Boarding School Stories: Freshman Year

A personal account of life at a boarding school in the 70s & 80s

boarding school life
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Life at The Madeira School - My first year

Life at The Madeira School at the end of the 1970’s and early 1980’s was interesting and full of surprises. Our headmistress was Jean Harris, later better known for shooting and killing Dr. Herman Tarnower, author of "The Scarsdale Diet." Yes, that happened sophomore year and we were all told not to talk to the press about the scandal, to discuss any psychological issues with the school shrink, and to realize that the school was better off without her.

I never had a problem with Mrs. Harris. She was always extremely easy to speak with and often helped me with problems. Once she was arrested, Kiki Johnson became the acting headmistress.

But, returning to freshman year at my boarding school. We had our share of issues that year. Hazing was allowed and all freshmen had to deal with it. The seniors ran the school and you constantly had to be on guard in case they caught you doing something they thought you shouldn’t be. There were certain doors known as “Senior Doors.” If an underclassman was caught going through one there would be trouble. We still had sit down dinners that year, and we all had to wear skirts every evening. Those of us with riding class in the afternoon soon learned that a long skirt covered your britches and boots quite nicely and you wouldn’t have to change. The underclassmen acted as the waitresses on a rotating basis.

Heaven forbid you get a table of seniors. You would spend the entire dinner running back and forth to the kitchen with one glass at a time for refills. It was amazing how each senior could time their need for drinks; just as you got back to the table with one glass filled, another glass would be empty.

And if you weren’t the first tray in line for food, your table would complain that their food was cold. If the salt didn’t flow just right out of the shaker it would be your fault.

I never knew if the food fight of ’79 caused waitressing to end, or if there was another reason sit down dinners were finally done away with at the end of that year. But the food fight was definitely not something the school wanted to have happen again, so it might have been a mitigating factor. One underclassman had finally had it with serving a tough table and food began to fly when she reached her limit. Actually, the food probably did make a better weapon than nourishment in most cases, but the faculty and administration still didn’t want it being used that way. The food at school did leave a lot to be desired. There was the famous “mystery meat” that every school served in those days, but we also had “elephant scabs” and “sh** on a shingle” quite often. No salad bar back then, and very few choices. Most of us had food in our rooms.

One fun thing we did was flip the butter pats onto the ceiling of the dining hall. Butter came in individual pats on a piece of cardboard with a wax paper covering it. Someone found that if you peeled the wax paper off and put the butter on a napkin, you could flip it up and stick it to the ceiling.

Of course, you had to learn the right amount of flip necessary to get it all the way up to the ceiling, so there were a lot of wasted butter pats all around the dining room.

The huge snow storms of January 1979 meant school was cancelled for days and days. The administration finally got worried about students missing so much school due to the snow days, so they held group classes in the Chapel Auditorium for the boarding students. Trudging up the hill to the Chapel Auditorium through all that snow was tough. I was still extremely short and the snow was well up to my waist. We watched "America Graffiti" one morning and then had to write a paper on the music and how it helped the plot. I was watching the movie, not paying attention to the music. That paper didn’t get a great grade. The next day we all received a poem and had to write an essay on the meaning.

That was a bit easier. Other classes were held since some teachers lived on campus. History was another movie, but no paper this time. Life went on without the day students, and finally the roads were cleared and school returned to normal.

Madeira was a bit different than other boarding schools at that time. Many of the dorms only had a student housemother to run them. Not many of the faculty lived on campus, and the judiciary members really had a lot of influence over the student life. We also didn’t have school on Wednesdays. Madeira had a co-curriculum program that placed the students in the surrounding community to do volunteer work. The freshman my year were the first to stay on campus and take essential classes in the morning – that is, if you believe that typing, decision making (with Mrs. Harris!!), and musical theater are essential skills.

In the afternoon we went outside in groups for the Outward Bound program which consisted of high and low ropes courses and many forays into the woods with our fearless leaders. Fearless I say, because who in their right mind would lead 10 freshman girls into the woods once, much less weekly. My group leader, Brett, had the unfortunate short straw draw. My group had a couple of trouble makers in it and Brett had to deal with a few unfortunate instances; like the day he ended up in the middle of the woods blindfolded, hugging a tree, while we all snuck back to our dorms. I don’t think that was his planned activity. In our defense, he should not have volunteered to go first.

One other incident that really stood out freshman year was the expulsion of two classmates. Back then, students were permitted to smoke if they had parental permission and did so on the smoking deck or in senior clubhouse. If you didn’t have permission, you weren’t allowed to be in either of those places, even if you weren’t smoking. Two classmates decided they needed a smoke in the basement of the library instead of using a smoking area. Not a great idea to do that where the librarian can smell the smoke and catch you.

