Howells School started well. I had a tremendously positive attitude toward the experience and wanted to succeed both academically and socially. I felt no great need for popularity but if I could find a few 'soul sisters' I'd be happy. The old grey building was not anywhere near as imposing as Bolton but had rather the austerity of a fussy old maid encompassed by beech trees and other vegetation unfamiliar in the north.

I'd left Bolton mid way through the winter term, taken a couple of months off, and ready to start spring term at Howells. This, of course, meant a totally fresh uniform accompanied with a stack of 'sartorial regulations' . No tie but separate winter and summer uniforms, each with a different hat, pillbox for winter, straw boater for summer. I hated that stupid boater. It seemed larger than necessary and wearing it I felt like a human lampstand. I vowed to toss it into the river Taff on my last day of school and watch it float to sea. When the moment came I forgot my vow in the glory of my freedom. When I remembered it again mum had already donated it. No school tie but what I thought was a really dumb looking pink and white striped short sleeved blouse, an awful plain grey skirt and separate shoes for indoor and outdoors: sandals for indoors, good closed toe shoes for the ten minute walk to and from school. This arrangement was actually quite comfortable and I never even wanted to breach it. Having ventilated feet while sitting through hours of classes was a brilliant idea.

Howell's School

I was inducted into Miss M's upper fourth classroom in 'the tower' . Miss M. was a stern no nonsense teacher of English who at first seemed somewhat cold but in time she seemed to warm to me a little. Many of my teachers wanted me to catch up on the year's work, and winter term had been busy. I actually thoroughly enjoyed catching up in geography, I copied everything from a friend's book and had much fun learning about the tuareg and the other material covered. Catching up with latin however, was a nightmare. Mrs. T. at Bolton had wanted to make latin 'relevant', she organized little plays and got us actually talking in latin as if it were a living language. I did well in her class but now I was plunged deep deep into latin grammar and syntax evaluation, I was quite a way behind, and really needed to break my head on it. Though my language skills were pretty good, I excelled in English and French, I really hated learning latin in such a dead manner.

When it finally came to the O level I decided my best strategy was to focus on the literature. I learned much of the translations of the material by heart, Ovid (which I despised for its flowery pretentiousness), Catullus (which I utterly loved for his true poetic spirit), Martial, (his incisive humour delighted me) the Helvetian wars (bored the pants off me but learned it anyway just to get that O'level under my belt). I struggled through the language paper, undoubtedly making error after error and snagged a 'B', so was satisfied.

I'll get back to 'O' levels later but of course I must speak of the girls I came to know. Alison, one of my classmates since Mrs. M's upper fourth, was one of my best friends there and had the great advantage of living along my route to and from school so that we often walked together. Alison had a striking classical/Germanic look to her and a sophisticated savoir faire. Dressed in Paris and with make-up she would be stunning. Some thought her manner affected but it was just her way. She knew how to treat a friend with respect without being either submissive or overly dominant and I felt comfortable around her while simultaneously admiring her. Her home always seemed to be filled with a promise of delicous cuisine, something with herbs and eggs. Alison's mother, Rosemary, was an intriguing lady with an active mind who clearly adored her daughter.

Johanna was quite different in personality but an utter delight to me, she struck a special chord. She was bubbling with life, laughter and expression always upon her face, in her eyes. I knew pretty soon I really wanted to be her friend but was unsure how to approach her, our personalites were so different. Perhaps I feared she would find me dull, perhaps there were more convoluted reasons for my shyness but in time I got over it and managed to reach out to her, and this was welcomed. She lived way out in the country, a few miles north of my neighbourhood in the little village of Pentyrch. Her father was bank manager and as the only and adopted daughter she enjoyed some pretty nice material benefits which helped compensate for the tensions of the larger than usual generation gap. (I did not find her parents the easiest of people socially. They were well meaning but I felt a definite tension, a touch of judgement and disapproval in the air.) Her beautiful pony, Trigger, grazed on ten acres leased from the farm next door, she had her own pool which she clearly used since she was in great shape. Our friendship was going along very well until the day of horror.. the day I discovered that my friend actually enjoyed fox hunting.

