Thursday, July 17, 2008

Down Memory Lane (1)

Thanks to modern technology and a wonderful thing called Facebook, I have recently gotten back in contact with people I've not heard from in decades. While there are many arguments against virtual social networking, I can only see the positives, maybe because I am home all day, every day, with only a one-year old and a housekeeper for company. Virtual networking keeps me sane, and in touch with the outside world.

Another reason to be thankful for things like Facebook and email is that for 5 years of my life, while I was halfway across the world at a British boarding school, the only means of communication with my family, friends and boyfriend of 2 years were snail mail and occasional long-distance telephone calls. Many people don't remember what life was life before the Internet made the world so much smaller, but I do, all too well. The world wide web has not only made communication infinitely easier, but has also allowed me to rekindle old friendships that petered out when letter writing became passe.

I spent the summer of my 12th year at school. Not summer school, but boarding school in Sussex, England, for a 6 week period that would be my trial run for the five years between 1989 and 1994.

Ballet was my life as I entered late elementary school, and books my parents brought me from the UK about dancers at ballet schools must have had a serious impact, because after sending off a series of photos and a video audition of myself doing a ballet class, I was off to Bush Davies school in the summer of 1988.

I remember feeling both nervous and excited. My mom took me to Harrods to purchase the uniform grey kilt, white blouses, burgundy jumpers, knee-length grey socks and the blazer with the school crest on it. From the school's secondhand shop came two hideous pink and white dresses that turned out to be the summer uniform, and a pair of royal blue smocks that buttoned at the back - pinafores that the first-years were required to wear. For the dance classes, I had enough of my own pairs of tights and ballet shoes and just had to get a few of the uniform burgundy leotards.

The school grounds were beautiful, and most importantly, located near enough to my guardians' house to allow me to spend the exeat weekend (there was one every 3 weeks of term) with them. As a minor, I was required a legal guardian, and my dad's counterpart at the London office fit the bill perfectly. My parents spent a week or so in London to get me ready for the term's start and make sure I settled in nicely.

The first year girls all slept together in one long room. I remember entering a small building and going up a narrow flight of stairs, at the top of which was a small room on the left belonging to the housemother, whom we called Nanny. Poor Nanny had to wear a uniform even more hideous than ours. The main room was like something out of Ludwig Bemelmans' Madeleine. 3 of the walls were lined with 2 dozen beds, some singles, some bunks, each separated by small lockers in which the girls stored their personal items. I was given a single at the far end, and had a dark-haired Welsh girl called Victoria for a neighbor.

In the middle of the room and along the 4th wall by the door were double-sided tables and chairs, with mirrors at each, which was where we were to do our hair before dance classes. On the table in front of each mirror were fishing tackle boxes, many of which were decorated with stickers, filled with hairgrips, pins, nets, brushes and hairspray.

I was unpacked and settled in by 430 pm or so of the day before term started, and the girls were starting to come in one by one, many bidding tearful farewells to their parents for another 3 weeks. It was only then that I realized that I'd come in the middle of the school year (the start of the summer term, to be exact) and that all the girls had their little cliques of friends already. Luckily, everyone was very friendly to the new and only Asian girl in the year, and I didn't feel left out.

530pm was teatime. I followed some girls down to a big building that housed the dining hall and dormitories for older students. There was a massive, high-ceilinged room filled with tables and chairs (very much like Hogwarts' Great Hall), and along one long wall was the entrance to the narrow serving area, where we lined up with trays for hot food. Along another wall was the window through which we pushed finished trays to be cleaned. The fourth wall opened up into a conservatory, which was filled with yet more tables and chairs. The entire room reverberated with the noise of hundreds of students welcoming each other back.

I dutifully lined up and held out my plate for a slice of cheese on toast. There were plastic mugs at one end of the line and everyone took one and filled it from the drinking jug next to it. I did the same and wondered what on earth the tepid beverage that looked like dirty dishwater could be. Used to drinking glasses of fresh water with every meal, I was about to have my first taste of British tea with milk. I didn't like it at all. It tasted of dirty dishwater, and it was only the next morning I realized that there was sugar next to the mugs. It was much later that I tasted a proper cup of English tea, as the tea served at school had very little milk in it, and realized how delicious it could be.

Once tea was over, I remember asking on the way back to the dorm what time dinner would be served. I was told it would be at 1pm the next day. Here was my first encounter with the language barrier. English in England was not the same as the American English I'd grown up speaking, though I did know some of this from all the Enid Blyton books I'd read.

To my horror, I realized that tea, that insignificant slice of bread with cheese on top of it, was the last meal of the day. Again, I came from a country where tea is an afternoon snack, and dinner or supper at 7pm or so was a full meal that kept one from starving til the next morning's breakfast. But apparently the Brits didn't eat. Woe was me with my lightning fast metabolism and days full of academic and dance classes.

Somehow, I survived the night, maybe because I was nervous about the next day. Breakfast was hot oatmeal and more tea, and this time I discovered the sugar. Then it was back to the building that housed our dormitory, for it turned out that the two big rooms downstairs were the first-years' classrooms. I was assigned to one and muddled through a morning of strange classes. Geography and history were clearly different than what I'd been learning at home. Maths was fine, but it had an S at the end of it (we called it Math where I came from). English was a piece of cake. Science would come later on that week in the labs, which were in another building, as well as Music, which took place in a room behind the conservatory next to the dining hall.

