The Horrors of Boarding School



Valerie Byron    

© Copyright 2023 by Valerie Byron  


Image by Ekaterina from Pixabay

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

My mother and I lived in the cold North of England in an upscale neighborhood. We had a lovely home, but were the only family without a father in the picture. Having been abandoned by my father almost at birth, I had become very attached to my mother.  Due to her fragile and sensitive nature, she was ill-prepared to cater to the needs of my adolescent brother, and myself. Fortunately, her brothers assisted financially providing a live-in housekeeper to take care of our needs and paying for my brother to spend his formative years in boarding school. Meanwhile I clung to my mother, desperate for her love and attention. By the time I was six, the housekeeper had left, and my mother and I were on our own.

I absolutely adored her, and would cling to her whenever we went on outings to the shops or to visit relatives. To sit next to her on the bus, and stroke the beaver fur of her coat, was heaven to me. In my eyes, she was the most glamorous and beautiful woman alive. She had sky blue eyes, soft brown hair and a cultured voice, nothing like her recalcitrant daughter. We would often take bus rides into Manchester, and buy food at Lewis’s, or clothes at Kendal Milne, both large department stores. I didn’t notice the bombed out streets, but many were still in disrepair after the War.

Mum could not afford a babysitter, and seldom went out in the evenings. Her lover of four years, Alan, was not around often, and she refused to date, despite many of the local men, married or otherwise, appearing at our back door in hopes of an invitation inside. If they thought she was a lonely divorcee in need of companionship they were very much mistaken. Her heart belonged to Alan, even though there was no talk of marriage.       

Occasionally she would walk the mile to the bus stop and attend a women’s night at the local synagogue. On one occasion, she had to leave me alone in the house, which was pretty frightening for a young girl. Although I should have gone to sleep, I was a little scared, so decided to do some re-arranging. I was very small and skinny, yet managed to drag all her bedroom furniture around, and totally change the look of the room. 

I organized her dressing table and examined her cosmetics, including the block of black mascara she used to spit on and then brush on her fair eyebrows. I even moved the wardrobe, containing all her clothes. In those days no-one had built-in closets, just freestanding armoires which we called “wardrobes.” Suddenly, I heard a noise in the house and became alarmed. With my heart pounding, I telephoned the Gibson’s, two houses down, and their teenage son, Derek, came over to check for burglars. He took me through every room and assured me all was well, and left.

I went back to the bedroom to wait for my mother’s return. I stood at the window for hours, looking out at the dark street below, waiting for her to come home and be surprised by what I had accomplished. She finally appeared around midnight, to find me still awake, awaiting her arrival.

"Oh, Valerie,” she exclaimed. “How wonderful. You’ve made it look so lovely.” Her words of praise were music to my ears. Even to this day, one of my chief joys is re-arranging furniture, rather than buying new. 

I learned early to be independent and industrious, but still had a very willful nature. My bad behavior finally took its toll on my mother’s nerves. There were shouting matches between us, then me crying and begging for forgiveness. She only spanked me on one occasion, and I was so shocked I became hysterical with grief. It seemed as though the only way my mother knew how to “discipline” was to pretend to withdraw her love. She would allow me to scream and cry before she decided to forgive me for my wrongdoings. I don’t think she had any idea that young boys in our street would taunt me with, “You don’t have a daddy,” which made me feel so very different from everyone else. My mother was all I had and to lose her love was impossible to comprehend.           

One weekend my mother told me she wanted to have a talk with me. She told me she had decided to send me to boarding school. Since I had read so many Enid Blyton books about boarding schools and naughty girls, I was intrigued and fascinated. Perhaps this would be fun.  Perhaps it would not. I agreed to go with very conflicting emotions. I was only seven years old. 

My mother took me to the train station in Manchester, and I boarded the steam train to Brighton in the South of England. I sat in a carriage with other children who were to attend the same school, but did not speak to them due to severe shyness. Halfway through the six hour journey, the train stopped at a station where all the traveling students got out for a meal.            

We’re going into the café for something to eat,” one girl told me kindly.  “Do come with us”.           

I followed everyone into the steaming café. The sandwiches and pies looked delicious and my stomach lurched with hunger. But at seven, I could not bear for anyone to see me put food in my mouth, or see my bitten fingernails – so, although I was starving, I stated adamantly that I was not hungry, and sat there, watching everyone else devour their lunch. It would have made no difference if I had asked for food - my mother had neglected to give me any money.           

It was a very hungry little girl who arrived in Hove, Sussex later that evening. All the new children were greeted by a very starched and forbidding red-headed nurse, wearing a blue uniform and white cap, who swiftly bathed us. We were intimidated by her brusqueness, but mostly from having water poured over our heads from a large jug, to rinse off the soap. It was ghastly and I dreaded bath time after that. We were shown our beds in the dormitory and I was surprised to see young babies, in cribs, housed at the end of our room. The two years spent in Hove, Sussex at the orthodox Jewish boarding school, “Areyah House,” were a nightmare I will never forget.            

The boarding school experience was very much like a Charles Dickens novel. At breakfast, we were given small bottles of milk to drink, which were often sour and curdled. On one occasion I needed to use the restroom during a meal, but was told I could not go. I wet my pants at the dining room table, and was made to stand in the middle of the playground during recess to dry out. At night, we were always afraid of the mistresses coming in to spank us with hair brushes, and on one occasion a male teacher slapped me across the face because I had made a remark he didn’t like. After our daily lessons, we had to spend an hour doing homework, before having supper and then going to bed. There were no extra-curricular activities or anything fun to do, just work, eat and sleep.           