I was devastated. I'd always been against hunting. Back in Bolton I'd written an opinion piece in English class about it and was supposed to read it out in front of the class but in those days I was unable to deal with the challenge of any kind of public speaking. I stubbornly refused, despite the cajoling, reassurance and eventual anger of our English teacher. I did not want to lose Johanna's friendship but I could not stand her sport and I needed to confront her about it, get her to justify it to me and hopefully give it up. I grabbed the opportunity after school one day as she joined Alison and myself on our walk from school. She was also a good friend of Alison's and occasionally was invited to supper with her. I could tell Alison was trying to be diplomatic, she wasn't too fond of fox hunting herself. Jo was naturally quite upset about being attacked for her hobby but tried to reassure me that the fox often went to earth anyway and it was really more about just having a good time out in the fresh air and exercising the horses. I could see we were reaching an impasse.. and Alison's front drive. We decided for the sake of our friendship to simply agree to disagree and not bring up the subject again. Some time later Jo did decide to quit. I was relieved. She told me that it was because a horse very similar to her own pony had a heart attack and died on the hunt and she didn't want that to happen to Trigger. I was not going to make further issue of that, I was just too glad she was out of it.

Other girls I remember were Jocelyn, a lovely sweet mannered girl who introduced me to the therapeutic values of honey and vinegar when I had a bad cold. She was very much in the sports crowd but loved geography - she absorbed it the way I did biology and went on to study it in Cambridge I think. There was Adrienne, a mischievous girl who appreciated physics as much as boys, an unusual combination. We'd discuss big bang theory and charmed quarks one minute and then her mischief with a student in some university the next, and had a lot of laughs about it. I think it was she who slipped me a copy of 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' which I thoroughly enjoyed on the quiet

Another Adrienne was a daughter of the Italian consul and a wonderful study partner. She and I reviewed material together for our exams. I remember to this day beating through the steps of the Kreb's cycle and the role of ATP on her back lawn. She and her sister also inducted me into the world of Mary Quant and the art of looking gorgeous. They taught me how to apply eye liner, mascara and other such novelties and this I put to good use when Johanna and I would go out on occasion and 'paint the town red', which really meant pretending we were already 18 and having a lot of fun dancing disco, we never did anything really outrageous.

It seemed that fifth form was utterly dedicated to the Holy Grail of grammar school, the 'O' levels. These would be essential for getting jobs if we left school early but there was a tacit assumption that we didn't want to do that, we wanted to continue to 'A' levels and then on to university, even me. That was taken for granted pretty much even though for some girls it was not a likely assumption, those girls kept it to themselves. I didn't hear any girls considering the possibility of marriage after finishing school. Again, if any did, they pretty much kept it to themselves.

Unlike Bolton, the years at Howells were streamed according to the academic prowess of the girls. Highest performers were in class 'H', lowest in 'L' and the middle stream was called 'S' for standard. There was some stigma to being in 'L' but the girls there didn't seem to care and from what I could tell, their talk was chiefly about body maintenance, down town fun and boy knowledge. 'S' was the sports crowd for the most part and that was my entry point in the upper fourth. After two terms of catching up I snagged a 'progress prize' and was moved up to 'H' with the two other prize winners, Alison, of course, and a very nice Welsh girl called Susan. I stayed in 'H' till 'O' levels after which the classes were redistrubuted according to 'A' level subjects and shrank in size, most of the girls in 'L' having already left. Ironically many of the girls continuing with sciences were my sporty classmates from back in 'S', a nice group of girls in truth, but I was never really in that clique, or close to them at all, except for Helen. Helen lived up on the slopes of Garth 'Mountain', slightly north of Pentyrch. She was always a good and friendly person and her mother patiently taught me how to ride. Later I joined Pontcanna riding school in Llandaff but I treasure my memory of trips to that little riding school on the mountain. To my horror Johanna's parents pulled her out of Howells, I forget exactly which year, and sent her to some private boarding school which they felt was better for her. Ah well, from her reports she was having quite a good time over there.

