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Up In The Morning & Off To School

September 11, 2006

Sandown Lodge School, 1955

Friday. It’s 6.30 in the morning. The racehorses wake you. They walk them from the Roseberry Stables, round Worple Road & up onto the Downs. Your caravan’s parked against the high wall at the edge of the school grounds, & every morning they come along the lane high stepping & snorting, sometimes shuffling nervously, quietened by the grooms’ gentle voices.

You lie in the narrow bed. Another full night’s sleep. During the few weeks since the beginning of term when Rory & Isla moved you from the boys’ room to the old caravan, the insomnia has ebbed away, & with it the fear of the night’s long flood tide. Out here, once the light is off, the darkness is total. And within those first few nights while sleep still eluded you, you could hear the screech owls calling from the big beech tree in the Paddock. Once, in the small hours, one landed on the roof. The spread claws skidding as it landed woke you. It called twice – a haunting whistle on a falling note – & then took off. Your fear then was real. But it was a gut sensation, visceral. Not the spectral terror of being alone in a night that will never end. You fell asleep oddly comforted.

7.00. You scramble out of bed & pull on jeans, a shirt & a jumper & your wellingtons. Your breath clouds the air. You run across the dew-heavy grass to the side of the house, stopping by the kitchen door. An old ship’s bell hangs in the angle between two walls. It’s shaped like an inverted bowl & resting against its upper edge is a hinged clapper. You relish this moment of your appointed office, lifting the clapper slowly. A shiver passes through you & you slam the clapper against the bell, seven slow strokes. The sound, importunate, officious, thrills you even as its volume makes your eyes water.

You take the stairs in twos &, bursting into the boys’ room, you jerk the curtains wide & tug the bottom half of the sash window upwards.
– Wakey, wakey, rise & shine! you yell.
Somebody throws a slipper at you; it hits the upper windowpane. Down the corridor you can hear Rory & Isla’s lavatory flush. Outside on the landing one of the girls – Miranda, probably; she’s an early riser – yawns extravagantly & slams the bathroom door.

7.45. In the kitchen Maria stirs thick Scottish porridge in a huge aluminium saucepan. She steps back to peer through the doorway into the Scullery.
– Who’s here now gets to eat, she announces in her thick Bavarian accent. Who’s late gets it all cold.
Rory comes in, scratching his beard. He wears a shapeless cable-knit jumper & his Hunting Stewart kilt.
– Hulloo, wee-‘uns, he greets the kids. As he walks past Mikey’s tilted chair next to yours, he grabs it &, holding it firmly, tips it swiftly backwards to the floor. Mikey tumbles off it & seizes Rory’s legs.
– Are you on duty, Rory? he asks, pulling himself up.
– For my sins, yes, I am, Rory answers, entering the kitchen. Tea, Maria, black as tar & twice as thick!

9.35. Jimmy watches his English class racing towards the shed for saws, hammers & nails. Under his arm is King Solomon’s Mines, which he would have read them had they not called the lesson off. In fact, there were to be no lessons at all this Friday. Strictly speaking, a day’s lessons could only be cancelled by a majority vote in the School Meeting the week before. But during the holidays several lime trees on the Ashley Road side of the Paddock had had to be cut down & now that the branches had been sawn off & stripped, the plan was to build the biggest camp yet. In company with all other teachers with scheduled lessons, Jimmy accepts force majeur & lets them go to join the others, jostling & yelling. But he tells them in the few impatient seconds between announcement & release that he intends to bring them all up in the Meeting that afternoon because they are breaking a rule that has been declared by the entire community.

12.20. You can’t choose between labouring packhorse or Canadian logger as you seek out a role, hauling two long, ragged branches across the grass towards where the camp is to be sited. As you wrestle them into the loose heap & shake off the ropes you can smell the sweet, juicy fragrance of freshly sawn wood.

