Remember how much you hated your school uniform? The uniform at St Cuthbert’s College in Auckland, New Zealand, at which I spent about half my schooling, was Black Watch tartan, with hats and gloves required whenever we left school grounds (though hats could be removed after 6pm).
In summer, we had a tartan pleated skirt and a sailor-top with the tie built in, but with a lowish neck at the front that would sometimes be embarrassing. In winter, we had itchy woollen gym frocks, belted at the waist, with white shirts and a man-style tie. There were cardigans, blazers and green felt hats in winter, and white straw boaters in summer that would turn yellow in the sun.
I hated wearing long socks, because we were supposed to wear elastic garters to hold them up, but I found garters unbearably annoying, so my socks constantly fell down and I was always being told off for it.
We had dreadful sports gear: black rompers like something out of 19th-century England for younger girls, and an equally bad all-in-one black watch tartan romper suit for older girls. Both had puffy legs with elastic at mid-thigh level. We felt and looked ridiculous in them, and we had to do long distance running in the streets in these outfits, too. Young men and boys would laugh at us as we passed by.
Learning to knot our ties was a rite of passage, but I cursed the silly things every day. I’d always end up with one short end and one long.
I had forgotten all about my school tie until, recently, my mother returned it to me, having kept it all these years. I’m so glad she did. The hated thing is now reinvented in my mind as nostalgic memorabilia of happy school years with my best friend, Yvette—who is still my dear friend today.
These memories have come flooding back to me because we recently moved house and we are next to a big school with extensive grounds like the one I went to. Their winter uniforms, even these several decades later, are similar in format, though different in colour and material. They have much better sports gear, though.
The other day, I happened to be walking home from the train as school was coming out. Students were milling round, some being picked up by mothers or fathers, some by grandparents. “So what did you do today?” “Mum, I have to tell you about Chrissie–“; “I need the money for the excursion, Mum, there’s a note about it in my bag…” “Dad, can we go to the park?” “No, no homework at all’; “So much homework.”
In the midst of all this, with cars drawing up to pick up kids and others pulling away, full of tired but still exuberant students, a white mini-bus pulled up to the curb. A mother waiting by the curb clapped her hands together in joy as the doors opened. “Hello, sweetheart!” she called. Her son jumped off into her welcoming arms. There must be a school for kids with special needs around here too, I realised. “Did you have a good day?” she said as she took his bag and bundled him toward the car.
I went to quite a few schools, in three countries, but it is always St Cuthbert’s College that stands out most in my mind. It was like Hogwarts in some ways, though they didn’t teach us to do magic, unfortunately. Our ‘headmistress’, as they were called then, Miss Holland, wore to morning assembly her academic gown, a fearsome black number that billowed round her sensible figure and reminded us that there would be no nonsense here.
One morning, I was in a particularly joyful mood, and I leapt up the stairs two at a time. Standing at the top of the stairs, was Miss Holland in her black gown, looking like thunder. “Go back down those stairs immediately and come up one at a time like a lady!” she exclaimed.
Miss Holland was dour and fearsome when I was at school. But about six years later, when I was a journalist, I met her and another teacher at a function. Miss Holland was friendly, smiling and personable. “Do call me Joan,” she said over a glass of wine. “Oh I couldn’t,” I replied, and she laughed delightfully. “We’re ever so proud of all our girls in their exciting careers,” she said, or something similar. Miss Holland, who held her position from 1969-1989, lived in a house within the school grounds, and had never married, so we had all naturally assumed that the school was her entire life, and perhaps it was. But I realised that day that she was actually a person, not just an intimidating school principal.