How to Behave at Boarding School

two girls in school uniforms walking across a bridge over the water in a forest

feature image by sarah / original photo by diana aishe

For a long time I wrote and rewrote a comedy screenplay about the years I spent at school. It was called The Worstest and each draft was more horrible than the last — an irony I didn’t pick up on until several versions in. Now, over 10 years since leaving school, only one line strikes me as funny, or at least partly faithful to that experience. It’s spoken by a character with a habit of stealing from her friends and she’s trying to explain this impulse to another character. Turns out it’s not an impulse at all.

“I don’t steal,” she says, “it’s more like everything’s already in my possession.”

Stealing was common at this chilly East Anglian establishment, a boarding school populated by day pupils and weekly and full boarders. The conditions were just right: privilege coupled with communal living, where money and the things money can buy lost meaning twice over. To this day I’d think twice about leaving a favoured jumper alone with an ex-boarding school student. Thrice if she has sisters.

Of course, stealing can stem from motivations, trivial and severe — things that can be discharged in the single act, like wish, want or outright need and things that can’t, like compulsion (and again, need). But nothing that complex was going on with this character. Many of the fruitless McGuffin objects intended to invigorate the plot passed through her hands (and in one case, her insides), and so her motivations were largely identical with her functions. When something needed to disappear, she disappeared it. When something needed to reappear she…well.

She didn’t fumble around sweaty-handed in a draw while glancing over her shoulder at the door, she just walked in and took and she didn’t feel bad about it.

She was an organising principle, a force of balance, order and pure entitlement, in that she truly did possess everything, including the quality of self-possession itself. She didn’t fumble around sweaty-handed in a draw while glancing over her shoulder at the door, she just walked in and took and she didn’t feel bad about it. But then, she didn’t really feel anything. She was a tin-girl in a tin-story, an automaton looking for a heart. And here she is again and still functional, bringing my subject — self-possession — mechanically into view.

But before that, a couple of stories from the years where we were co-owned, when our activities, decisions and even personalities were subject to those of our majority stakeholders. The teen years.

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The first happened at home, where we had an intercom system on our phone. I was sitting in my bedroom reading when a voice said “Who left the spoon in the jam?” It was my mother’s voice, coming from the phone. More specifically, it was coming from the kitchen, which you could tell because the little red light on the phone marked ‘kitchen’ was blinking angrily.

The voice did not elaborate, but just so you have the whole facts, this someone had not just used the jam and left a spoon poking out of it. They had screwed the lid back on top of the jar so the spoon was entombed and left a surprise for my mother that amounted to an encounter with the Other or at least the uncanny convenience of a spoon already being exactly where she needed it.

I never eat jam, I despise all fruit, so I resumed reading, reasoning that it was the problem of whoever left the spoon in the jam. But that didn’t stop the voice. “Who left the spoon in the jam,” asked the intercom again, this time with the little pauses of a very powerful, very quietly angry person repeating a question in a film. Moments later my sisters and I converged on the kitchen like several tributaries returning to the source, all wearing the luminous face of the innocent.

“I refuse to live in a world,” said my younger sister, “where being seen or not being seen to eat jam establishes your essential guilt or innocence.”

“When have you ever seen me eat jam?” I protested.

“I eat jam,” said my older sister, “but that doesn’t de facto mean I left a spoon in it.”

“I refuse to live in a world,” said my younger sister, “where being seen or not being seen to eat jam establishes your essential guilt or innocence.”

Maybe we didn’t express ourselves in these exact words but it’s my mother’s reaction that’s of interest here, which was to ask, of all of us, “why can’t you just keep things nice?” Or: Why. Can’t you just. Keep. Things. Nice.

Because in her view, the specifics of the case were not important. She didn’t exempt me because she knew I had just that kind of reckless personality that would leave a spoon in a spread, it’s just that in my case it would have been a different spread. Our guilt was determined not by any action we took, but through her insight into who we were.

And that wasn’t even the first spoon I’d left in jam.

The first time I remember leaving a spoon in jam (that is, the first time I remember being called from what I was doing to be questioned about a thing I had not done but could have) was during a lesson at that chilly boarding school. Somewhere during first period I am ‘borrowed’ from class and marched across the parking lot.

Like a lot of full boarders, I’m deeply morbid. A family out of sight is subjected to all sorts of tragedy, so I’m still contemplating the possibility that I’m about to have bad news broken to me when I’m deposited at the door of the Deputy Head (a funny, kind woman, though I would fail to appreciate this for a few years yet), asked inside and seated opposite her. She smiles and as the dread disperses, I fill with a fainter alarm and adjust to it. She asks how chapel was that morning. Then she asks what hymn we sang. I was lucky it was Blake’s Jerusalem. Simply including the word “satanic” and the word “desire” made it hands down the most transgressive hymn in the hymnal and the most memorable.