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Sophomore Year

Sophomore year was the tough one. It started with initiation day gone horribly wrong. The seniors were allowed to haze the new students back in those days, and the Madeira seniors took full advantage of that. The first few weeks of school were torture as you tried not to get on their bad side because then you would be labeled as trouble and be treated much worse on initiation day. The B.H.’s (short for Brazen Hussies) were the “bad girl” seniors; a group that had power to punish underclassmen who didn’t behave according to their rules.

On initiation day they would wake up the trouble girls around 4 am and take them somewhere to “make them behave.” This usually involved a lot of shouting and physical pushing around, and usually ended with a shower made of all kinds of different things. This year, one of the seniors mistakenly grabbed a bottle of toilet bowl cleaner instead of shampoo as she left the dorm and poured it on a number of new girls. It caused quite a bit of damage, especially as the seniors realized there was a problem and started spraying the new girls with water to wash them off. The cleaner burned one girl’s face quite severely; she ended up in the hospital having extensive plastic surgery to repair the burns. Others had burns on their legs and arms. The senior who made the mistake left school soon after.

Then there was the day that a patient escaped from the mental hospital across the Potomac River from campus.

I can’t remember exactly what happened, but I know we ended up locked in place as shooting was coming from across the river and bullets were being noticed around New Dorm.

We also got to attend the inaugural parade for President Regan and the parade for the Iran hostages when they returned. The latter was very meaningful to the Madeira students as one of the female hostages was a Madeira alumna.

She later came and spoke to us about her career and I had the pleasure of making her acquaintance later in life as she was married to my boss at Sweet Briar College.

I was living in South dorm that year and we had a great housemother, living with her roommate right below my room, who was known to be a bit of a trouble maker. The head of judiciary lived in the adjoining room with her roommate and the four of them got into a little trouble right before spring vacation. Pot was found in their rooms during room inspection and they were all expelled. This was the turning point for Mrs. Harris’ breakdown according to the reports that came out. Having to expel four senior two months before graduation was not something anyone wants to do for sure. 

Off we went on spring vacation and all hell broke loose. In what became a huge private school scandalMrs. Harris drove to New York and shot and killed Dr. Tarnower. We came back from spring vacation to find a math teacher living in the rooms that had been emptied by the seniors who were expelled, the name of the school blacked out on all the busses, meetings with psychiatrists who implored us to vent our feelings, and an interim headmistress who hated me.

The meetings with the psychiatrist were interesting. 

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Junior Year

Junior year tried to go well. For the most part there weren’t any major disruptions to the daily routine. Juniors worked on Capitol Hill for their co-curriculum jobs. I worked for Senator Javitz, the senior senator from New York where I was born. I was assigned to the mail room, not exactly the dream job. It was an election year, and Senator Javitz lost so I was out of a job. I did get to meet him once before his office closed - a crotchety old guy who snapped at everyone he saw.

The first Wednesday after we got back from Christmas vacation I went to the Capitol buildings in search of a new job. I landed a position with Senator DeConcini from New Mexico, about as far left as Javitz was right. The first day of my new job I was waiting in the front office for my boss to come get me. A man walked in and came up to me and stuck out his hand. “Hi. I’m Dennis DeConcini. It’s nice to meet you.” That certainly never happened in Javitz’ office. When I picked my jaw off the floor, I shook his hand and introduced myself. He asked where I was from and we had a very nice conversation about the Red Fox Inn in Middleburg. Very nice guy! 

I spent the rest of the year answering letters from constituents and running errands all over the Capitol buildings. Definitely a much different experience from the fall semester. My favorite letter was from a lady asking about a study that had been done about the effects of scuba diving on pregnant women and their unborn babies.

I sent away for the study and the day it arrived my boss shouted across the room, “Cricket – your pregnant scuba divers are here!” That got quite the laugh from everyone in the area.

We did have one scare that year. Attendance at classes was very strict and if you weren’t where you belonged, all the adults went looking for you.

One of my classmates was having a tough time and apparently thought she needed a day off. It’s not a great idea to do that without telling anyone. So a search began and got quite serious when she couldn’t be found in her dorm. She was finally found sitting on a rock in the middle of the Potomac River. She went home for the rest of the year, but happily rejoined us for senior year. Boarding school could be stressful for a variety of reasons and sometimes the faculty and administration could not understand what we were going through, or how we choose to handle it.

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Senior Year

Senior year started out well. My class was finally the leader of the school; we had a new headmaster – Charles Saltzman, the first male head of Madeira; I was living with a good friend in New Dorm which is slightly away from the rest of campus; and I had a very easy schedule with lots of free time. The class of 1982 had a reputation by that time as the guinea pig class. We had been the first class to stay on campus for Wednesdays freshman year, we were the first class to have new rules put in place for initiation day, we were the first class to have a headmaster award us our diplomas, and many other firsts.

