This article I wrote for the Daily Telegraph about returning to Windlesham House School to teach was an edited version of a much longer piece. In journalism, as in life, less is usually more. Nevertheless, for those with a long enough attention-span, here is the full-length article…
The Day I went Back to the Future
By Michael Wright
AS MY CAR passes the front gate, I feel a familiar hollowness in the pit of my stomach. Windlesham House looms ahead of me, at once homely and stately: a chiselled fruit cake accented with royal icing. The first time this view did this to me, I was 9 years old. It was my first day at boarding school. I was all jelly inside.
And now I am coming back to the same school for a fortnight: to immerse myself in the experience of being a teacher, after 20-odd years as a journalist and writer, and 10 years as a soft and sociable townie trying to learn how to be a rugged peasant hermit in rural France – an adventure I chronicled in the long-running Telegraph column, C’est La Folie, and in the two bestselling memoirs it spawned.
Yes, I really am thinking about returning to Britain to teach. I want to make a contribution. I want to work in a team of fellow strivers, rather than measuring out the gaps between Nespressos with staring at a solitary screen. I want a rich and stimulating life. I don’t mind not earning very much. And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I would also love my daughters – currently at our local school in France – to be able to experience the kind of wonderful British schooling that I was privileged to enjoy. By my calculations, if I were to become a teacher, sell my aircraft, sell the sheep and send Digby, Pike and Cat out to work, we might almost be able to afford it. As long as we give up wine, and do not eat.
What’s amazing is the number of other people of my generation, hearing me say this over the past few weeks and months, who have responded not with disbelief, but with a kind of enthralled curiosity: “What a great idea. Do you think I might be able to do that, too?”
As I round the final bend in the drive, the three storeys of the vast red-brick building expand to fill the windscreen. And, in my heart, the familiar grasshoppers are beginning to flit and dance.
Back in 1975, my new headmistress took me up to a little iron bunk in a sky blue dormitory, which I was to share with 8 other boys. The dormitory, I mean. Boarding school can be hard, but not 8-to-a-bunk hard. One of the boys was weeping. Someone said he was homesick, an illness I had never heard of before.
Was I homesick, too, I wondered, as I clambered into my cold bunk? I felt as numb as Shackleton. And then Matron handed me a letter from my mother: 4 pages of purest TLC in royal blue Quink, folded into an air-mail envelope postmarked Bogota. Even now, as I recall the relief this brought, I can feel my eyes beginning to mist up.
38 years later, Andy Nuttall, one of the staff on duty, takes me on a tour of the boys’ dorms. I am stunned to see all the posters and family photographs on walls that once were stark; the fitted carpets where once there were splintered floorboards; the double-glazing in place of howling icy draughts.
“I just love it here,” says Miss Nikki, a matron who has been at Windlesham for 9 years. “Mind you, I did go home in tears on my first night, because there was this one little boy who was just 7. I looked at him, and I think seeing him here made me imagine being separated from my own little ones. After that, I just couldn’t stop crying.” Because he looked so miserable? “No. maybe that’s what made it so hard for me.” She smiles. “He was having the most wonderful time.”
Andy Nuttall is carrying a trug-basket full of cordless phones, as if he had just picked a dozen aubergines from his vegetable patch. Every so often, one of the aubergines rings, and we go marching from dorm to dorm, looking for the boy whose mother has phoned to say goodnight. My jaw drops. This is a step up from praying for an air-mail letter once a week. One boy, laughing, confused, has a phone held to each ear. “Mum, wait,” he giggles. “I’ve got Dad on the other line.”
So much has changed at my old school; so much is still the same. Gone are the days when all the entrances to the school were flung wide open, and anyone could wander in. Now there’s a coded lock on every door. The large dining hall I remember has shrunk; even the plastic plates in primary colours seem Beatrix-Potter small. Meanwhile the chapel organ has grown, the teachers seem more like real people and the lively computer room is now at the heart of the school. Oh, and nobody has their own socks these days, because these are now communally owned, and shared. Genius.
And all the while, the ghosts are everywhere. I see them in the gold letters on the honours board; smell them in the floor polish; hear them in the familiar creak of the ancient stairs.
Down in the stone corridor where the children are queueing for lunch, a beaming matron is checking their hands to see that they are clean. Without thinking, I hold out my hands for inspection, too, and we both laugh. But the remembered reflex is so unconscious, I’m not sure I even meant it as a joke.
In the tiny phone cubicle just behind her, I had my only ever bout of homesickness, 38 years ago. I remember I wanted desperately to phone my parents in Bogota. But the 2p we were allotted for our calls was only enough for me to shout “Mummy” and to hear a crackling, anxious voice say “Hello?” before the pips cut us apart. Matron found me in tears on the floor of the cubicle. She suggested I phone my Grandpa in Weybridge instead; told me I could reverse the charges. Grandpa was livid. “Have you any idea how much this is costing me?” he fumed. I didn’t use the phone a lot after that.
“It feels so strange, coming into a school, doesn’t it?” says Clara the photographer from the Telegraph, as she drags her camera equipment into Windlesham’s front hall. This is the place where we used to say good bye to our parents; the place where we held back the tears. “You just feel you have to be on your best behaviour, don’t you?”
