own experience, it was a good thing to send you there. On he other hand, as you pointed out in the responses to your Paet 1 post, the same experience does not suit everyone. Thank goodness - at some point - you were rescued. I wish you hadn't had to go through any of the bad stuff tho....

I love that you have Maida :) And I'm glad you didnt go to the school reunion - it maybe wasn't abuse but it was neglect. Wasn't it?

A good friend's husband went to boarding school & loved it,,,his brother who was 2 yrs younger (and only 6 when he went) has never got over it. One size clearly doesn't fit all.

I love reading about you Caroline X

Joyful said...

I forgot to say I loved Maida. I smiled when you posted her age. I never would have thought of doing that if I had a "Maida". She looks pretty good for her age.

Lonicera said...

Penny, how very sad - your mother must have felt truly abandoned. What a story there is to tell there...
Maida was given to me when I was 4 by my godmother. My mother said "what are you going to call her?", and apparently without a second hesitation I said "Maida". Nobody had ever heard of that name before... goodness knows why I thought of it!

Lonicera said...

Thanks very much Simone - what very nice comments you and everybody else has left.
I wish I could say to all parents who are contemplating sending their child to boarding school - are you sure he/she is old enough to UNDERSTAND when something is happening which is not right, and is able to tell you about it? If they're too small to know any better and assume that every dreadful situation is normal, they won't emerge unscathed, however much you try to make it up to them later.

Joyful said...

I love the new look of your blog. Very pleasing to the eye. I've taken a rest from udpating mine for now, lol.

Lonicera said...

Glad you like it. Ultimately I want it to be dark though, because it shows off the pictures better. I'm waiting on an IT friend to design the header for me. Lovely to have the whole width of the screen.

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