Jenny the Giraffe is currently in Suffolk! Photos will soon go up of Jenny the Giraffe visiting Saint Felix School. If you don’t know already, this giraffe is being passed from person to person across the country to raise money for my life-saving operation. This leg of the giraffe’s journey is especially poignant for me. To see why, please have a read of my school memories of Saint Felix below. Old Felicians might particularly enjoy them. Feel free to leave some of your own memories in the comments.
If you have anything to spare in these difficult times, any donation towards my life-saving surgeries would be much appreciated: GoFundMe.com/savejenny
I was incredibly fortunate, through the combination of a ‘children of staff’ subsidy and a scholarship, to have had a free ride at Saint Felix School, enabling me to receive an experience and education to which I would otherwise not have had access. I feel incredibly privileged to have had the experience that I describe below, at the same time acknowledging the gross inequalities within society; I wish that everyone were able to have the education that I received.
Memories of Saint Felix School
We arrived as a family at Saint Felix School in the summer holidays of 1998, my parents both having got jobs there (Dad as a teacher of Business Studies and Economics, Mum as a Special Educational Needs teacher and as an English as a Foreign Language teacher). We (my parents, brothers and I) lived on campus, along with quite a few other teachers and their families, for the duration of our time at the school. It was an all girls school back then but Saint Felix’s junior school, called Saint George’s, was on the site next door to Saint Felix and was co-ed so my younger brother could go there but my older brother had to travel every day to another school! For the first year we lived on the top floor of Brontë; we had it all to ourselves as a family, then we moved to The Lodge (which I think has become the San now) for the rest of our years at Saint Felix.
When I was there, Brontë was for Lower IV and Upper IV (Years 7 & 8), Fawcett was for Lower V (Year 9) and Clough was for Middle V and Upper V (Years 10 & 11). I think the sixth form placement situation changed while I was there; there was a separate building (Fry and Nightingale) down a track where Upper Sixth were but I think that building was rented out for something else and Lower Sixth and Upper Sixth were in Gardiner and Somerville.
In each house named above, the boarders’ bedrooms were upstairs and then the downstairs was used as everyone’s (both boarders and day pupils) base of operations for the school day; I can’t remember what we called the rooms but in each house there was a Prep Room (‘prep’ was our word for homework), where each pupil had a desk with a little cubicle on the top with a shelf to put our exercise books and textbooks. We slung our blazers over the backs of our chairs at the desks there because we only ever wore blazers for Assembly and Chapel. We also flung our backpacks onto or under our desks when it was lunchtime before rushing to lunch because backpacks weren’t allowed in the dining hall, otherwise they’d all pile up in the tiny entrance foyer of the dining hall and they would just be tripped over! The prep room is often where we used to mill about and congregate in morning break and lunch, sitting on top of the desks, chatting and playing card games. In addition to the prep room, in each house there were usually two rooms with settees and armchairs; one to be kept for posh, for visitors and such, and one for us just to relax in. There was also a changing room with lockers (which we never locked because there was no need to; it was completely safe because nothing ever got stolen at Saint Felix) where we used to store our P.E. kits. There was also a bathroom with toilets and also where the showers were for the boarders.
I started at Saint Felix in Upper IV (Year 8) so my year group had already been together for a year. I remember everyone trying to catch me up on the previous year all in one go on my first day, a whirlwind of voices chipping in with “Alice Harkness shook everyone’s hand on the first day” or “nos morituri te salutamus” while raising their hand, palm facing me (explaining it meant ‘we who are about to die salute you’, which had become a phrase that they said to each other after a Latin play they’d done) and all sorts of other things that I’ve forgotten. Lots of names to remember. The day was started off with all of Lower IV and Upper IV in Brontë with the Housemistress (she was also a history teacher) Mrs Camburn (whom I’d met along with her family over the summer and got on well with Penny, her daughter) in a house meeting in one of the rooms with the settees and armchairs. I was sitting on the floor and managed to sit on the wrong part of my leg, not noticing it had gone completely dead and numb. So when we all got up, I looked very funny as I tried to walk on a dead leg and then hopping about with pins and needles as the blood came back. An interesting but slightly embarrassing first impression to make! I remember that I was sitting next to Helen, who was very kind but probably trying not to laugh.
It was then off to registration, a bit of a walk over to the main school building, where I found that I was in the tutor group of a certain Miss Ashford. I walked into her English room and immediately saw two girls sitting next to each other at desks, grinning, leaning back on their chairs casually, balancing on the back two legs of their chairs. ‘Ah!’ I thought, ‘my sort of people’. (I wonder if you can guess who they were?*).
