A most amicable expulsion

28th November 1997 at 00:00
My education at the Bangor County Grammar School for Girls in north Wales came to an abrupt halt when I was 16. I was expelled - but it was an amicable arrangement. My poor mother was always plodding up to the school to see the headmistress and finally she was told that I'd got as much out of school as it could possibly give me, so I'd better leave. Miss Hughes, the headmistress, was strict but she wasn't spiteful. She let me go back to take Higher School Certificate a year later.

I never knew Miss Hughes's Christian name. She was far too august a character to be asked. She looked a bit like Queen Victoria. She was well-upholstered, wore her hair in a bun and dressed in rather formal frocks, lisle stockings and strapped shoes and always wore a brooch.

Miss Hughes taught English literature. I was good at it, but I can't say I had a rapport with her. You didn't have a rapport with Miss Hughes - she was far too regal. She was a Greek scholar, a thoroughly well-educated woman. All the teachers at the school had degrees and I was very well taught. I must have learned by osmosis, though, because I spent an awful lot of my time in class gazing out of the window across the fields to the Snowdon mountains.

I had a tendency to be over-elaborate in my writing and to embroider. Miss Hughes taught me to be more concise. Once, when I used the word "hometown" in a composition she said it was a dreadful Americanism and I must never use it again. She had a huge influence on me. She didn't just teach the set text, she talked to us and explained the background to the books we studied.

English and art became my favourite subjects, though I much preferred being at home, where I led a wonderfully wild life roaming the hills, to being at school. I always did the absolute minimum homework.

Until I was 13 I did well at school. I came top of the county in the scholarship examination. I remember my mum sending a telegraph to my father, who was serving in the war in the Middle East, to tell him.

At first the grammar school seemed a bit daunting. It was a huge building with shiny parquet floors and it smelt of polish and dinner - and sick. My little primary school in Penmaenmawr was near the sea and smelled of chalk and milk and biscuits and hot coals. During my first year at Bangor I was one of the good girls and was made a form captain and had a little red badge to prove it.

Then puberty hit me and things went downhill. I started getting into trouble. I wasn't a joiner; I had not one ounce of team spirit. I would get sent to Miss Hughes for running in the corridor, talking in class and minor breaches of the school regulations. Even wearing more than two grips in your hair was against the rules. To be caught eating in the street while wearing school uniform was a terrible crime. I was always being ticked off for having messy hair. I wore it in plaits which I would chew when I was concentrating.

My other best teacher was Miss Daisy Smart, who taught art. She was a rather more colourful character than the rest of the staff, a quiet woman, short with big eyes and a big smile, who dressed in light, flowery, feminine clothes. She took an interest in me and encouraged me and nurtured my talent. I learned long after I left that she and Miss Hughes had often discussed whether I would go on to art school or have a literary career.

Miss Smart's lessons were fun. I remember the first thing we had to paint was a clown's face. She put me in for all the eisteddfods. I once won a prize for a painting at the National Eisteddfod. Miss Smart encouraged me to go to Liverpool Art School after I left Bangor.

Many years later I was sitting at home remembering how signficant she had been in my life and I decided to write to her. She invited me to visit and I went for tea. She looked exactly as I remembered her. She told me she'd kept my school paintings for years but had recently thrown them all away in a tidy-up. I was a bit upset about that because I have none of my work from my schooldays. She has since gone into a home and we have lost contact.

I only stayed at the school of art for about a year. It was too much like school and I don't think I'm schoolable. If something bores me I have very little application. As a girl there seemed to me something unnatural about going to school when I had so many other much more interesting things to do. I have been pretty casual about my children's schooling too. Some of them were taught at home because they didn't like school either. There seemed no point in forcing them to go, so Igot in tutors.

Old girls' reunions are not my style. I have never been back to school. But I have drawn hugely on my childhood and my Welsh background in my writing.

Alice Thomas Ellis's latest book, Fairy Tale, is published in paperback by Penguin. She is the widow of the publisher Colin Haycraft and has five children and four grandchildren. She divides her time between north London and Bala, North Wales

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