Note: This post turned out dramatically differently than I had intended... what was to be lighthearted and filled with fun and fashion and some good old fashioned name dropping turned into something much more personal -- writing this evoked many raw emotions, and great period of personal pain and struggle that would last for several years. Many teenagers go through awkward times, but all these feelings of self doubt and uncertainty happened so very far away from home. I feel a little vulnerable and exposed but I am not going to change it. So here it is The first installment of my British Education. (It is long.)
I remember the cool air and the grey skies of that winter. The weather was milder than at home, but the lack of sunshine that week was a bit depressing. I dutifully visited all the schools and quite liked the co-ed school but was not as fond of the campus. I chose instead a posh school that had educated members of the Royal Family, Guinness family and celebrities for generations. I had not known this at the time. (But I am certain that this was the reason it was my grandmother’s favorite!) I remember visiting; and seeing girls smiling and laughing and being girls as they walked down the halls to their classes. I remember the roly poly Mrs. Johns who was the then Head of the School. It seemed to me, as I observed all around, a place I would fit in well. The girls were pretty (of course that matters to a 16 year old!) and reminded me of my friends at home.
Needless to say La Jolie Grandmère was delighted with my decision to spend a year in Europe and spend it with the “right” people.
I finished up the rest of the school year in New York without incident. I was not unhappy to leave until the summer was over.
I had had a fabulous summer – the best of my life thus far – working at the camp I had attended each summer of my youth in the Adirondack Mountains. I had found and fallen in love – My first real teen love! While we did break up at the end of the summer we remained friends and our friendship would last for years to come.
The end of that summer, for me, was filled with fear and dread. I had just come into my own. I had a wonderful group of fun and supportive friends. I had fallen in love. My self-esteem and confidence level was at an all-time high. I should have been able to move ahead with confidence and a sure foot. But I didn’t and it would be years, over 20, before I would I would have the same sense of self and confidence again.
September was fast approaching and I was packing for a new life in a new country – a journey I would be traveling, for the most part, alone without the security of friends and family, which for a 16 year old girl is hard and scary and crazy and bold, and a very grown-up thing to do.
I have never been one to embrace change. To this day I loathe it. I fear it. For a 16 year old to face such change and uncertainty is almost insurmountable. But I had committed to a year abroad and there was no turning back. My mother never let me quit which I suppose is a good thing because I am notoriously good at starting and stopping. To this day I am better at starting new projects than completing them.
So without turning back, across The Pond I flew once more. This time my parents were with me to bid me a fond farewell. On that plane my stomach lurched and churned. I suppose it was the first time I was actually fearful of flying. I wore my favorite outfit. It was one I knew I looked good in. I wore a pretty white blouse, my favorite Girbaud jeans (It was the 80s!) with a white sweater around my waist and a pair of navy ballet flats. I had my bag of tricks to keep me entertained. Paper and pens, of course, and my Sony Walkman my father had just given me for this trip. I had several tapes for listening but I am pretty sure I played the same one over and over again.
The Police had released their Synchronicity album earlier that year. We listened to it at school and at each other’s houses. The first song, I believe, to top the charts was Every Breath you Take
and I remember how taken I had been with it. The Synchronicity album was one of those great works you never tired of. That summer, with my boyfriend and a friend of ours who lived in Quebec, we traveled to Montreal to see the Police in concert. It was amazing.
Everything about that summer, to me, was amazing. I adored the Police and listening to the music and the lyrics brought me back to a warm and safe place. I just couldn’t get enough of the songs.
We had arrived in England a few days before school was to begin. We would spend our days relaxing and shopping to for my room and bedding. And I would pick up a few more things for myself along the way. Most important was that I get over the jet lag before school started.
I don’t remember much about that week or the drive to school.
But once we got to school I remember the details vividly, as though it was just yesterday.