The next thing I’m going to mention might sound trivial but I feel like it’s actually more significant than it seems. In each classroom the desks weren’t separated into individual desks with space in between each one in a neat grid. Instead, the individual desks were smooshed together without any space between them, and, depending on the classroom, either made a ‘U’ shape or rows or, in a couple of cases, were grouped in pairs. Everyone was already close with each other, relaxed and informal, and being all bunched together in classes, elbows touching, just reinforced our sense of togetherness, camaraderie and closeness. There were never any behavioural problems and no teacher ever struggled to control a class, so the desks never needed to be separated. We could concentrate perfectly well without being forced apart. There was trust between the teachers and students, no ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality.
After registration in tutor groups, Assembly was on Mondays and Wednesdays in Gardiner Hall. That beautiful hall full of light from the many, many, many glorious windows. Lower IV through to Upper V (Years 7-11) sat from the front of the hall to the back respectively. While we sat waiting, the Head Girl and Deputy Head Girl stood on stage, every once in a while saying “quiet down please” if we got too loud. Throughout my time at Saint Felix, oh how I dreamed of one day standing on that stage as one of them. Then they would attain complete silence and we would rise and stand up from our seats in respect as the sixth form girls filed in, followed by the teachers. I couldn’t wait for the day when I got to file in as a sixth former with everyone watching. The sixth form girls sat on the edge of the second stage at the back of the hall and the teachers in window seat alcoves on both sides of the hall.
The school day had a morning break, lunch break and “tea” between the end of lessons (4:05pm ish if I’m remembering correctly) and the start of Activities/Prep (4:20pm?). Activities/Prep ended at 5:30pm, the end of the school day. At morning break we always went to the side entrance of Dining Hall and inside there was some sort of snack waiting (a hot dog or a doughnut etc; there was fruit available as an alternative but who in their right mind would choose fruit over a hot dog or doughnut at that age. There were also two adjoined drink dispensers – one for water and one for orange squash. My favourite meal at lunch was when it was spaghetti bolognese with parmesan that I used to heap on top of it. I loved the sponge puddings with custard too. At “tea”, there were a variety of biscuits available in the Dining Hall to quell any hunger.
My days were packed full because I was a member of all the sports teams, choir, orchestra (I played the oboe) and always a part of school drama productions so I was always dashing off to netball practice or hockey practice or something or other at lunchtimes. It got even more manic at GCSE because this lunatic couldn’t bear to drop any more subjects than she already had to (I loved every subject) and so I was studying 11 GCSEs, which was quite the workload. I wouldn’t have dropped any subjects at all if I could have fit anything more into my timetable!
During my first term at Saint Felix, they decided to do ‘A Pantomime in a Weekend’. Anyone who wanted to be a part of it signed up (I did, of course; acting was my favourite, along with sport). There weren’t any auditions but somehow, as a new girl to the school with nobody even knowing if I was any good, I got cast as the Princess. It wasn’t a big part (I’d been kidnapped so I didn’t appear until the end when the other characters found me; up until then I was part of the ensemble chorus – a pirate or part of the crowd in a marketplace) but I was the youngest girl to be given a speaking part, I think. I was delighted but have no idea how I got the part. It was a deliciously crazy weekend of rehearsals, set painting, ending in a glorious performance. Dad was the pantomime dame! Of course he was. Being among girls from all different year groups for the pantomime was actually a really good way to get to know people and thrust me into school life. It was also when I first fell in love with the singing voices of Anna Truman, Eliza Shaddad and Lucinda Gooderham. They were incredible. It’s funny how older girls were sort of like celebrities to us younger girls; it felt special to be in their presence! Their singing voices (along with Laura Coombe’s) went on to star as main characters in many school productions. I was enraptured! The only downsides were that I had to wear a pink dress (being a tomboy, this was double yuck: both a dress AND it was pink!) and also having our feet filled with splinters from the bare floorboards in Gardiner Hall because we weren’t allowed to wear shoes as pirates; only bare feet would do! It was worth it.
The school grounds and buildings were stunning. There was even a swimming pool. Upon first arriving in the summer holidays, my younger brother and I declared that we were going to go swimming every single day! It was free for the children of staff to use the pool when it was open to paying club members in the holidays. I don’t think we ended up going every day, but pretty close. Then, during term time, there were swimming lessons that we had as a year group, at the end of which, there was a time we had free to play and mess around together with all the equipment, invading each other’s mat floats and tipping them over, having competitions to see who could stay on the log floats the longest while spinning them and just general raucous fun and games. They’re some of my favourite memories. Then later on, swimming became an option in the timetable in the Activities slot from 4:20pm to 5:30pm. Only George(tte) and I chose that option so we had the wonder of the whole swimming pool to ourselves. It was awesome. We made up all sorts of games and made assault courses underwater with all the random assortment of things that seemed to turn up in the equipment cage – weighted plastic bricks and tubes, hula hoops etc. Pure joy. The lifeguard may not have been quite as thrilled.
