The first time I was expelled from boarding school, I was eight years old. It happened because I ran away, with a friend, at night. We walked across the city to my house in the dark, and by the time we got there the police had been called out to look for us.
We did it because we were in trouble. We’d been exposed as the brains behind a planned midnight feast, and we didn’t want to say who else was involved. The nuns were determined to find out and things turned ugly very fast. They had all the advantages in the situation. They even had the threat of purgatory, if not actual hell, on their side, and we knew that sooner or later they’d get those names out of us if we didn’t do something drastic.
Midnight feasts and refusing to sneak on your friends are in the very best tradition of Enid Blyton and her ilk, our preferred reading at the time. Enid Blyton believed in girls and their potential, told us to believe in ourselves. Well, it was a long time ago and we were very young; we had to take our inspiration where we found it. We never even noticed that her schools were set in England, or in the past. The fact that they were boarding schools was good enough for us.
My friend, who was from another country and whose parents were on the other side of the world, was taken back to school almost immediately. It took a little longer with me. Imagine my surprise, when I did go back, to discover that the entire oeuvre of Enid Blyton had been banned from the junior school as a result of our escapade. Even then, I knew that she was on the side of authority: her interesting characters always ended up as prefects. The nuns had missed the point completely. Those books would wait for us on bookshelves at home and in libraries and in the shops of the outside world.
I was sent away to school when I was six. I would be a boarder, at different schools around the country, until I got my Leaving Cert at sixteen.
That first school was an enormous grey building with narrow-paned windows, behind high stone walls. There were about a hundred of us. I was the youngest girl there when I started.
It was overwhelming. The sheer size of the building, the crowds of other girls, of all shapes and sizes. Rules. Time parcelled out in bells. Knowing that you had to be in certain places at certain times and trying to remember what those were and how to get there. How hard it was to walk into a recreation room that buzzed with holiday gossip, the excitement of other people’s reunions. The weight of the uniform, erasing all traces of who you were before. How aware you were of your knees.
Our parents were in Lagos, Hong Kong, Castlebar, Kilkenny … Or else they were just down the road. At one extreme of the parental spectrum there were positions of influence that didn’t allow for children, careers being pursued in places where there was war or the threat of war, or famine; at the other there could be separation in the air, whiffs of scandal, bailiffs, drink. Some of us were boarders because we were difficult, or because we had parents who were dead, or ill, unable or unwilling to deal with us. For us, the boarding school system was a middle-class alternative to fostercare. Some of us realized that school offered some form of shelter and relief from the vagaries of adult life and were glad of it, but others raged against it. As a friend of mine says, no matter what the reason was, you felt dumped.
For every single thing you could say about boarding school, the opposite was also true. It was full of drama and boredom, both. We lived in buildings with graciously proportioned exteriors, surrounded by ‘grounds’ and high stone walls, but slept in poky dormitories with ancient plumbing. We studied in high-ceilinged, draughty rooms and moved through spacious, polished corridors and owned nothing, not even our time. We were surrounded by dubious, disturbing works of art and we were always hungry. We were dosed regularly against worms, checked for nits, supervised in the bath to make sure we didn’t pay undue attention to our bodies. Our letters home were read.
Ask people what their strongest physical memory of boarding is and they will mention things like hunger, or cold, or chilblains – what’s happened to chilblains? No one seems to get them any more. We used to cut the toes out of our socks and wear them as fingerless gloves to ease our cramping fingers through the winter. Meals were too far apart. We had to drink tepid water, developed a loathing for overcooked vegetables, stringy meat, tapioca; the smell of chalk and liquid gumption, cold water in narrow baths. At night you lay and listened to the school clock measure out each quarter of an hour and wondered how you would bear your hunger or, worse, your thirst until morning. We were surrounded by the sensual excesses of religion – the monstrance and the tabernacle, the stations of the cross, the hypnotic rhythms and images of the litanies – tower of ivory, star of the sea … They used sacred music on us like a drug. But if we were easily seduced by the marble and the gold, the bells and the choral singing, the dizzyingly sweet incense that hung, visible, in the air, then the extreme hunger of our pre-communion fast and the shock of cold wood on bare knees brought us back to reality fast enough. Mass was often punctuated by a familiar thwock as a girl keeled over, faint, in those chill early mornings. We had a secret fascination with the ones who fell. Was it a mark of holiness or worldliness, strength or weakness? We were excessively and deliciously preoccupied with sin, with all its degrees and inflections, all its ramifications. We were encouraged in this by the nuns, sin being a favoured topic of conversation. You could derail any class with a well-timed question, and with all those rules and regulations there was endless scope for misbehaviour.
