So Branksome Hall has pulled down MacNeill House this year, to make way for something new and better, and in doing so, unleashed a torrent of boarding school memories for this former career New Girl and her twin.
Welcome to Branksome
Our fears about entering our 11th school were unfounded. It turned out that Tara and I were warmly welcomed into the Grade 13 dorm, perhaps as a bit of fresh blood for a small group that had been living in close quarters since Grade 9.
I don’t really know how it worked with day girls, but there was a lot of clique overlapping among boarders because no one could be too cool in boarding. You had to be at least tolerably civil just to stomach completing your nightly ablutions in close proximity to so many others. Sharing one bathroom among 25 girls was the ultimate democratizing agent. Tara and I were easily accepted by everyone. Even the Head Girl, who was contractually obliged to spend her Grade 13 year in boarding, no matter how close she lived to the school, quickly became our friend.
There were two common rooms in MacNeill House, amply furnished with sofas, cable TV, a stereo, ping pong, and endless shelves of books, (internet was still a thing of the future) but we spent most of our down time sitting along the hallway, waiting near the only phone. Cell phones didn’t yet exist, and car phones were the size of cereal boxes. The one phone in our dorm was where we made and received calls (often to and from boys) and learned of the outside world.
Keeping Our Brains In
It’s no exaggeration to say that my year at Branksome led to my being accepted at every university I applied to. My average went up 16%. The two-and-a-half hours of required nightly study took care of that. We were meant to be in our rooms the whole time, but invariably, you would need to confer with someone about something confusing, and that discussion and rehashing of what we were learning in classes actually made for the best learning of all. It was quite a strict study environment, though, and any time you were caught out of your room (a.k.a. Room Hopping) during official study hours, there would be a stern lecture from the house mother. “No hopping, girls! No hopping.” I’m sure you can picture what we felt compelled to do next. Yes, I’m afraid it’s true. Any time we went to someone else’s room to study, we developed the practice of hopping there on one foot. While studying for exams, we had another ‘time-honoured’ tradition of wearing kerchiefs on our heads, knotted at all four corners, ‘to keep our brains in.’
Branksome Rituals Remembered
Rituals are important in a boarding school. We participated excitedly in some, like the Boarder/Day Girl exchange, where we lucked out and got to spend a week living in luxury and leisure with a wonderful day girl and her siblings. Other rituals we scoffed at initially, like the Father/Daughter Dance, only to find ourselves staring out our dorm room window in disbelief and regret, watching our dorm mates, just across the street from us, have an absolute blast dancing the night away with their dads.
Going to a girls’ boarding school didn’t result in us missing boys all that much. In fact, not including our own prom, I attended 4 other formals that year. When I had to refuse an invitation because there was no way I could afford the formal gown that would be required, half the girls who were lined up in the hallway waiting for the phone heard me, and piles of gorgeous prom dresses made their way to my room almost immediately, along with the instructions that I was to call the boy back and accept.
As I’ve said, I don’t really know what Branksome was like for day girls, new or established, and I have a hard time imagining Grade 13 there without the boarding. It was the defining element of our one year at Branksome. That was the year we became city girls, and learned to think about the globe, act in plays that felt like professional productions, and debate. Branksome belongs to that mystical time when we eased out of girlhood, but not too quickly. Since then, I’ve loved any drive down Mount Pleasant where I could point out the window of our old room, which we had kept open all that year and learned to let the roar of traffic lull us to sleep. It’s vanished now, along with the luggage room and the trunk of books I left down there, always thinking I would go back one day and collect them. I know they are building something new and wonderful, but I will miss that window to the world.
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