At about this time last year, I went to the fifth year reunion event of Downe House School, where I spent two years of my Sixth Form. Everyone’s appearance didn’t seem to change much, but the girls all had a feeling of developing their unique beauty. Many people have asked me what the experience in a girls’ boarding school is like in the UK. My answer is not complicated: it makes you more “beautiful”.
In 2014, having passed a series of entrance exams and interviews, I transferred from my old school in Manchester to Downe House. I finally could wear my smart suits and skirts as I wished as a Sixth Former. In addition to that, the school required a specific uniform for Sixth Form girls – a maxi, foot-length black skirt. Looking back from now, it seemed that every time I put it on and walked in the boundless school that occupied the entire mountain in the Berkshire village, I felt a kind of unique sense of manner added to myself.
These internal and external concerns gradually became part of ourselves, making our self-evaluation and peer-learning a process of self-cultivation.
Teachers and housemistresses placed great emphasis on our appearance and beauty both on the inside and outside. When we regularly held house meetings or school assemblies, they always discussed with us about our outlook, manner, even the colour of nail polish, from these external details, to the inner qualities, including our sense of pressure, happiness, what kind of woman you would want to be, what a lovely and successful woman would look like. These internal and external concerns gradually became part of ourselves, making our self-evaluation and peer-learning a process of self-cultivation.
In weekly assemblies, guest speakers or alumni were invited to share with us what a shining, determined, independent and capable woman would bring to herself as well as contribute to the world. After lunch or dinner, we always had some time in our housemistress’ office, which was like a warm and homely living room. For me, sometimes she asked about my feelings of being in this country alone; and I remembered that there was one time we talked about different food cultures and the super massive private dining spaces in the grand restaurants in China. Teachers and staff members cooked with us, chatted with us; we made cakes and cards for birthday girls…
Our headmistress was an elegant, intellectual and beautiful woman, who had no sense of distance from us. She always stood by the entrance of the assembly hall or the chapel before every meeting and mass, greeting each single student. One thing that was particularly touching was that she put hand-written cards on every girl’s bed at the beginning of a new term. A girl’s affinity, love, and her kindness to the world are the beauty that was enhanced by Downe.
The academic experience was extremely valuable as well. I chose English literature, maths and photography. The only compulsory course was unique to our school, it was called Global Perspective. I really enjoyed it. Starting from various themes and topics about global culture, politics and history, the design of the entire course revolved around writing, critical thinking, logic, speech and other aspects.
There were no more than ten people in each class, and the teachers offered personalised support to each individual student. English literature was my favorite, from Shakespeare, Gothic literature, modern poetry, to Irish drama, in addition to professional literary skills, criticism and knowledge, the key thing was that everyone had their own research topic and project, about 4000-5000 words. It really provided a very solid foundation for university-level education. Photography was not just about taking pictures as one might imagine. We were assessed based on our portfolios, including our own work, artwork analysis, artists studies and a comprehensive interpretation of our work. Each term we wrote about 20,000 words. We were always kidding that we were the real English Literature people. Art courses also included Design and Technology, Textiles, etc. From coursework to assessment, it was quite tricky actually. Apart from practical approaches, it was more important to build the ability to judge and research about art aesthetics.
Each course is selected according to what we decided to do in higher education. The deepest feeling I have got is that in each type of learning, in addition to knowledge and skills required, something more important is the method of learning and the shaping of our mode of thinking. The whole experience provided me with a much better understanding of learning – when you are passionate about your passion and are willing to study, your brain will become “beautiful”.