I know what she means. In the staff room a day later, whilst doing some online research for an English lesson, I have just clicked on The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath when I hear the headmaster, Richard Foster, in the corridor outside. I sit up straight; stare at my screen with scholarly intent. How splendid that the headmaster will catch me researching the work of a tragic feminist poet, and not some frothier pulp.
Behind me, the HM arrives just in time to see the page which flashes onto the screen. Aghast, I stare at the image: a full-screen shot of a voluptuous, bleached-blonde woman reclining on a beach in a well-filled bikini, gazing into the camera with come-hither eyes.
“Finding everything you need?” he asks, with a smile in his voice.
“Sylvia Plath,” I blurt, as if this were an answer to his question. And then, attempting hurriedly to close the image of Plath, I click in the wrong place, zooming the picture onto her breasts. “It’s Sylvia Plath,” I repeat, in a high voice. But the headmaster has already gone.
Visiting a school where you were once a pupil can be a vertiginous experience. I remember the first time I went back to Sherborne, a few years after I had left. I felt quite shattered at how completely I no longer belonged to this place which had once been my whole world. Because your old school is not just an old school, is it? No, it is also the husk of your youth; the chrysalis of your future; the place where you were when you still had it in you to become that shining person you always dreamed you might become, before life got in the way.
I always assumed I was going to be a teacher one day. Even as a child, I would sit in lessons thinking: I’d like to do that job. And then, at university, I had an unfortunate epiphany. As I glanced at a book review in The Independent, my eyes widened at the name printed at the bottom. It was by a bloke with a brain the size of a planet, who’d been at my school a couple of years above me. And here he was, already in the bloody newspaper. In that moment, everything changed. I rerouted my hypothetical future, haunted by the crass mantra of the simpleton: those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. Never mind that I had myself been educated by many very brilliant and inspiring teachers; I still swallowed this one whole. Journalism had me firmly by the ego. Teaching would have to wait.
A quarter of a century later, I am standing in front of a class of 12-year-olds, discussing poetry, the importance of first lines, and how to write a story that is truly spooky. The head of English is unwell, so – in at the deep end – I am standing in for her. Teaching English, I discover, demands tremendous concentration and imagination, as I struggle to see the world as the children see it, and to help them create pictures of it in their own words. I think it helps that I’m a bit of a novelty, and the fact that I’ve written a few books appears to lend me a spurious authority, at least in English. The children don’t need to know that the books in question largely recount my above-average incompetence in a number of fields, some of them full of sheep. “Don’t tell them too much about yourself,” the deputy headmaster advises me, after sitting through one of my English lessons. What, you mean all that stuff about the conversational shortcomings of French chickens wasn’t relevant to Kubla Khan?
If teaching feels natural to me, it’s when it comes to the new technology that I find myself all at sea. Whiteboards and overhead projectors were new-fangled at the end of the 1970s. Today’s equivalent, the Smartboard, looks just like a whiteboard, except that its surface feels like muslin, and you can either write or project things on to it via a PC. Quite suddenly, during a French lesson in which I’ve been explaining the difference between adieu (see you in heaven) and au revoir (see you again), Monsieur Westcombe fires up the demon contraption.
“Right, let’s get Mr Wright to show us how it’s done, shall we?”
I recognise this as my opportunity to stamp my authority on the class; to demonstrate my dizzying mastery of French. Dizzying? Oui. Authority? Non. I blink in amazement as blurry projections start spinning and whizzing around the Smartboard. Ooh, matron.
“They’re all things you might buy from la pharmacie,” Monsieur Westcombe tells me. “You have to try and touch one.”
I feel more than usually foolish as I attempt to play this game of torch-beam Splat-the-Rat. I can hear the children shouting “Shampoo! Shampoo!” but everything on the board looks like chicken to me.
“Not that one!” yell the children. “The other one!”
Much to their delight, I get every single one wrong. Poor Monsieur Westcombe looks quite tight-lipped on my behalf. Too late, I twig that the names of the things I was supposed to be touching were projected on the side of the screen. I try to explain, but nobody is listening.
“Could do better,” says Monsieur Westcombe, gravely. The children are thrilled. I hang my head in shame.
Computer games can, I know, be an über-bugbear for parents with sons who spend hours closeted alone in a darkened room, killing things on a glowing screen. So I am struck by how well these are handled at Windlesham, where the computer room is a cheerful place with natural light and vibrant childrens’ paintings covering every wall. Instead of a blanket ban, the children are allowed to play certain games – the historical strategy game, Age of Empires, for example – with and against each other in here, in doses of up to an hour.
It’s a hushed but sociable scene; the boys and girls chat out loud as they click away with their keyboards and mice.
“I have plenty of gold, Henry, but my population numbers are unacceptable.”
“Don’t worry; I’m going to build a Spanish Armada.”
“Where are my trebuchets?”
“Oh, no! Henry, look what their army did to me.”
