Friday, September 4, 2009

Part 10: My First Day at Brent School

"My dream, I remember, when I went to
boarding school, was to have a little nook
someplace where nobody could get at me ..."

~ Harry Mathews

"As you get older, you look back and try to make sense of the sort of person you have become. And I think the most important thing that happened in my childhood was the first night I went to boarding school at the age of seven. I remember that night, and the loneliness. But I think it was that first night at seven years old when I felt something had broken, and I've spent my life trying to get back to that feeling of home."
~ Jeremy Irons

In August of 1971, my father took me away to boarding school. I was 12 years old.

Three weeks prior to this I don't remember my parents ever discussing boarding school, which is not surprising since we were never told anything.

"Oh, by the way, you are going to Brent."

What is Brent?

I found out it meant that I would live and eat at a school 465 miles away in the mountain city called Baguio, a trip that back then took us two days. There would be other American kids there and it meant I could go to a college back in the U.S. The morning I left Mom presented me with a wrist watch and a little Swiss Army type pocket knife that were her father's. Dad wanted to keep the knife, but Mom took him into the bedroom and yelled at him for an hour. He came out with three pocket knives including the one Grandpa gave me.

"OK, pick the one you want"

I picked Grandpa's and Dad stomped off to the bedroom. Then it was time to go. All the students came to say goodbye, Auring hugged me tight and whispered "you're my big boy".

Two hours later, with all my worldly possessions in tow, Dad and I were flying to Manila, where we would spend the night at the Guest House. The next morning we took another plane up into the mountains to Baguio. The trip to Brent was wet, dark and gloomy. July is the beginning of Rainy Season in the Philippines, by August it was full on and it rained all the way there. We didn't talk, my stomach was in knots. After all the times we moved, all the times I was the new kid, I should have been used to the kind of feelings I was having now. I was agitated, nervous and apprehensive. This time it was different, this time it seemed permanent.
It was drizzling as we rode in the taxi from the airport to the city, the fog so dense everything was gray and in shadows, but by the time we got to the gates of the school the rain stopped. If I close my eyes I can still hear the tires of the cab hissing on the black, wet asphalt. As we drove up the hill, the trees and the buildings leapt out of the mist. Their colors, the greens, the rusts and the yellows were so vibrant. It was all so mysterious and wonderful, as if magically, here in the mountains of the Philippines, a quaint little English village appeared (or rather, what I thought an English village might look like).
The taxi stopped, we got out, my father took my little suitcase out of the trunk, set it on the ground, shook my hand and said
"see you later" .

Then he climbed back into the cab and drove off. I remember the feeling of panic as I watched it disappear around the corner of the building. I was terrified.

Dad had dropped me off in front of the school bookstore, so I went inside and asked the clerk, Manong Jeremy, what I was supposed to do. He directed me to the office, where the receptionist found someone to take me to my dormitory. It was on the lower floor beneath the school infirmary. There I met my dorm "mother", Mrs Norma Swanson who showed me to my room. I was the first to arrive.
My room held six or seven metal army style cots. The beds were arranged in rows in front of the windows along two walls, on the other two walls were little built-in cubicles for each student, consisting of a clothes closet on one side and a desk on the other.
There was a bathroom painted a minty green, with two shower stalls, two toilets and two sinks. I picked a bed in the far corner next to a window that looked out over a pine forested valley. Mrs Swanson noticed right away that I only had one very small suitcase. "Don't you have any bedding?" She then asked where my parents were and I told her my father had already left. Even though my parents had been sent a list of required and suggested items for me to bring to school, Dad had gone down the list and decided what I would really need.

"Why would he need that?"