I was on a nice learning streak at the time. I loved learning for its own sake and was blessed with being a good all-rounder. Thanks to some excellent teachers and a clear head I felt a quiet confidence that I could nail those exams when the time came. As I've said, probably my greatest struggle was with latin language but my other struggle was history. I found many of the details tedious and tiresome and it irked me to obliged to remember them. Our history teachers seemed to be shoving a dull curriculum down our throats with little sense of life and relevance. In later years I came to love historical dramas and thoroughly enjoyed Neal Stephenson's baroque trilogy. I'd put that on the curriculum, let them see 'The other Boleyn girl' and anything else that will give a sense of real context. The one time that history touched me personally was in reference to the industrial revolution but our total and complete snob of a history teacher threw away that opportunity. My own family had felt the revolution keenly, growing up in Lancashire, quite a few of my ancestors worked in the cotton mills and down the coal mines and endured the conditions of the factories described in our school text book. I showed the text book to my father who had a few comments to make about the Tyldesley Mill. I relayed his remarks to our history teacher, naively hoping for an enthusiastic reception. She was not at all impressed, 'is your father a historian??' she pronounced loudly, drawing out the word and obviously in an effort to intimidate and subdue me. I should have guessed someone with her manner would look down on northern workers. 'No', as clear as I could, and jabbed at the book, 'he doesn't need to be, his father WORKED there' , and sat down coolly. I remained cool to her for the rest of the year, always did the assigned work and gave her no excuse to come down on me but it was all dry as dust to my taste. Somehow I managed to pass that 'O' level though not with top marks. I could not care less. Low grades in her class would reflect badly on her record and for me it was just a 10th O level after a nice row of 'A's, apart from the latin of course.

Our 'O' level year was 1977 and that summer Her Majesty the Queen came to visit Wales. Whatever our patriotic views had been we were all magically transformed into ardent royalists as the Royal carriage drove up Llandaff Road. There's just something so utterly glamorous about an open coach and four and even I actually through my boater in the air and cheered. The mood was infectious. This was distracting but not enough to quell my good mood and I launched into those papers with real enthusiasm. Partly I just wanted to get them done and behind me but I also wanted to prove myself on them, to justify the last few years of preparation, especially lower and upper fifth. I remember the math paper more clearly than any of them simply because it all went so well. They were all neat puzzles to solve in geometry, algebra, trig, snick snack, one after another, each neatly performed and put aside to make way for the next challenge. It was a great feeling, to walk out of the exam room and already just know I'd aced it. The others were biology, chemistry, physics, geography, french, english language, english literature, every one also an A. I was one quite contented 16 year old. It did seem to us that girls who won sports colours did get more fuss and honour in assembly than the academics, but that, we had to remind ourselves philosophically, was life.

Howell's school was evidently totally dedicated to sports and a simple truth occurred to me early on in the game. If I wasn't going to learn to like sports at least a little bit I was going to really hate this place. Lunch was served in two shifts and all girls not actually in lunch had to be out in the fields. To discover our fate we had to study a set of tables which at first seemed at least as complicated as a London tube map. The slot was determined by both year and house and must have been drawn up with someone with obsessive compulsive disorder and too much free time. As with everything I soon got used to this obligation and learned to make the most of it.

The school was organized into houses as well as classes, and houses were a very important social unit. This was new to me since Bolton did not bother with such things. We did not have such a thing as a Hogwarts sorting hat to place us in our houses, the decision was pretty much arbitrary as far as I knew but once placed it was assumed we would be fiercely loyal to our house. I was placed in 'founders' which sounded like a pretty boring name to me. 'Oaklands' sounded nicer but that one was one of the boarding houses for long distance and overseas students, and besides, switching was considered unthinkable. Houses were particularly important for sports and for Eisteddod.