There was a swimming gala once a year when the Houses competed against each other. The School Houses were called Rowell (green), Edmond (blue), Pemberton (red) and Kay (yellow). I was in Rowell so I had a green swimming hat. There were the usual sort of races first and then there were the fun races. There was one where a bunch of us from each House would link up in a long chain, each person holding the waist of the person in front, and without letting go, we had to swim (breaststroke legs worked best) to beat the chain of swimmers from the other Houses. You were lucky if you were at the front of the chain otherwise you would inevitably get a kick to the head at some point in the madness! There was another race where each House had to put a girl on one of the big mat floats and everyone else had to hold on to the float and swim like crazy, pulling it to the end in a water-churning frenzy; the House who got the mat float to the end first (with the girl still firmly sitting on it, not having fallen in the water) won. We all were hoarse by the end of the swimming gala, having cheered and yelled on our Houses. At my very first swimming gala, I remember marvelling at the older girls, who, with the wisdom of experience had brought two towels to the gala (one to wrap around them to keep them warm while they were watching the other races, which always got soaked, and one which they could actually get dry with afterwards). Some girls even had towelling dressing gowns to keep warm in between. I made a mental note to bring two towels the next year. The swimming gala is a warm fuzzy memory and in later years I made sure to show the same friendliness, humour and encouragement to the younger girls that the older girls afforded to me when I had been a younger girl. Thus the spirit of a Saint Felix Girl got passed on, older girls showing us the way, until we became older girls ourselves and it became our privilege and honour to show others the way.
Our year group’s netball team was something special and I loved being part of it and being with the people in it. I mainly played Wing Defence, though it was Mrs Lomax who noticed what I could do. Although my aim was fine, it wasn’t the best of the bunch and I’m sure it resulted in a couple of “PASSING!” shouts (which is netball shorthand for “Team, watch your passing! It’s getting sloppy”) from the captain, and rightly so, BUT my strength was in my speed (fast fast fast), my ability to fling myself into massive gravity-defying leaps to intercept the ball and, maybe most crucially, my marking was so tight that I could prevent the player that I was marking from touching the ball for the entire match. Mrs Lomax noticed this and if the opposing team had a particularly outstanding player, she used to swap my position so that I was marking that person and eliminate their star player from the match. So I ended up playing almost all of the positions (except the goal scoring ones; I’d have been rubbish at that! Plus, Katie and Rachel, pinpoint-accuracy goal-scoring wonders that they were, had that well covered). For a couple of years at least, we were undefeated…until we got defeated. I remember that day really clearly and how the sky looked. Lots of the team were riled up because the referee was making blatantly biased decisions. I had an amazing speech in my head to say at half time to try to calm everyone down and say “whatever happens, let’s play our best and do ourselves proud”. I don’t think I ended up saying it out loud because at that point, it felt unnecessary, like we were almost communicating telepathically in the team huddle and feeling the same thing. So we squeezed each other’s shoulders and gritted our teeth until the end. We were all gutted when we lost, especially Alice, our most excellent captain, but for me it didn’t detract at all from who we were as a team. My netball team memories remain some of my fondest.
Once, when an opposing team was leaving on their coach after a match, with us standing to the side, I saw that the luggage compartment at the back of the coach had been left open. I pointed it out and everyone was all “don’t worry, they’ll notice soon” but the coach started to drive off. When I realised that nobody else was going to do anything, I started sprinting towards the coach (thankfully the Saint Felix drive was a very long one-way semi-circle). When I drew alongside it, I started waving my arms in the air to get their attention and a few heads in the coach turned my way so I started making big gestures, making the stop signal at them like a police officer, pointing to the back of the coach and sort of making a hinge with my elbow and swinging it on that hinge to show that something was open. At first they thought that I was just waving goodbye in a rather demented fashion, and I received looks of amused puzzlement, but a couple of them caught on and brought the coach to a halt. The memory of my insane dash and exaggerated signalling still makes me smile to this day. I was rather proud of myself. Plus, it taught me an important lesson that when other people don’t act to do something, you have to take the initiative and do it yourself to make it happen. So I was the Saviour of Luggage that day; no P.E. kits or hockey sticks fell out of the coach to get lost on the roads of Suffolk on my watch! Laura and I couldn’t stop laughing at how I’d looked charging after the coach and my manic gesturing, earnest and intent. But then I’d never minded looking absolutely ridiculous.