By this time I realised I was being interrogated and what about.

By this time I realised I was being interrogated and what about. In chapel, the pews were arranged in two sets of blocks facing each other over the aisle. Each house had a block and each pew held a year of that house in rising hierarchical order, with prefects and teachers at the top, housed like icons in individual wood arches. Each term we rotated a block clockwise, as if we all needed an even cook and were being shifted round some sort of spiritual oven. I don’t know why we rotated. All it seemed to do was create interesting new eye-lines between people, forge relationships real and fictive based entirely on looking that were pathetically reconfigured as we moved round term by term.

By this time I was half in love with a girl who had been rotated out of all workable angles and had a boy’s house settled solemnly in her place. Two good friends were in this house and as they had both been missing from chapel that morning the Deputy Head thought I’d been with them. If they weren’t in chapel they would have been smoking. Either in the woods, or in between the buttresses of the chapel itself, from where they could peer round and see when the huge wooden doors opened, put their hands in their pockets and join the stream of pupils leaving the building as if they had been with them all along, an exercise in timing and thinking without thinking too much, like jumping onto a vacant bogie frame on a passing train.

At the end of the interview, she asked what colour the hymnbooks were. They had been replaced that day, same edition, just new blue covers. I waited a moment before answering. There was a measure of power in innocence. Sadness too, because I knew the answer and imagined my friends each answering ‘red’ in further rooms. They would survive this particular interview, but not for long.

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The family resemblance here is the specific. In both these cases I had not done what I was suspected of doing, but only in a literal sense, so on some level I accepted their accusations. I could have done it, but as I hadn’t left a spoon in jam or skipped chapel, they’d have to get me next time. It was a kind of game played with honesty, one that I could enjoy because I owned (or owned up to) these aspects of my behaviour and thus the power was parcelled out between us players. With regards to general misbehaviour, they didn’t know anything about myself I didn’t know and more importantly, they didn’t know anything that I wasn’t willing to admit, if only they could produce the right specifics.

Boarding school teaches this kind of self-possession repeatedly and thoroughly, because it teaches you how to be in control when you’ve made every effort to be out of it.

Boarding school teaches this kind of self-possession repeatedly and thoroughly, because it teaches you how to be in control when you’ve made every effort to be out of it. It’s a scheduled, watched existence and if you want to do the things you otherwise might have done outside school, you learn how to look like everyone else when a perfect chemical storm is forming inside, how to sit through evening register when so high it feels like everything you’re saying is occurring in the future and everything you’re doing is occurring in the past. Trying to unify these two time zones enough to nod your head and say ‘here’ was like trying to nail down running water, but it had to be done and to be done it had to be practiced. It’s not an education to be proud of seeking out. At that age I didn’t appreciate the fact that I had the privilege of other options if I’d had to leave, that I was lucky both to have this education at all and in my relationship with the things that could have derailed it.

There’s a story I love in Chelsea Girls. Eileen Myles’s friend jumps into the freezing Hudson and when people query the “human emotion” behind the act Myles concludes “just speed and booze. They tell their own tale.” But sometimes even alcohol alone can seize on a person’s script — often a sad one — and read it out cover to cover. Sometimes the two tales — that of the substance and that of the person — can look and feel identical. A person, first emptied then filled, like a hand slipping into a glove, in the grip of it right to the edges, just from the inside. I realise now it’s the lucky ones who can feel all this and still play a game of football or answer a question in class, but regardless of how we wore or reacted to the loss of control, for a lot of us the choice to spend our spare hours this way was aimed at getting to know control’s dimensions.

While I’d no more recommend anyone take drugs than I would they jump onto a moving train or into a freezing river (plenty of people neither want nor need experiences anything like these to be happy), disobedience can be about learning self-possession, plotting a route and hopefully remembering which paths you should or shouldn’t use to go back and forth.

While I’d no more recommend anyone take drugs than I would they jump onto a moving train or into a freezing river (plenty of people neither want nor need experiences anything like these to be happy), disobedience can be about learning self-possession, plotting a route and hopefully remembering which paths you should or shouldn’t use to go back and forth. At this age, choosing to be obedient to another or to oneself in learning that these ways of having fun are/are not for you form the same valuable tuition, it just has to be experienced as choice. Without these specifics and without these choices, I don’t know whether you so much journey into adulthood as wake up in it with all its alarming urgency, like that absurd reflex exercise where you close your eyes, throw a handful of bouncy balls at the walls then open your eyes and face the music.

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Another story. The last. This time I’m the interrogator.

