As children across the country head back to school, we asked our contributors to do the same. In this series, our writers share some lessons they learned at school – and how it shaped the way they think about education today.
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It was not a school for Jewish Feminist social democrats, or really – if knowledge is your goal – a school at all. It was, rather, a hushed house for women in search of rich husbands. But we did not know this, being children.
It was very pretty because prettiness was the most important thing: a crenellated white Strawberry Hill Gothic house on Richmond Hill. The Good Schools Guide blithely calls is a castle. It isn’t. A castle is a defensive fortress, not a house with ornamental battlements and if I had stayed there I would probably not know that. It was merely decorative and useless for defensive purposes. As we were.
Even in the late 1970s it was a relic, dedicated to upholding – and infiltrating – the British class system and to creating a particular sort of woman: decorative, pleasing, and ambitious in the most pointless sense: the geishas of Twickenham. Even now I wonder how many of them actually have jobs.
It was a tiny world, which sought to be no bigger – quite the opposite of an education. My class contained the daughter of a marquess who is now a duke and a girl who is now a world famous “socialite”. I was there by mistake. My father was the dentist to the headmistress and, on the advice of my mother – a working class Jewish girl from south London, who wanted me to go to Oxford University, and thought this was the way – he secured our admission, probably when she was at his mercy in the chair.
There were only two Jewish families in the school. We learnt that on the first day. The other Jewish family was the only other one to arrive with grandparents. So my sister and I were oddities from the start, although she coped better than I did, being kind and calm. When my uncle delivered us one day in a motorcycle and sidecar – he was a biker – it caused a sensation.
I remember the costume best, for obvious reasons. This school existed to create surfaces and, as far as I know, it never looked below them. We wore red and white gingham frocks in summer, and grey pinafore dresses with matching coat in winter. We had straw boaters with ribbons in summer, which was ludicrous, and felt bonnets in winter, which was worse.
We were supposed to be immaculate; and they were. I was always the dirtiest girl in the school photograph, an alien among placid English girls certain of their destiny, which was marriage and money. My clothes were grubby and torn because I was curious and accident-prone; once my hat flew out of a car window. Among the others, who seemed to me a rainbow of blonde, there was competitive plaiting of hair.
We were just out of infancy, but I could already sense hierarchies of beauty and status forming. There were no nerds, for what use are they? Some girls shifted to be invited to the tiny socialite’s mansion. (The marquess’s daughters had better manners, because the landed aristocracy, which is secretive, depends on not publicly acknowledging its power.) She spent winters in Barbados and we knew it, and we also knew that it was something to admire.
I would not call that an education. I would call it a trap; almost a hobbling. If you are not properly educated, and you do not find the rich husband your lack of education has prepared you for, what then?
This world was filled with manners – not warmth, but manners. Each day at the end of school, we had to queue up to shake the hand of the headmistress, a fearsome woman with hair like a wax cauliflower. Once I attempted to queue twice to shake her hand twice – I have the disease of more – but was rebuffed. At lunch we sat at tables of six, presided over by a teacher whose job was to watch for, and root out, bad manners. We had linen napkins and a personalised napkin ring. It was on the school list! We passed bowls of vegetables from hand to hand. Once, my sister licked the communal mashed potato spoon. The shame followed her to the 11+.
We had to learn something, so we learnt French conversation, ballet, and flower arranging. The socialite won the flower arranging, but she had acreage to play with. Our French teacher was actually French. We called her “Mademoiselle” and she was talkative and dramatic, like a French woman from a Sunday night television drama. It was, I think, the ideal school for Mr Bingley’s sisters. It was intellectually empty but if we surrendered to the torpor they spoilt us.
My mother was distraught when she realised the truth of a school that she hoped would make us secure in a Britain filled with class: learning too much was forbidden and she could not tolerate that. One night my she and I were bored and, in a fit of mania, we finished all the questions in the maths textbook. It was a term’s work. I walked into school expecting praise. Instead, I was rebuked. Was I vulgar? Had I tried too hard, and that was not faux-aristocratic enough?
I left a term later. I thought at the time it was my choice, but it wasn’t. That is good manners for you. My mother was told, politely, that it was not the school for me: I was too curious, too talkative, too grubby. I think I was also, in retrospect, too Jewish.
I should feel lucky to have attended the fake castle, and in an awful way I was. But it was there that I first felt the alienation. I couldn’t do the things that they required of me; but I had other things. I know that houses with ornamental battlements aren’t defensible, for instance, except, perhaps, as metaphor.