My longest stint in the same boarding school was at Beit School in Choma, Zambia, where I attended for three years from 1958-1960 (ages 9-12). Boarding school anywhere, and in my case 1950s British-run schools, was an experience in having your daily life highly controlled and structured. Housemothers, also called matrons, weren’t known to be particularly gentle and nurturing; they were usually disciplinarians who demanded obedience to the rules.
Our days at Beit followed a strict routine that didn’t vary much, except on weekends. The rising bell rang around 6:00 a.m., and we would all get dressed in our school uniforms, fix our hair and brush our teeth, make our beds (with hospital corners), tie up our mosquito netting above our beds, and line up for breakfast. Older girls were assigned to younger ones to help with bed-making and other tasks. At breakfast and every meal, we remained standing at our assigned seats until we said grace, which was always, “For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful.” Those in charge must have known we might need that prayer for some of the food we were about to receive. I did not like most of the breakfast food, especially the lumpy porridge and greasy egg and tomato dishes – the lard used to cook the eggs would stick to roof of my mouth. At the end of each meal, we would rise again and pray together, “For what we have received, may the Lord make us truly thankful,” another necessary prayer with that lard still stuck in my mouth. No one was excused early and everyone was expected to eat what was served without complaining. I credit my not being a picky eater to learning long ago to eat whatever was put in front of me, even if I didn’t like it.
Following breakfast on school days, we collected our books and homework, put on raincoats and boots if it was the rainy season, and lined up in twos to walk to school about a mile away. We never went anywhere unless we were lined up in twos – younger girls in front, older girls in back. The school day began with an assembly outside in the courtyard and consisted of singing a hymn, reading a scripture, and saying the Lord’s Prayer. I continue to associate certain hymns and Christmas carols with boarding school; for example, “Immortal, Invisible,” “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” “Once in Royal David’s City,” and “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Classes were co-ed because in addition to the girls from the boarding hostel, there were also day students, including boys, from town and surrounding farms.
I received a very good basic education at Beit and excelled academically so that every term I was at least third in my class and often first. At Beit, I learned multiplication tables up to 12 x 12 so well that I never forgot them. I learned how to do simple math in my head – we had a specific class called “mental arithmetic” with tests of our ability to figure out a solution in our heads and then write down only the answer (hard to imagine doing in these days of calculators and computers). While I was at Beit, I also received the first feedback on my writing. One assignment was to write about either “I Love Cats” or “I Hate Cats.” Having grown up with pet cats as long as I could remember, I naturally chose “I Love Cats.” My father loved it later when I showed it to him! Whether he praised the piece because it was written well or because he too loved cats, I don’t know, but I certainly remember the positive reinforcement. On the other hand, I also distinctly remember a remark one teacher wrote on another assignment: “Your writing lacks sparkle.” It was one of those defining comments that shaped my image of myself and my writing for years to come. What was worse, however, was that I had no clue how to make my writing “sparkle.”
Classes were over for the day by about 1:00 p.m., and boarding students would again line up to walk back to the hostel for lunch. After lunch, we went to our beds where we rested or napped for about an hour and a half every afternoon. Twice a week between lunch and rest time, we would line up for “tuck,” a British term for candy and snacks. Each girl was allowed to bring a stash of candy from home for this purpose, which would be rationed out six pieces at a time during the school term. I always felt a little deprived at tuck time because my candy was not nearly as generously-portioned as the other girls. Picture six M&Ms compared to six Hershey’s Miniatures!
During rest time, we were required to be completely quiet and not talk to each other. If we were caught talking or getting off our beds, we were punished. We weren’t required to sleep, however. Any mail we received would be delivered during rest time, and some days the matrons would bring clothes that needed mending, especially socks to be darned. I became a darn good darner! Again, older girls were expected to do mending for younger girls. I also knit doll clothes or read. After rest time, we went to the dining room to do our homework, and then there was usually time to go outside for some organized recreational activity.
As evening came, we went inside for baths. There were two main bathrooms in the hostel, one each for older and younger girls. Each bathroom had about four bathtubs, so the girls had to line up and wait their turn. In the older girls’ bathroom, there were three bathtub stalls in a row on one side of the room, and one by itself on the other side. The most senior among the older girls had the privilege of using the one by itself. There was a drainage problem for the other three; we weren’t allowed to pull the plug unless no one else was draining her tub without risking an overflow. So you would hear girls yell out from their stalls to whoever was in charge that night, “Can I pull my plug?”
Tomorrow’s post: “Boarding school memories, part 2,” in which I describe night-time escapades and weekend routines, reveal the name of my first boyfriend, and share a few observations about those three years.