VII. Afterthoughts


I have included this hypertext within the Virtual Worlds of Girls cluster first because my schooldays were not the stereotypical "happiest days of your life". Feminist criticism centralises women's experiences, and a hallmark of contemporary feminist research is the investigator's continual testing of the plausibility of the work against her own experience. (Maggie Humm points out that: "Indeed, women researchers have to begin with personal experience, since traditional disciplines do not often utilise women students' personal or emotional experiences.") My own experiences reflect the fact that, however closely the educational system itself was portrayed, girls' school stories never portrayed real girls' experiences of school life accurately; instead, the stories are fantasies which can only exist in a girls' school setting.
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Second, I have included this hypertext because, when I undertook my MA research, which compared Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's fictional Chalet School with real girls' schools of the period, I found a remarkable paucity of material available on British women's experiences of their schooling. Mary Evans' A Good School and the Virago collections There's Something About a Convent Girl and Truth, Dare Or Promise, Girls growing up in the Fifties, together with a minority of entries in The Oxford Book of Schooldays, were notable exceptions, but otherwise I was left with histories of girls' schools and education rather than works written by women recalling their own experiences. Humm points out that: "the experience of women is often denied as 'real' or important and our difficulty in accepting the validity of our experience is part of our cultural heritage and perpetuated in our schooling." Do women later regard their childish experiences as being of no importance? Are they frightened of having their experiences ridiculed? Or do they wish to keep their memories to themselves, either because they are too valuable or too painful to be shared?
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Whatever the reasons, I found no record of girls' experiences of state-run, selective girls' day schools during the 1970s. However, I did find the existing records of girls' experiences of schooling to be invaluable in judging how closely girls' school stories reflected real girls' experiences and how far they differed from them. I therefore decided that writing down my own memories would be of value to academic research into both girls' literature and girls' education, and I hope that it is of particular value to non-British readers of this hypertext cluster who have no personal experience of the British education system. (For an analytical account of the state-run selective girls' day school system, however, I recommend Mary Evans' A Good School, which is about her experiences of a similar and neighbouring school to my own during the 1950s.)
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Looking back on my school career, I was the classic geek girl - short-sighted, unfashionably dressed, sexually naive and with an intelligence with which I was uncomfortable - in a society which did not value education. The arrival of the new technology revolution more than a decade later, headed by that archetypal geek Bill Gates, opened up possibilities to geeks everywhere. In the 1970s, though, the school computer was locked in its own room, accessible only to A Level Maths students, and in seven years at the school I never once saw it. The idea that geeks might some day become cool was so laughable that it never even entered my head.
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Of course, my memories of school are necessarily partial, as were my experiences, and the only story represented here is my own. Even if their experiences never matched those of girls' school stories, I am sure that many of my peers would paint a very different picture - one girl even cried on the day we left, much to my amazement - as would the teaching staff. But even in retrospect, as a former governor of an East End comprehensive school and with the experience of three universities behind me, my opinions of the school - and of the selective school system - have not changed.
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I decided not to attend the GCE A Level certificate presentation held during the autumn following my departure from the school - I may have felt differently if my results had been better, of course - and have never returned. However, in 1984 I met up with a group of former classmates, and when asked by them whether I still thought about the school, I replied without thinking that I still had nightmares about it (these continue to this day). One former classmate then apologised for being so unsympathetic after my father died, which reassured me that I had not imagined their attitude and did make some recompense for it. Perhaps it is significant that, when I arrived for our reunion, not one woman there recognised me; away from school I was a different, happier person.
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Why, then, did I choose to study girls' school stories? Have the books provided a happier substitute for my own, very different memories of growing up? It is a tempting analysis, but I think it is truer to say that the experiences described in the books are so different from my own that they do not awaken any painful memories, while I find the stories themselves fascinating for many reasons. In fact, the society in which I grew up in and my life then now seem as far distant as the British Empire society of girls' school stories. In the same week when I became an adult following the death of my father, British society began to change out of all recognition following the election of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Government, and the world of my childhood disappeared for ever.
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Next: VIII. Bibliography
Return to: My Own Schooldays Index
Return to: Virtual Worlds of Girls Index

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