As far as sports was concerned, the training of new girls was admirably methodical. Every single move in lacrosse and hockey was assigned a letter and a test. Each girl was coached till she was proficient and reliable in that move. Then Miss B. or another higher sports staff member would OK the student and we could learn the next move on the list. I think I could catch and cradle a lacrosse ball from all sides in my sleep. My old lacrosse stick was as bent as one of my tibia but I was expected to maintain it, and did, quite lovingly. Vaseline on the leather, linseed oil on the wood, to prevent it drying out and cracking in the cold British weather. Hockey and lacrosse were winter sports. In summer we played tennis and used the school's very nice swimming pool. I loved swimming though I learned late, and tennis was also taught through a series of tests. It was like a drill and ensured every girl could play something approaching a decent game. It helped that I genuinely liked Miss B., the head of the sports staff. She was a middle aged lady with the largest face I've ever seen on anyone, a face well weathered and intricately lined with care and concern for the girls, or so it appeared, and that was good enough for me. Miss B. never dissed any of us, even such a sports clod as myself, but treated us all with respect.

Eisteddfod was a Welsh cultural competition which lasted through much of the spring term. There were contests in just about everything from playing musical instruments on stage to writing essays, performing plays, art and pretty much any other possible activity in which girls could reasonably compete. I was not interested in going up on stage. I was not a huge fan since Bolton in which I'd subbed for a friend in 'the lion the witch and the wardrobe' . I played Mrs. Beaver and found myself saying the same lines twice, no idea how that happened, but we all pretended it wasn't happening as we looped the scene, also hoping and praying that the audience also hadn't noticed anything, which of course, would not say much for us.

I remember competing in art, one year making what I thought was a brilliant collage of a lyre bird in pressed leaves and grasses on a black background. I'd been pressing plants since Heathfield Drive and had a very nice back stock. My early plants were pressed between tissues in a set of old and very outdated encyclopaedias my mother used when she was a girl. Later I got a proper press but still had a good collection in those old tomes, releasing a herbarium of scents at the opening of every chapter. I made book marks from them as well as a scrap book of those I could identify. Well, the art staff liked my bird, it won a prize and earned a cheer from my fellow Founders members. A lesser effort I remember was an essay about James Clark Maxwell for the physics Eisteddfod. The piece would have snagged good homework marks but for a competition it was nowhere. There was a lot I had to learn about presentation! Had I known, I'd at least have acquired a plastic folder and found some illustrations rather than hand in one dull sheet of A4 written close on both sides. (Ah well, I got a lot out of it. Researching that paper was a great experience, I really learned a respect for JCM and his findings). We all had to enter at least three as far as I remember, and it was sometimes a challenge to figure out my best bets, or at least , the least potentially embarassing.

My best Eisteddfod experience was a play I wrote in the late '70s. I'd shamelessly stolen the idea from a kids' comic, possibly one of my brother's, I don't remember exactly what. The strip cartoon treated the human body like a huge factory and within were little men who were trying to run the whole thing faced with regular and hilarious catastrophes. I thought it would be humourous to adapt this idea to the challenges of a typical teenage Howell's school student. My main girl, sitting at an executive style desk, would represent the active consciousness of the teenage school girl. She would be bombarded by all the different facets of her own body and psyche, each coming up to head office to complain about the fulfilment of her needs. She'd have to try to run the teenage body without being overwhelmed. I had a girl who would be the 'intellect'.. she'd spout on about Polynesian sensual integrity, the values of Marxism in today's society, the struggle with agnosticism and I really don't know what else I'd given her to say but it was all hilariously high falutin and pompous. That was the idea because after she'd finished philosophizing, all dressed up in black gown and mortarboard, the chief would interrupt her with something like 'yeah yeah, when are you going to help me with today's homework!?'