Given the emphasis that was placed on the mortification of the flesh and perceiving our bodies as the enemy, it’s hardly surprising that we used to put blotting paper in our shoes to try to induce those saintly faints, carried mercury in our pockets, stitched the palms of our hands together during needlework. We developed a repertoire of symptoms calculated to unnerve the infirmary nun so that she’d let us in for a day of tea and toast and reading the particular form of pornography that the lives of the saints represented. We pored over images of the martyrs, especially children like Maria Goretti, who met such interestingly grisly fates at the hands of pagans. The adults were interesting too: Agatha, presented with her severed breasts on a shield; Sebastian, pierced by a hundred arrows and looking like a tamer version of Cuchullain at the Ford. Some of us were destined to end up as pagans ourselves, we were warned. It was a sobering prospect, but more attractive than martyrdom.
There were signs that all was not well below the carefully regulated surface, signs that no one bothered to investigate, like the girls who walked in their sleep, or shouted wild words into the dark and denied them in the morning. There was the girl who cut herself with a nail scissors one night and felt nothing until another girl saw what she’d done and screamed, waking everyone up. A girl lost her memory on the stairs one day, as casually as if it had fallen out of her pocket; someone else was found trying to climb out through a third-storey window in the middle of the night, thinking that a helicopter had come to bring her home. There was the girl who picked a hole in her own forehead, slowly and determinedly, over the course of a winter term. It was as bad, or worse, for boys, like the one we heard about who pulled a knife on a priest. All the parents were aghast, but we were unimpressed by their expressions of shock – we all knew exactly why he’d done it. They’d been to school too, so why didn’t they?
When your every waking moment is regulated, observed and accounted for, when your days are measured by rules and regulations, routines and rituals, you need all the lives you can get. I found mine in reading and in writing. Although the nuns distrusted books, they were never put out by the sight of a girl reading. If you had your head bent to a piece of paper, you could write your way out of – or into – anything. You could sit at a desk for hours with your head down and all they saw was that you were present, accounted for, quiet. They didn’t seem to understand the osmotic process that drew you out of yourself, through the lines, into the world of the book – the one you were writing, or the one you were reading. And they never checked that the cover matched the book. When I discovered that the government, like the nuns, believed that books could be annulled by decree, it was a simple thing to glue the cover of a textbook over the spine of an O’Brien, say, or a McGahern, and read away.
Another escape was through letters. Most of us had a collection of correspondents, usually boys, in different schools around the country. Sometimes you wrote to people you barely knew and had little in common with besides your mutual incarceration during term-time, but that only made the correspondence sweeter. Letters offered proof that you were a person, that you had a life beyond the institution. We sent each other gossip and poems (our own and other people’s), songs (likewise), diatribes against authority, quotes from inspirational and not so inspirational thinkers. I took to transcribing some of these into notebooks and leaving them where the nuns would find them – ‘Those who can, do. Those who cannot, teach.’ I was a fairly unbearable adolescent, even to myself. No wonder they kept suggesting I move elsewhere.
Those letters were a thrill to get, a challenge to write. How do you make school routine interesting? If a teacher was in the habit of flinging chalk around the room when provoked, then we provoked her, so that we could give a more accurate rendition of her temper; or if a particular nun had a habit of leading us out to the stairs to administer a scolding, because we were (all) so much taller than she was, then we looked for ways to make that scolding happen. Knowing the living death of boredom, the one thing we wanted to be on the page was entertaining.
It could backfire. I once wrote a letter to a new boyfriend who was a day-boy in a school across town. I racked my brains for something interesting to tell him and settled on a recent hockey match. Boys like sports, right? A complete construction suddenly appeared out of nowhere, the way they do when you’re lucky, and I got carried away by the logic of sticks and balls, the excitement of an open net, the language of tackle and score – I described a game of hockey that was basically sex on the page. I was fourteen. I thought it would give him a laugh.
At last I got a reply. From his mother.
She advised me to stay well away from her son in the future. If he ever saw me again or made contact with me, she warned, or if I ever tried in any way to get in touch with him, she would send copies of the letter I had written, which had shocked her deeply and was incontrovertible evidence of my sluttish nature, to my mother and to the nuns and possibly to a solicitor. (I got an apologetic letter from the boy as well. She’d really do it, he said. He’d tried to get the letter back, but she had it locked away. He was sorry, but for both our sakes it was best to call it quits. I was sorry too. He was a lovely boy. Well brought-up.)
Teenagers weren’t supposed to know anything about sex in those days, never mind make jokes about it. But we handed round the more excessive pronouncements of older nuns as if they were chocolates, hooting with laughter at the stricture against patent leather shoes, or the injunction to spread a newspaper on a young man’s lap if circumstances dictated that you absolutely had to sit there. (What on earth could such circumstances be, we wondered. And how would a newspaper protect you?) Despite our laughter, we inherited a kind of body-shame that went back to those early days when a silent nun would glide in and out of the bath cubicles to make sure that nothing untoward was going on. There was a belief that you lost your virginity through using tampons. Enraged by this nonsense, an unusually confident friend took it upon herself to instruct her classmates in the art of tampon use. She still dines out on her description of the scene: eight teenagers lined up in a row of toilet stalls behind closed doors, shrieking with consternation and hilarity, while she paced up and down outside, information leaflet in hand, calling out instructions that introduced them to their anatomy at a time when most girls couldn’t find their way around their own bodies in the dark.
