They say everything comes to those that wait. A Prize never came my way at school but then I didn’t expect it to. I was diligent only in my enjoyment of life itself; the academic benefits of attending one of the UK’s top schools simply passed me by. The Prize came instead a while ago, by way of an unexpected e-mail:
Miss Beary and Mr Filkin have asked if you would consider coming to speak at the Sixth Form Prize Giving. I’m sure you remember that this is a super event for the leavers and the culmination of their time here. Your part is not at all onerous – 5 minutes speaking and handing of some cups followed by a delicious dinner.
Dear reader, the proverbial feather bowled me over there and then. To contextualise my time at St Leonards Mayfield, diversion and entertainment were my forte; study avoided at all cost. Fortunately, my circle of friends was not only great fun but also extremely bright so intellectual stimulation was hardly in short supply. To a woman, they went on to places like the Sorbonne, Oxford, Cambridge, Exeter, LSE … show me a top University and I’ll show you a beautiful Alumna. Me? I became a highly trained secretary.
But back to school … Simply, the offer of Gong Distribution was too delicious, too contradictory, too incongruous, too paradoxical. Of course I said Yes.
The day arrived. Beautiful Boyfriend and I took a room at The Middle House, the local hotel from which Mayfield Girls were banned in my day. We changed into something suitable and strode up the oh-so-familiar drive.
Without any ado, we were led to a cottage in the grounds for tea with two of My Nuns. The sight of their smiling faces peering round an open door and the warmest welcome will never leave me. We had a wonderful hour; they have hardly changed a bit in the thirty-four years between my last Prize Day and this one. Time sped by and the aforementioned Mr Filkin collected us for a tour of the shiny new Sixth Form premises where remarkable and accomplished art and ceramics were on show.
We attended Mass (now that has been a long time!), and then the purpose of my visit arrived: the Prizes.
In the swish of a nun’s veil I was facing Girls and Parents. Butterflies abounded. I was introduced, I spoke. An outline of what I have achieved in the intervening years was followed by three school report extracts and my understanding of how the school shaped its pupils:
- 1973 (Pre Mayfield) Giovanna needs to extend her efforts at school. Her behaviour is somewhat erratic and she needs to develop a more mature attitude.
- 1976 (pre-Mayfield) I wonder if she intends to be a pupil in the class or merely a decoration?
- 1979 (Mayfield) Giovanna works very hard and is always courteous and most pleasant to deal with. Her obvious powers of leadership are appreciated, especially by her contemporaries. She is very right-minded and really concerned for the needs of other people.
You see what they did there? Something changed, something good happened and this is what Mayfield did. It gave me the capacity to take things in my stride, to assume that nothing is beyond reach; I would go as far to say it is down to the inherent Feminism conveyed by our Nuns. In fact, that is exactly what I said:
Accountants, architects, lawyers, teachers: these professional, clever, warm women sent their Girls into the world as independent, self-sufficient, bright and capable young women with an awareness of others.
They gave us the knowledge that we, like they, could do anything we put our hearts and minds to. Our Nuns dedicated their life to God by educating and crafting new generations of women. They did this tirelessly whilst running a highly efficient and successful business: this school. So they were businesswomen too.
There was barely a man in sight at Mayfield then – a maths teacher and some gardeners as I recall. We saw first hand that women are versatile, women are smart and robust. We understood that we too could take on any challenge and succeed, in any walk of life.
My Nuns, the original Feminist exemplars are in this modern world a greater paradox even than my invitation to give out the Gongs. Their gift lives on at Mayfield in the lay teachers that shape the generations now; this school is clearly at the top of its game.
Mayfield, you saw beyond my academic apathy then and recognise who I am now. Your gift has been paid forward to my daughters and although they did not attend the school, the legacy lives on.
And that it seems was the real Prize. I had it all along.
© Giovanna Forte 2015