While some children create empires in teams, others log on to BBC iPlayer to watch Auntie-censored TV. Wearing headphones, one boy is watching Liverpool vs. Arsenal; elsewhere, Jeremy Clarkson is eating a shoe on Top Gear, and a man with a shaven head is crying on The Voice. Two boys are using computers to help learn their French vocab; another is creating a Powerpoint presentation of his favourite classic cars, including a Salvesen Steam Cart of 1896. “I’m not doing this for a lesson,” Olly tells me, firmly. “It’s for me.”
I am struck, time and again, by the spirited individuality of the children at Windlesham. At breakfast, two girls sitting opposite me are discussing the next moves they are planning to make in Minecraft, another popular computer game. I ask when they will be allowed to play: in their free time, or as part of an organised activity?
“Oh, no,” says one. “We can’t play it for real, because the school doesn’t have this game.”
“So we do the strategies in our heads,” says her friend. “Ours is an imaginary game.”
Later, on my tour of the dormitories with Andy Nuttall, a boy called Charlie Line insists on showing me a couple of his magic tricks, and – after properly flummoxing me – asks how much I’d like to bet against the next card he turns up being mine. Certain of victory (schoolboy error no. 1), I offer to put up a pound (schoolboy error no. 2). “All right,” he says, “and if I lose, I’ll sit down and do every single Common Entrance maths paper from 2009 to 2013.” This bet might not work in every casino, but I like it. Charlie’s reaction to the discovery that I don’t actually have a quid on me is equally inventive. “Don’t worry,” he says, unfazed. “You can just put my name in the paper, instead.”
If the children are strikingly positive in their outlook, then so, too, are the staff at Windlesham. I get the distinct impression that they know how lucky they are. “I started in a tough state school in Croydon,where the children were telling me to F- off every day,” says Beccy Bazlinton, who has taught at Windlesham for the last 4 years. “Even getting some of them just to open a book felt like I had crossed an ocean. But, funnily enough, the job satisfaction was immense.” She thinks about this for a while, as she attempts to put into words what makes Windlesham so special. “I’ve taught in lots of lovely schools, both state and independent, and I’ve had some wonderful times. But this is unique. The children are genuinely happy. And the staff, too. No one is an island. We’re all in it together.”
Such an atmosphere counts for a lot if, like me, you happen to care very much about being around people who relish life, rather than resenting it. As Monsieur Zumbach, the wonderful Polish-French man who sold me my house in France once told me: we human beings need good soil in which to grow. And Windlesham, under the firm-but-gentle stewardship of Richard and Rachel Foster, strikes me as excellent soil. “The buildings have changed over the years, but the ethos hasn’t,” says Richard Martin, a former teacher who has been at the school since roughly the 14th century. “It’s still a family place.”
This is certainly my recollection from my childhood; from the most precious four years of my life. “Most of the children who are day pupils want to board,” says Veronika from Russia, who is sitting doing crochet on a leather sofa outside the chapel, crocheting a rug. Why? “Because it’s more fun,” says Rhiannon, who lives in South Africa and is doing her crochet, too. She smiles. “It’s like having a big sleep-over with your friends every night.”
I am conscious that all independent schools which charge hefty fees risk, on some level, becoming bastions of privilege. But here at Windlesham I detect none of that brash arrogance and chest-out entitlement which often characterises the ivory-tower-dweller, heedless of the peasants toiling below. Instead, the children make a point of greeting me in the corridors. They even compete to hold open the door.
My heart does melt, just a little, for those boys who remind me of the child I once was: chubby, bespectacled and eccentric, with little hope of being noticed by the prettiest girl in my class, when there were plenty of taller, sportier boys for her to choose between. I get a glimpse, through them, of the prototype Michael I was back then; so ardent, so innocent, so misguidedly hoping that doing well in my Latin test might make Clara Delaville notice me, just once. One of the absolute highlights of my Windlesham career was being assigned, with her, to ring all the bells between lessons for a whole term. So Clara was obliged to talk to me, like it or not. These days, the bells are automated. They even ring, they say, throughout the holidays. So though a little romance may have been lost along the way, even the empty ghost school runs to time.
When the ghosts depart, one of the remarkable things about life in a thriving independent school is the eclectic opportunities it offers. So besides teaching English and French during my fortnight at Windlesham, I also have a chance to play the magnificent organ for chapel, coach a bunch of wayward hockey-players, watch a lady science teacher blowing the lid off a tin of Golden Syrup with a bunsen burner, show four trumpeters how to improvise on the blues scale; attend talks on animal welfare, sustainable development and the Crusades, lend a hand with the poetry performances, chatter away in French with the language staff, join in with the drama games led by a RADA graduate, feel inspired by the creations in the art room and eat a lot of Custard Creams. Come the end of each day, all I can do is collapse into an arm-chair and stare at the ceiling for a long while, my brain humming like a toaster.
As I drive away from the school, my head is a jumble of thoughts and possibilities. For this exhausting, exhilarating fortnight may well have changed my life. I am surprised to recognise, too, another of those half-remembered sensations from my childhood: a strange heaviness in my chest. I had almost forgotten how sad I always was to leave this magical place. And then, somewhere on the A24, the heaviness lifts. For I assure myself that this was not, after all, adieu. No, this was simply au revoir.