Boarding school can have a disruptive effect on your sense of who you are and where you belong, especially if you go to more than one of them, as I did. The tribal dimensions of your schooling come undone if you keep moving. It’s like having layers of identity added and then stripped away again, but incompletely, before a new layer is applied. All those uniforms and school songs, the traditions and games, who you’re supposed to be affiliated to and who you’re not supposed to have anything at all to do with; who’s better or worse than you at games and which games, whether or not you take part in the feiseanna, which boys’ schools you have (the most abstract of) links with, whether or not you know anything about Gilbert and Sullivan.
For gregarious people, it could be a joy to be living in a herd of people your own age, with all the drama, tribal warfare, conflicting loyalties and codes of silence that went along with it. We comforted, amused, shocked, challenged, tortured and defended each other. There were stories after lights-out in the dormitories, whispered confessions, exaggerations, downright lies. For more sensitive souls, it could be agony. You didn’t have to be six to be homesick, or to feel overwhelmed when you found yourself sleeping in a room with several bigger, more mature and knowing girls. It could be excruciating to enter and re-enter crowded rooms, to live and re-live that passage from door to far corner, pretending not to know that you were alone, or that you didn’t care; the cliques and in-groups that all schools have are more intense when you’re a boarder because there’s no escape. There’s no contact with a sensible adult or older sibling who could say, I know, it’s hell, but it won’t last for ever; or, better still, give you advice that you might act on. The boredom of daily routine could get so intense that we’d stir up any kind of trouble, just to have something to think about. If you were being bullied, there was no relief. If you were in a war with some other person or group, which was far more common than many outsiders realized, there was no cooling-off period. God help you if you were either an early or a late developer physically – you were condemned to stand out like some kind of freak and put up with whatever slagging came your way as a result.
But there were compensations in the fertile chaos of growing up en masse, with all the passionate argument and fervid speculation about life, careers and sex that living with so many older girls provided. What we lacked in hard information we made up for with invention. We went through fads and phases of this belief system, that diet or the other beauty product. We taught each other how to dance. Exam weather meant something different when you could climb up onto a roof (out of bounds, of course) to study, with sheets of tinfoil-covered cardboard angled so as to accelerate the rays of the sun more directly towards your already peeling face. We ironed each other’s hair, squeezed each other’s blackheads, applied undiluted peroxide and raw Dettol to our acne, confided in each other under cover of darkness and listened to Radio Caroline or Luxembourg on illegal radios, while a nun with raw hands and a sweet nature sat outside and pretended not to know what we were up to.
The pianos we had access to may have been badly out of tune, but they were pianos. Anyone with energy could spend hours playing tennis or hockey because the equipment, and the other players, were there. We learned the value of friendship, the small but precious courtesies and compromises of living with other people, how to be alone in a crowd. We learned the rhythms of time and separation and reunion. To distrust authority. The many forms of weakness. For clever girls in academic schools, there was the immeasurable benefit of the habit of study to bring to the university education that followed, if they were lucky.
My last year of school was spent in a part of the country so beautiful as to give me a fright every morning when I opened my eyes and those mountains were still there. Because it was so remote, we had more physical freedom than I had known anywhere else. During our free time we could go where we wanted, which gave rise to long walks in the rain, hours spent sitting beside streams or staring into the depths of a haunted lake. This is the sort of thing every teenager needs, and I was lucky to get it. When the swans came someone would die, or so the story went. And they came, and someone, an elderly nun most of us had never seen, did die and no one was surprised. The swans left the day after she was buried, their beating wings making a sound like doors.
I was in a state of adolescent shock during my year in this school and I practised being sullen and having no ambition or anything remotely resembling expectation while the universe ordered up a series of bizarre events to challenge me. It began with a visit from two of Ireland’s finest, who went through my desk and ended up reading extracts from my diary to a pair of bewildered nuns. Something in my attitude, or maybe in what they’d read, really irritated those policemen, who came back every couple of months to remind me – and the nuns – that I’d never amount to anything. It’s funny the way life will oblige people with justifications for this sort of carry-on, but I swear that the illegal substances found on the premises in that year did not belong to me; I was not the one who brought the two boys from Ennis (Hi Billy, hey Ned) back after Easter to camp in the grounds, although I may have contributed to the general depletion of convent stocks of bread rolls and blankets to help keep them there; and I really didn’t start that chimney fire during the ESB strike when we all walked around the darkened school wrapped in our eiderdowns and clutching candles, while grates that hadn’t seen use for forty years were pressed back into action. (Yes, I was one of the people who used to raid the ashtrays in the staff room for re-usable butts, but I never sold them on. Mine were for personal use.)
The question of my early departure from this school was broached several times, but in the end we agreed that we’d stick it out, these particular nuns and I. We’d see it through. They were sane, calm, generous women and I was grateful for them, even then. When I left, they told me that they expected to read all about themselves one day; they hoped they wouldn’t have to wait too long. I forgot all about that conversation until now. I wish I’d remembered it sooner.
Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 21 Winter 2005-6