20191010 001051 9 minutes
Boarding School, Power, Bullying, Rules & Regulations

Being a year younger than the next youngest girl in the school left Brenda prey to all the whims and power plays nasty little girls inflict on the weaker members of their group. She couldn’t fight back against the taunts and unkindnesses her peers dreamed up, and she had to live with them, day after day, night after night. Academically, she could hold her own but emotionally felt more comfortable, the following year, with the girls in the grade below when a new class entered. That was where she found friends, which was awkward because they were a year behind her academically.

In her second semester her peers enjoyed being particularly horrible. One evening the girls in her dormitory were feeling their oats. Dormitories were simply bedrooms in the main building of the school. They were loosely clustered according to the three ‘houses’ into which the girls were divided, the houses named for the families who had originally owned the estate. This dormitory held five girls, and a dormitory-head who came to bed later. Brenda had received a letter from Mummy that day and felt homesick and started to cry. The other four girls in the dormitory loved that and tormented her, coming over and crowding her onto her bed. She was not only younger than they, but also very small for her age.

“Baby wants to go home. Poor baby.”

“Turn on the taps, baby. Faster, faster.”

As they increased their pressure, her tears flowed harder.

“Come on, let’s have a shower, a real deluge….”

Almost hysterical, like a hunted animal, she wanted to go home, where it was safe – to get away from these bigger, tormenting creatures who were enjoying themselves and pressing in on her. Where could she turn? She didn’t understand why they hated her.

Brenda suddenly realized that the harder she cried the more they laughed and were enjoying themselves.

Something snapped.

She had a fleeting thought: ‘They’re not going to enjoy themselves because I’m unhappy.’

She stopped crying.

Tormenting her wasn’t fun any more. Brenda had broken their hold. Unconsciously she had proved power and control were not synonymous. They were still powerful and could force her to do things, but she was in control of herself. She had made a life-changing discovery at age nine.

After that Brenda only cried in the movies, at the theatre or when reading a book, but never in real life. One of the basic boarding school lessons – never show your feelings, changed her from being an open, happy person to being a survivor, whatever the cost.

Others could pull the strings, enforcing their rules, bending her to their will, but she would remain in control of herself, beyond them. By finding out just how far to push the envelope before getting into real trouble, Brenda would infuriate those in authority. Power, which fascinated her, had little permanent significance; it was just a momentary blip though many people feared or exerted it. Originally she had been blinded, blinkered and brainwashed into agreeing; now she knew otherwise.

In future, by never letting her feelings show, people would only see the rebellious law-breaker who defied authority and was difficult to handle. They wouldn’t see the humiliation, fear and certainty of failure inside which prompted this behaviour. They would brand her a trouble-maker who needed more squooshing although she only wanted, and needed, acceptance, and a certain amount of autonomy.

She enjoyed going to church on Sundays, walking the mile and a half down the Long Drive to the village church, two-by-two, in ‘crocodile’ formation. She loved seeing the sun shining through the beautiful stained glass windows, and liked the music.

She enjoyed watching the sun, shining through the windows in the gym during Sunday evening services, going down over the courtyard buildings as the enormous three-hundred-year-old cedars of Lebanon, trees that had grown from the original seeds brought to England from Lebanon, gradually disappeared into the darkness. She couldn’t understand the feeling of peace she felt there, but it gave her the knowledge that she would never again be alone in her unhappiness. The certainty that another entity existed, beyond all her anxieties, tormentors, and struggles, kept her sane.

Without being able to verbalize it, she understood that people were only people, however scared she may be of them, and that these people were no different from her. She knew that her friends were all that mattered – all the winning and losing, all the struggles, all the toys and goodies – her new pyjamas were much nicer than Jane’s – weren’t important.

Someone – teachers, family or friends – was always saying “No, you can’t possibly do that. Be sensible. You have to do this – this way (my way), the right way.” They made her obey them, but couldn’t control her. What was inside was another matter, but they didn’t know that.

She learned another lesson early: if you ask and get told ‘no,’ and then do it anyway, it causes more problems than doing it first and having them find out afterwards. That’s what happened on VE Day – May 8th 1945. As a special treat the girls were to be allowed to swim, although the water temperature hadn’t risen to sixty degrees yet. Anyone who had been to the dispensary that week couldn’t swim. The list went up and included Brenda’s and Susan’s names.

They wanted so much to swim and asked the Nurse “Please. Can’t we? Just this once?”


They swam anyhow – freezing – and they were caught. They had broken the eleventh commandment: Thou shalt not be found out.

As punishment they were banished to the Sanitarium for the rest of the day and night and missed the enormous bonfire and potatoes baked in their jackets in the embers, and singing round the fire. What other celebrations they missed they didn’t know. That was how Brenda learned to behave – badly, according to the mores of the society around her.

In future she would find other ways around their rules and regulations, their can’ts and don’ts and shoulds and shouldn’ts, and sometimes would fail and so have to pay the price. Do it first and ask afterwards would be Brenda’s modus operandum. She would have agreed wholeheartedly with Mae West: ‘He who hesitates is a damn fool.’ Initially she would try to obey the rules, but then would take matters into her own hands.