Everything about the school was dark and shadowy: long,
narrow corridors and winding staircases - and of course the girls themselves,
dressed in black gymslips, black stockings, black hob-nailed boots, grey
shirts and black-and-grey ties. Even their summer dresses were black-and-grey
checked. The only touches of colour were the sashes round their gymslips
- a different colour for each house - and the school badge, which was a
black cat sitting on a yellow moon. For special occasions, such as prize-giving
or Hallowe'en, there was another uniform consisting of a long robe worn
with a tall, pointed hat, but as these were black too, it didn't really
make much of a change.
There was so many rules that you couldn't do anything without being told off, and there seemed to be tests and exams every week.
(Jill Murphy, The Worst Witch, Puffin, 1974, pp7-8)
I have included this hypertext within the Virtual Worlds
of Girls cluster first because my schooldays were not the stereotypical
"happiest days of your life". Feminist criticism centralises
women's experiences, and a hallmark of contemporary feminist research is
the investigator's continual testing of the plausibility of the work against
her own experience.
(Maggie Humm points out that: "Indeed, women researchers have to begin
with personal experience, since traditional disciplines do not often utilise
women students' personal or emotional experiences.")
My own experiences reflect the fact that, however closely the educational
system itself was portrayed, girls' school stories never portrayed real
girls' experiences of school life accurately; instead, the stories are
fantasies which can only exist in a girls' school setting.
Second, I have included this hypertext because, when I
undertook my MA research,
which compared Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's fictional Chalet School with real
girls' schools of the period, I found a remarkable paucity of material
available on British women's experiences of their schooling. Mary Evans'
A Good School and the Virago collections There's Something About
a Convent Girl and Truth, Dare Or Promise, Girls growing up in the
together with a minority of entries in The Oxford Book of Schooldays,
were notable exceptions, but otherwise I was left with histories of girls'
schools and education
rather than works written by women recalling their own experiences. Humm
points out that: "the experience of women is often denied as 'real'
or important and our difficulty in accepting the validity of our experience
is part of our cultural heritage and perpetuated in our schooling."
Do women later regard their childish experiences as being of no importance?
Are they frightened of having their experiences ridiculed? Or do they wish
to keep their memories to themselves, either because they are too valuable
or too painful to be shared?
Whatever the reasons, I found no record of girls' experiences
of state-run, selective girls' day schools during the 1970s. However, I
did find the existing records of girls' experiences of schooling to be
invaluable in judging how closely girls' school stories reflected real
girls' experiences and how far they differed from them. I therefore decided
that writing down my own memories would be of value to academic research
into both girls' literature and girls' education, and I hope that it is
of particular value to non-British readers of this hypertext cluster who
have no personal experience of the British education system. (For an analytical
account of the state-run selective girls' day school system, however, I
recommend Mary Evans' A Good School,
which is about her experiences of a similar and neighbouring school to
my own during the 1950s.)
Looking back on my school career, I was the classic geek
girl - short-sighted, unfashionably dressed, sexually naive and with an
intelligence with which I was uncomfortable - in a society which did not
value education. The arrival of the new technology revolution more than
a decade later, headed by that archetypal geek Bill Gates, opened up possibilities
to geeks everywhere. In the 1970s, though, the school computer was locked
in its own room, accessible only to A Level Maths students, and in seven
years at the school I never once saw it. The idea that geeks might some
day become cool was so laughable that it never even entered my head.
Of course, my memories of school are necessarily partial,
as were my experiences, and the only story represented here is my own.
Even if their experiences never matched those of girls' school stories,
I am sure that many of my peers would paint a very different picture -
one girl even cried on the day we left, much to my amazement - as would
the teaching staff. But even in retrospect, as a former governor of an
East End comprehensive school and with the experience of three universities
behind me, my opinions of the school - and of the selective school system
- have not changed.
I decided not to attend the GCE A Level certificate presentation
held during the autumn following my departure from the school - I may have
felt differently if my results had been better, of course - and have never
returned. However, in 1984 I met up with a group of former classmates,
and when asked by them whether I still thought about the school, I replied
without thinking that I still had nightmares about it (these continue to
this day). One former classmate then apologised for being so unsympathetic
after my father died, which reassured me that I had not imagined their
and did make some recompense for it. Perhaps it is significant that, when
I arrived for our reunion, not one woman there recognised me; away from
school I was a different, happier person.
Why, then, did I choose to study girls' school stories?
Have the books provided a happier substitute for my own, very different
memories of growing up? It is a tempting analysis, but I think it is truer
to say that the experiences described in the books are so different from
my own that they do not awaken any painful memories, while I find the stories
themselves fascinating for many reasons. In fact, the society in which
I grew up in and my life then now seem as far distant as the British Empire
society of girls' school stories. In the same week when I became an adult
following the death of my father,
British society began to change out of all recognition following the election
of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Government, and the world of my childhood
disappeared for ever.
|Dr Ju Gosling aka ju90's ABNORMAL: How Britain became body dysphoric and the key to a cure is available now for just £3.09 for the Kindle or in a limited-edition hardback with full-colour art plates for £20 inc UK postage and packing.|