To get to the playing fields for hockey, we had to cross over to the St George’s site, which involved going down a bank (that bank was great for sledging when it snowed), crossing Shepherd’s Lane and then walking up the other side of the bank, up the path through the Gorse bush labyrinth. I’d never played hockey before coming to Saint Felix so I remember Mrs Cherry giving me a quick run through of the positions and rules and teaching me the basics of the two types of passes (the Push pass and the Hit). As a newbie, I was put on Right Wing because of being such a fast runner, but as I learnt how to control the ball a little, it became clear that midfield was my calling and in the hockey team I swapped between Right Half, Centre Half and Left Half. I loved those positions. I never hesitated to go in for a tackle, and often stole the ball off other players. But that fearless attitude is most definitely what got my nose broken later on when I was 17!
In an Activity slot in the timetable, Mrs Cherry also ran Trampolining in the gym one term, which I adored. Mrs Cherry was the best. There was a little group of us, all standing round the trampoline, acting as safety net for the person whose turn it was. I remember Rachel having brilliant form and grace; the clean lines that she made doing all the different moves was really enjoyable to watch. But the most fun of course was when it was finally your own turn. Returning after a half-term break, Mrs Cherry was amazed at the change in my trampolining, saying I was suddenly far more coordinated and asked what had happened during the holidays. I hadn’t done anything! Nothing felt different to me when I was jumping so I was a bit puzzled but it’s always nice to make an improvement, even if I hadn’t earned it!
There were two types of P.E. lessons: the “proper” sports (hockey in the Autumn term, netball in the Spring term, then athletics, rounders and tennis in the Summer term) and then what I called the “fun” lessons. I loved all types of sport and both types of lessons but it was always the best day when the “fun” ones came around. Sometimes, we would go to the gym (that beautiful gym that’s no longer there), where the apparatus would be folded out from the wall, the climbing ropes from the ceiling let down and all the equipment, mats, pommel horses, vault horses, crash mats etc. were taken out of store cupboards and placed around the gym. We then proceeded to play the most mad and wonderful game (of which I can’t remember the name). We all would be running around the room, climbing up and over all sorts of things, up and down the wall apparatus and ropes, then a whistle would be blown and we had a couple of seconds to reach a place where the Catcher (who had to stay on the floor) couldn’t touch us. The Catcher had a few seconds to catch people before the whistle was blown and we all started running around again. The last person to be caught won. I remember shimmying up many a rope (I loved climbing high on those ceiling ropes and just hanging there). Other times, we’d be put into teams in the Sports Hall and one at a time in our team we had to complete an obstacle course in front of us, which might involve bouncing a basketball for a particular part of the way or hopping for a part, navigating cones or crawling through hula hoops or all sorts of other things and then sprinting back for the next person in the team to do the same, with the team who finished first winning. Glorious fun, yelling each other on. Other times, back in the gym (oh that beautiful gym), we’d be put into teams, one in each corner. In each team, we were all given a number. When the teacher called out a number, say number 3, the person who was number 3 in each team would sprint to the centre of the gym where all the number 3s had to compete with each other to complete a particular task first and the person who won gained a point for their team. For me, these games were moments of utter happiness and fun.
I also loved cross country. The Saint Felix grounds were massive and sprawling so running through trees, paths and gorse was never boring! Although I think only Alice Harkness and I actively enjoyed cross country; the others weren’t quite so keen to run long distances judging by the moaning! I loved running. Sports Day was a highlight of my year. It always managed to fall on a sunburningly sunny day though. But I loved the thrill of competition and winning; I could always win the long jump, 800m and sometimes the 100m (there was less of a margin for error in the 100m). Mainly though, I enjoyed the togetherness, cheering for Rowell and the general atmosphere of the day. Sports Day was how Mrs Freeth noticed how far I could jump without trying and without any training so from then on she always entered me into the county meets. Now, I wish I’d realised how unusual it was to be able to run that fast and jump that far. I was so busy at school with all my varied extra-curricular activities, that I didn’t have time to focus on any particular one of them or train. In my perhaps rose-tinted optimism, I think maybe I could have become really outstanding with a bit of training.
At the end-of-year house meeting, Mrs Camburn would give us all a little award with a title. She used to say the title first and everyone had to guess the person to whom it referred. In Lower V (Year 9), one of the titles was ‘fast legs and hairy legs’. Everyone looked confused. I had a feeling it was me, the ‘fast legs’ referring to the races I’d won on Sports Day. Then the second part of the title ‘hairy legs’ finally clicked in my brain and I sighed out loud “Ahhhh! Mr Tumnus!”. That year I had played Mr Tumnus in ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’ play; Mrs Camburn and my Mum had spent ages sewing furry faun legs for me to wear as part of my costume. What Mrs Camburn didn’t know, which made her title for me doubly funny, was that I hadn’t started shaving my legs yet so my legs were indeed hairy. But nobody really cared at Saint Felix about hairy legs and they respected my choice. I didn’t have time to spare on such insignificant things as shaving legs!
‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’ was one of my most magical moments at Saint Felix. Miss Branson and Miss Ashford directed it and it was something very special. Miss Ashford ordered in a large sheet of white gauze material to put across the curtain line of the Drama Studio, onto which falling snow was projected; there were atmospheric blue light bulbs and a wardrobe that was specially made and revolved with a door in the back. I wish that I had got to see the whole play, but of course I was only aware of the scenes that I was in myself, though I managed to sneak peeks at a few other scenes in rehearsals. I wish it had been filmed! Miss Branson and Miss Ashford cast it perfectly and were phenomenal directors. Each of the three nights that we performed it, Rachel kindly did my hair in a bun because she had seen me panicking, not able to do it (I had no idea how to do a bun; I’d only ever worn my hair in a pony tail!) and made sure it wouldn’t come undone. I still remember many of my lines as Mr Tumnus to this day and my time with Francesca (who played Lucy) at the lamppost, holding my umbrella and presents, walking back to my house in the snow, the magnificent spread of food for the tea I gave Lucy and the little instrument I played to send her to sleep. Our year group really was something special; together we were magic. Everyone was so talented. One of my most treasured moments was the next Monday at school when I went into the toilets and accidentally overheard some older girls talking about the play (two of whom had those amazing singing voices that I mentioned earlier) and (without realising that I was also in a toilet stall) they said that they thought I had been the best actor. I was floating on air for weeks. Acting was my favourite thing; it made me feel completely free.
The older girls’ drama productions always blew me away. The first one I went to was ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’ in Gardiner Hall. Anna Truman’s sensational singing voice mesmerised me (I still randomly have the refrain “goodbye-ee, don’t cry-ee, wipe a tear, baby tear, from your eye-ee” go through my head unexpectedly). I was completely starstruck by her after that, especially because she was also the school’s sporting superstar, and on top of that she went on to be Jesus in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ (which was the first year that the seniors’ drama production moved from Gardiner Hall to the Sports Hall stage). She was my hero. I was also starstruck by Laura Rous, who was Head Girl in Anna’s year group. I hope she won’t mind me saying but she also provided an hysterical moment in ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’ when her character was meant to be issuing an announcement from the Pope, but instead she declared “The Poop has decreed…” in a slip of the tongue. It was a wonderful moment and she just about managed to not break character and dissolve into laughter! A couple of years younger than them (but a couple of years older than me), Lucinda Gooderham was another person to whom I looked up. I still have the words of the song she sang in the production ‘The Threepenny Opera’ go round my head sometimes in her voice “let’s all go barmy, live off the army, see the world we never saw, [something something] eat our hamburgers raw!”. She also went on to be Head Girl, was very kind, amazing at sport, acting and academically gifted. The school productions were always stellar, which was down to Miss Ashford’s directorial excellence and the calibre of talent of the students. In Upper V (Year 11) I was finally old enough to take part in the older girls’ drama productions and was part of the chorus of ‘Candide’, which was great fun. I had a few speaking lines as a soldier and then as a sailor. The previous year in Middle V (Year 10), I had been a part of the production of ‘The Boy Who Fell into a Book’ play and gleefully relished having a death scene! I was playing the wolf pretending to be Red Riding Hood’s grandmother and ended up poisoned. Here’s me collapsed in death on a chair on stage in Gardiner Hall, with Katie, Donna and Alex Stolls – my killers! – surrounding me:
Miss Ashford played a large part in my life at Saint Felix. She was my form tutor for the first two years, my Latin teacher for the first year, my drama teacher for all four years and my English teacher for the last two years. She was unconventional (which is a word that I think I first learnt in her class!), excitingly unpredictable and had an impish, deadpan humour. In her Latin lessons, I remember how she got us all standing on our desks, bellowing noun declensions and verb endings. I valued her opinion and in trying to impress her, writing essays for English homework, I first discovered my love of writing and found that my heart beat faster with the thrill of crafting sentences and paragraphs that just flowed out in the excitement of unearthing and expressing deeper meaning and layers in texts. Her lessons were stimulating, the ideas and discussions deep and thought-provoking; she encouraged me to always keep asking questions and to keep writing. I hope that I’ve done her proud.
Everyone loved Miss Ashford, so of course our English class used to perform all sorts of stunts in her honour. Someone used to stand watch at the top of the stairs, then run in when she was on the way and we would get into whatever position we had agreed upon earlier. Sometimes we turned into statues in different poses around the room, sometimes we played dead as if there had been a massacre, draping ourselves dramatically over and under the desks and chairs, sometimes pretending to be asleep, sometimes running down the corridor to hide in an empty classroom for her to find us. She put up with our antics admirably and with an amused eyebrow raise or twitch of a smile.