Mr. Jackson was our art teacher, a burly, white-haired man. Whenever he got near me, he would fondle and stroke my legs. As a child, I welcomed any kind of gentle caress, especially from a man, and thought little of it. On one occasion, we seven year-olds were taken to work in the “big kids” classroom, as our room was out of commission for the day. I remember the desks being so high off the ground that we had to clamber to get onto our chairs, and our legs dangled in the air. Mr. Solomon, our English teacher, was a tall, black-haired, hook-nosed man with a foul disposition. He had to leave the room for a moment and warned us that if any of us were found out of our seats on his return, they would be punished.           

Shortly after he left the room, a pencil fell off my desk. I had to work my way down off the chair in order to retrieve it. Mr. Solomon returned at that moment and saw me on the floor.  His face red with rage, he dragged me to the front of the class. He reached for an iron stick, pulled up my dress, and beat me until I cried out.  The humiliation was unbearable.           

On other occasions Mr. Solomon would have us sit in a circle on the floor, with a large clock in the center. One by one he would go around the circle, asking each of us what the time was. If one child got it wrong, all of us got smacked on the palm of our hands with a ruler. A certain method to make sure we learned, I suspect.           

We were not allowed to write letters home, except those that were written out for us on the blackboard – which we had to copy. There was no way our parents could know the hell we were subjected to. Our letters always started out the same way: “Dear Mummy, I hope you are well and happy.” We were not permitted to tell our parents that we were miserable, lonely, forbidden to spend our pocket money and wanted to come home. All we could ask for were stamps for postage, and the rest of the letter would describe the “wonderful” life we were experiencing at school. Our letters were vetted by the teacher before they were sent out.  It was only on my return home that I was able to tell my mother what had really happened.           

The weekends were free from school work, and we were allowed to take walks into the nearby town of Hove and run along the sand dunes. However, because this was an orthodox Jewish boarding school, Saturday was the Sabbath. We were not allowed to touch a light switch or money on a Saturday, so there was no way we could purchase anything to make life sweeter on that day. Some children seemed to know how to get around this rule, and purchased the very nasty Horlick’s tablets, that came in a tin. When offered to me, I took them, as my thinking was:  something nasty is better than nothing.           

I was very fast at running the relay races, so when Sports Day arrived I was anxious to show my mother how well I could do. She showed up wearing a beautiful flowered dress and a huge black straw hat with a flower pinned on the front. I had spent the previous night trying to curl my straight, fine hair with flat, steel curlers which left my hair all crinkly. It wasn’t easy for a seven year old to make herself look pretty, and I must have looked like a little ragamuffin to my mother. My blue school blazer was missing a button, and my hair was dragged back with a barrette. However, I was eager to show off for my glamorous mother and hoped to win the race.  It was my bad luck that the girl who was my relay partner was not only named Jane Tripp, but she ran into my lane and tripped me up.  The race was over for me before it began, and it was a very disconsolate little girl who ran into her mother’s arms. 

Nineteen-fifty marked a new era, arriving with little fanfare during my second year in boarding school. Since television had not yet arrived on the scene, and radios and magazines were not provided at the school, we children had no clue as to what was happening in the outside world. I knew that Clement Atlee was our prime minister, but that was the extent of my knowledge of current events. The beloved and very successful Winston Churchill was to take his place the following year, much to the delight of Britain.           

The only highlight of my year at boarding school was my eighth birthday. During breakfast the mail was brought in. I received several packages which I opened with delight. Not used to receiving too many letters, and certainly not presents, this was a real treat. One package contained two small birthday cakes from my Auntie Corrie, my other’s older sister.  One had pink icing and the other white. I looked around the room, hoping that others would see that it was my birthday, and perhaps wish me a happy one.  No-one seemed to notice or care.           

I opened another parcel which contained a box of dried dates, which I found to taste disgusting. The final gift, from my mother, was a plastic roll-top pencil box, which I knew would be very useful indeed. And that was it. I wished my mother had sent me some books to read, but she hadn’t. No birthday celebrations were offered by the school, and the day continued as usual. At eight years of age I was learning English, French, Algebra and Science – all very difficult subjects for a young girl. In addition, we had to sit through lengthy morning prayers in Hebrew every morning before breakfast, and participate in all the Jewish holidays. Believe me, having an apple with honey placed on your plate for some holiday or another was the biggest treat imaginable. Begging for a water glass, because there were not enough to go round, was something that irked me beyond measure. Every day before a meal commenced, I would stand at the door of the dining room and look towards my place. If there were no glass at my setting, I would sneak in and take someone else’s. I was definitely no shrinking violet.           

The final visiting day was looked forward to with great anticipation by all the children.  We had to sit in the big dining hall as our names were called out. As each parent arrived for their child, the excited youngster would jump up and run out of the room. I sat at my usual place at the dining table, eyes glued to the door, heart beating a mile a minute. I was expecting my mother’s friend and neighbor, Nelly Druker, to take me out for the day as her, son, Maurice, also attended the school. Mum had told me that she could not come and that Nelly would make sure I had a nice time. I waited and waited until I was the last child sitting there. No-one called my name and I was left alone. I didn’t know what to do with myself so went to an empty classroom to read a book, feeling very sorry for myself and totally abandoned. I waited for what seemed hours until everyone came back, and watched with envy as the other children returned with their “tuck”. I remember walking through the corridor where children were putting cakes and candies into their lockers, asking “Can I have some?” I was a pitiful little thing, and the feeling of abandonment that day paid a toll on my emotional well-being that has never really left me.  I was finally allowed to return home a year later, and the beautiful, cultured accent I had acquired was swiftly replaced by a crude Lancashire accent after only a few weeks. However, being home with my mother was bliss, and I was determined never to be sent away again. Four years later we emigrated to California, which was the start of a brand new life for both of us. It is unfortunate that the trauma of being sent to such a terrible place took its toll on me, and I have never really recovered from it.

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