Picture the scene: I am 13 years old in a biology lab, dissecting an innocent amphibean whose life has been laid down for science. A serious hush has broken over this class famed for its chatterboxes. The frog is lying on its dorsal side, limbs pinned to the dissection pan. Vulnerable isn’t even in it. The dissecting scissors are icy in our hands. First the skin must be pierced and it isn’t very yielding. Bits of back bone are hard, the flesh is dark and menacing. We have rinsed our creatures and patted them dry with paper towels but the reek of the formaldehyde makes me nauseous.
Now, I don’t care anything for frogs – things that can’t talk don’t appeal to me yet – but before I even make the first incision, tears are rolling down my face and soon I am sobbing. What am I crying for? Life cut short? The odour of death? I am permitted to leave the room and I linger in the corridor, clutching my sides. After a while the biology teacher comes out to find me, head inclined, eyes brilliant with sympathy.
“Is it about a boy?” she asks.
I am so flattered I cannot speak.
Schools, to some people, are drab and dreary, scaffolded with tight rules and pointless strictures to keep the heads of the inmates down – or at least distracted – until that glad day when, with freakish glee, they can break free. To others, schools exist so that skills that lead to money-making can be inserted into the heads of the young. But for me, they are electric places, flashing with new-minted passions and matters of life and death, all underwritten by dreams and fears so dazzling that they should scarcely be examined with the naked eye.
A teacher talking out of turn can be a thing of beauty. A staff member who criticises a colleague may be crowned a hero instantly. The exquisite shock of a personal disclosure from a member of staff who cannot resist it may stay with you forever. I often think of the English teacher, outlandish and captivating, who spoke of going to bed with Othello. I often think of the one who said her husband was excessively cheery that morning and had doubtless embarked on a new romance, despite his firm promise to their marriage counsellor.
A scrap of praise from a teacher can bolster your heart substantially; a criticism can rub against you for the rest of your days. To take up a position in a school is to launch your character on the most porous audience in the world.
When you are small, it is almost unfathomable that teachers have a home life, and deep down you assume that they eat, breathe and sleep at the school. Inspiring teachers, characters with powerful personalities, soon have great swathes of mythology growing up around them. Histories are invented about their romantic entanglements based on nothing more compelling than a strong reaction to a line of Keats. From a frilled pillow in a guess-the-baby contest in the lunch room, enormous riches are inferred, complete with stately homes and silver-lidded chafing dishes. Something as small as a change of rings on the index finger can be enough to send the playground gossips into feverish overdrive. Oh, to be a fly on the wall in the hallowed cakey portals of the staffroom!
The natural progression from all this blue-stocking day-dreaming is a lifelong passion for books set in schools. As a small child, I almost chewed the bedclothes with anxiety when Milly Molly Mandy’s new teacher comes to stay in the little white cottage with the thatched roof, while the school house is being repaired. What would they do with her?! Later, I loved Antonia Forest’s books about the Marlow family at Kingscote School. On the train, in Autumn Term, when the twins are en route to join their elder sisters, they meet a fellow pupil called Thalia. “Failure”, they think – what sort of mother would call her child that? But it is a powerful moment, for their high-achieving elder sisters have already made such a good impression at school that we know it is a meeting with actual failure that they really fear. I knew that feeling. I read a book about the Royal Ballet’s boarding school White Lodge, with so much envy that I once threw the book across the room.
Pupils with pluck were always inspiring. Angela Brazil’s brave, independent high-spirited schoolgirls cheered me. I admired Tom Sawyer trying to get the day off school by wailing, “Oh Auntie, my sore toe’s mortified.” When Anne in Anne of Green Gables smashes a slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head on her first day at school because he calls her “carrots”, I was more than proud. (“If people are ever mean to you at school, give them a good old bash,” my Mum told me, eccentrically.)
As I grew older, the grinding teaching methods in Hard Times thrilled me. I always liked the aspects of school that were most Draconian and bizarre. The commands of “Silence!”, “Order!” and the “strange shreds of rusty meat” for dinner at Lowood school, where Jane Eyre is a pupil, were so austere that they were exotic.
Some of my teachers were spectacular and I couldn’t help noticing – but I tried not to show it. When, as a teenager, I read about intimate staffroom chatter in Elizabeth Taylor’s A Game of Hide and Seek, I blushed to my bones. Did discussions of this nature really take place?
“Everyone has to be in love with someone,” said Miss Beetlestone, the English mistress who was engaged to be married … “We do to be going on with when there isn’t anybody else. We needn’t think ourselves so clever. I am sure I remember that Sarah Bernhardt fell in love with a goat when she was young … ”
Miss Bell listened but she did not connect any of this with herself and certainly not with the only sensible pupil she had.
“Let us not use words like Love.”
A few years ago I sought out a teacher to whom I had been truly devoted and asked her if it had been, I don’t know, annoying for her. “No, Not really,” she said cucumber-cool.
The teachers I most admired, in life as in fiction, were seemingly immaculate whilst, on the sly, breaking almost every rule. Anyone can sail close to the wind but to do so with rigour and high standards is no mean undertaking. This is true professionalism, I thought, aged 14.
