FIRST of all: Onion grass in the spring. This is the quintessential memory of anyone who has ever attended a Virginia boarding school and, during the months of April and May, been confronted by ominous rows of half-pint containers of lait à l’oignon (made even more gastronomically interesting by small but effective shingles of wax),
But I have chosen to call this a “chronicle,” so perhaps I should be more precise in describing my disaster-ridden history as an un-willing preppie.”Unwilling.” Not quite true. I guess I’d become what is now known as a “liberated woman” at approximately age eleven. By the following year my New Orleans school had become anathema to me, and two younger sisters contributed more gratuitous angst than anyone should be asked to handle, so I persuaded my parents to send me to boarding school. My sentence at Chatham Hall was not to commence until freshman year, and so I spent my eighth grade year at a now long—and mercifully—defunct institution called The Warrenton Country School.
Warrenton, 1943—44: The decision by my parents to spring me from the land of moss-hung mentalities was based on the following criteria: my great-grandmother knew the head-mistress, one spoke French until two o’clock in the afternoon, one rode—with the Warrenton Hunt, of course, side-saddle (1943!)—one spoke French from 6 p.m.until light out. Yes, “light:” that’s how many there were in my dorm of eight skinny, pustulous 12- and 13-year-olds.
Remember the Madeline books? Sundays, two by two, we trooped down the road to the Warrenton Ice House (which was clumsily disguised as an Episcopal Church) provocatively clad in calf-length lavender uniforms and almost ankle-length purple capes.
I will forever associate the Nicene Creed with lust— however pubescent: glances across the aisle at the equally skinny and pustulous youths from a nearby military academy. During the Lesson, fantasies of brass buttons passionately pressed against sparse and tweedy breasts. And during the Benediction, the fantasies became positively Sabine on the parts of brass buttons and purple capes alike.(The military were made to remain in an attitude of genuflection cum erection for ten minutes after the departure of the still-flowered young ladies of the Warrenton Country School.Tant pis, as we were wont to mutter between six and light out.) Still, I recall that the school gardener regularly raked in a healthy harvest of brass buttons and an occasional empty pint bottle from under the shrubbery surrounding the school property.
As the onion grass flourished, so did my excrescences, which mostly convened on my face or, ecumenically, my bottom. This condition effectively prevented my participation in the annual Woodberry Forest/Warrenton G&S operetta. On this low note, the year came to an end, and home I went to a summer largely devoted to math tutoring and bosom-enlarging exercises—not necessarily in that order.
Chatham Hall, 1944—1948: I can’t even recall how we got to this dismal hamlet. Surely the Southern Railway didn’t stop at Chatham, Virginia, except, perhaps, in the case of an exceptionally rich parent. Or derailment. I suppose we were ferried from Danville or another such exotic spot.
Even the names of the two dormitories proclaimed chastity: Dabney and—my God, was it really called Prudence Hall? The architecture of these all-too-aptly named buildings was sufficiently reminiscent of that of U.Va.—excuse me, The University, to reassure even the most Good Ole Boy among the fathers of us teen-aged Southern gentlewomen.
Jefferson’s touch didn’t extend to the public buildings in Town (always spoken of with the capital), however. There was the drugstore, which we divested of purplish lipsticks every Monday afternoon, the movie house, the “Fahv and Dahm,” and the courthouse, whose only embellishment was a frieze of tobacco-stained old men. About the purloined lipsticks (always Revlon), it is important to understand that 1) stealing was more fun and on the whole less risky than field hockey, and 2) Revlon tasted good. Since it was wartime and we were rationed to one candy bar a week, we consumed three or four lipsticks, pink to puce, for every missed Mars bar. As for the cine-palace (wooden floor, wooden seats), so as not to be exposed to the sight and smell of overripe overalls, the girls from Chatham Hall were its sole occupants on Monday afternoons.
Dramatis Personae and my first official disaster: The Reverend Doctor Lee and his lady, who bore a chilling resemblence to Mrs. Roosevelt, were in the habit of submitting “new girls” (ultimate put-down) in groups of six or so, to afternoon tea at the Rectory. You can easily imagine the gaiety which characterized these gatherings: we would have preferred, all things considered, to have been attending a frog-autopsy in the biology lab.(It should be noted, in passing, that Mrs. Lee’s perfume came in a poor second to that of the formal-dehyde-scented lab). It took only seconds for a profound silence to descend on the room. Well, the Lees kept a nasty little dog of questionable heritage which, on the afternoon of my disaster debut, but, was disporting itself fatly around the room, emitting dyspeptic grunts and attempting to cadge stale shortbread and Something-paste sandwiches from the guests, who were now in a state approximating cardiac arrest. Desperate, and with no presentiment of impending doom, I plunged into the silence.”Oh, Mrs. Lee, look at Phutzie (or whatever),” I cried merrily, “Isn’t he darling?” All heads turned to the traitorous Phutzie: he was at that moment, and with indescribable enthusiasm, licking his parts.