The school was gorgeous, brown red brick covered with ivy all. The old architecture was spectacular. The school was elegant, stately and warm. We arrived at the same time other young, pretty girls with beautiful British accents did… long hair flowing over their shoulders…big blue eyes and rosy cheeks eager to receive kisses from the friends they had not seen over the long summer. The girls wore their summer tans under their uniforms. Everyone seemed genuinely glad to be there. Everyone but me. I mustered all my strength to keep from busting into tears. This was not my school. I did not belong. We got my room assignment and climbed all the way up to Treetops, Lower 6th form.
We climbed what seemed to be (to me) the endless flights of stairs before we reached the top of the building in search of what would be my room. We followed the numbers on the doors and did not have to look far. My heart sank further. I mustered up more strength to fight back the tears. I didn’t have a room, I had a broom closet that someone had the bloody audacity to paint a pale pink so that one might actually for a nanosecond mistake
it for a bedroom.
My bedroom, excuse me, my broom closet,
was so small it did not have a closet in which to hang my clothes. A small make-shift amoire was jammed in. I didn’t have a proper desk, and the small table seemed like an exaggerated joke. This clearly was the room no one wanted. The room no one chose last spring when the girls got to pick out their rooms.
I’m sure my parents told me my room was adorable and used words of that nature. But these words didn’t help. Soon it was time for them to say their goodbyes and leave me in the godforsaken place where I did not belong. I kissed them and hugged them and closed my door and cried. And cried and cried and cried.
A short while later the dinner bell rang. I followed the girls down the stairs to the two refectories. I had no idea where to go or where to sit. There seemed to be no sort of a visible seating chart and no one to show me the ropes. I made my way into the larger of the two refectories where I was met by a tall stern woman with grey hair and tree trunks for legs. Like a bad character from a movie about a British Boarding School Mrs. Webb glared at me, then shouted “Where do you think you’re going?” More tears to control. I think my lips managed to quiver the fact that I didn’t know where to sit. It was a small enough school with very few new students, surely she could have used a kinder tone if not kinder words. There was to be no hand-holding at this school. I learned this on Day One.
I found my table and my seat which was near the head. We had assigned seats with a child or two represented from each form. Each person at the table had a duty, for example one child went to get the food, another served, another cleared, another fetched the desserts…
My First Supper, other than my Grand Entry, left no major marks on my memory. I do not remember what was served that night or whether I ate any of it. The food in general was pretty terrible British school food. There was always some sort of meat, vegetable and starch. There was salad that contained lettuce and tomatoes and some sort of a nasty yellow dressing -- and I use that term loosely -- that was thick, too thick to spread over your salad properly and had the unfortunate and unmistakable smell and texture of Miracle Whip. Aghhhhh…. And then there were desserts. They were sweet and rich and not terribly good but were perfect for filling a void.
At some point, over the next day or so, I made some friends. In the room next to me was Camilla. She had more hyphenated last names than Elizabeth Taylor would have had she strung all her married names together. That this girl was of pedigree was unquestionable. But she also had issues and I wonder how many other elite boarding schools she had been to and kicked out of. She didn’t last terribly long and after an afternoon with her I figured I had best stay away.
We had a Dorm Mother. She was an ugly, short, stout lady named Miss Willetts.She had short, chin length brown hair and bangs. She wore unflattering dresses, skirts and heavy cardigan sweaters and ugly, sensible shoes. She was a character and we loved to cause her distress. Smoking in the dorms was absolutely prohibited. Though we did it all the time. We’d cram as many girls as we could into the bathroom stalls and pass around a cigarette or two. It’s amazing she could not smell the smoke wafting out from under the door or hear the dozen or so girls piled on top of each other giggling and shhh-shing! Then we would carefully sneak out and sneak back into our rooms. Miss Willetts would then come out of her own room and smell the smoke wafting through the corridors, demanding to know who had had a smoke. Of course no one fessed up. Eventually we took to sneaking in the bathrooms and would run the water in the tub to better hide the sounds of our giggles.
