Literally the Best Thing Ever: Boarding School Bad Girls

They were as bad as I wanted to be.

Illustration by Ana.

Illustration by Ana.

When I was in ninth grade, I got to fulfill a major fantasy of not just myself, but I would guess lots of girls who watch TV and/or read fiction: I was sent to an all-girls boarding school. We were living in Saudi Arabia, where the American schools didn’t offer coursework beyond the ninth grade, so a lot of families sent their teenagers to college-prep schools abroad. I could just picture the halls of ivy and the sprawling green, which I imagined would be the backdrop to a picturesque teen rebellion that I felt must be right around the corner for me.

Can you blame me? I grew up watching ’80s sitcoms like The Facts of Life, a show about four teenage girls living at Eastland, a fictional boarding school. While I probably had the most in common with Tootie Ramsey, the youngest of the girls and the only African-American among them, my favorite character was Jo Polniaczek, an edgy badass who showed up at school on a motorcycle, carjacked the school van to take her friends out partying, and became valedictorian of her class. She was never better than when her tough-guy bad girl locked horns with mean-girl bad girl Blair Warner:

Today I can trace my fascination with boarding-school bad girls back to Jo. It continued with Flirting, an Australian coming-of-age movie starring Thandie Newton and Nicole Kidman. Their characters, Thandiwe and Nicola, were the quintessential boarding-school bad girls (I hope you can tell that to me this kind of bad is good), skipping classes and sneaking boys into their dorms, and they became role models to me—especially Thandiwe, who breaks most of the rules to be with the adorably awkward lad she loves from the boy’s school across the pond. She’s smart, self-assured, funny, and confident. I wanted to be just like her.

Here, watch these two back-to-back scenes, and you’ll see why I was so obsessed with these girls (also watch for Naomi Watts as one of the “good girls”:

In reality I was more like the Naomi Watts character—kind of a goody-two-shoes. My fear of disappointing my parents or reinforcing school administrators’ stereotypes about people of color kept me in line. As I agonized over SAT prep and AP courses in pursuit of admission into my first-choice colleges, I sometimes envied schoolmates who were brave enough (and often privileged enough) to get away with partying with college dudes on the weekends, cutting their uniform skirts into microminis, smoking cloves in the woods, and maintaining full bars in their dorm-room closets. While I didn’t really have an interest in booze or college guys (yet), I yearned to let loose in my own way (if only I knew what that was!). And as excited as I was to enter the glamorous and debaucherous world of boarding school, I was also a bit scared. Boarding schools, I knew from television, housed some of the world’s richest, naughtiest, and snobbiest kids. I wondered if I would ever fit in as a minority and technically an international student. I tried my best to channel Thandiwe, who embraced rather than feared being an outsider, and who acted first and asked for forgiveness later when unfair obstacles got in the way of what really mattered.

When we were choosing where I would go, my parents focused on admissions statistics and the “spiritual values” of each school. I, however, was more concerned with finding a place that fit the boarding-school archetype in my head, the one that had been placed there by Tootie and Thandiwe and so many others. I had been such a well-behaved kid to that point; I wanted to find a place where I could finally let go and explore who I was when I wasn’t necessarily following all the rules imposed on me by my parents. Alas, my school visits were nothing like Sally Draper’s—I didn’t get drunk or high or invite boys over. The schools’ student ambassadors were on their best behavior, so I never saw so much as a cigarette during my visits. It was hard to discern which institution would give me the best opportunity to become acquainted with the more adventurous version of myself that I was sure was somewhere in me.

That changed when I finally picked a school and became a student. I chose a school that no one else I or my parents knew would be attending, the better to reinvent myself as a “bad girl.” It was an Episcopalian school in the mid-Atlantic that had been opened by bluestocking feminists in the 1800s known for its rigorous curriculum and friendly spirit. And I encountered my share of bad girls: girls who ignored our curfew, who would sneak out of the dorms at midnight to take horses out of the stables and go on night rides, who skinny-dipped in the pool during off-hours and stayed out to watch the sun come up. I longed to follow their lead, but it turns out that I just wasn’t a bad girl at heart. I think the “worst” thing I ever did was get my roommate to forge my name on the breakfast sign-up sheet each day so I could sleep in. (I still smile when I think about that.) I was too concerned about getting into a good college, too afraid to incur the wrath of the dreaded disciplinary committee, to do anything worse. One thing I did not foresee about boarding school was just how many rules there were. If I didn’t wake up on time, make my bed, empty my trash, attend formal meals, show up for mandatory sports practice, or dress like a clone in my preppy schoolgirl uniform, I could expect to lose privileges and miss out on my beloved outings to vintage stores or the movies on the weekend. But when I remember the stomach-churning anxiety I went through any time I broke even the tiniest of school rules, I regret not taking more risks back then, when the odds for youthful redemption were still in my favor.

Which isn’t to say that I was a shrinking violet. I found little ways here and there to express my independence and to stand up to authority, mostly by channeling my righteous angst into activism. I spoke up against injustice on campus and in the world in class and in the school paper and organized students around issues like racism and human rights. I don’t regret any of that.

