I went to six school during 14 years of schooling and no, I wasn’t expelled from any of them but until my sister and I went – as boarders – to our senior school run by Anglican nuns in Bulawayo, St Peter’s Diocesan School for Girls, we had to change schools whenever our father was transferred.
A creature of habit, law abiding and actually quite shy, I absolutely dreaded starting a new school and only began enjoying myself after a term or two when I started feeling more confident. I must admit that in my teenage years I perhaps unfortunately became too confident, or confident enough to become critical, and certainly went through a patch when our nuns told me frequently that, but for the fact my parents would never get over the shock, they would have felt compelled to complain to them about my behaviour.
Before you are too horrified… I did go through a rebellious stage, I still feel quite justifiably – there was a lot to feel rebellious about. That was before they made me a prefect and then Head Girl in a successful attempt – I being a conscientious soul even if a semi-reformed rebel even by that stage – to turn somewhat reluctantly from poacher to gamekeeper.
Looking back on it, I suspect that the nuns feared that they were losing their grip and were probably under enormous financial and other pressures that one never stopped to think about. Certainly, a new school called Arundel – apparently a sister school of Roedean in Brighton – had opened up in Salisbury (now Harare) and a number of girls left to go there which can’t have helped their state of mind.
Whatever their pressures, the result was that to us they seemed on the whole (not all of them, not all the time and certainly not Sister Lilian Frances whom we all liked and respected) to assume the worst rather than the best in their girls. Which is sad, because we were not bad girls, in any sense of the word.
My most horrendous sin was on the day of our annual school ball (the only occasion we were allowed any contact with boys). I actually washed my hair on a non-hair washing day…
And to make matters worse, I tried, with little hope of success, to set a few rollers in my hair. This achieved, I waited somewhat tensely in our common room for my hair to dry. (No hair dryers at school in those days.)
All would have been well had Sister Ethel Mary, our headmistress, not chosen that moment to summon me, no doubt at this stage for an entirely different matter unless she had already heard about the illicit hair wash. Whenever she wanted a misbehaver, she would stand at the top of the steps leading to the hall and her office and announce one’s name in a very chilling voice, whose menacing tones carried far into the common room.
‘Merrion Hall!!!’ She aways mispronounced my name, rolling her tongue over the single ‘r’. The memory of it makes me nervous now. There was no escaping it then. I grabbed my school felt hat with the green ribbon round it, and St Peter’s crossed keys badge on the front, jammed it as best I could on my semi be-rollered head, and went, genuinely terrified, to meet my fate.
She wrenched my hat off my head. ‘What on earth is this?” she demanded, pointing angrily at the wet hair and the by now dishevelled rollers. ‘Merrion Hall, you are nothing but a whore and a harlot!’ I promise you, those were her exact words. Again I was told that she would not dare tell my parents, so disgusted would they be, and how thoroughly ashamed I should be.
Needless to say that far from shame I felt that her reaction was totally unfair and unkind. These days it would be called psychological abuse. My parents were always loyal to the school staff, but I knew – and I knew the headmistress knew – that they would have been appalled had she told them what she had said, and secretly delighted also that I was making an attempt (and not before time) to take a little pride in my appearance.
In case you are wondering, the ball was a great success in spite of things, apart from one poor girl who was publicly ‘de-preed’ – for walking back holding hands with her partner after a dance. I might have washed and tried to set my hair but luckily for me my partner had not even tried to hold my hand…