I met a little girl a few days ago, 9 years old, the same age I was when I went to boarding school. My adult friend told me how the little girl was stressed because her mother had left her with her grandparents for a few days, all as planned, a summer vacation.
It made me wonder again why at 9 years old I had been happy to go to boarding school, relieved to be on my own.
A few days ago, chatting with a friend I asked her, “Do you remember being little and thinking – like, on the street – that as long as you were walking by yourself people would think you were an adult?”
She and I had been looking out the window at a four-year-old boy walking through the parking lot, keeping a careful distance between himself and a man we identified as his Dad.
“Oh no,” my friend laughed. “I never wanted to be alone. I panicked if I was alone!” And I imagined a big expressive family where she felt at home, a family that – now in her 50s – seems hard to be free of.
When I was 16 I was getting ready to babysit some small little child. The parents were gathering their things, ready to leave. The child started to cry. The mother crouched down. “I love you, sweetie,” she said. “I’ll be back soon.”
Something in me froze, caught. I love you. Those words. Words I had never heard from a parent to a child. I thought those words were just for romances, and I was waiting for mine, hungrily, waiting for the boy who would go crazy for me, love me the way Loenard Cohen and Bob Dylan loved their lovers.
They told me I was going to boarding school and I was excited, thinking of books I had read of girls in schools who were friends and played tricks on each other and on the teachers. It sounded like a great place to be, much more fun than where I was.
The school was built mostly of grey stone, an old-fashioned building with windows that opened by turning handles. It looked like a place that rich people had lived in once with a long driveway and a circle in the front where your parents’ car stopped.
The front door was made of thick wood in an arch of stone. A square sign said “Ring Bell,” and a nun opened the door, usually with a smile.
This is where I said good-bye to my parents and stepped into the high-ceilinged front hall with the polished wood floor and the wide staircase that curved up to the next floor, making you turn twice as you went up. I could imagine old-fashioned ladies coming down those stairs slowly in long dresses with fans on their way to a ball.
I missed my mother at night, in that margin of time after the lights went out before I fell asleep, missed her with an ache, wanting her to come and lean over and kiss my cheek and say good-night and be in the next room.
She did those things when I was at home and I liked them. She went to each of our three beds. Each kid got a cheerful good-night and a peck.
We were living in England then, in a small house with many rooms crammed into it, like a doll’s house. My father was proud that he had found it so quickly, in one day of looking at rentals within commuting distance of London. My father told me when he did things that proved he was better than other people. He told me with a big smile, and a “You see?” in his voice.
There were four bedrooms upstairs, one in each corner of the square second floor. My room was at the top of the stairs, defined by the red curtains that fell floor-to-ceiling and opened and closed with a string. When I sat on the floor, leaning against my bed, my feet touched the white-wood wardrobe.
My two sisters shared the next room, defined by blue curtains and bunk-beds. My mother’s room had pink curtains and my father’s were dark green. Curtains that came with the house.
The tiny front hall had a smooth black and white checkerboard floor, the stairs leading up from its center and also turning you twice to get you to the top, but a tiny miniature of the stairs I knew at school.
When I was home I ate supper in the kitchen with my mother and little sisters. We only used the dining room when my father was home on weekends.
At night sometimes from my bed I could hear my parents fighting downstairs, a terrible sound that I wished and wished would stop, the harsh sound of their voices, please stop.
The parents and sisters visited me in school once a month. I preferred being in the school, uninterrupted, wished my parents lived in Kenya or Bahrain like other girls’ parents so I could just be here, as myself, without them.
And then 3 years later suddenly overnight friends turned against me, girls said mean things, girls I had been playing with for years, girls I wrote long letters to during school breaks, girls whose fat envelopes in return burst through the brass letter slot and onto the black and white checkerboard floor of the front hall. Overnight, the temperature changed, and I asked my mother to change schools. She did not ask why. I did not say.
And the next year I began at a school near the little tiny doll’s-house house, a school I returned home from every afternoon. And now everything was different. I was in the wrong place, an ordinary school, not a place that put me in a different, separate world, the way my father was in a different, separate world. A school where I had no magic, no friends appeared as they always had before, and I became what I dreaded, a side-figure, a someone more like my mother than my father.