Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

More on School


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.


Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

9 thoughts on “More on School

  1. Welcome home…it feels like you were gone FOREVER.
    This is really a lovely post. I know when I struggled with whether or not to return for my ten year reunion, I decided not to simply because my motives were not, um, pure. I wanted to see if I was prettier, had a better education, a better husband, etc – all really awful things to see but like so many of us, school was very hard on me and I’m proud now of where I am. I decided not to go because I knew it couldn’t live up to my fantasies. But I always enjoy returning to my hometown, because no matter how frustrating my school experiences were, the town itself is beautiful.
    Again, welcome home!

  2. I didn’t go to my school reunion either, mainly because it was organised by the class bully and cronies. I had nothing in common with them then. I would have nothing in common with them now.

    The teachers at my school actively encouraged me not to go to university, to the extent of calling my mum down the school and warning her that I “wasn’t cut out for it”. Six years later, when I graduated from my Masters degree I felt like faxing my certificates through but didn’t.

    But when I was back in UK, I did meet my two good friends and we went on a journey to our old school at holiday time when it was empty. It purged the bad memories, plus we had a laugh. I was amazed to see that this place, that had been so huge and repressive in my mind, held no power over me anymore.

    I bet if you go to your school reunion it will be so interesting! I sure want to hear about it if you decide to go!

    As for school choice, I saw both sides – the state school and the private school. The state school was infinitely better. I hope your little girl enjoys starting school. I like the sound of the day-glo backpack!!

  3. I really like the idea of no real choice. I said as much on a (slightly) right wing Australian blog, and was met with uncomprehending comments – nobody could seem to understand why I could even think that.

    It’s not a panacea – in an area like my son’s school’s catchment, you still don’t get much economic or ethnic diversity, but you get some, and you get all the parents – including the well off ones.

    My local, comprehensive high school wasn’t bad, but my university decisions really came from my home life (one parent PhD, one MSc, I was always expected to go to university) so I don’t know what they would have been like with someone who might have been first generation university.

  4. It’s so interesting to hear what it was like to go to school in southafrica in the mid-eighties. I’m glad you didn’t turn out to be a flower arranging tennis playing lady. Much better how things turned out, don’t you think?

    The best reunion I ever went to was my husband’s twenty fifth college reunion, last year. For some reason, all the nicest people from his group of friends were there, and it was great hanging out with them, with nothing at all to prove. He had a good time too, for a different reason. One of his classmates (someone he doesn’t know at all) is married to Rene Russo, the movie actor. Anyway, there they were five feet away from us when my husband came over with a drink for me. He swears to god she checked him out, up and down, and he her. I thought she was someone I knew, he said, embarrassed and thrilled to be the momentary object of desire (or maybe she was nearsighted, who knows) of such a goddess.

    So, who knows, maybe something fun, or silly, or memorable will happen!

    xxoo, BL

  5. Gosh Charlotte, we could have been at the same school almost. Except mine was a mediocre private religious girls school in Johnannesburg. It might have been slightly more politicised than yours though. I do remember going on school outings to productions at the Market Theatre like “You Strike the Woman You Strike the Rock”- a couple of which got banned after we saw them.

    It wasn’t much of an education in many ways. I kept my old history textbook as historical curiousity as much of it is pure National Party propaganda. We had a rather progressive teacher though who told us the version to write in our Matric exams and also the true version of various events.

    However, despite the slightly progressive tinge to the school I got a lot of raised eye-brows when I took a Chinese friend of mine to my Matric Dance. It’s funny to think what a rebellious act that was at that time and place…

  6. I would love to know what the attitude of my former “classmates” would be if they learnt I am married to a Filipino. I cannot imagine they would be any more enlightened now than they were 15 years ago. In one way it would be interesting to go to a reunion – with the husband in tow! – to find out.

  7. What I’m discussing with my two good friends (we’re all debating whether to go) is whether people will revert to type or not. Will the rebels be kinda sulky, the good girls be all organising, and the take the piss types be mocking and sarcastic? It’s going to be interesting. However, I have mailed the organiser to say I’m not coming all the way from Germany unless there is wine to be had.

    As for SA in the 80s, it was a strange and repressive place, and of course hideously so at black-only schools. Ms Make Tea, glad to hear your school was marginally better than mine. One enlightened teacher makes all the difference, though. My English teacher managed to lift the scales from my eyes, and thank goodness for her.

    BL – loved the story about your husband. I guess he doesn’t read Hello magazine or its US equivalent!

  8. >> We are not giving her privilege, but we are giving her diversity

    Which is the greatest privilege of all. I don’t need to tell you that one of the greatest problems in this wide and wonderful world of ours is social homeostasis.

    Now, there’s a good word to use before I’m out of my dressing-gown; I may be late for work, but at least I can go there feeling smug.

    PS – I’d go, but then I have lost half a dozen lives because of social curiousity.

  9. You know, it has been a huge relief to hear the mixed bag of feelings aroused when the mention of ‘school reunion’ comes. It puts my mixed bag into comfortable perspective. I went through school feeling like a round peg, sure I was unnecessarily disliked by the headmaster (despite my goody-goodiness) and was glad the whole hideous experience was over at 16 so I could go to 6th form college.
    Make the 800mile return journey next year? Well, not really, thanks. Though I am still tempted, because of the good stories, (and hilarious) for example from BlogLily, and my own husband, who correctly analysed it by saying, only those return are those who feel happy in their own skins, (which does nothing for my predicament) but makes the reunion generally an interesting and joyous experience. Anyway.

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