We adopted the guinea pig as our class mascot and proudly displayed it in the yearbook on our four-year senior page.

College applications were due and tension was high as we anticipated what colleges we would get into and where we would go. I had two extremely smart classmates who got into Harvard early decision. Quite a big deal! Most of us ended up in the college of our choice and enjoyed “senior slump” spring semester.

My senior year co-curriculum job was at a vet clinic on the outskirts of Washington. I enjoyed being able to work with the small animals and make friends with a squirrel. We went to work every week on buses that were hired to run a specific route and deliver us in order to and from our jobs. Seniors were spread out all over the place as we had the opportunity to choose our jobs. One Wednesday in January was extremely bad weather and the administration decided to call us in from our jobs early as snow had gotten worse and ice was developing on the roads.

I was the first stop on my bus route and I watched the snow developing as we picked up the rest of the students. We all remarked on the weather as we got on the bus and our driver was very focused on safety and getting us home.

As we crossed the 14th street bridge out of DC, my seatmate and I were looking out the far side window.

Then we turned to each other in disbelief and she said, “I think I just saw a plane crash.” I agreed and we called to the driver what we had seen. She couldn’t really believe us, and who could blame her. But others started to speak up and the driver called in to her company what we thought we saw. That was the day of CB radios, no cell phones in existence at that time. The dispatch operator said she would call the police, but that we should keep driving. Since we were only going about 5 miles per hour at that point, we were watching as the Air Florida Flight 90 crash unfolded around us. Rescue vehicles started arriving, traveling through very difficult conditions. Trucks pulling boats and ambulances went by. We could hear helicopters overhead. The bus was eerily silent as we drove the rest of the way back to school listening to the radio updates. We finally got back about 5 hours after I had first boarded the bus from my job. It was an extremely emotional day as we didn’t really know what had happened and what the outcome was. Many of us had loved ones who flew a lot and no one knew if a loved one was on a flight from DC that day. The school held a special assembly the next morning to discuss the accident and how we were to handle it if the press got hold of the fact that we were on the bridge.

Luckily, nothing ever became of that.

Madeira was always concerned with the social life of the students and offered weekend activities to occupy the girls’ time. Every Friday afternoon there was a bus to Tyson’s Corner, a huge mall about 15 minutes from school. The bus was usually pretty full as everyone just wanted to leave campus for a while. There were all kinds of cultural events in DC to attend, sports events, day hikes, concerts, and pretty much anything else you would want to do. I did attend some great concerts and take a wonderful trip to Williamsburg with good friends. Most of the time I went home on weekends because I wanted to ride my horse, but the boarders never seemed to be bored on weekends.

Most of all, there were the mixers with WoodberryEpiscopal, and Blue Ridge. Lock a bunch of teenage girls away on a campus and they will clamor for boys.

After the first mixer, boys would start calling dorms in the evenings to talk with their new “girlfriends.” True love would bloom for a month or two, and then heartbreak would occur. Such is the life of a teenager in love.

Speaking of phone calls, this was well before cell phones, so we had two land lines in each dorm for incoming calls: one for on campus calls and one for off campus calls. The basement of each dorm had a pay phone for outgoing calls. Lines were forever forming for outgoing calls, and both outgoing and incoming calls supposedly had time limits. The underclassmen had nightly phone duty where they would sit in the vestibule of the dorm to answer calls during study hall. Most of the time however, the underclassmen who lived on the floor with the incoming phones were just stuck answering them. Seniors didn’t have phone duty and those who lived on the floor with the phones could be pretty obnoxious about not answering them if they rang at any time. Some were bad enough they would go knock on an underclassman’s door if the phone rang and no one answered it. It was an act of senior privilege to not have to actually pick up the phone and then go hunt for whoever the call was for. One year the phone number for the dorm I lived in was one number off from a local hotel. I hate to think of the number of people who arrived at that hotel thinking they had a reservation only to find otherwise. Teenage girls will do anything to amuse themselves while wasting study hall time.

Study halls weren’t monitored. Actually, not much of our time was monitored. This was before everyone was paranoid about kids’ safety and knowing where they were all the time. Our dorms were locked by the security officer at 10, but you could stay in the Library until 11 if you notified your dorm mother. Attendance was checked in class, but then you were free until dorm check at 10 each evening. Senior year I only took four classes so I had a ton of free time. Most of it was probably spent sleeping or watching soap operas.

Luke and Laura were an afternoon necessity at that time.

Academics were challenging, but you really only had to put as much effort into your studies as you wanted. No one actually forced you to do better back then. I passed my classes and that was all that was really required. 

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Cricket Stone is an alumna of The Madeira School and equestrian coach. Want to share your boarding school or private school story? Tweet me or message me on Facebook with your ideas!