Her drama lessons remain some of the most joyful memories I possess. Drama games might just be the most fun thing in the whole world. Miss Ashford made that Drama Studio feel completely safe and when you feel safe, you feel free to be yourself, to experiment and step out of your comfort zone, to be outrageous, becoming more than you thought you could be. Acting was my happy place, becoming other people, being in a different world. Once I arrived early for a lesson in the drama studio, where I found a circle of chairs that had been set up. Thinking that nobody else was present, I walked slowly around the circle, carefully considering each chair to decide which one would be best to sit in, pausing, going back and forth, a serious expression on my face as if it was the most important decision in the world. But suddenly Miss Ashford was there. For the life of me I can’t remember her remark about what I’d been doing but it must have tickled my sense of humour because I collapsed onto a random seat in fits of laughter, not able to stop cackling, with the rest of the class arriving at that moment. Everyone was asking what was so funny but by this time I couldn’t get words out, tears streaming from my eyes, uncontrollably laughing. Their confusion just made everything seem funnier to me and made me laugh more at that point, and Miss Ashford said “she’s gone” and just carried on and let me be, starting the lesson, with my laughing gradually dying down to sporadic fits and hiccoughs. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed that much! I remember that everyone was worried that Miss Ashford would leave and go off to become a famous actress because she was so talented herself.
Miss Ashford and Miss Branson were the form tutors for our year group for my first two years there. I remember an impromptu trip to the beach, end-of-term quizzes where a person from each team had to run up to where they were sitting to get a question, run back to their team to confer for the answer, run back with the answer to get the next question. The winning team got chocolates. Miss Branson was impressed that I got the Chaucer answer immediately when none of the other teams knew it and got stuck. My secret was that I had my older brother to thank for that knowledge because he was studying The Canterbury Tales for his English GCSE! Once an outside person came in to give our two tutor groups a talk and as Miss Branson and Miss Ashford were leaving the room for the other person to start the talk, Miss Ashford turned around and pointed at me, saying “watch out for that one. She’s trouble”, before swooping out of the room, full well knowing the effect it would have. Everyone fell about laughing at the sight of my face, to the confusion of the outside person. The joke being, of course, that I was pretty much the most well-behaved teenager ever, the least likely person to cause trouble. I grinned.
To give a tiny example of the extent of my no rule-breaking behaviour: we weren’t supposed to walk over the grass as a shortcut from Clough to the Dining Hall. But everyone used to cut across the grass, even the staff. Except me. I was the lunatic who sprinted down the path all the way around the grass just to arrive at the Dining Hall at the same time as my friends, who had sauntered there across the grass. I think everyone thought I was insane but my conscience wouldn’t allow me to do otherwise; my Dad was friends with the gardeners so I knew how hard they worked to try to keep the grass nice. Everyone cutting across it killed the grass and made it brown and a muddy mess. So it just made sense to me not to destroy the gardeners’ hard work.
I wasn’t without my moments though. George and I used to love going to the costume cupboard. We used the tiniest excuse of the need for a costume to ask for the keys to it. You could only reach it by going to the top floor (where the French rooms were) and then climbing up a heavy wooden ladder because it was quite high up above the ground. We used to spend hours in there, trying on costumes, being silly, messing around, having a grand old time. Once, my four closest friends and I had been visiting the costume cupboard and climbed down the ladder. After we reached the ground, the ladder fell with an almighty crash against the floor. Everyone except me panicked and scrambled away as fast as they could. The headmaster’s office was directly below, two floors down, so if he was in there he would definitely have heard it. My heart was racing but I forced myself to stay calm and pick up the ladder, slotting its hooks back into the wall and went to sit on the stairs, waiting. I reasoned that none of us had done anything wrong and tried to convince myself that there was nothing to be scared about. Also, I didn’t want anyone who had heard the noise to be worried and not know what happened. Sure enough, soon I heard footsteps climbing the creaky wooden stairs and it was indeed the headmaster’s face that rounded the corner. It was actually quite funny because his eyes widened when he saw me sitting on the step; I was the last person that he expected to see. Anyway, I explained everything and showed him that the ladder wasn’t broken or damaged. He asked me if anyone else had been with me, which I didn’t answer. I think that he sensed my discomfort so he just nodded. I couldn’t help my mouth twitching into a guilty smile but I still didn’t say anything. He nodded again and left it at that. I was glad in the end that I had stayed behind and done what I thought was the right thing, even though I was scared of getting into trouble.
