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Part 4

by Betty Dahl

Kodaikanal School: Elementary Years

Kodaikanal School was started by missionaries who wanted their children to receive an American education so that they would be prepared to go to college upon their return to the United States. In the central hills of India, Breeks School, located in Ooticamund, served students who wanted an education to prepare them for life in Great Britain or its territories. Their school year matched the British system, whereas ours matched the U.S. schedule. Woodstock School, located in the Himalayas, was a third school that served American and British students.

Kodai School
Sketch by Phyllis

The school was coeducational and remains that way today. When I attended, students were mainly from American missionary families or families placed in India or surrounding areas by corporations, such as rubber and oil companies. Now it is an international school with students of thirty nationalities. The fact that students came from different religions, locations, and socioeconomic backgrounds lent a great deal of diversity to the programs and made us much more accepting of different points of view. In my class of sixteen students, there were no two persons from the same religious affiliation. We had two types of Lutherans, a Methodist, a Mennonite, an agnostic, a Congregationalist, a Baptist, and children from other denominations.

Phyllis, Grace, Paul and Betty in front of the gym

Kodaikanal was and is one of the earth's most beautiful resort areas. Located some 7000 feet up in the Palni range of mountains, it overlooks valleys, tea and banana plantations, rainforests inhabited by monkeys, lions and tigers and a variety of birds, rocky cliffs and the plains. The plains are best seen from Coakers Walk. On moonless nights one can see the lights of the villages many miles away. Much of the year the days are sunny in the 70's and nights are cool enough to need two blankets to be comfortable without heaters.

Not far from the boarding school, in almost any direction one could find rainforests, streams of cool water with pollywogs, and frogs at various stages of development, and a great variety of mushrooms. (We were warned about the deathly consequences of eating certain kinds of mushrooms, so I was not an avid mushroom seeker.) Flowers bloomed everywhere because the combination of rain and cooler temperature made possible a variety of vegetation. Eucalyptus trees were abundant, and ferns and moss carpeted the shady spots. Flowers were easily grown in the soil. I recall several varieties of lilies, lantanas, and morning glories. Jacaranda trees with bright purple flowers, rhododendron bushes in many brilliant colors, magnolia trees with their white fragrant flowers, cherry trees with pink blossoms and white blossoms of pear trees all contributed to a uniquely beautiful hillside.

Kodai Village was built on a slope and had one main street lined with fruit stands (mangoes, coconuts and custard apples were my favorite) and produce markets, tea stalls, curio shops, and snack stands selling samosas, jelibis, puri, bhaji and a variety of Indian foods. Houses were built on the steep hills on either side of this main street. There was also a curio shop near the school with curios and rugs that were of good quality. This was a favorite shop of Mama's. She could not resist shopping there.

A beautiful lake was located down the hill below the boys' dormitory. It was about three miles around the lake. There were boating docks where punts with paddles, rowboats with oars, and canoes were readily available to cross from one end to another. One could also pay a boatman to ferry people across the lake in any direction. It was a great attraction to high school students--a natural romantic setting by day or night. Boatmen would paddle and keep their eyes straight ahead so the couple felt quite private.

The lake was formed in the valley when a dam was built where three streams merged. Sir Vere Livenge, a British tax collector, is credited with this feat. A tarred road wound around the lake and Kodai boasted a Boat Club and a public ferry. Boats could be rented by the hour or bargained for depending on the time of day and the number of tourists in the area. The road over the dam came to be known as the Bund. On the east side of the lake was Bryant's Park, named after the forest officer who planned it. The pines and eucalyptus trees were particularly beautiful here. One eucalyptus tree is thought to date back to 1846; it stands some 250 feet high and 10 feet wide.

Giving an air of elegance to the area were two churches built in Gothic style: the Lutheran Church and the Christ the King Church. Both had stained glass windows and were built of stone. Another beautiful church. St. Peters Church, was built on Coakers Walk. We attended their Easter services Buildings were given names, as were compounds, names like Loch End, Whispering Pines, and Furzbank.

It was hard to say goodbye to Mama because I would not see her until June or July for a visit and then not until November when we went home for our vacation. (The school year began in January and ended in the early part of November.) Ten months we would spend away from home. Mama cried at the thought of leaving us children, especially one as young as I was. I too cried inconsolably the first night. The matron called me into her apartment to try to comfort me. In fact, she put me in her own bed for a short time while she calmly talked to me of the good times ahead. By the weekend, I had adjusted to the point that I had to be coerced to write home. (Perhaps this was my way of punishing my parents for leaving me, a typical reaction to separation.) In time, the dormitory was home and our parents' home was thought of as a vacation home.


The girls' dormitory was divided into upper and lower Boyer Hall. Phyllis and Grace were downstairs with the older girls, while I was upstairs. Paul, of course, was in Kennedy, the dorm for younger boys. My cousin Irene was one of my roommates. Irene was a year older and thus already had one year of experience living in the dormitory.