I had one girl to represent the teenager's constant need to catch up with sleep, another to express her ravenous appetite and finally, the most daring part of the play, a character to represent the girl's sexuality. For this role I had the perfect actress, a colourful new girl called Elizabeth, a striking redhead who looked like a model and was absolutely delighted to dance onto the stage (to a soundtrack of Althea and Donna's 'Uptown Top-ranking' ) with hiked up school uniform and fishnet stockings and tell everyone how much she really really really wanted a man! We loved this! Well, I thought, if Sarah could get away with 'Big Spender' I can try this. Well, Mrs M. my old English teacher, liked the play a lot apparently but was not so fond of the acting. Actually that was not the girl's fault at all, everyone was wonderful in rehearsals but pretty much at the last hour our main central girl came down sick and had to be replaced. Sian had fantastic charisma, was a real character and was perfect for role of Chief. She was THE hub. Without her there they were like sheep without a shepherd on that stage and the wonderful energy we had earlier was sadly absent. Still, I was quite content with my creation and really appreciated how my fellow Founders embraced the ideas. The following year some of the girls approached me to write another! At that time , though, I was swamped with school work and in no mood to oblige for various other reasons I'll get to later.

I suppose the play was a kind of catharsis, a way to express my own inner struggles and laugh at them. They were, of course, familiar to all of us and that was probably why the others responded to it so well. The reality of my own personal teenage challenges were not quite so amusing to me and I kept them pretty much to myself. My own physical puberty began late, about three years after the average age. This was good in that it hardly interfered with my O levels at all but really hit me hard hormonally in regard to my two A level years. I was blessedly free of cramps and acne and physical management was not a big issue with me. I'm not a squeamish person at all. Of course there was the embarassing incident at the riding school. I was wearing pale blue trousers and someone in the bleachers was equipped with a camera. I came back from Pontcanna up the side of the river with my anorak tied round my waist.

My main problem was purely emotional/hormonal. I was utterly distracted from my studies and could barely keep my mind on them. I was struck with a tremendous existential pain and ache that clearly wanted to get out there and move on with my life, fall in love, find a husband and settle down. I especially wanted to fall in love with a special someone. I yearned for that with all my heart and found my studies annoying in the extreme. I was also not getting enough sleep and felt my mind simply fade out during class.

I would read a lot to take my mind off my emotions and would not look at my watch to see how little sleep I was getting. My mother stopped in occasionally to scold me for the hour but the next night it would be the same.

I had to struggle again and again to keep on track and I was barely keeping up with our A level material. Biology was a breeze, it came naturally to me and I loved it, but keeping my mind on physics and chemistry was arduous in the extreme. Ironically I did quite enjoy the subjects. Organic chemistry was quite beautiful and part of me really wanted to know about benzene, esters and such. Lab work, figuring out molarities and molalities was a chore and I had to deal with my brain jumping off the subject in the way that written facts jump around in dreams. Nuffield physics was also satisfying on some levels. I loved crystal structure and there was much to entice me. I found one of our physics teachers a pompous windbag, and the other painfully inept but my real block to physics was not the teachers but my own ongoing distraction. For the first term we had to attend a classics class which I found stultifyingly boring and a criminal waste of time. In a short time I detested Virgil and all Roman military campaigns. I fantasized that I was an Etruscan guerrilla fighter, just because. At mid-terms I did quite well, inexplicably, and Mrs. A. wanted me to continue with it toward another 'O' level. I had to be quite firm with her!

It did not help that I was a candidate for the Oxford and Cambridge exams and some teachers recommended I stay on another year to get the best shot at them. I wanted to scream! I felt jailed. There was no question in my mind that I'd leave Howell's at the soonest possible opportunity. Oxford and Cambridge were not priorities for me at all. For a couple of years I wanted to be a vet, perhaps due to the inspiration of James Herriot's books. It was pointed out to me that I didn't exactly have the physique to birth a cow but I knew it was more a matter of technique and was not deterred by this. Besides, I'd probably go more into a city or zoo practise and deal with smaller animals. (Given the questions I get these days most people don't seem to appreciate the huge difference between a vet and a zoologist, amusing really) . I was not afraid of cows having worked for a dairy farm during one summer and help herd them to and fro. Of course they can kick hard enough to kill, but they're generally docile enough not to think of it, and the trick is to keep them in that mood. I also helped out at a vet's clinic one summer, details of which I think I'll put into a general Cardiff memoirs file.