When I finally encountered The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I wished she had been in charge of me. The combination of Edinburgh stickler and highly unorthodox teaching methods was very inviting. Miss Brodie’s outlandish grandeur was as captivating as it was dangerous. “Whoever has opened the window has opened it too wide. Six inches is perfectly adequate. More is vulgar. One should have an innate sense of these things.” A good teacher is not so much an influence as a belief system.
Do people become teachers because they cannot bear to be in the wrong? At the merest hint of opposition, such wonderful things flew out of Miss Brodie. When it is suggested that she might be more at home in a progressive educational establishment, she says: “As soon as expect Julius Caesar to apply for a job in a crank school.”
I like my teachers, real and fictional alike, with a high-minded grandeur. I would be horrified if I ran into one in Argos. And they must have certainties! “Art is greater than science,” Miss Brodie tells her girls.
My favourite headmistress was almost six foot tall and wore long skirts to assembly and, occasionally, green tights. Not merely inspiring – she would, I hope, have baulked at the scandalous inflation of the word “inspirational” – I sometimes wondered if it wasn’t slightly painful for her not to converse in Greek, or at least Latin.
I have spent the past few years thinking about schools and school stories while writing my latest novel, The Small Hours, which is set in a nursery in a prosperous, highly-strung district of London where children are rich in everything but care. My teacher Harriet Mansfield is brilliant and damaged, determined to give her precious little pupils a wildly happy start that will set them up for life and somehow, in the process, set herself up too. She wants to create a little Eden for the children; in fact all her aims are sky-high. “She saw the fingers of four small hands galloping up the keys of a grand piano, in what would be the music room. She dreamed of the same duet receiving great ovations around the capital cities of the world.”
My school is too small for a staffroom, but after school the teachers sometimes chatter away in the downstairs lavatories, doing their hair and applying much make-up in preparation for the evening’s entertainments. ‘‘Did you hear Mia this morning? Hilarious! Saw her mum and dad kiss each other on the black-and-white tiles and said, “Look guys, I’d rather you got divorced than did that.”’
My heroine tries not to have favourites, seeing it as the most “hackneyed Brodie-ish way to proceed” but in the school stories that I love, the moment at which a child is taken to one side and told “you have that something extra” is perhaps the most sacred of all. When the school in question is of the ballet or stage variety, and is written by a certain Noel Streatfeild, the exchange in question shimmers with even more promise. (Aged seven, I once telephoned Miss Streatfeild to tell her how much I loved her writing and she thanked me crisply.) I read the passage in Ballet Shoes where Madame Fidelia singles out Posy Fossil in this way, over and over again, trying to absorb fully its vast importance. During one ballet lesson Madame is so delighted at the shape and flexibility of Posy’s feet that she summons the rest of the class to admire them. Soon, “She was the only child since the school had started that Madame had picked out from the baby class to come entirely under her supervision.” What luxury.
The school scene, real or imagined, that has had the most profound effect on my imagination is the passage at the end of Villette when Monsieur Paul gives the difficult, secretive, severe and passionate Lucy Snowe a school of her own, perhaps the best piece of present-giving in the whole of English literature. It conveys school not merely as a medium for progress, growing and education, a place in which multiple rites of passage will occur, but it shows school as something even more valuable to a fraught soul: a home. Taking her into a faubourg of small neat houses, at the end of a long walk, Monsieur Paul opens one and leads Lucy through its cosy rooms, finally opening a locked room for her:
“I found myself in a good-sized apartment, scrupulously clean, though bare, compared with those I had hitherto seen. The well-scoured boards were carpetless; it contained two rows of green benches and desks, with an alley down the centre, terminating in an estrade, a teacher’s chair and table; behind them a tableau. On the walls hung two maps; in the window flowered a few hardy plants; in short here was a miniature classe – complete, neat, pleasant … ‘Will you have the goodness to accept …?’”
I know I would.
Susie Boyt’s ‘The Small Hours’ is published by Virago this week
British photographer Julian Germain started photographing schools in northeast England in 2004. Since then, he has visited schools throughout South America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Over 450 of his photographs are published in Classroom Portraits (Prestel, £40), writes Orlando Bird.
“I’d been thinking about an education-themed project for a while,” says Germain. “The galvanising moment came when I first took my daughter to school, and thought, ‘Bloody hell! I haven’t been in one of these places since I left.’
“When you’re a child, it feels like you’re never going to leave school. But it’s a part of your life that doesn’t last long. It’s also one of the few times in life when you’re in a group with all kinds of people, and I wanted to recapture that experience by photographing a cross-section of schoolchildren – of all ages, in all lessons and in many different cultures.
“The traditional class photo struck me as a bit artificial – it usually happens in the gym or in the assembly hall, and the kids trudge in and arrange themselves in height order,” says Germain. “I wanted to capture a more normal scene. So I’d turn up at the beginning of a lesson and set up in the background. My aim was to make a detailed, faithful record – right down to what was on the blackboard.
“My daughters went to Allendale’s in Northumberland, a tiny school with only four classrooms. The picture was taken just after a spelling test. Rhodesway School is in Bradford. I like how varied the expressions are in that picture. You can see it’s a maths lesson – some of the children are really concentrating but for others it’s another language!”