Growing up on a farm during the Great Depression, wearing the hand-me-downs of his older brother, enduring the taunts of the better dressed kids in town, Dad had a real problem with us having it any better than he did growing up. The expenditure of any funds, no matter how meager, went against everything he believed in. He detested private schools in general and boarding schools in particular. He felt they were elitist, only for the rich and affluent and Brent's required items list only confirmed his suspicions. I didn't know all this then, I just desperately wanted to not get in trouble on my first day of school.
First, Mrs Swanson sent me over to the school linen room, which fortunately was in the same building. I signed out wash cloths, towels, sheets, blankets, pillows and pillow cases from Mrs. Tabafunda. Then she had me make my bed and arrange my belongings in the locker next to my desk. She looked at the bare shelves and said "you are going to need a lot of stuff".
Besides the bedding, I did not have the required dark slacks and white shirts and ties. I did not have a jacket or a coat. I did not have a two weeks worth of a change in clothing, I did not have any toiletries. Craig Swanson, our dorm father, walked me up to the school store to buy soap, shampoo and toothpaste. I had to sign a chit for it because Dad didn't give me any money.
After that he walked me down to the gym to register. Parents were there with their kids helping them through the process. I went to the "W" table and filled out the paperwork. My classes had already been predetermined for me and I had a full schedule. Math, science, history, English, Spanish, P.E., music and art. I was given a school handbook and list of rules for boarding students.
We filed on through, there were sign up sheets for different clubs and sports. At the end of the line stood an imposing man and a row of stools with some dejected looking kids sitting on them. For those male students whose hair did not meet school requirements, "free haircuts" were being handed out. Hair could not touch the collar, be in your eyes or hang over the ear. Mr Craig, the assistant head master and former Marine, would eyeball each boy has they filed past him. Those that did not pass the muster would be then directed to a stool where Mrs Brewster would put a towel around their necks and start cutting. My hair was still fairly short from my last buzz cut, so he didn't even give me a second glance.

After registration I took my class schedule back up to Ogilby Hall and the bookstore and handed my list to Manong Jeremy. He and his assistant Franklin went down the list and collected the things I would need for the semester. Besides the school books I got gym shorts, t-shirts, notebooks, BIC pens and Mongol #2 pencils, 2 padlocks for my lockers and my assigned locker number. I also got a desk lamp for my cubicle. Then I carried my supplies and found my locker which was conveniently located next to the boys restroom. I kept the same locker for the next 5 years. I still have the combination lock to this day.
At lunch time my dorm parents showed me the way to the dining room. I was one of the few kids there. It was a big room with windows at the back looking out across to the library, tennis courts and elementary buildings to the west. Waiters in dark slacks and white shirts brought food out to the tables which was served family style. First we said the school mealtime prayer:
Bless us O Lord, this food to our use and us to Thy service. Make us ever mindful of the needs of others, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Our waiter was named Domingo and I liked him very much. He had no problem sneaking extra food off another table when the other waiters weren't looking to make sure I got enough to eat. He would bring a platter or bowl of food out to the table, make the sign of the cross over it and say
"Dominus vobiscum".

After lunch I went back to the dorm and spent the rest of the day in my room reading and waiting. Late that afternoon the other kids in my room began arriving with their parents, most with 2 or 3 suitcases, or with big trunks. They were loud and boisterous, lots of hugs, laughing and talking. I quietly sat on my bed, trying to be invisible and pretending not to notice. I met my roommates: Jaime Case, Hata Dimaporo, Efren Herrera, Joey Butler and William Gibson.
He carried an umbrella with him and was wearing a navy blazer, a sweater vest, a yellow shirt and a red tie. With his umbrella in the crook of his arm he stuck out his hand and said “I am William Gibson the III”. We called him Billy. Jaime took the bed next to mine.

Most of the parents were in town for the weekend and
their kids wouldn't even be moving into the dorm until the day before school started. So, after they got their beds made and clothes put away, they took their kids out for dinner that night. I had mine in the dining room with my dorm parents and some other teachers.

After dinner that night I lay in bed wondering what was going to happen to me. I didn’t know it yet, but I would never feel the same way about home or my family again. I was free.


  1. Outstanding, Mark. Perfect.

  2. since i'm no writer, i won't grade it like a writing project....

    this was hard to read and made me weep. there are bad words in my head.

    God bless you.

  3. YIPPEE! Waldo's free from the clutches of the evil father!

  4. Mark, this seems like the first chapter of a great book. Keep it true, or throw in some imaginative adventures, work it up, and I think you'll have a best-seller. You have talent. I think you could be a published author. Have you "gone that route"?

  5. It really would be a great book. So many people have gone away to boarding schools everywhere and could easily identify with the story. I remember flying into Manila from Bankok and going through immigration (which would take a full day). Then flying up to Baguio City only to feel lost and alone after my parents left. Then you could expand telling others how you made friends. How you went to meals with a chaperone. The meals you liked and disliked. I remember the Friday fish. Make sure you stopped by Freddie's before it closed and get you something to eat, and then lent when you had fish Wednesday and Friday. Sundays were ususally the best meals.