Almost without exception (the riding master being the exception—I think) the faculty was female. Well, they were women; what did / know? Memory dims, but there were several stand-outs: Miss Thompson (Bible Studies), who wore the same man-tailored blue suit during the four years I spent at Chatham, and what I was later to realize were condoms on her thumbs. Miss Stewart (American History), brilliant, biting, mean as hell, with whom I got on famously. The treasured Miss Beatty (Sophomore English), a well-read lady who gave me the best present I ever got: Jane Austen. Finally, Miss Warfield (Senior English): “I am sure, young ladies, that you’ve all heard of my cousin Wallis. You’ll be interested to know that / helped her pick out her trowsieur!” “Trousseau, Miss Warfield,” quoth I, thereby cutting yet another notch in my disaster belt: my next paper earned a failing grade. I plotted my revenge. Drawing on my bayou-background, I wrote my final paper entirely in Cajun dialect. There being no way a distant relative of the Duchess of Windsor could comment on, much less correct, a story written in that marvellously bastardized French/English, she was forced to give me an A-f- and, much to her pique (“Pee-Kew,” in Warfieldese), I won that year’s prose prize for it.
Countering the disasters: The Chatham Hall Underground. In the 40’s, flaunting the “Establishment” (a word we’d never heard of) of necessity became an exercise in creativity, lacking, as we did, small arms and funny cigarettes. The energy which went into the Chatham Underground, properly channeled, could probably have solved our current crisis in this department. For example, swearing incurred hideous reprisals: Cromwellian letters to parents and deprivation of cinnamon toast privileges. But how is it possible to survive boarding school (or anything) without giving way to a fit of foul-mouthing every once in a while? Easy. One had simply to attend Miss Thompson’s Bible class, paying particular attention to the Old Testament. Therein, one will find a reference to “camel urine,” two words guaranteed to throw ten or twelve bien elevées young ladies into what is usually referred to as paroxysms of laughter.(If you insist, camel urine was used by the really hip ladies of the time as a hair-dressing. Beats “Dixie Peach Anti-Kink Cream” every time.) Picture, then, the Underground, ritually masked in Hopper’s White Clay Pack, galloping down the corridors of good old Dabney and Prudence shrieking “Camel urine! CAMEL URINE!” Intercepted by a student council type or a somewhat bemused faculty member, the Underground had only to murmur that, well, they were only attempting to share their enthusiasm for Biblical prose with their dorm-mates.
The sex life of a Chatham girl: This can be summed up in three words—The Spring Prom. My God, how those poor wretches at Woodberry and Episcopal High School and Staunton must have quailed when the dread summons appeared in their mail-boxes every April, The ground rules, of course, were laid by Dr. Lee (or Tamerlaine; same thing) and need not be detailed here: they are graven on the psyches of every Virginia preppie who ever lived. In my case, as it should by now be obvious, The Spring Prom opened up vast new disaster-vistas. In my Junior year my mother, the naughty lady, sent me for this event a strapless evening gown.I did not pass muster, (Muster-mistress that year was Miss Thompson, of Bible-and-condom fame). I made my entrance enhanced by about fifteen feet of Scotch Tape. In retrospect, however, I think Miss T, did me a favor: had my titillating garment indeed run afoul of the laws of gravity, I might easily have been mistaken for one of the gentleman callers.
Snobbery and other good things to be learned at Virginia boarding schools (remember, we’re still talking about the 40’s—although I have no reason to believe that things have changed significantly since). First, one doesn’t wear, ever, Kentucky jodphurs—remember them, Southern belles? lest one become a pariah in the paddock: the kit is English all the way, and don’t you for a moment forget it. Clothes snobbery was by no means limited to riding gear, although here it took it’s severest toll among those of us of a yokelish bent. It was at Chatham that I was initiated into The Sacred Cult of The Gold Bobby Pin. In order to qualify for consideration, of course, it was first of all essential to own a camel’s hair polo coat, preferably as ratty-looking as possible. Let me tell you that it is nowhere near as easy to age a camel’s hair coat as it is a pair of jeans. Well, I found a way.(For instructions, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope and $100 to me in care of this magazine.)
You can see from the above that my Virginia boarding school experience thoroughly prepared me for all of life’s little vicissitudes, such as how to conduct myself when shopping at Peck and Peck. Saleslady: “Black Watch Tartan, Madam?” Slight pause. Me: “Is there another?” Or, as one’s fortunes improved (marrying well, as, of course, one did), at Tiffany: “Diamonds? My dear woman, just show me a simple gold circle pin, if you please.”
What’s changed in 30 years? My older daughter spent four years at Madeira (I like her, so I didn’t send her to my alma mater). Well, the girls can smoke and drive, under certain circumstances, they take an active role in the community, and the restrictions against men visitors on campus have relaxed. But, as I discovered in conversations with girls in my daughter’s class (‘70) and my observations of Madeira mores, the undercurrent of The Gold Bobby Pin syndrome persists. Boarding schools have—with considerable self-satisfied puffery in alumnae magazines—embraced what can realistically be described as tokenism: they have accepted girls of minority groups and white girls from less than affluent families. The admissions committees have accepted them, that is. But who gets invited home for the weekend by whom? The question, of course, is rhetorical. While I would like to believe that this “liberal” trend is motivated by good will and an intelligent understanding of the role of private education in the “70’s, it is difficult for me to do so. The book larnin” may be splendid; indeed, it usually is. In the main, however, the ladies of Virginia’s groves of academe and dogwood, and their charges, seem still to be riding side-saddle.