To my recollection, nobody at school was out. But there was a girl I became aware was seeing another girl. She almost told me about it one day in the woods. She said only that she’d met someone, but that they couldn’t do any of the usual things couples did at our school, such as drape themselves one over the other in the canteen, or end their relationship by emptying a can of drink over the other’s head in public, or start it again three hours later via a note that’s been passed to and read and annotated by everyone before it reaches their intended in the back of History. These key things generally happened in public, but while I was aware that’s why all it was prohibited to them and while it would have been so easy for me to acknowledge that I knew why, I only asked why. She didn’t answer, we finished our cigarettes and got back to class.

I’ve been over and over why two girls who liked girls and who were completely alone couldn’t speak to each other openly. The beige but ever-present brand of Anglicanism contributed, with its voice like an intercom, never exactly saying Do or Don’t but definitely beaming the message through to our dorms that it knows who we are and is watching. Then there was everyone else, other pupils, our friends. It’s strange to look back and realise that — next to ourselves — they’re the ones who marshalled our behaviour the most. Because before something is experienced personally, everybody else seems to own it, through the things they say about it and the guilt they suffuse it with. It doesn’t take very much, just a remark here and there, spoken by an everyman or everybody that is a dispersed body, not always able to be recognised, a pod-people whom you quickly come to resemble or even be.

It’s the un-experienced desires that grow to monsters, rattling chains in satanic mills.

I suppose in not talking to her openly I tried to live as generically as possible, but as I found out years later, specific experiences can plot the route to discovering that this guilt has no content, is not real. It’s the un-experienced desires that grow to monsters, rattling chains in satanic mills. I was quiet at school and have to accept that when I did speak up I was contributing to this beige voice, at pains to keep my specifics in order so nothing would lead people back to my location in the clouded hills.

I’d guess it’s these kinds of haunted/hunted feelings that explain why the supernatural adheres to queer culture and by extension why The Worstest was touched by so many genres over time. It borrowed from Noir and Horror and opened with a discussion about the Wiccan Rede, all of it welded together into one unwieldy, resurrected body in the hopes of getting at a feeling that often rears its head at school – where everyone around you seems to express desire differently to the way you would – that you are somehow possessed. Or that everyone else is; a six of one and half a dozen of the other sort of feeling. Are they the same, or am I different? In spite of all its own ironies, teen horror The Faculty touches on this in an interesting way:

MARYBETH: What happens at the end of all those stories, Stokely? How does Invasion of the Body Snatchers turn out?
STOKELY: They get us. They win. We lose.
MARYBETH: Maybe we really win. I mean, Stan didn’t look unhappy.
STOKELY: That’s because it wasn’t Stan. They took away who he was.
MARYBETH: Maybe they just bettered who he was. Cleared away his confusion. I know you pride yourself on being the outsider, but aren’t you tired of pretending to be something you’re not? I know I am.

Self-possession without the tricky bit: the self.

Marybeth, currently possessed by an alien parasite, is pedalling conformity as a relief, a soft sell that’s more like the casting of a spell. It’s a terror when you’re going under perhaps, when you’ve still got enough of a sense of self to know you’re being assimilated, but after a while the struggle is so tiring that giving in, like those really thick falls into sleep, is the most attractive option. And what’s more spell-like than the voice of the everyday insider, the lethe of mimicry, of acting straight, of certain kinds of high that void you, make you feel like antimatter? It’s straight-up easier this way. Self-possession without the tricky bit: the self.

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There should be a word for writing about your own bad art. Maybe there is. I’d use it all the time. Something like ekphrasis, the description of visual works of art in words, a device you can use to praise, to record, to improve the work, or to act as its foil, to evoke the ghost of the original in your words and make it more impossibly perfect with its absence, as in: if only you could see it! I don’t mean that this proposed word should do the opposite, that is, make the work more improbably shoddy with its absence, but it should invoke a ghost. Exorcise it maybe, even redeem it. The act of writing about bad art is certainly to wish things could have been better, but it’s also a concern, I think, not to throw the body out with the swamp water.

The resulting Uncanny isn’t one of horror or humour, it’s bland, like a spoon already being in the jam when you take the lid off.

The Worstest, my favourite piece of bad art, was an attempt to possess what seemed outside of my possession at school by making my characters unnaturally composed and confident, but in the end, trying to march them around in the service of plot and revelling uncritically in their ‘bad’ behaviour wasn’t as entertaining as I thought. The resulting Uncanny isn’t one of horror or humour, it’s bland, like a spoon already being in the jam when you take the lid off. It makes the story easier than maybe it should be. But that doesn’t mean – if any of it is going to survive like a Last Girl stumbling out the woods – that it needs to be miserable, nor its characters spineless. It doesn’t even need to be a script. It could be that tin-girl gets to find her heart or snatch her body back here. Only here she doesn’t eat a girl’s stolen diamond to avoid detection. Here she does that most assured of things and offers someone else the possibility of self-possession. She asks a girl in the woods if she’s going out with a girl.


Celia is trying to write in London, UK.

cm has written 1 articles for us.

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