The maths teacher, Mr MacGregor, was another person on whom we occasionally inflicted our little stunts. Once he had to leave the room during class so of course we bolted out of our seats into the tiny space between the pull-out wooden dividers that separated the two maths rooms (these dividers would only come down and be folded back during exam time, to make one big room instead of two smaller ones with an adjoining space in the middle) and hid there. He found us immediately of course but it was all good fun. In his tests and exams, each maths question that he made up for us contained one of our names. I remember my name was once used in a question about a frog pond, involving Pythagoras’ Theorem. So I drew a little frog next to that question on the exam paper. I might also have made a cheeky comment about Everton (we both loved football; he supported Everton and I supported Brentford) on an exam paper. He and my Dad were really good friends so on my end-of-year report, he put as my exam score -535%. For the Everton comment 😆. One time, I remember waiting in line at his desk to ask a question but the person in front of me was needing more time and help from Mr MacGregor so while I was waiting I lay down on the floor and got on with the rest of the questions I needed to finish. The people behind me did the same and at some point we pretty much ended up rolling around on the floor with laughter about something, though I can’t remember what!
I studied Greek at GCSE and Mrs Smith was the most brilliant teacher. I loved the Ancient Greek language and the thrill of racing against Laura and Onyi to be the first to chime in with a translation of the next sentence of the text. I have no idea if they thought of it that way but I’m very much motivated by and excited by competition. The lessons were fast-paced, fascinating and meticulously thorough. I was never once bored, which is quite the feat for me. I loved being engaged and participating in a lesson, which is what I got. Once we tried playing a little stunt on Mrs Smith. Usually the five of us in that Greek class sat bunched up together in the front row with the rest of the classroom empty, but we decided to pretend that we’d had a massive falling out and four people sat in four different corners of the room and one person in the centre so that the five of us were as far away from each other as it was possible to be. We tried to look sullen and miserable, as if we’d been arguing. But Mrs Smith barely blinked as she entered the classroom, and just carried on as usual, never one to waste a single second of teaching time. So we failed on that one!
Our GCSE Latin class once succeeded in turning back the wall clock about quarter of an hour so we managed to go to lunch very early that day!
The Interhouse Music Competition and Christmas Entertainment were big events of the year, which we all used to eagerly anticipate. I can’t remember exactly how the Interhouse Music Competition worked but there were preliminary stages when you got a point for your house just for entering via an audition (it could be singing or playing an instrument, it could be solo, a duet or in a group). The winners would then perform at the informal evening event of the Music Competition (I remember the goosebumps that formed on my arm when listening to Siobhan’s beautiful voice singing ‘Beauty and the Beast’, and when hearing Emma singing ‘I Feel Pretty’). But what everyone really looked forward to were the songs we prepared as houses (Brontë, Clough etc). We used to dress up in costumes and sing and get judged on the night. Our most successful one was when we sang ‘O Happy Day’ in choir robes, full of energy. Watching the older girls and the creative and humorous things that they came up with was the best. In my first year there, I remember the Upper Sixth singing a song, barber-shop style, wearing colourful bras on the outside of their clothes. No idea why. I remember the girl with the red hair (Rose?) singing and being in absolute awe, thinking they were just so cool. I can’t remember if I’ve got the Music Competition mixed up with the Christmas Entertainment in my head but for one of the two, I think it was the Christmas Entertainment, the teachers always put on a song number, which was the highlight. I remember ‘The Gas Man Cometh’ (I think? I could be imagining this. Alternatively it might have been the ‘Right Said Fred’ song) and also ‘Perfect Day’ one year (I remember this one for sure because my Dad sang a line in it). The Christmas Entertainment was raucous fun. Anybody could do a sketch/skit or song. It was marvellously inventive and relaxed. There was lots of banter and in-jokes between pupils and teachers.
Everyone was pretty much friends with everyone else but there were also some people that I was closer to than others. My immediate closest friend group was George, Laura, Alex and Louise. Once Alex was swinging her leg back and forth in Miss D’Alcorn’s history room and suddenly her shoe flew off her foot and crashed through the glass window. Thankfully nobody was below, so it was just hilarious instead of dangerous, although we received a classic Miss D’Alcorn line of “you little oiks!” as a result of seeing her classroom window shattered 😂. Lauren and Helen used to come round to my house on Friday evenings to play board games and my Dad made them hot chocolate. Lauren and Helen were a part of my small GCSE Spanish class, along with Aimée and Polly, which was a cosy group. One time before Spanish started, Lauren’s silver gel pen wasn’t working so she decided to open it up and try to blow down the tube to get the ink unstuck…unfortunately she accidentally sucked instead of blew. Suddenly her tongue was molten silver and her mouth a silver fountain. She thought that she’d been poisoned for sure but after a little trip to the toilets (the ones off from a little landing just up the stairs from Ms Hepenstal’s Spanish room and just down a bit from Madame Colledge and Madame Leicester’s French rooms), we got her cleaned up, mouth washed out and no there was no harm done. It had looked spectacular though! Aya was my geography buddy. Somehow, as we used to walk back from geography together, we developed this world where we were trying to assassinate each other and used to come up with increasingly ridiculous ways of killing each other. This joke only got amplified, with Aya exclaiming to everyone that I was trying to kill her, when I accidentally dropped her out of the ground floor window of Clough! Aya had dropped an item out of the window of the Prep Room and was trying to reach it (we couldn’t reach it by going outside because there was a row of thick bushes in the way) and asked me to hold her legs while she leaned out of the window. I did try but she went past tipping point, head first. Thankfully it was the ground floor so her hands were already almost touching the ground when she crashed down and we were both laughing, but for ever after, Aya told everyone who would listen that I was trying to kill her!
