I went to boarding school when I was sixteen.
It seems like an odd choice looking back. Closing yourself off from the real world just as you're about to gain some real freedom, opting for a really full, rigid timetable (including Saturday school) when I could have left school altogether if I wanted.
And it seems REALLY odd, perhaps hypocritical, given my passionately held left wing values**. But... back then I wanted to go. Desperately. I blame Enid Blyton.
You see it all began when I read Mallory Towers, I was probably 7 or 8 and I fell head over heels in love with the idea of it all. The names, the Englishness, the adventures, the monogrammed trunks full of tuck, the jolly hockey sticks enthusiasm of the girls. In the last year of Primary School, when decisions were being made about next steps, I asked if I could go. My parents considered my request but said no, I was too young, if I still wanted to go when I was 16 then I could.
After five years at high school my desire did not wane. If anything it increased because my sister went to a mixed (gasp!) school in Shropshire that took boarders. So in the summer of 1997 I took two exams, aced two interviews and secured an English scholarship.
That September, when we drove through the big iron gates and the beautiful red brick building came into view, I remember feeling like the life I had imagined for myself was finally becoming a reality. (I should point out that this 'life' was largely based on books I had read, many of which were set 50 - 200 years before I was born, with Jilly Cooper's Imogen * thrown in for a bit of 'modernity'. It seems quite remarkable that I even discovered feminism or socialism for that matter but somehow I did)
Boarding school was everything I hoped it would be and more. The beautiful building, the grounds, the 24 hour hanging out with friends, the falling in love, the weird and ancient traditions, the busy, rigorous lifestyle, the sport, the fun. Nothing disappointed. Not on thing. It remains one of the happiest periods of my life so far.
I settled in to my new life like a proverbial duck and made lots of lovely new friends, including Tim (who we also called Fish, although for the life of me I cannot remember why). Tim was cool because unlike most of us he wasn't trying. He liked the music he liked because he liked it. He was clever but didn't pretend he wasn't. He was ok with being into history and biology and studying hard. He was interested in loads of things - this might have been because he was a day boy so went home every night to enjoy life outside the perimeters of the school grounds. This meant the subject of our conversations extended beyond the usual who was going out with who and who had broken up and where we were going to go on our next weekend of freedom. That said, we spent a lot of time in tuck shop together, indulging a shared passion for sweets and messing about. I remember one summer afternoon we invented a game called 'sling the ling', which basically involved throwing a dustbin lid as far as you could across the terraces. This occupied us for several hours. We were seventeen.
Tim was kind and clever and very funny. I loved him all the more because we were never romantically attached and full disclosure, this makes Tim quite a unique figure in the male population of Ellesmere College class of '99.
When we left school we wrote to each other fairly regularly for a while, it's funny to think that email was only just a thing, I still have on of Tim's letters including a detailed drawing of a sweet shop he had visited and thought I might like. But then after a while we just sort of lost touch. I mean obviously we're friends on Facebook but I haven't actually seen Tim for well over a decade.
Back in April I found Tim on Instagram and sent a message. We had a little conversation. I just reviewed it and it's an extremely revealing conversation if you want to determine what stage of life we are at. I talked about where I might plant my peas and Tim was thrilled to have discovered the Instagram messaging feature.
Anyway. Several messages and many emojis later, Tim asked if I would be up for doing a commission for his parents joint 70th birthday celebration. Which of course I was. This is the finished illustration.
This is first time I've done a commission without experiencing a sort of constant sickly panic. Perhaps it’s because I’m more confident about my drawing now, or that Tim sent me loads of really great photos so I could get a real sense of who I was painting, or that I’ve been meditating a lot so can control the unhelpful self doubt better.
It doesn't matter. It's the very first time I’ve painted something exactly how I wanted to paint it and I’m really pleased with the outcome. I know Tim and his parents are too because he sent a photo of them posting for me exactly how I had painted them.
In that moment, when I saw how pleased they were with the drawing, I felt like the life was meant to lead was finally becoming a reality. It was a similar feeling to the one I had when I drove up to Ellesmere College that evening in 1997, except I'm not trying to be Darrell Rivers or Elizabeth Bennett or Imogen I'm just being me. Katie Watts. Illustrator. Liberal. Boarding School survivor.
Thanks for this opportunity Tim - to do the drawing and realise that I'm living my best life. I hope to see you in the flesh soon.
If someone you love has a birthday coming up, I would absolutely LOVE to make a painting for them. Email, text, Instagram me or order through the shop.
*This remains one of my favourite books and I will not hear a word against it
** Would I send my own children to boarding school? I couldn't afford to anyway but even if money was no object, I wouldn't. It doesn't give you an inclusive or realistic picture of the world and it left me with a tonne of social anxiety which I'm only just overcoming. But I LOVED it all the same. I wouldn't change a thing. I had so much fun and made lifelong friends.