The hugging school

| November 17, 2010
By FIONA DE VILLIERS

On Worcester Street, Grahamstown, I find the impressive campus; gracious buildings beneath a canopy of green trees.

It all looks the same. I pause with my hand on the familiar wooden gate and push it forward. The squeak takes me back – girls in distinctive green uniforms, some in straw
‘bashers’ and blazers, snatches of laughter and animated conversation and, most prominently, hugs hello and goodbye.

A ‘private’ school called DSG

I’ve returned to visit my alma mater – the Diocesan School for Girls (DSG). I was a schoolgirl during the 1970s and early 1980s. In the real world, political turmoil was on a steady boil. Nelson Mandela was a name shrouded in legend and spoken in whispers. Political consciousness for me would come later.

Then I knew little of the apartheidinduced suffering of families in the townships on the fringes of Grahamstown. A certain elitism went unspoken – we attended a ‘private’
school (the word ‘independent’ was not yet used in this context), and had little interaction with students or teachers from government schools in town. My world was a bubble called DSG.

Things were different then. Teachers were unequivocally obeyed. Acne and awkwardness were common teenage afflictions, so was the ‘Purdy’ hairstyle. TV was a recent phenomenon – later, wondering who shot JR in Dallas was a delicious preoccupation. The rebels adopted an air of long-suffering endurance. We hiked up our gymslips
and rolled down our socks. Refusing to wear one’s blazer ‘downtown’ was an act of defiance. Smoking and drinking alcohol were cardinal sins.

Admin offices now the heart of the school

Breaking from my reverie, I realise that the offices have moved. Today they’re set between the library and the dining hall. Headmistress Shelley Frayne bounces down the path to meet me. It’s windy, rainy and cold for October, and I remember how many schooldays were spent in squelchy shoes, sopping socks and with dripping hair, courtesy of the town famous for delivering four seasons in a day.

Outside Frayne’s office we find an ‘old girl’. I’m taken with Frayne’s warm welcome – particularly with the way she hugs this ex-student. It prompts me to tell her that when I was a pupil the staff room was called ‘The Den’, and the Head’s office ‘The Lair’. Set under the main classroom block, neither was a place any student desired to be.

Memories everywhere

Formalities over, Frayne and I stroll around the campus. Actually I stroll, she strides. Known and respected for her energy and good cheer, she doesn’t stay still for long. The faster she walks, the faster my memories return to me. Here’s Espin House, of which I was a reluctant member. We came last in everything. I contributed ingloriously to this dismal record in events such as the ‘pick up the penny from the bottom of the swimming pool’ race.

Here’s the library – there’s nothing to beat the smell of books. In between, sleek computers wink quietly. If I close my eyes, I am again a skinny ‘newbie’ in a too-big uniform on a stage in this very building. It was then our school hall, and seemed cavernous to me. We were made (good-naturedly) to sing the school song – “We are the girls of DSG, all shapes and sizes as you can see. We’re not a bit scared to perform, though the sound of our voices may fill you with alarm. There is no school to equal ours…” It was here, too, that I confirmed my love of acting.

Tongue-tied-shy in real life, if it wasn’t for interhouse plays, I would have been downright miserable.

It was the best of times, and the worst . . .

I point out to Frayne that the room adjacent to the old hall was, in a precomputer age, the typing room. We giggle when I recount that typing students had to hone their skill to the beat of the songs of pop group Abba. The classroom blocks are still in the same place. How much friendlier these rooms are now, with carpets, modern desk units and interactive whiteboards. I experienced my worst and my best teachers here. The former was a Maths instructor, who thrived on sarcasm and humiliation.

Invariably, in Standard 6 (Grade 8), I was made to sit outside ‘The Lair’, red-faced, going over the day’s lesson, as my peers streamed past to their sandwiches. Then, in the senior school, I met Sue Hummel, who brought History alive for me. Recognising an ability, she went the extra mile to prepare me for my final exam, and I loved her dearly.