The little in-between moments of school life can’t be underestimated. Playing blind man’s bluff upstairs in the boarders’ rooms in Brontë at lunch break. Playing hide and seek (and other games) when it was meant to be Prep Time in Fawcett. Sitting in shoulder massage chains, one in front of the other, on the floor in the blue room in Clough. Going to the sunken garden at lunch times with George, sitting by the pond talking, keeping thinking we saw leeches. Waiting in the very thin corridor for Chemistry lessons to start, sitting with our backs against one wall with our feet against the close opposite wall, our heads resting on each other’s shoulders. Sitting at my desk in the Prep Room in Clough, doing homework while other people played with my hair (I had very long hair) and put it into all sorts of hairstyles and then started over and put it into another style (plaits, Princess Leia hair, whatever they felt like). Little in-phrases and sayings that we used to say to each other in a particular voice or rhythm. All the smaller moments added up to more than a sum of their parts.
My proudest moment was when I got elected as Deputy House Captain of Clough (only a boarder could be Captain but day pupils were eligible to be Deputy). I owe this achievement to my friends because one morning I had a dentist appointment and when I came back, I found that the house meeting where everyone made their speeches as their bid to become Captain/Deputy Captain had happened. But Louise told me not to worry and that my friends had all piped up with “vote for Jenny!” and said lots of good things about me, how responsible and kind I was etc etc. And apparently they’d been funny at the same time. Which was a far better and more natural recommendation for me than I could ever have given. I’d have been far too earnest in a speech. Plus it’s always better and means more when other people say that you’re great as opposed to saying it yourself! Lauren and I were chuffed to be voted Captain and Deputy Captain. After the results had been announced and everyone had left the room, we were sitting on a settee together taking it all in. Lauren said “your arm smells of soap.” Very apt, Lauren. And not the worst thing of which to smell, after all.
Another proud moment was when Alice Harkness wrote in my leavers book ‘You never have had a bad word to say about anyone’. This meant a lot because I deliberately never gossiped or talked about people behind their backs but I didn’t think anyone had noticed.
A unique moment was on Saint Felix’s 105th birthday when there were celebrations on the lawn to the right of Clough. 1950s-style food was munched on picnic mats there, there was a costume competition and then the whole school did the Hokey Cokey. I won’t easily forget the sight of Lucinda Gooderham and Gabby Crane on the other side of the massive Hokey Cokey circle surging in towards me and then away out again on the ‘woah’ lyric, with others sitting on mats watching on, including Miss Ashford and Miss Branson. Mrs Smith, Miss D’Alcorn and my Dad (in a ridiculous hat) were directing proceedings.
On the morning of GCSE results day, my Dad and I walked down behind Saint Felix, across the dykes of the Reydon marshes, down the back way to Southwold Harbour, to eat bacon sandwiches at sunrise with our legs dangling from the side of a bridge across the river. I was so nervous and we just talked in the peaceful surroundings about what I was hoping for with my results, what I’d be happy with, what I’d be disappointed with. It calmed me down to talk it all out. After impatiently waiting for a vaguely acceptable time of morning to go to the office to collect my results, I was greeted with Miss Branson and Mrs Smith’s smiling faces, which should have been my first clue as to how my results had gone but I was too nervous to notice! I retreated to the short tunnel archway of the school’s front entrance, which was deserted, to open my results in privacy. Soon I was barrelling out the archway, sprinting towards my parents and brothers who were sitting on a bench under a tree, waiting, with the widest grin across my face. I was very privileged throughout my time at Saint Felix to have been challenged and pushed to be better by the three most naturally intelligent people I think I’ll ever meet. Laura, Onyi, Helen and I were always at the top of every subject and it only helped to propel us upwards to higher levels. Each of the four of us received a minimum of 9A*s that day, a couple of us more than that. I’m glad to have have fulfilled our potential and done the school proud. There were many girls not all that far behind us either.
If magic has ever existed, it was for four years between 1998 and 2002 at Saint Felix School in Southwold, Suffolk in that little pocket of blissful happiness. For four years it was my whole world, my home. That moment in time, in that place with those people, is still where my heart wants to live and to where it wants to go home. Anyway, as Lauren always used to say, “love you lots, like jelly tots.” xxx
*The two girls were George and Alex