At that time my chief consolation was music. The only instrument I could play was the simple descant recorder. I had learned some basics of music at Bolton and soon learned to translate sheet music to fingering. I would spend hours playing the music of hymns from the school hymn book we used at assembly. Some of the melodies were quite beautiful and I would play them over and over. I loved Bach, Purcell and a variety of others based on old English folk music. This was all tremendously therapeutic. My other outlet was quite different and came in the form of a truly delightful discovery, the John Peel Show. I hated hearing the T.V. at night downstairs when I was trying to focus on my homework and would rather listen to awful music of my own choice than the distant tinny rise and falls of sounds not my choice. I'd do my homework next to my radio with John Peel's choices blaring in my ears. Many of those choices truly were awful but some of it started to grow on me, and came back to me in later years, such as Althea and Donna, and Patti Smith, the Clash and many others which entered me subliminally while I was focussing on joules and volts.

How could I forget the assembly of shame? This was another 'special feature' of Howells and one of the little details that turned me off the place though it never affected me personally. Tuesday mornings assembly was longer than usual and we could sit on the floor. This was a relief to me because for most of assembly we had to stand, there being no seats at all, and some mornings I was close to passing out. This never actually happened because a friend usually spotted me swaying and I'd go out and sit outside the Great Hall with my head between my knees till I felt normal again. Sitting cross legged on the hard floorboards was darned uncomfortable but not half as uncomfortable as what came next. The deputy head, a tall cadaverous female, would read from the book of detentions. Every girl in the school who had received a detention over the past week would be mentioned together with her 'offense'. In many cases it was 'breach of sartorial discipline' which could mean anything from having one's blouse top button unbuttoned or wearing the wrong shoes, having too much stuff in the pockets, (yes that actually happened, I was there), or not wearing the pillbox or boater, depending on the season. In truth a lot of girls who breached these rules really could not care less about having their names read out, they thought it was funny. I groaned and felt bad on their behalf. Johanna got detention once for writing Christmas cards during 'prep', a time slot which was supposed to be dedicated to homework. She thought it was a hoot and I had to agree with her.

I never ever got a detention though at times it was a very close thing. We had to wear nylons and getting caught with laddered nylons was an 'offense'. I mean of course, wearing them was supposed to be the offense, but one had to get caught by Mrs. L, the deputy head first, and many ladders escaped notice. If you could look wide eyed and truthful and swear on your parent's honour, so to speak, that the ladder happened since you arrived that morning, she would excuse you and demand that you repair immediately to the school 'shop' (open during break for snacks and such) and buy a fresh pair. I also thought I came pretty near detention the day I wasn't fast enough to open a door for Mrs. L and nearly got slammed for some breach of etiquette but she let me off when I acted suitably penitent, translate, petrified.

The only other encounter with her I remember was after the announcement of one of my prizes. She took us aside afterwards and asked us what we thought of it. I said, totally honestly, that I thought I could have done better that year. She responded in an almost threatening manner as if I'd been one of the the bottom three girls in the school rather than a prizewinner. What was her problem? Did she think I sounded arrogant? I thought I was being honest, thought that was what she wanted. Silly me. Some years later I was staying with friends at Moshav Queshet in the Golan heights with my daughter Sarah, a toddler at the time. There was a call for me.. a very sweet elderly lady wanted to have a chat. It was Mrs. L. She had magically become an old dear and spoke to me with affection and respect, as if nattering to an old buddy over coffee. I made polite small talk but I was stunned! This was Mrs. L the corpse bride deputy head? No, couldn't be, must be an imposter! This happens to teachers, it's a real phenomenon apparently. It might even have happened to our Professor Umbridge of a physics teacher but somehow I thought that infinitely more unlikely.

My most unpleasant experience came one day in 6th form when I accidentally overheard some girls talking about me in our form's common room. I could hear laughter behind the door and decided to listen a moment so that I would not walk in on the middle of a joke. It took me a just half a minute to realize that *I* was the joke. I could not quite make out the voices but could make out and recognize that they were pulling apart my every personal habit and idiosyncracy, my habit of standing half asleep in class and spacing out, and my recent survey to find out which girls were more spiritually or more sensually oriented. That had offended them apparently. Quite a few of them were quite religious Christians and I think they felt I was mocking them. I wasn't, I was just being curious. At any rate they were determined to do a number on me and of course I fled in tears and anger.