Frayne and I cross ‘the quad’ to visit the art room and the computer centre. I half expect to hear the crisp click of court shoes on linoleum and the thunderous voice of Margaret Edwards – the DSG Headmistress during much of my school career. A stickler for punctuality, she would roar at post-break dawdlers from the top-floor balcony. Her nickname was ‘The Red Baron’ – a tribute to her flaming red hair and fearless but fair nature.

Later, she was succeeded by David Wynne. It was strange for us to have a male leader but, by the time I left school, I had tremendous respect for him.

From sports to the sanatorium

From our vantage point we can see the squash court, only built in my senior years at DSG. Closer inspection reveals a state-of-the-art gym and a dance class for St Andrew’s boys. Times have certainly changed. We’re also able to see the breathtaking indoor, heated, Olympicsized swimming pool and the Astroturf.

The old hockey field (plans are to relocate the Junior School here) is not a happy place for me. My inability to ‘keep my stick down’ resulted in a lifetime ban. The old field also marked a boundary – across the road, the Rhodes University campus was most certainly ‘out of bounds’. Rumour had it that St Andrew’s boys had built a tunnel ‘to
freedom’… did anyone ever test that theory, I wonder out loud?

Next, we visit the site of the old sanatorium. The practice of weighing and measuring – a once-termly indignity for us girls – is a thing of the past, says Frayne. Next door is an impressive newish Music centre – the school is famous for its musical accomplishments. Adjacent is the current large school hall, built when I was in Standard 9 (Grade 11). It’s one of the few edifices that bring back happy memories for me – it was here that I won a prize for directing the Best House Play, and where young love bloomed after school dances.

These exciting events were somewhat dampened by the insistence of the ‘authorities’ on flicking the main lights on and off during the last ‘slow dance’ to discourage
any hanky-panky.

Off the wall

Across the way, we can see the historic buildings of St Andrew’s College. From Standard 8 (Grade 10), DSG girls and St Andrew’s boys shared some lessons together – nerve-wracking events that necessitated much anxious pre-class mirror preening. Today, the two schools have perfected a unique co-education model. As a symbol of this togetherness, perhaps, is the absence of ‘the wall’ – to us the most important structure at school, for it was here that amorous couples lingered in the afternoons. As we make our way to the Junior School, still housed for now in the same weathered stone building, I remember more teacher personalities at St Andrew’s – the Biology mistress with her tower of hair, who imploded with rage the day a boy accepted a dare to eat the frog intended for the class experiment; and the Accounting teacher, who
inhabited his academic gown like a black bat and took his recent military service experience very seriously, banging a long wooden ruler on the desk with every instruction, and forever impeding my ability to understand a balance sheet.

Civilised meals and rest

The old DSG dining hall, where we gathered for delicious fishpaste sandwiches at break times and frogs-eggs pudding at lunch has also undergone a transformation. No more are students made to endure lunchtime at the ‘top table’ with the staff (an experience designed to encourage social skills in students caused only silent mortification in me as I dribbled sauce onto the crisp, white tablecloth). Today, artworks line the walls, and students and staff take advantage of a cafeteria-style set-up.

Outside are the lawns where we spent the compulsory rest period after lunch.

Thanks for the memories

All too quickly, Frayne must attend to other matters. I drift across campus and time on my own, and come across the chapel, a haven of peace. When I was at school, it symbolised too many early Sunday mornings in unironed ‘browns’ – dreadful, Crimplene formalwear. Yet today I still love the school hymn, For All the Saints. Outside the chapel, I find a simple, evocative statue of two girls hugging. Now I remember: we were always told, in threatening tones, that “there was no need to hug quite so much”. Smiling at this recollection, I make my way to the wooden gate. A group of girls are ahead of me.

Chatting and laughing, in the familiar green gymslips and girdles, they hug, and I realise that this friendliness, this confidence, are the legacy of DSG. Wherever I go, I am bound to the ‘girls in green’. I didn’t realise it then, but I was awfully lucky to know them, and to go to ‘the hugging school’.

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Category: e-Education, Summer 2010

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