St. Mary’s School Girls stood out in town. We would never be confused with the townies. We looked and talked differently and it was important, that if we were going to break a rule, like sneaking a cigarette, that we did it very discreetly. We hid behind bushes and trees and cars in the park, every so often running into a faculty member or gym teacher or such. This became a fascinating game for me. I had never been a rule breaker before.
Although I was starting to fit in and even acquire a bit of a British accent, I still missed home and my friends and New York. This place, on the other side of the vast ocean, was not my home and didn’t feel like my home.I saw my grandmother from time to time, but not very often. Thanksgiving felt cold and lonely. I went home for the weekend and my grandmother had gone to all sorts of measures to create a wonderful Thanksgiving for me. But it lacked the most important ingredient, being at home in the States. After all, wasn’t the holiday a celebration of surviving in a new country away from the English rule?
I began to find solace in food. Food and goodies began to fill a void. I began to turn to food in a way I hadn’t ever done before. I didn’t eat because I was hungry. I ate because I was bored or lonely or sad. I sought more comfort in food than I was getting in this foreign and cold land. I was being self-destructive and I could feel it. The clothes were getting tight. I was bloating and gaining weight rapidly. This upset me too and only did more to fuel the vicious eating cycle. Food was making me miserable and yet the food was the only thing that could comfort me, though I didn’t see this at the time.
Academically things were going well. In the English academic system, once you hit the 6th form you pick three (and up to five) areas of study. These areas of study are referred to as the A-Levels, Advanced Levels. One can only take her A-Levels after O-Levels (Ordinary Levels) have been completed and passed with a grade of B or higher. The grading system is much stricter than in the States. When taking these exams the actual tests are graded by special individuals who are part of the testing system and not by the school. The tests themselves are thorough and rigorous and it takes two years of study to learn and study for both the O-level and A-level exams. I had chosen to study Art, Art History and French and was thrilled to never have to look at another Math text book ever again!
My teachers were wonderful and interesting, especially my Art and Art History teachers. These may have been the only two teachers at the school who cared and gave a damn about me. They were lovely, loving, supportive and encouraging. And from these two women I learned more than I ever could imagine both personally and academically.
Mrs. Shallgosky was fun loving, fun, eccentric and an amazing teacher. She had grey hair that she wore in a chignon, she was both stylishly modern and classically hip. Mrs. Beckerleg was a very short, very round and not terribly attractive woman with a heart of pure gold. She wanted her students to succeed at school and at life. She loved all her students dearly. This was clear. These two teachers, their love of their subject, their love for their subjects and for their students may be the most important thing I brought home with me. These two teachers have a special place in my heart still, after all these years.
As the weather turned cooler and the days grew longer and darker my sadness did too. It was nearly time to go home. I couldn’t wait. I packed up all my belongings – all my possessions because I was certain that I would never return. I would stay at home in the city where I belonged.
On the airplane I was at peace and calm knowing that I had left that terrible place behind me. I sat on that airplane, my clothes uncomfortably tight knowing that as soon as I got home everything would be OK again and my clothes would once again fit. I had Simon and Garfunkel in my Walkman. The lyrics to A Heart in New York
struck a chord and as I listened I cried…
New York -- to that tall skyline I come
Flyin' in from London to your door
New York -- lookin' down on Central Park
Where they say you should not wander after dark
New York -- like a scene from all those movies
But you're real enough to me, for there's a heart
A heart that lives in New York A heart in New York arose on the street
I write my song to that city heartbeat
A heart in New York -- the love in her eyes
An open door and a friend for the night New York -- you got money on your mind
And my words won't make a dime's worth of difference
So here's to you, New York There were no more perfect lyrics than the ones I was listening to… I listened to them, as I tend to do when I find that perfect song, over and over and over again.
I got off the airplane eager to see my parents and be home.
Everything would now be OK.
But it wouldn't be.