I met up with Alison on the cloakrooms and told her what had just happened. She immediately tried to reassure me, the dear. She told me they were obviously doing this because they were jealous of me. They were jealous of my 'O' level success and perhaps they resented that I'd been 'promoted' over many of them after the first two terms. Of course I'd been pleased with that but it isn't my nature to go about gloating and rubbing in my academic success. I honestly didn't think I'd said anything to make those girls feel inferior in any way, or adopted an off-putting attitude. I had nothing against those girls, in fact admired them for their own talents, and I was simply too busy to strut. Perhaps the facts themselves were enough. Alison comforted me to some extent but I had to laugh bitterly because I knew that none of their mockery was a lie. I knew that I had declined a great deal academically in the last year or so and those girls clearly enjoyed seeing that fall. I hated them then for that gleeful witness and wanted to make them feel it. In the next class I sought to catch the eyes of each of them in turn with my sore red ones, to gaze into their guilty, uncertain eyes and confront them with a look that simply said 'I know, I heard, look into my face and see how you made me feel'. None of them would meet my eyes for more than the tiniest fraction of second. . Let them laugh now. Let them wonder who had informed. The rest of the year I simply ignored that set as if they were insects.

Ten of us were candidates for Oxford and Cambridge. I was going for Churchill, Cambridge, for the vet school. That, of course, was utterly foolish since I didn't stand a chance the way I was at that time and unwilling to stay an extra year. My teachers thought I had a fair shot but my anxiety was just intensifying because I could barely keep up with my 'A' level work let alone the extra studies I'd need for the natural history trypos. When it came to that excruciating day the truth was all the more clear. I was totally and utterly unprepared for that exam, I simply did not know enough. Well I tried the best I could, made a valiant stab at answering everything required but already knew my prospects were dismal. I was not at all surprised to learn sometime later that I'd flunked the trypos badly. It was a downer to my pride but far from the end of the world. I did swing all my science 'A' levels, with A in biology and landed a place in University college Cardiff university with a grant, and majoring in zoology. In retrospect it was a perfect outcome and I appreciated in later days that I'd be much happier there than stuck in the halls of perspiring dreams memorizing an excess of information. Apart from the ignominy of flunking the trypos because of two years in a daze, the future looked bright.

Five girls passed, the other five failed so at least I felt in good company. Many expressed their astonishment that I hadn't made it which made me feel better, but I was not astonished at all. The set that had mocked me had the good grace to keep their mouths shut at this point, at least in my presence. Alison made it to St. Anne's, Oxford, and from Bolton, Jill made it to Brasenose, Oxford, Judith to Magdalen, Oxford. I possessed not the slightest smidgen of jealousy or envy, I was genuinely happy for them and the signal event that put me in such a good mood.. the approach of my very last day in Howell's school.

Our last assembly was outdoors, next to the Great Hall. It was a gorgeous June day and I could not help expressing my joy. I was by that time somewhat loosely aligned to Susan's set. I think they saw me of something of a maverick given my outspoken views on a number of issues and I know they found my joy on that last day almost indecent. I didn't care, I wanted to laugh at them all. I felt like laughing for joy! As I said, I totally forgot about tossing my boater in the river, or perhaps it was because I would have preferred to share that with someone else and could think of no-one better than Johanna- who was no longer there.

Freedom!! Freedom from 'sartorial discipline' in ugly uniforms, from petty classroom humiliations, from subjects I didn't care about, from the threat of detentions, from snotty upper-middle class history teachers with attitudes, from certain pompous girls with their self righteous little epithets, from 'O' levels, 'A' levels and more than anything, the stifling, choking prison that Howells had become for me over the past four and a half years.

Copyright © 2008 Gila Atwood

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