Already several shorn branches are seated upright in a long, deep trench & Jules is pounding them into the earth with a rubber-topped mallet while Robbie nails crosspieces in place to bind them together. Supporting the branches gingerly are Mikey & Miranda. Jules is teaching them a song in his almost impenetrable Ayrshire accent. With the precision of a chain gang chorus leader, he bawls the strange lyrics on the downward stroke of the mallet:
Wha’ saw the tatty howkers? Wha’ saw the eenawar? Wha’ saw the tatty howkers, workin’ in the Broomilaw?
You lean against the trunk of the big beech around which the camp is being erected. Jules pauses, downing the mallet & leaning on the upturned handle.
– Now, he says, catching his breath. The next bit’s the best bit so listen, right? Some o’ them had bums like beetroots, some o’ them had een at aw, some o’ them had cocks like carrots, working in the Broomilaw.
Everyone laughs, shedding tools & falling upon one another. You grin & make your way back to the woodpile for more branches.

4.10. Lunch is taken in shifts, the keenest builders carrying their plates out to the site. Eventually Maria brings the saucepans full of macaroni cheese out to the Paddock & serves the workers in situ. By 4.00 a few day pupils drift away to collect their bags & go for the bus home. Reluctantly, the remaining work force moves away, wandering back towards the school building. School Meeting starts at 4.15 & Rory has asked that as many attend as possible because he has an important matter to raise.

As you reach the hedge that separates the Paddock from the old tennis court & the frontage of the house, you turn & look back at the day’s work. A ring of stout branches, part woven & part secured by nailed crosspieces & rope, contains the beech tree within a pygmy stockade. A frisson of excitement & pride trips your breathing for a moment. One more full day’s work to be done…

4.20. The Big Room is full. All the boarders are present & the majority of the day pupils & teachers. Most, like you, are perched on the tiny blue kindergarten chairs that line the walls. Only the Chairman & Secretary – Peter & Janine – are seated in comfort on a pair of winged library chairs behind a low table. Rory is seated, leaning against a closed door, cradling Cordi, who is only 4. Isla sits cross-legged beside them.

Peter raps the table with the side of a ruler.

– Order! he calls in his high unbroken voice. I’m opening the meeting at…4.20. Janine’s going to read the minutes of the previous meeting.

Maria had complained that a loaf of bread had gone missing from the larder. The Meeting directed the guilty parties to own up immediately. Jago & Dilly admitted to having removed it & both were fined 1/- each & denied a jam allowance for one week. Rory said that boarders had been seen climbing on the downstairs toilet roof. The tiles were not secure & if anyone slipped & fell the school would be liable for any injuries resulting. He wouldn’t ask the Meeting to support a proposal for any kind of action in this instance; he just hoped that the boarders would be sensible in future. Robbie, Mikey & the Burch twins proposed that there should be a rock-and-roll hop for pupils & friends for the weekend after Half Term. Jimmy asked if teachers & parents would be allowed to attend. By a narrow majority the Meeting voted to include them.

– Any matters arising? asks Peter.
Gilly Burch raises her hand.
– I’m not going to the hop if my parents are going to jive! she declares. And teachers too! And I won’t be the only one! It’s just embarrassing!
The Meeting defeats a motion to ban all dancing grown-ups by a narrow majority & moves on to new business.

