I’m not generally given to quoting, or even slightly misquoting, Friedrich Nietzsche, but I know the interplay between struggle and resiliency is true in my case. And perhaps, as we go forward in the coming months, figuring out what to do about “school” and “kids” and Covid-19, we’ll puzzle our way through to something better than what we had before, and emerge the stronger for it. That would be a wonderful outcome, and one of the few silver linings in this horrible mess. A world where, perhaps, the welfare of children and students is not held hostage to the political ambitions of unions and lobbyists. Where money beyond the wildest dreams of poorer countries with better educational outcomes is not poured into a system that’s been failing the nation’s children for the better part of the last fifty years. Where parents with differing political views from educators are not viewed as adversarial to the process. And where there’s real choice, and real alternatives, and competition for excellence in education.
Here’s my (rather different) story:
Somewhere around the time of my eleventh birthday, and just when I would have been entering the sixth grade, had I been living in the USA, my parents unceremoniously dumped me at The Abbey School, Malvern Wells, and my English boarding school experience began.
I’m sure they meant well. I’d had a rocky and circuitous route through school to that point, in three different countries, on three different continents, and I’d missed an entire year through living in the “bush,” subject only to my mother’s occasional, disinterested, and desultory efforts in what would now be called “home schooling.” (Yay me! Thanks, Mum! That was the best year of my life!)
And although Dad was beginning a new career teaching at a Pittsburgh university, he didn’t know if that would “take,” or if his contract would be renewed after twelve months. So in a decision that was relatively easy, they put me at The Abbey for some stability and continuity, at least until things sorted themselves out. And in doing that, they also knew that my grandmother, grandfather, aunts, uncles, and lifelong friends were within easy reach and would look out for me, and look after me, during the holidays.
The Abbey School at that time was a pretty conventional boarding school, respectable, but not of the top tier, with a strong Church of England affiliation. It also happened to be the school which my mother had attended for a couple of years during World War II, and it was located not far from the family home in Worcestershire that my parents held onto during all our time in Africa and the States. It’s beautiful country, rich with history, dotted with fruit farms, near the Vale of Evesham, and right in the middle of the Malvern Hills.
Nevertheless, for me, it was like being dropped onto another planet. There I was, along with everybody else. And everybody else, it seemed, knew everybody else. Everybody else knew where to go, what to do, how to find things, how to act, what to wear, when to talk, when to shut up, what to say, and how to work the system to maximum effect. I had no idea. I was lonely. And I was sad.
Eventually, I began to figure things out, and life got easier. I made friends. And I began to fit in.
It was an all-girls school, with about two hundred pupils in six forms (grades) with a few of the oldest girls in a supernumerary grade, preparing for university. Most of the teachers lived on site. All of them were unmarried, as were the majority of the few who lived in nearby towns and commuted each day. All the teachers were women, with the single exception of poor Mr. Cox, the vicar and Divinity (Bible studies) teacher.
Two of the oldest teachers, Miss Vowels (geography) and Miss Landsdale (English) were relics of my mother’s time, and like other senior teachers, each of them functioned as a “housemistress” in one of six rambling old buildings into which the girls were placed (a la Gryffindor and Slytherin, only without the Sorting Hat), and where we slept. My own housemistress was Miss Bronwyn Davies, a truly gifted history teacher, and a Welshwoman, who had the hairiest legs I’ve ever seen, before or since, on a person of the female sex. She also smoked like a chimney.
We slept three to a room, with curtain rods running across the room in both directions, and curtains that divided the room into four cubicles, for “privacy.” The room quadrant you entered through the door had no-one in it. Each of the remaining three cubicles contained a bed with a lumpy horse-hair mattress, a dresser with a basin and jug on it, and a chair. One wall of each cubicle featured a tiny closet with a couple of shelves and a rod for hanging clothes.
