20191016 001057 12 minutes
Boarding School, Power, Motive to Avoid Success, Oxford

Indisputably the dominant female in the tribe – although only tiny, not even five feet tall – her mother terrified everyone. The oldest of seven children she even frightened her siblings. But Michael discovered how to get round their mother. As the blue-eyed boy he could do no wrong. Usually he could get away with anything.

He lorded it over Brenda, although she gave him a run for his money. Everyone else gave in to him but his sister didn’t see why she should. Their arguments were monumental. Maybe he helped train her to stand up for herself. He certainly made her enormously competitive.

For their mother, Brenda could do nothing right. She told her so, often enough:

“What’s wrong with you? Can’t you ever do anything right?” Or “You are the slowest thing that ever crawled on this earth. For heaven’s sake, HURRY UP.”

Brenda was a perpetual disappointment to her mother. It generated the feeling of guilt which stayed with her almost the rest of her life, particularly about letting the side down, or the family. Whatever went wrong, she always blamed herself.

Mummy believed there were two opinions in the world – hers, and the wrong one. It made Brenda comfortable with not being right, not succeeding. Was she more scared of success or failure? The motive to avoid success was well drilled into her. Be brilliant, be wonderful, try really hard, do better than everyone else. But don’t succeed. Shy at the last fence. Flunk the last exam. Despite her competitiveness she made sure success was not an option. And although taught to think that only her mother’s values, priorities and rules ‘correct,’ that no one else was worth anything or measured up, Brenda never wanted to believe it. Her choice of friends at school proved that.

Brenda and Michael had been brought up to believe that he would follow Daddy into the family business, and she would go to Oxford and then into the Diplomatic Service. How she would accomplish this was never questioned. When the time came for her to take the Oxford entrance exams Miss Tarkington opposed it.

“Brenda has already matriculated into London, Edinburgh and Dublin because of her results on the national G.C.E. Advanced Level exams, but she is not good enough to pass the exams for Oxford. She should not sit for them. The school already has two other candidates who will pass. We don’t need any more. Our reputation is important. We are only a small school and it would be a black mark against us for someone to sit for the exams and not pass.”

Mummy was furious. Daddy had died that summer and had left money in Brenda’s name for her to go to Oxford. Brenda wanted to go. She thought she had as much chance as Jane and Fiona who would also be sitting for the exams. They were cleverer than she, and definitely teachers’ pets. But although Jane could read five books to her one in history, she never remembered anything beyond the essay it was assigned for. Brenda worked more slowly but very hard, and remembered most of what she learned. Fiona was also a slow worker, but her father worked at one of the colleges at Oxford so probably would be accepted.

Now ensued the battle of the Titans.

“If Brenda is not to take Oxford entrance there is no reason for her to stay at school any longer. She should leave immediately. It will be a new school year and there is no point in spending the money for her to continue, now that our income has stopped.”

Miss Tarkington had other ideas.

“Brenda is to be Head of House for the new house we are starting this school year. She will be a School Prefect. Honors which will help her get into University. She should not be prevented from having these important experiences to crown her school years.”


Miss Tarkington agreed to come over to the house for the day during the summer vacation. Mummy wanted to persuade her to let Brenda sit for the Oxford entrance exams, in which case Brenda would stay on for another semester.

Everything had to be right. The sun shone. The food was good. They took her on the river. Even Brenda was considered to have behaved herself. By the end of the day, Brenda was to be allowed to sit for the exams. The Titan puppeteers had fought their battle and the strings were manipulated once again.

The dreaded days came. Brenda was terrified, but did her best. Jane and Fiona didn’t seem to think the exams were too bad, and finished early. Brenda kept writing up to the last minute. During the weeks of waiting Jane was very confident as were her teachers. But everyone knew that Brenda was not expected to pass. After all, this was Oxford.

The results finally arrived. Brenda and Fiona had to go for interviews. Jane didn’t make it. But Brenda had never been given the slightest hint into believing herself to be Oxford material. She sat on the train with Fiona and neither could imagine what to say in the interviews. Fiona was used to being at Oxford, she lived there, and her brother was an undergraduate. But Brenda had only seen it briefly from the river a couple of years ago, and had not visited a single college. And was still a year younger than the other applicants. There were only two women’s colleges, so competition was fierce.

Everything came home to roost. Her immaturity meant her exam results would have had to be brilliant to get in. The interviewers said she was young enough to try again next year. The trouble was, now Daddy had died there wasn’t enough money to bridge that year. And his income the previous year was too high for her to get a county scholarship.

As Miss Tarkington had said, Brenda could have gone to London, Edinburgh or Dublin, but Mummy had a good friend who told her there was no point in sending Brenda to a ‘red brick’ university – anything other than Oxford or Cambridge – but he had three daughters, each of whom took double firsts at Cambridge. He lived in a very different sphere where ordinary mortals had no place. London, Edinburgh and Dublin were hardly ‘red brick’ universities – they were almost as old as Oxford or Cambridge -but it was much more convenient to believe they weren’t worth it. And anyhow, Mummy wanted to buy an apartment with the money Daddy had left for paying for college..

So that was the end for those particular puppeteers. Brenda went to a fancy secretarial college and then, on her own, went to a London law college in the evenings after work, for free. After two years she decided there were other things to do with one’s life at twenty three than to work all day, spend the evenings in the classroom, and all weekend studying. Brenda didn’t return to university until after the divorce, with two small children to provide for, but no degree.

Brenda was well into her twenties before realizing, from irrefutable scientific observation, that if she and her mother disagreed, Brenda wasn’t automatically wrong. After that they couldn’t live together any more. It took at least three months before Brenda acknowledged it and looked for her own apartment

Looking back, a lifetime later, Brenda could trace the forces that had molded her decisions, to the struggles which had taken place in her early childhood. The inability to communicate, the feeling of vulnerability and inadequacy, fear when not in control, the need to compete, all seeds sown in her early days: those voices in the next room deciding her future, puppeteers pulling the strings and making her dance to their bidding, carefully building the models which would define her life. Power, control and guilt. Building blocks put in place and then either reinforced or weakened by subsequent events.

When thinking about power and its abuse, control, cruelty and survival, the first people that come to mind would probably be people like Hitler, Stalin, the nineteenth century industrial robber barons, traders who ran the slave ships, directors of prisons or the heads of insane asylums, or the ancient Greeks, Romans or Egyptians. One normally would not think of a small girl, children at school, parents or teachers.

But power, cruelty, fear, control and survival exist in the microcosm of young life in the classroom, and at home, as surely as in the boardrooms of the titans of industry, politics or prisons. The seeds sown in early life produce thought habits, and condition emotional reflexes, which influence decisions taken throughout life, from the bedroom to the boardroom.