At lunch, or dinner, as they called it in England, I was in for another surprise. The serving line I'd gotten used to from the previous two meals provided a hot lunch, and more of the neverending tea. As I sat down to eat, I saw that there was a second serving area in the conservatory. Apparently this was where cold lunch was served - sandwiches and salads. You could have one or the other, but not both. Clearly, Brits really didn't like to eat.

After lunch, we trooped back to the dormitory to get changed and do our hair for the afternoon's dance classes. As timetables were handed out at the start of the schoolyear and I'd come in midway though, I just blindly followed wherever the other girls headed. I also had the disadvantage of not knowing my way around the campus, as the others had been there two terms previously and knew where they needed to go and when. At this point, I only knew my way to and from the dining hall.

The dance studios were scattered across the different buildings. The main administration building, in front of which was a large pool that had turned into a pond over the winter and spring complete with green water and frogs, housed most of the studios, and I remember having most of my ballet classes there.

Another surprise was learning that ballet wasn't the only dance class we were to do. Having only studied that, it was something of a surprise to realize I also had to do Character, Tap and Modern. For the latter two classes, many of the girls had been studying these already prior to entering Bush, so students were divided into 3 groups according to ability. Naturally, I was put into the beginner's classes of each. Having no tap shoes or Character skirt, I made do or borrowed what I could.

Despite my total lack of previous experience in any other dance form other than classical ballet, I found I enjoyed the other classes. In Character I learned to strip the willow (and now wish I'd learnt other forms of Scottish dance), and tap was a lot of fun. Modern dance was the most challenging, but somehow I muddled though.

As the weeks went by, I found myself enjoying the entire experience. Some nights, Nanny would read a chapter of Roald Dahl's Boy to us. One night there was a fancy dress party, and we had to make ourselves up to look like a particular musician or actress using only what we had on hand. There were girls who cried at night out of homesickness, and most of our spare time was spent sewing ribbons on ballet shoes or writing letters home.

Dorm life was exciting that half-term. One afternoon we couldn't get ready for dance classes because a hive of bees, or maybe it was wasps, had fallen through one of the cupboards and the entire dormitory had to be fumigated, so we couldn't get in until all the insects had been removed. Another morning, we woke up to flapping overhead. A bird had gotten in somehow, again though a crack in a wall or a cupboard, and was flying aimlessly around the room looking for a way out. We dove under our duvets each time it flew above our heads, and in the end Nanny, I suppose, shooed it out a window.

One weekend afternoon, we went to town. Each girl had some pocket money deposited in Nanny's care at the start of every term. We were allowed to take some out and buy what we pleased, but there weren't many shops in town. All I remember is a very long walk in the cold and wet, the highlights of which were a sweetshop and the Body Shop.

3 weeks later, it was exeat weekend, when most of the students went home for a night. Everyone looked forward to this. I was to spend the weekend at my guardians', but their kids had just come down with the chicken pox, and since I'd not had it yet, I had to stay at school. I didn't mind, as this would give me more of a chance to explore the campus.

The grounds were like a ghost town that weekend, and I was the only first-year girl staying behind. Nanny's boyfriend Rupert, as large and cuddly-looking as the bear of the same name, came to visit, probably because she was stuck there that weekend to look after me.

In the dining hall there were only a handful of students. As I was eating by myself, a blond girl came up and introduced herself. She was a second year named KatieJane, and she and her companion invited me upstairs to see their dorm after the meal.

I was surprised to discover that second years only roomed in groups of four, which was nice and cosy. This was my only look into the other dormitories, and it was lovely to see where I would be staying if I came back to Bush after this summer.

After exeat weekend, it was time to wear the dreaded summer uniforms. In reality, it wasn't even that warm, and most of us still wore our burgundy jumpers over the pink dresses, which clashed horribly, particularly on the redheaded girls. Summer uniforms meant first years no longer had to put the blue pinafores on, so we really did look sartorially sad.

The next 3 weeks seemed to go by in a flash, and before I knew it, half-term was coming up. It was then that I realized there was another six weeks of school to come, but I was going home. There were tears all around, as I'd made some good friends in my short stay. What there was to look forward to was the fact that I'd most likely be coming back for good in the third year. (Summer in the Philippines was from March until May, so I had already been enrolled for the coming school year in June.)

My last day came, I hugged everyone goodbye, and we all promised to write. (And we did, some girls more than others.) I went home, and things went back to normal except that I knew I'd survived the boarding school experience, and enjoyed it, which meant I'd be going back for more.

Sadly, that year an announcement was made that Bush Davies was closing down. They had kindly forwarded my application video to several other schools, and I was accepted at The Arts Educational School in Tring, Hertsfordshire, and Elmhurst Ballet School in Camberley, Surrey. The following summer, my parents and I visited both schools, and decided that I would go to Elmhurst in the fall of 1989.

This time the uniforms came from Peter Jones: grey A-line skirts, bright blue jumpers, another grey blazer and a duffle coat for the winters. There was also a stripy blue and white summer uniform that was just slightly less hideous than the pink and white dresses we had at Bush, a grey tracksuit with the school logo on it to wear over dance clothes, and a straw boater hat, which no one ever wore.

Upon entering Elmhurst in September, 1989, I was delighted to discover that many of my friends from Bush (as we fondly called it) were there too. All of us new girls together were dubbed the Bush girls, and I was proud to be one of them. Apart from the Bush lot, the only other new students to Elmhurst in my year were a pair of girls from Jersey.

There began another chapter in my life, but that will be told another time.

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