Growing up as the middle child of 3 in a farming family in the beautiful valley of Boston, Kwa-Zulu Natal meant that schooling was always going to be the boarding school sort. My Mum, desperate to keep us at home for as long as possible sought out any and every available farmer’s wife with any teaching experience to teach us for the first two years of our primary school education.
Thankfully most farmers seemed to marry either teachers or nurses in those days and Dad put it down to the fact that in Pietermaritzburg, our closest town (city as it does boast a cathedral) had a very good teaching hospital in Greys Provincial Hospital and an equally good Teacher’s Training College, both of which had associated residences which were the go-to places when the farmers went to town for socializing and dating opportunities!
At the age of 5 or 6 years, formal schooling began with class 1 and 2, now known as the pre-primary years. Mum’s mission was to keep us at home until we were 7 or 8 years of age when she felt that we would be better able to cope with boarding school for the beginning of our primary school phase starting with standard 1 through to standard 5. To that end, she was instrumental in setting up our local Boston Farm School. Wherever she was able to find an available building, she went about turning it into a classroom, my first being an old farm butcher shop that I recall being painted out and made school ready for our class of 3 students! She hid all her personal anxiety about letting her children go in her busyness with finding teachers & locating spaces for our founding academic years and just as a mother animal protects her young, she did exactly that for the 3 of us, affording us the most wonderful start in life at Boston Farm School, from a disused butcher shop to a rondavel or community hall veranda, we went to school for 2 years!
My sister, being the eldest in our family, was the brave one who, being a big child physically, was the one who forged ahead of me with confidence and gusto and I so wanted to join in with her and her friend’s fun. Her pre-primary schooling was slightly different to mine in that she was the same age as our neighbouring farmer’s twin daughters whose mother had been persuaded by Mum to teach the 3 girls in their home. This meant that my sister was hefted up onto her horse each morning, come rain, shine or snow, and rode over the hills for the approximately 45 minute ride to their farmstead. She would join the twins for school with teacher Mrs Black in their sunroom on their veranda. Once lessons were over and they stepped out of the makeshift classroom, Mrs Black became Anne to my sister and Mum to the twins and play resumed anywhere in the vast garden, the numerous farm sheds or anywhere within shouting distance from the farm house.
The next big step was primary school and that meant boarding school, again Mum was adamant that it would be weekly boarding and not full term boarding, thankfully for her and for us children!
Back then, the choice of school depended on the condition of the roads and our farming community had access to either the town of Howick or the farming village of Richmond, both of which were attained by dirt road meaning that depending on the season, could be either dusty, bony and corrugated or pitted with potholes, muddy and very slippery. Richmond’s access road won the contest and off went my brave big sister with the twins and a few other farmer’s children their age, kitted out in uniforms with a trunk of clothing, every item marked with name tags that had laborously been hand sewn into them by Mum. How envious I was of her and her friends: off on an adventure to a town for boarding school and so much fun learning and playing! I would wait with great anticipation for the lift club to arrive at the pick up point on a Friday afternoon, unless it was our turn to do the lift when I would have to wait for Mum to get home as the car would be too full with borders to allow for me to go with her to fetch them. And then the pestering would begin as I wanted to suck every bit of information out of my sister, every detail of every moment of her week until she grew tired of trying to make it all fun for me and would brush me off with irritation.
In my own little world, I conjured up images of what boarding school would be like and the fantasy grew for the 2 agonizing slow years that I had to be at farm school before being allowed to go away as a big girl myself. FINALLY the day arrived and off we went, my big sister and I, driven to Richmond by Dad and Mum with our younger brother for company. The build-up to this event was incredibly exciting for me as it involved a trip into town (Pietermaritzburg) to order my uniform and to purchase the list of requirements for the hostel and for school – I was beyond myself with all these luxury items, specially selected and checked off the list by Mum, taken home and diligently marked with my name and packed into my trunk which was an old fashioned cardboard sort of trunk with a shelf ledge for smaller items on the top of the cavity underneath and leather straps to close it securely. These trunks had belonged to Mum and her sister for when they were sent from their home on a farm, further into the foothills of the Drakensberg, to Pietermaritzburg for full term boarding which was the catalyst for Mum’s mission to keep us at home for as long as possible and then when the inevitable boarding school phase began, insisting on weekly boarding only.
Arrival at the hostel was not foreign to me since I was familiar with the routine for the 2 years that my sister had gone ahead of me but now it was MY turn for Mum to help me to unpack my trunk into my locker and to put my 2 permitted home items onto my narrow metal bed: my beloved Basotho blanket, fondly named “edgy”, folded neatly at the foot and my kewpie doll resting on my flat, standard issue pillow, all dressed in her own school uniform (dolls too were only allowed to wear the school uniform in the attempt to eliminate any competition between children who had and those who did not have doll’s clothes)
We went to find my sister in her big girl’s dormitory where she had managed to unpack for herself and was excitedly chatting with her friends about their holiday from whom she was anxiously pulled away by Mum to head downstairs to the car where Dad was growing increasingly restless about leaving to get home before dark, for the farewell… and THEN my world fell apart!
Mum and Dad both hugged and kissed us with false cheer as they assured us that the next 2 weeks would literally fly by and then we would be home for our first weekend (it was mandatory to stay in for the first weekend in order to “settle” into boarding school routine and supposedly make it easier going forward) They hustled my little brother into the front bench seat between them and climbed in, closed the doors, rolled down the widows in order to wave as they drove away down the little hostel road, past the school, out the gate and onto the road towards home, Mum waving all the while until out of sight, the sight of which was what caused Mum years of anxiety attacks and, as a mother myself I can fully appreciate the agony of that awful moment when the truth dawned on me and my world turned upside down: I was left behind without them!
The fallout was that my big sister was lumped with me, her sobbing little sister, clinging with desperate homesickness and cloyingly, annoyingly irritating to the tougher, more capable one who seemed to take to boarding school life like a duck to water, the complete opposite to the snivelling one who’s boarding school fantasy had become a nightmare!
My little girl’s dormitory was down the passage from the big girl’s dormitory and as soon as it grew light, I would climb out of my bed and creep down the passage to my sister’s bed to have her open her eyes to find my sad little face, etched in misery, wanting to go home.
This clandestine passage creeping was strictly forbidden and order marks were dished out by the border mistress or matron if caught, once 6 such black marks were recorded, one would be gated from leaving the hostel for the weekend, now THAT was the stuff of nightmares for me and I lived in constant terror of those wretched marks for my 5 years as a government boarding school inmate!
Needless to say, our sibling relationship fast unraveled and sadly, for the most part of our school years my big sister and I were not particularly fond of one another, suffice to say we’ve been able to set those traumatic years aside and she has been able to forgive me for causing her such irritation and embarrassment at junior school hostel.