Our clothes were uniforms, all bought from the same shop (Daniel Neal, in Cheltenham), and rigidly apportioned. So many pairs of underpants (five, I think). So many vests (undershirts, ditto). So many pairs of socks. So many white shirts and one grey tunic for mornings. One red shirt and one blue shirt, to wear with a different tunic for afternoons. Three white cotton dresses with a grey stripe for the summer term. One blue silk dress for special occasions, concerts, etc. Three pairs of pajamas. And on and on. Everything counted and checked when it was put into your trunk at home, and everything counted and checked when it was taken out when you got to school. Three Aertex shirts and a pair of culottes for games. Navy socks for games. One swimsuit (Summer only). One Macintosh (that’s a raincoat, not a computer). One grey wool coat. One straw boater with a red and white band. One red scarf embroidered with the school crest and motto, “Ora. Labora. Lude.” (“Pray. Work. Play.” They meant it all, too.) Every single thing with a carefully sewn-on label with my name on it, so that when my dirty laundry went off each week to be washed at St. Wulfstan’s, the nearby lunatic asylum, it would get back to me upon its return (reeking of smoke, having been carefully inspected for wear-and-tear, and sorted by the aforementioned Miss Davies).
And, downstairs in the cellar, lived my sports apparatus: Lacrosse stick. Tennis racquet. Hockey stick. A place for everything, and everything in its place.
My day began when the housemistress rang the bell to wake us out of bed at 6:45AM. One of the three of us would leap off our unsprung mattress and old iron bedstead, and rush to the bathroom, where we would grab a large enamel jug and stand in line to fill it with warm water (woe betide the laggards, whose water would be cold by the time they reached the head of the queue). Then, back to the room with the enamel jug and a large empty enamel bucket.
Each girl in the room would take a third of the water, pouring it into the smaller pitcher from her dresser, then taking it back to her cubicle, and between the pitcher, the bowl, a washcloth, a toothbrush some toothpaste, and a small towel, find a way to perform her morning ablutions and get dressed. After which, tip the water into the bucket, mop things up, and one of the girls would return the bucketful of dirty water and the large jug to the bathroom, tipping the water down the drain when she got there.
Next, Chapel! Twenty-minute service, followed by breakfast (thick bacon slices, fried bread, fresh bread, butter and jam, and lots of hot tea), and off to the first classes of the day at about 8:15AM.
We broke for about 15 minutes at about 10:30 for half-a-pint of whole milk (cream on top) and a bun. How I loved them! Plain bun, jam-in-the-middle bun, cream bun, sugar bun, and lardy cake. Each had its own special day, and they rotated through the days every week. My favorite was the cream bun (Monday). Or maybe it was the lardy cake (Friday). Hmmm. Anyway, then back to class.
Classes were quite rigorous. We had a full Chemistry lab, and we did experiments. We learned Biology. There was French and Latin. History. Geography. English. Divinity. Mathematics. Music (most girls played an instrument and took lessons as well. I played the piano). Home economics–sewing, cookery, how to keep house, manage the accounts, etc. (Ask me sometime, when you’ve got half-an-hour, the proper way to wash a hairbrush. I can tell you in excruciating detail.) Plenty of homework. We were expected to learn. And we did.
At one o’clock, we went to lunch. Stew. Dumplings. Meat and two vegetables (boiled to death). Pudding (desserts) I still crave, the “stodge” beloved of many English schoolchildren. Extreme comfort food. Rice pudding. Steamed puddings with marmalade, or (Heaven!) spotted dick (hint: it’s not right unless it’s served with lumpy, almost-cold, custard sauce, preferably with a skin on top).
Then, rush back to my room, and change for games! Run a mile to the games pitch, and spend an hour and a half or so in a frenetic lacrosse or hockey match, or playing tennis. (In the summer, run a mile in a different direction to the swimming pool, an unpainted concrete one that, as far as I could see, knew neither chlorine nor filter (not in evidence, anyway), and wear yourself out in it). Run back to the house, repeat the enamel jug/basin/ablution routine, put on afternoon clothes, and enjoy fifteen minutes of “free” time to read before “teatime,” which consisted of more tea, accompanied by sandwiches and biscuits (cookies). Then afternoon classes and homework until about 7:15PM, at which time we went to supper (a relatively light snack of something on toast–the Brits will put anything on toast), and more tea, then thirty minutes of “free” time before going back to the house, falling into bed, and turning out the lights after the bell was rung, following more ablutions, nightly devotions and a health check.
