I’m still musing on whether it’s worth spending the money on going to my school reunion in South Africa – should I save the money for a real holiday with my whole family, do I really want to return to a place that I was so eager to leave and am I really interested in seeing people with whom I’ve had no contact for 20 years?
My school was a private girls’ school in a town full of private schools. Posh but not the poshest, it was in fact stunningly mediocre: mediocre academic results, mediocre at sport and mediocre at turning out well-behaved young ladies. South Africa in the mid-Eighties was still a pretty repressive place, with legislation preventing blacks from attending white schools, but church schools like the one I attended had a loophole and could admit a small quota of black girls. The school was therefore completely representative of apartheid society: heavy on whites, with a sprinking of blacks. There were black servants of course: gardeners, maids, cooks; which served to reinforce our idea that we were pretty special.
The school leaned heavily towards the arts and humanities, had almost no technology and was not strong on maths and science. Only girls who were extremely gifted in science did well: the rest of us floundered. There were some good arts teachers, and I am eternally grateful to a rigorous, scary but inspirational English teacher.
Looking back, I see there was something so small-town about my school’s attitude then: we were not equipped to deal with the world as it was emerging at the end of the twentieth century. Paint a lovely watercolour, yes, recite a speech, or play a not totally shameful game of tennis – good skills if we were to become grand dames of the KwaZulu Natal social scene. We weren’t actually taught flower arranging, thank God, but there was a subject called Housecraft. I won’t go there. We learned almost nothing of the real world: no entrepreneurial skills, no economics and no computers. I remember one hour of sex education where we passed around a medieval torture instrument that was apparently a contraceptive device.
We became politically aware thanks to our friends and our parents. Hot property one term was a banned book by Steve Biko, which was given to us by someone’s boyfriend. I barely understood it, but loved the thrill of reading something illegal and being subversive. There were girls at school who believed that the apartheid government was helping “the blacks” because they couldn’t help themselves. These were the same girls who believed in Adam and Eve.
My ambitions to go to university were my own, and never once encouraged by any teachers. When one teacher casually asked me where I was applying for university, I mentioned two: one in a town much like my own (Rhodes University) and the other in a city (Cape Town). As a UCT alma mater, she strongly recommended that I would fit in well at Rhodes. So I made sure I went to UCT, studied her subject and got a First doing it.
So why would I want to return to a place that tried its hardest to turn me into a tennis-playing, flower-arranging, needleworking lady of leisure with a houseful of servants and expectations of entitlement? I guess I would like to see if it’s changed. I would certainly hope that it had. I have a slightly sick interest in counting the nose jobs and the boob jobs, seeing whether the ugly ducklings have become swans and vice versa, and who’s succumbed to middle age or who, like me, is fighting a rearguard action against frump. Out of a graduating class of eighteen, I have two dear friends who I always love to see. They would be there. We could hold hands and giggle.
Both my husband and I went to private, single-sex church schools of this nature. If we had stayed in the UK after our daughters were born, we would probably be sending them to schools like this. As the middle classes flee state schools and chase the academic results of private schools, state schools become less appealing. However, diversity is good for children, not just diversity of race, but diversity of means too, as penguinunearthed mentions in her great post on school choice in her home town of Sydney.
Here, in Germany there is almost no choice at all. Until very recently, private schools barely existed. There were the Steiner schools for people wanting an alternative to the mainstream and international schools for people coming through on short-term contracts and wanting to keep their kids in a specific system. There are now small dual-medium schools for people who want their children to be educated in English and German. There is the odd “internationat” – a private, boarding school generally regarded to be for children with behavioural problems. But the majority of kids go to their local state school, no matter what colour they are or how much their parents earn.
The decision has been made for us. Lily is about to enter the state system. She will have around 30 kids in her class. There will be no horse-riding, no golf courses, no servants and certainly no flower-arranging. Some of her friends’ parents will drive Porsches; others won’t have cars. She will have Muslim children in her class. There will be children whose home language is neither English nor German. We are not giving her privilege, but we are giving her diversity, and the chance to understand the real world in all its colourfulness. I’m looking forward to the journey.