Boyer Hall

Heather, a girl from Switzerland, claimed one bed near the window seats that lined the bay of windows. As long as I knew Heather, she carried a sketchbook with her to draw. She drew pictures, figures, imaginary creatures, scenes or whatever caught her fancy at the moment. She was a good artist. Heather had a thick head of golden red hair that matched her face full of freckles. She combed it herself into two thick braids, a skill I lacked. I wanted to nickname her Freckles, but everyone called her by her unique last name: Balfour-Clark. She had a hyphenated last name because her parents were divorced and each parent wanted Heather to carry the family name. She would visit each parent, one of whom lived in Switzerland. Moreover, her care packages were far more numerous and the foods more elegant. We attributed this to guilt about separating and leaving Heather in boarding school. We often sat with Heather, trying to dream up a scenario that would bring the parents back together. None worked. Having divorced parents nowadays is common, but in those days it was rare. The state of her parents' marriage was a cause of much distress and many tears. All the girls felt sorry for her, but envied her numerous trips to Switzerland.

Irene, my cousin, had shorter hair and was slighter in build. She convinced me that braids were a chore and short hair was in fashion. So I gave her a pair of scissors to accomplish this makeover. Irene cut the braids short while my hair was braided. When the hair was combed out, it presented a very irregular look that all agreed was totally unacceptable. I persuaded my older sisters to help undo this unsightly mess. In any case, Irene knew the ropes, and the other three were grateful for her insights. This knowledge made her the acknowledged leader.

Jeanne, another roommate, was very tall, heads over her friends and classmates though not nearly as tall as her brothers. She also had a reddish hue to her hair and was far more fiery than Heather. Jeanne made friends laugh and often changed a disastrous situation into a memorable one by her wit. I thought I had a hard time finding clothes that fit because I had long feet and was heavier than typical Indian children, but I realized that Jeanne would indeed have an even harder time getting clothes to fit. Fortunately Jeanne had an aunt in the U.S. who sent clothes regularly. I dreamed of having such an aunt, but did not find one. Mama would ask the local shoemaker to custom-make shoes for me, but they were often ill-fitting and not stylish by any measure. It was a dilemma to which there seemed no good solution. I understood why someone might try the Chinese custom of binding one's feet. I recall being teased about my long feet but memorized the lines "I am a poet and you don't know it, but my long feet show it; they're Longfellows." Another line I used was "God gave me good understanding." Now one can find sizes 9,10 or 11 shoes for women quite easily.

The Zoo

The room assigned to us was the end room with a circular array of windows that overlooked the playing field (called Benderloch, or Bendy for short), Kodai Lake, and a forest of eucalyptus trees. Under the windows were window boxes that allowed the girls to sit and look out of the windows. The window boxes, we found out, were too damp to keep books, clothes or anything of value. It soon became a storage place for insects, treasures from hikes like special rocks, dead butterflies, rolly poochies, crumbly poochies and moss, chameleons, eucalyptus leaves and nuts (called eucy nuts), cocoons, caterpillars, and many other "treasures." We called it our "zoo." We gave names to the inhabitants; my lizard was called "Queenie."

A favorite of the children were the rolly poochies. They received this nickname because they rolled into a hard black ball when touched. They would stay in this circular position for hours. Moreover, they were abundant and inhabited the moss so common at these higher elevations. Chameleons were prized for two reasons: 1) they changed color to fade into the background and 2) if stroked, they would stay in the same position for hours so one could wear them as a sort of pin on a blouse or sweater. They were also called "cute" by many of the girls.

On one occasion the matron discovered our "zoo" due to the odors that emanated from the window box. She ordered the whole window box to be emptied and cleaned. We protested, but to no avail. So we emptied and cleaned all the window boxes amid grumbling and moaning. When we had passed inspection, we carefully lifted our bed covers and transferred our zoo back to the window boxes while one stood guard in case we heard Erkie stirring. Success! I recall discussing what we would do if found out, but then again we were not too scared of spankings. It was definitely worth the risk.

Each of us four girls was limited to one footlocker full of all the worldly goods she could bring to the dormitory. Choosing the shoes, clothes, toys, hobbies, books, grooming aids, as well as other things needed for a year, was not always easy as it meant some things got left behind. We strongly suspected that the oil company kids had more than one trunk, given the size of their wardrobes. (See Appendix for "Advised Personal Equipment List" given to parents of Kodai students.)

The beds were notorious for their sag in the middle, but this problem had some benefits. We could toss all our junk and dirty laundry in the middle of the bed, put the blanket or bedspread over it, pat it straight and pass bed inspection. Each girl stored her footlocker under her bed, and we agreed that we would keep private things in the footlockers, things we did not want to share or clothes that were not seasonal. Our trunks, with our names and "Kodaikanal School; South India" painted on them, were very important to us, and were a way of defining ourselves.

