Last week I introduced readers to my first boarding school experience at Kaptagat Preparatory School. The school was fourteen miles from the nearest town of Eldoret in the Rift River Valley of Kenya, East Africa
Boarding school was an expensive privilege. My parents considered the vast number of activities and programmes offered by the private school to be an advantage. My father’s frequent absences from home and my mother’s poor health made boarding school a good decision. The school promised to turn out well-educated students with the skills necessary to be independent and possess leadership qualities though the education and discipline provided by Kaptagat Preparatory School. Sometimes you fail.
Class size varied between 25 and 30. The general behaviours of students was good. Teachers in today’s classrooms have to manage student behaviours that would not have existed nor tolerated in the 1960s. If bloody and damn were the worst ‘naughty words’ we knew, uttering them within earshot of an adult would never have crossed our minds. Children were encouraged to be seen rather than heard and boarding school was no different. Opinions were not encouraged; to offer one would have been to question authority – not okay in the 1960s.
Misdemeanours were measured in unfinished homework, being distracted in class or not knowing where pick up in the class reading when it was your turn. We would not have thought of raising our hand because we did not understand something or even ask for clarification. That would have been to question the master’s ability to explain it adequately in the first instance; we did not question anything an adult said.
Regular as clockwork I sat in detention every Saturday between 3 and 5pm. In my neatest handwriting I wrote one hundred lines: I must learn my times tables that covered my arithmetic shortcomings. The following hour another hundred lines stating: I must learn to conjugate my French verbs.
There is no reasonable explanation – my adult opinion – for that kind of stupidity from the teaching staff who were quite annoyed when I still could not recite the times tables or conjugate French verbs the following week. I had no idea of what was required of me and would no sooner have questioned the lines than I would have asked how I was to learn times tables or conjugation of verbs. Clueless.
The girls’ and boys’ dormitories were on opposite sides of the school playground. The boys had a number of dormitories supervised by the school masters who lived in the same block. The girls’ dormitory was one large room separated from the school sanatorium by a door. It was the same door through which Matron burst to deliver gruff instructions or admonish someone. We were encouraged to mix with the boys and I do not remember any instances where any of us overstepped the boundaries. We played sport with the boys and classes were mixed.
First bell rang at 6.45am each day and we had forty-five minutes to get ready for breakfast: wash, get dressed and to make sure our beds had perfect hospital corners and no crease or wrinkle in the candlewick bedspread. Pyjamas were to be neatly folded under the pillow, dressing gowns on the labelled hook behind the doors. Classes started at 8.40am and the learning day was broken into eight lessons that finished at 3.45pm with a break for morning and lunch recess. Games followed the school day and lasted an hour after which it was bath time.
Women tell you where child birth is concerned there is no room for preciousness about one’s dignity or privacy. Boarding school teaches you from an early age that privacy is for the home would not be tolerated in the school system. Standing in line in my bloomers and vest and we waited in turn for matron to hoist our undergarments off.
“Hands up. Leg up. Other leg. Into the bath and standing please,” she ordered each child. We watched as each girl was scrubbed pink with a block of Lifebuoy soap that left our skin prickling and our faces flushed from the harshness of Matron’s rubbing. Then we were handed our towels and made to dry ourselves before being allowed back in to the dormitory to dress. The same bath water did for three of four girls and one after the other we bathed in each other’s effluvia.
The photo above was taken in the early 2000s and I do not know the person pictured. What I can say is that, with a little less mould, the bathroom looked exactly as depicted: concrete floors, stand alone bath tubs side by side and planks of wood on top of concrete blocks.
The jar of cuticle cream was confiscated after the first week.
“But Matron, Mummy gave it to me to remember her.”
“If I let you keep this then every other child will want their bits and pieces. It wouldn’t do at all. You’ll get it back at the end of term.”
The transistor radio escaped Matron’s hawk eyes and I was careful to keep it under my pillow with the volume so low it was a muffled sound that comforted me to sleep. When the radio stopped working I was faced with having to ask Matron to have it fixed and that was to risk having it confiscated or having to ask one of the school masters.
Mr Judd’s artwork filled the classroom walls, one had statues and temples in a garden and the other wall depicted an African scene in the jungle. Maybe my love of history started in his classes which were interesting and I listened well and watched as he drew on the blackboard illustrating the lessons. To remember the lessons he handed out hand drawn sketches that we pasted into our books and coloured in for homework. Who wouldn’t love a class where learning happened vicariously through an artful medium.
After art class I asked Mr Judd, our art and history teacher, if he would have a look at the radio. He would look at the radio if I brought it to him after school.
“Does Matron know you have a radio?” he asked.
“There must be something quite seriously broken because I cannot fix it. It doesn’t need batteries because I tried new ones and they didn’t work.”
“What will I do now if I can’t sleep,” I asked
“Perhaps you can think about what you did today and what you liked about the day,” he suggested.
“Yes Sir, thank you for trying.”
“Sorry I couldn’t fix it. Is there somewhere you can put it away until mid-term and take it home?” he asked
“I’ll put it in my cabinet at the back, Sir.”
My parents were not able to visit at mid-term break and I stayed at school with Matron and Mr and Mrs Chitty. I slept in the same bed I did during term time except now I was on my own. The lack of the school day routine made the hours drag by and when the children returned to school at the end of the break it signalled a return to the safety of a structured day.
I spent three years at Kaptagat Prep School. The memories retold in these two pieces are the most vivid. Other memories are bizarre enough for me to question whether they actually did take place. They remain part of my psyche.
When my father was transferred back to South Africa at the end of 1962 my family left Kenya.
At some point I do intend to write about how boarding school influenced me and the the impact these early years at boarding school had on my development as a child and how I feel it has affected my life. Research is beginning to emerge about the responses of those who are placed in the boarding school system from an early age. This research provides comfort and validates many of the behaviours that have become an innate part of my personality and character. However, that time is not now. Writing these pieces has brought memories rushing back and I need time for those to settle again so the reflection is able to take a balanced look at the good and the not so good of those early experiences.