Stella Maris

The next episode of my educational odyssey took me back to England, somewhat to my disgust. Considering the problems I had encountered being at boarding school in Asia, you would think I ought to have been relieved to go back to England. But I wasn’t.

Some of the reasons were simple. After 6 years in the tropics, the British climate did not suit me. It was because I was severely asthmatic that I had been taken to Asia in the first place, and the change of climate had cured me. To a large extent, I had grown out of the disease, but the cold and damp of England brought back the wheezing. Fortunately, the attacks were not nearly as serious.

In the six years that I had been “abroad”, as they used to say, I had grown up a great deal, but I had grown away from England. I no longer had anything in common with my peer group. Because of the asthma, I had already been isolated to a large extent. When my classmates went out to play or to do sport, I was kept in the lunchroom with one or two other “sickly” children, so at a very early age I was inclined to be a loner.

Back in England, I felt like a stranger. The girls I befriended were foreigners, one from Nigeria, another from El Salvador. We shivered together, unhappily, during that record cold Winter of 1962.

It wasn’t just the cold that so discomfited me. I had been away from the extended (but not extensive) family for 6 years, during which time they had become my brother’s immediate family. They had looked after him during most of the school holidays and they had grown very close. I am sure that it seemed I was the favoured child. When I came back on brief visits, I was shy, and, expressing discomfort from the cold, I know they thought I was spoiled.

To what extent I was actually disfavoured by my relatives when I returned to England, I really don’t know. Possibly it was partly in my head, but I would not have blamed them for their feelings.

This was not helped, that first winter, when instead of spending Christmas with family members, I was sent to spend the holiday with a lady my mother had met on the ship that brought us home. She was a very nice lady who was extremely kind to me, but it seemed a strange arrangement. Did my family not want to share Christmas with me? It was never explained to me. For all I know, the family were insulted and further disposed to dislike me.

I was extremely uncomfortable with my family for a long time, very conscious of their feelings that I had been enjoying a wonderful life with my parents, when in fact this was not the case.

Here I was, once more in a convent school, at an age when it might have been useful to start learning about boys. All I knew, from experience, was that men were “nasty”. Two years in a British convent did nothing to help in that respect.

But I wasn’t thinking about boys. I was too busy trying to adjust to the British education system, after being taught exclusively in French for 5 years. I suppose I had become adaptable, so for the most part it was just a matter of time until I settled in.

“Maths”(as it was called there), however, was another matter. I had enjoyed the subject, but suddenly none of it made sense anymore. I would probably have done better learning ancient Greek.

Scholastic achievement had been important to me. I did not have much self-esteem, but I could be proud of my grades. Now, in Maths, at least, I was the dunce of the class. My classmates laughed at me because I did so poorly. They really thought it was funny. I did not. I was frustrated and confused and demoralized.

It was my good fortune that we had a lay teacher who taught Maths. I shall always remember the bearded B.D. Burns. He apparently felt there was hope for me. When I had given up, he pushed me to keep going, and he took the time to encourage me. One day the penny dropped and I began to get it. When I came top in my class (of 20, it was no big achievement) I felt redeemed, and I smiled at my classmates who weren’t laughing anymore. Nor were they congratulating me. But I didn’t care.

I should have written to thank Mr. Burns, but I hope my eventual achievement was thanks enough. Since that time, I have always made a point of thanking people who help me. I learned the value of being appreciated.

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