Phyllis and Grace were assigned to rooms downstairs (Lower Boyer). There was a sort of psychological distance that separated the upper and lower floors, as the older girls needed less supervision. In any case, it did not matter much because life got busy, and it was hard to get an older sister to come up to braid my hair. They soon figured out that by braiding my hair very tight and wetting it down, the chore could be done once or twice a week instead of daily. I was fine just as long as I passed the morning inspection. If I had a few stray hairs, I would put some spit on my finger and press down the errant strands.

The Matron

Being assigned to an upstairs room in Boyer Hall meant we would be under the care of Erkie, the matron or dorm mother. Her real name was Miss Erickson, but we all called her Erkie unless we were addressing her personally. I recall her as a well-meaning, matronly woman, who held responsibility for all girls living in the boarding school. With so many in her care, she had very rigid rules so life would not be so chaotic. As an adult, I understand more fully the awesome task that she faced and the reasons for her rules.

Because we were right next door to her, Erkie frequently called on me to ferry messages for her to various locations on campus. Often I was required to wait for a response, and Erkie would get upset if I was long in getting back to her. Once I waited a long time for the person to respond. I knocked again and found the woman had forgotten I was waiting for an answer. Erkie was mad that I took so long - oh, ever so mad. She thought I was dawdling, so I was punished with the usual spanking. That upset me since Erkie had not waited to hear my side of the story. It was the beginning of finding out that life is not always as fair as one would expect. I learned to tell the recipient of the message that Miss Erikson was awaiting a reply and I would wait for it.

The end room had another very major drawback. It was located right next to the matron's suite. This meant that any late night partying or giggling was sure to be heard or any bathroom visits at night would be difficult as one was sure to be heard making the long trek down the hall to the one bathroom on the creaky floor. So afraid of waking the matron and incurring her ire were we that we would wake a friend and station her by the door to wave if she heard the matron stirring. On the last night of the school year, the upper dorm girls agreed that all would wet their beds as a "gift" and message to a matron that she was too strict.

Being so close to our room, Erkie more often heard our giggling when we were supposed to be sleeping or resting. In any case, we got our share of disciplining. This was a time when corporal punishment was widely accepted. Erkie turned us over her knee and spanked with her hand. Those to be spanked formed a row outside the door and went in one by one. We soon found a method to defeat the intentions of the discipline. We entered with a contrite face, immediately said we were sorry and would not do the offensive behavior again, and cried out appropriately that it hurt us. But we hardly felt a thing because we wore as many woolen underwear (they were called drawers) as we could borrow (there were almost always a half dozen available because we all hated to wear the woolens) and put them on over each other, forming a good padding. Erkie never caught on, so it was our salvation and took a bit off the edge of the ignominy of being spanked. I doubt it taught us to behave, however, as we would laugh when we got to our rooms and reenact the scenario for the benefits of those who cared to listen. We even rehearsed our crying so it would seem reasonably contrite, yet not contrived.

Showering was done on the lower floor at a time assigned to younger girls. Whoever was last had to take a cold shower because the hot water would all be used up.


Discipline was imposed through a very strict schedule:

7:00 wake-up bell
7:30 inspection (beds neatly made, hands and fingernails clean and trimmed, hair
neatly combed, shoes polished, teeth brushed, room in order, laundry bag in place).
7:45 breakfast (mush)
8:15 school
12:00 lunch
1:00 school
4:00 tea and biscuits or Indian Junk (IJ)
6:00 dinner
7:00 study hall
8:00 story time and quiet hour for Upper Boyer
9:00 lights out for Upper Boyer
9:30 dorm meeting for older girls
10:00 lights out for Lower Boyer

Some enterprising girls were able to get up at 7:15 and make the deadline, but I faithfully got up with the bell. Penalties were assessed for infractions of these and other dorm rules. When one reached the maximum number of infractions, a penalty of polishing shoes was imposed. This meant that each Saturday morning any dorm resident could leave out any of their shoes that needed polishing. The violators gathered them up and polished shoes instead of being able to play down at Bendy or go on hikes. Girls would get even with each other by putting out extra pairs of shoes. Unfortunately I had more than my share of polishing to do.

Laundry had to have names sewn or printed on each item. Even so, there were frequent goofs. A separate pile for dry-cleaning (of a sort) was smaller as it cost so much more. Each of us had a laundry bag and cleaning bag with a name marked in permanent ink so the laundry would get back to its right owner. We put these bags out once a week and it was picked up by the dhobi. It was unheard of to use a towel or wear an item of clothing just once. Only after several uses did we toss them into the laundry bag. I was always amazed how neatly the items were returned, certainly much neater than I could ever fold them. Because the dhobi washed clothes by hitting the wet clothes against a smooth rock, buttons were often missing. The dhobi was responsible for replacing the buttons, but rarely did they match the original ones. I often suspected that he would exchange the fancier buttons for plain ones and then sell the good ones in the market.

(To be continued)