You’ll be happy to learn that I loosened up a lot after college. I still wouldn’t call myself a “bad girl.” But I’m a lot better at speaking my mind, being confrontational, being spontaneous, and enjoying myself. I break a lot more rules than I did back then, because I understand the consequences better. And even though I will never match their outlaw glory, I know I owe it all to those brave and beautiful bad girls from boarding school. ♦


  • theapplescruff August 8th, 2013 12:34 AM

    Jo Polniaczek was the greatest!!! Most bad-ass boarding schooler ever!

  • rainingmay August 8th, 2013 1:31 AM

    It’s so cool that you were able to turn your rebelliousness into activism. Boarding school bad girls really are the coolest and I love their stylez.

  • photi August 8th, 2013 5:36 AM

    i love this! i have a problem where i think i can change my personality, but blame the absence of it on my circumstances. However, I’m certain that if my life were to drastically change, i’d still be the same person despite wanting to be different. I guess we all have the tendency to think we’re limited by external factors when it’s probably the other way around
    I found two tiny typos :P ‘I was also s a bit scared’ – the random s – and ‘and Australian coming-of-age movie’ i think it’s meant to be ‘an Australian’

  • Sophie ❤ August 8th, 2013 7:07 AM

    This is so cool! Boarding schools have their problems, but in general, they can be pretty awesome!

  • africa August 8th, 2013 7:26 AM

    i go to boarding school and it literally is literally the best thing ever

    send your future kids to boarding school everyone!

  • Anya N. August 8th, 2013 9:04 AM


  • starsinyourheart August 8th, 2013 10:36 AM

    This made me think of the song Boarding School – Lizzy Grant :):)

  • spudzine August 8th, 2013 12:26 PM

    OMG I also looked up to boarding school bad girls! I remember always thinking that the stereotypical bad girl was so cool…doing what they wanted to, dressing how they wanted to, and not caring what other people had to say about it. That’s the dream life, man.

  • amelia3 August 8th, 2013 1:32 PM

    Totally identify with wanting to be more of a “bad girl”. I think the appeal, as you mentioned, is really in the air of self-confidence and independence it brings. I love that you mentioned activism as a way of channeling your angst and desire to rebel– that’s badass in its own constructive way. :)

  • KatGirl August 8th, 2013 2:38 PM

    Well, I’ve never been to boarding school, but I’ve read a lot of those British boarding school books…. Does anyone else like Molesworth? XD That’s a boys’ school, though. There are a few girls in it..

  • NYRookie August 8th, 2013 11:01 PM

    One of my obsessions in my teen years was the debauched boarding school girl. When it comes to TV and movies, you can probably find me watching any type of media with this particular theme.

    Some tried and true series and movies include:

    1. St. Trinian’s – I absolutely love the modern day franchise of this ongoing series. The originals were made in the ’50s and ’60s. The newest ones came out in 2007 and 2009 respectively. While I’ve only seen the first one of the newer two, the girls of St. Trinian’s are the epitomes of the bad boarding school girls. The first one is available in the United States and I’m still on the lookout for the second one!

    2. Tanner Hall – This probably the most realistic of most boarding school movies and the characters definitely have questionable morals. Keep an eye on Victoria and Kate; they really spice things up. There is even a pre-Side Effects Rooney Mara This was still on Netflix last I knew.

    3. Wild Child – This movie is good as a kick off to a boarding school marathon session. *SPOILER* While the protagonist does go from bad to good, it’s still a good movie to kick back to.

    4. Summer Heights High – This TV series centers on an Australian public school and a few colorful main characters played by the talented Chris Lilley. The character to look for is Ja’mie King (Lilley in a serious wig and school uniform). She is bad yet still willing to go out of her way to prove to she can be an asset to her new friends at her school.

    Feel free to leave any other things I forgot about in my fatigued state!

  • Fiona Pelz August 10th, 2013 7:29 AM

    I went to boarding school for a year and a half, and oh my god did I want it to be like Wild Child! Like, I was an American who got sent to a British boarding school and she was my absolute role model. Like Jamia though, I was way too concerned with grades and stuff to really be like the boarding school bad girls I admired….

  • Carolina Ribeiro August 10th, 2013 12:55 PM

    I am a 14 year old brazilian girl. I feel like I have no freedom at all because of my parents and their religion.
    Next year I’m going to high school and my mom really wanted to send me to a boarding school, because she went to one when she was my age and she says those years were the best years of her life. I was really excited because I was going to an American boarding school, but there’s a problem, it is a religious school, and I don’t think I’ll fit in, because of the people there, and because of my issues with religion. My mom sad that in boarding schools there are all kinds of people, but my kind is the one that doesn’t even go lol. I’m willing to go because I’m dying to have a little bit more freedom and experience new things, but that’s a risk I’ll have to take.

    What do you guys think I should do?

  • Claire August 12th, 2013 9:58 AM

    Whores On the Hill, by Colleen Curran.

  • Lemons August 28th, 2013 6:38 PM

    boarding school pretty much IS the best thing ever. Obviously this will differ on a case by case basis, but there is so much fun to be had! oh the stories I could tell….
    did anyone ever read the enid blyton books about it? (st. clares and malory towers) Those were my only guide before I went. It was totally different in reality but I had so much fun reading them..