Weekends were different. Our time was our own, with the exception of:
- Saturday mornings, which were devoted to homework, hymn practice, learning the collect for that week’s service, and the required writing of letters to the mater and pater back home
- Saturday afternoons, most of which was spent on a seven-mile run through the Malvern Hills and back, up to “British Camp” and the “Worcestershire Beacon,” among the old iron-age hill forts
- Various other Saturday obligations such as shoe and boot cleaning, sheet changing (we got one clean sheet a week), hair washing (once every other week), getting this week’s laundry together, exchanging it for last week’s returned and clean laundry, and putting that away
- A hour of required reading on Saturday afternoons
And finally, after teatime on Saturday, a blissful couple of hours of time, mostly to ourselves (aside from the time we were expected to devote to our fairly extensive charitable endeavors and reading religious texts), where we could read what we wanted, listen to what we wanted on the radio (except the Rolling Stones. The Rolling Stones were banned), and actually talk to each other.
Sundays were quieter, and were punctuated by Church services in the morning and evening (I love Evensong, it’s always been my favorite service, with the exception of the Festival of Lessons and Carols at Christmas), and a three-mile “crocodile” walk, in uniform, through the streets of Malvern. Aside from that, Sundays were pretty much our own, but we were expected to be quiet and respectful of the day in our activities.
On occasion, the school (which had a large and fairly serviceable auditorium) would host a concert (of the string quartet sort), and we would all put on our blue silk dresses and attend. Or perhaps a reasonably famous author would show up for a talk about one of his, or her, books. Or, maybe we’d go to Stratford-on-Avon (not far away) to see a play at the Shakespeare Theater, or into Worcester for a special service at the Cathedral. But those sort of events were rare.
Looking back on them now, I realize those were good times. I knew my place. I didn’t have to think about what to do next. I ate well (the kitchen staff came from St. Wulfstan’s. You could tell.) We were well-exercised and healthy. The place was well, and fairly, run. Discipline was strict, but not harsh. There was no corporal punishment. The teachers were competent, and some of them were very, very good. They expected a lot, and we gave a lot. The girls were nice, middle-class girls, many with family backgrounds like mine—the Colonial Service or the Foreign Office. Some from military families. Many of them there for a similar reason as me—to find bit of stability in a peripatetic world. And I think it worked.
Sadly, my lovely Abbey School is no more. I left it in 1968, and in 1979 the school was sold, renamed, and became The Abbey College. It has changed hands at least once since, but for almost the last four decades has functioned mostly as a secondary school for foreign students. And although it’s occasionally in the news, it’s rarely for good reasons, as one after another of its administrators has been jailed for offenses ranging from inhumane ritual goat slaughter in the bathtub, to running off with the funds, to health and safety violations, and on and on. Happily, a perusal of the current website indicates that things may be on the upswing again after a number of bad years, and that the place may be getting its act together. For old time’s sake, I hope so.
After my family finally settled for the duration in the States, I graduated from suburban Pittsburgh’s Bethel Park High School in 1972, and I loved my high school very much. I remember its school song, that starts out “Oh, Alma Mater, Bethel High, All hail to thee.” Bla. Bla. Bla. Etc.
But The Abbey School song, which was just about unsingable, whose melody was in a minor key, and whose lyrics started on an off-beat, has stayed with me, too. Its first verse went like this:
I remember my years at The Abbey School with a grateful heart. I don’t know if they made me sweeter, but they certainly made me stronger. I learned to fit in. I learned to be useful. I learned to make friends. I learned to have faith. I learned to appreciate, and never to take for granted, little luxuries in life (like a daily hot bath or shower,** or the freedom to wash my hair whenever I think it needs it). I learned I could do things I’d never done before. I learned to be part of a team. I learned to think about, and do things for, others. I learned to think for myself. And I learned to survive on my own.
The Abbey School changed me for the better. And I’ll never forget it.
**We did get two baths a week. A strictly scheduled rota. Ten minutes each, during one or another of the “ablution periods.” Since the water came from the same boiler that was used to supply the enamel jugs for the rooms, the baths were usually cold.