Rory raises his hand & is acknowledged by the Chairman. Still cradling the sleeping Cordi, he stands.
– I should like to suggest that we abolish all school rules forthwith, effective as of this Meeting.
He pauses. A ripple of shock passes around the room. A few kids laugh. You are appalled: a thin line between the silent, invisible machinery of ordered freedom & downhill chaos is about to be crossed.
– Do you have a seconder? asks Peter.
Rory leans down & gently passes Cordi to Isla.
– Well, it’s not a proposal at this stage. I simply feel that we have too many rules now & that to try to pick our way through all of them piece by piece, weeding out the unnecessary ones, will be too time consuming. So why don’t we just scrap all of them & start again?
He sits down. For a moment the Meeting is still. Then, one by one, hands go up, some assertively, demanding attention, others more tentative. Peter inspects the display.
– Jimmy?
– I’m not out of sympathy with Rory’s suggestion. But before this gets any closer to going to a vote, am I in order in bringing up my English class from this morning for breaking the cutting lessons rule? I think they should be fined & if we sweep away all the rules in one go right now, an important principle’s going to go with them.
Peter leans towards Janine & they consult for several seconds. Peter straightens up.
– No, Jimmy, you can’t. We have to finish this business before we can go onto new stuff.
You realise with a sort of disembodied surprise that your hand is raised. Peter’s cool scrutiny passes around the room.
– Ricky?
You swallow hard. When you speak your voice sounds alien, as if someone close by is mimicking you.
– But if we’ve got no rules at all then why would anyone…what would stop anyone from, like, breaking a window or, say, smashing down a camp..?
Rory smiles & begins to address you directly.
– Through the Chair, Rory, Peter interjects sharply.
– Sorry, Peter. Now, that’s a fair question & I guess the immediate answer would be nothing at all. But here’s the crucial issue: no one person here at Sandown Lodge has ever put together a list of rules & regulations & said, ‘Right, everyone, here’s what you’ve all got to do & you do it or I’ll tan your bum…’
The little kids all laugh. Rory takes a short step forward & leans an elbow on the fireplace mantelpiece.
– We make the rules. All of us. Together. From the wee kids right up to the grown-ups. And we do things that way because we all know that the rules we have make sense because they’ve come from what happens to us in our daily lives. So – safety, health, convenience, thinking about each other & not just ourselves. Each good rule grows from these sources. I think we’ve got a bit carried away recently & we’ve gone from saying no-one’s allowed to leave school by the main gate because it’s on a bend in the road & it’s dangerous, to things like if you spill sand more than a foot away from the edge of the sandpit you have to pay a 3d fine. And I think that’s a bit crazy. So I propose we dump the lot now & go back to the starting line. No rules, then good rules.
Rory turns & sits, pulling the still sleeping Cordi onto his lap.
– Do we have a seconder? Peter asks the Meeting.
Your actions still apparently governed by remote control, you raise your arm. Janine scribbles your name in her notebook as the debate breaks on a tideline of waving hands.

Wha’ saw the tatty howkers…? Jules howls as the boarders climb the stairs for bathtime & bed. Ruth, on bed duty, grimaces from her doorway. You carry your wash bag & towel, granted first ablution privileges so that you can make your way out to the caravan. As you clean your teeth in the basin you can hear five voices at various stages of pubescence following Jules’ lead:
Some o’ them had bums like beetroots, some o’ them had een at aw, some of them had cocks like carrots, working in the Broomilaw…

It’s a fine autumn night under a full moon. Silvery light shines around the gaps in the rudimentary curtains. You lie staring up at the curved ceiling of the old caravan, wide awake but free from fear. In the great beech in the Paddock, the screech owl quavers & you smile into the darkness.

The Downs = Epsom Downs, site of the Derby horserace.

Wellingtons = Rubber boots.

‘Wha’ saw the tatty howkers, workin’ in the Broomilaw?’ = ‘Who saw the potato pickers working in the Broomilaw Road?’

‘een at aw’ = None at all.

1/- = One shilling in pre-decimal coinage. Value, 5p.

3d = Three pence (pronounced ‘thruppence’.) Value, about one pence.

by Dick Jones of Patteran Pages

UPDATE: Dick has published a four-part essay at his blog called “The Practice of Freedom,” reflecting on what he has learned from 35 years of teaching in progressive schools. Here are the links: Down on the Killing Floor; A Manual for Revolution; Teaching as a Subversive Activity; and the conclusion.

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  1. September 12, 2006 at 8:26 am

    Oh, Lord, this brings it back. Some of those schools were grand, weren’t they? But such a short half-life — you need leaders who were both charismatic and sensible, and such are always in short supply.

    But 1955? So early!

  2. September 12, 2006 at 2:33 pm

    As is so often the case, ‘Rory’ was the idealist & visionary & ‘Isla’ was the practical one. A great team. ‘Isla’ died only 2 years ago at the age of 96.

    And, yes, 1955. I’m very, very old!

  3. September 12, 2006 at 4:54 pm

    Oh, this makes for delightful reading and this is real-life?! It reminds me of some of the old English storybooks about school life that I read as a child.

  4. October 1, 2006 at 7:52 pm

    I’m slow on the uptake sometimes–is “Rory” A.S. Neill?

  5. October 5, 2006 at 1:39 am

    Thanks, Marja-Leena. Yes, real life, but a world away from the school stories I used to read as a kid!

    No, Nathan, although Neill was a friend of the school & visited from time to time. More info available here – http://www.pettarchiv.org.uk/survey-newsherwood4.htm

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