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September 21, 2021

Window on the World Column | Words and Memories With Friends

We have been playing online “Words with Friends” for a good while now. When she first started, I could beat her rather successfully. Nowadays, I’m lucky to win the odd game. She always was a clever-clogs. One of the great wonders of the modern world is that we can do such things as play a game together — she at her home in Reading, England, and me at mine in California — and send the odd comment or two across the ether. It’s fun and good for our old grey matter.

I remember so well our school days and the pen and paper that were our only tools at the time. That does make me smile a bit. She recently asked me to write a few things about my recollections of our school days. That made me stop and think.

We met at a boarding school near Cambridge in England circa 1974. We were in the same class. She was tall and elegant, and I was short and squat. I’m sure time hasn’t changed those genetic distributions. This was well over 40 years ago. Nowadays, boarding schools are in the league of special needs establishments or confinement centers for delinquent youth; but my father had gone to a boarding school himself and it was considered quite a normal thing in our family, especially since we lived in the countryside and there were no good schools nearby. Except that I was 9 when I went away to school, and I do consider that a pretty young age to leave your family.

I have distinct memories of calling my parents (collect) from the rotary dial phone box in floods of tears on a Sunday night and I can still remember the level of homesickness that ravaged through me, as I endeavored to sleep in a dorm full of other girls, wishing I were home in my own bed with my own family. I recall the excitement when it was time to go home for the holidays. We would all hang out of the banged-up old windows and wait for our family members to arrive and take us home. That was the joyous part. The old banged-up dorm windows were also extremely chill and windy in the English winter — less joyous.

I recall going to bed in my school uniform of a night, so that I wouldn’t have to face dressing in that icebox of a morning. “First bell, second bell!” those were clanging noises that made you stand up and pay attention. You only had a few minutes to get down the stairs to breakfast, or you would be liable for an “early up,” which would mean standing all by yourself downstairs in the breakfast line and maybe not being allowed to go downtown with your buddies on a Wednesday or Saturday afternoon to get some fruit or sweets from the shops.

Reading back on this, it all sounds a bit grim; but actually you are forced to grow up quickly in this environment; you learn to be a survivor and think on your feet. Over the years, I have looked back and thought it was all a bit reminiscent of “Lord of the Flies,” since we were basically children raising ourselves on an unusual island of life; but at least no one got eaten — in the literal sense.

Fortunately, it was a mixed boarding school, so that made for a bit of fun with all these pre-pubescent girls. I do recall sneaking over to the boys’ dorms one night with a few others and causing a ruckus. Luckily, we were not caught, or I’d likely still be in detention. There was also a lot of cider-drinking and kissing boys went on of an evening on the Avenue or on the school playing fields. Lots of notes got passed during class and the school dances were legendary for the start of new flings.

Sports days were fun — sometimes — as were tennis and hockey matches. Mealtimes could be a trial. Walking into the huge dining hall and looking to see if there was a place to sit with your peers that might work. Sometimes the food was so disgusting, you just ate the bread and jam, but at least there was that and constant vats of tea. I recall the midnight feasts we had and the pillow fights. The shadow of our housemistress “Baggage” (Ms. Marriage) would come flying through the dorm door, yelling “Who’s talking in here?” We would wait in the dark silence and see who would own up. She was a formidable leader that one. Terrifying. Her beaky silhouette is forever imprinted on my psyche.

Valentine’s Day was agony — they would distribute the Valentine’s cards at teatime, I think, and everyone would see who the popular people were. The regular ones among us would just sink down on the benches and wish it to all be over with. Or we’d creak our necks around the melee and see if our crush of the moment had received the card from us, while we desperately attempted not to blush.

Sometimes we would fall out with our besties and we would ignore them for a while. We’d hang out with other people and still be looking for them all over. It could be a strange and unsettling time when these differences occurred, since we were not emotionally equipped to deal with this by ourselves. The daily post was very important to us and letters from home were cherished. It felt like a lifeline with the outside world that would keep us sane in some ways.

I remember the flu epidemic when we all got sent home and how happy I was for that. My parents were always so lovely when I came home, made me all my favorite foods and let me sleep in for hours. That did not help with the return visit to school, however.

There was the terrible occasion when one of our dorm mates tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose. We came upon her after lunch. It was a confusing and distressing time. Fortunately, she survived and went on to become a doctor, but I will never forget that feeling of helplessness and bewilderment. “She wanted to kill herself today, but why?” I couldn’t get my head around it.

Since it was a Quaker school, we had “Meeting” every Sunday evening, when we were required to dress up and attend. I have swatches of fabric from my Sunday dresses in my patchwork cushions and quilts that my mother later made. The fabrics of memory are a real thing. Just a glimpse of a Laura Ashley hexagon and I am back in that large hall, looking for someone of interest that I might be able to focus on for an hour, while I refused to let my neighbor start me up with the giggles.

I’m going to dig for more, Charis, and you do the same, please. In all the years since we left our crazy, formative school, I have never really taken the time to examine what it was all about. Our grey matter can certainly handle the increased workout.

Lucy Jensen
Soledad Columnist
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