This week I’ve picked another topic which I’ve been mulling over for a while. Schools turn up a lot in fiction, particularly in children’s literature, but some stick in the mind more than others. I decided to list all the schools I have ever wished I could go to as well as all the schools I have been very grateful not to attend. Having been an ex-teacher for a little over a year now, I feel that I have been demobbed from the educational army and can now think of schools with more of an outsider view and with ideas less clouded by Ofsted criteria. Whether a primary or secondary school or even a university, I have picked for my list those establishments which were most unusual.
Schools I Wished I Could Attend
Hogwarts, Harry Potter Chronicles
I don’t think that there is a book-lover alive who hasn’t dreamed of attending Hogwarts. I got the first Harry Potter book for Christmas, three days after turning eleven, so I realised fairly early on that I was not going to get a Hogwarts acceptance letter. Do you ever really get over a disappointment like that? I’m really not sure one does. Petunia Dursley didn’t. The chance to study Transfiguration, Charms, Defence Against the Dark Arts – broomstick lessons – Room of Requirement – talking portraits – moving staircases – feasts – oh, I’ve missed out on so much. Not to mention not getting to go to Hogsmeade which is where Honeydukes is. I think that the film went a long way to capturing what I imagined to be the beauty of the castle but I do still have my own image in my head of what it was like – there are few places in literature which I would like to visit quite so much. Sigh.
Jordan College, His Dark Materials
Having spent a year working in administration within the University of Oxford, I am very glad that I did not go there for my degree – mostly because St Andrews is so very much nicer (three beaches and the sea and … the list is too long) but mainly because Oxford itself is a teensy bit peculiar. However, the fictional Jordan college does till pique my curiousity, particularly the rather scatter-gun way in which they tackled Lyra’s primary education. Along with the basics, they tended to teach her a rather creative curriculum and it was this that appealed. Experimental theology sounds like something I would have enjoyed. Lyra’s childhood spent scampering about the corridors and courtyards always sounded like great fun – until all the Gobblers came along of course … perhaps a risky choice, but I am going to stick with it.
I used to force my childhood best friend to play Little House on the Prairie with me, with particular emphasis on the school. This was particularly cruel given that an attempt to read the first book had led to her having nightmares (she was vegetarian so the brutal death of Willy the pig was a bit much). The small wooden schoolhouse, using a slate, the dramas around Miss Wilder and then the time school had to let out early due to blizzards – it always seemed very exciting. It was odd details such as how two children sharing a book would have to put their heads on the table so that one could look at one page and another look at a section further on – this was hard-core education. I think it’s the same kind of detail that makes the Victorian schoolroom experience so popular on school trips but somehow Laura Ingalls Wilder always made things come to life in a whole different way.
There are so many reasons why I would want to go here but I think the main one would be the library facilities – I adore the Librarian. Plus there’s the exciting possibility of travelling into L-space, an amazing dimension housing every book ever written. And surely the fees would be a cinch given that the Bursar is only able to cope with life when he gets his regular diet of powdered frog pills. Although I do hope that I would get an exam paper more like the one that Ponder Stibbon sat in Moving Pictures, where the only question was ‘What is your name?’ It’s another slightly perilous choice given that the Sourceror could turn up again at any time or a spell could break loose but I think that all the books would make it worth taking my chances.
Le Petit Nicolas’ school, Le Petit Nicolas
To explain – it is worth learning French in order to understand Le Petit Nicolas
. Don’t try reading his adventures in English, it loses all its liveliness. In French, it’s something else again. The daily chaos which reigns in his classroom is hilarious, always made more so by the boys’ blithe innocence about the stress that they are causing for the adults. No film could ever quite capture the sweetness and the sidesplitting humour but the 2009 attempt
did fairly well. I love Agnan who continually points out that he can’t be punched as he wears glasses, then Alceste, Clotaire, Eudes – each of them so fantastically funny. A particular favourite is ‘le Bouillon’ who tries to keep order but ends up having to take a day’s leave because the boys had worn him out.
St Trinians, St Trinians
I first discovered the St Trinians girls via The Belles of St Trinians, one of my favourite films. I instantly wanted to become one of them. Reading the cartoons only reinforced the notion – these were girls who really knew how to live. From homework-avoiding devices to the way they calmly ruled the school – they were just brilliant. Aged nine, I dressed up as one of them for Comic Relief. The more recent films were tremendously disappointing, resorting to sexualised schoolgirls as opposed to Amazonian warriors – I prefer the words of Millicent Fritton, “In other schools, young girls are sent out into the merciless world. In our case, it is the merciless world that has to – look out!” A rousing school mission statement if ever there was one.
Crunchem Hall Primary School, Matilda
Another odd choice perhaps given that the school was headed by the Trunchbull and contained the Chokey as a torture/punishment device. But I prefer to think of Crunchem Hall though after the Trunchbull has fallen and the good times rolled. I pick it mostly though for nostalgia reasons – I read this book with my class and the classroom scenes where I voiced the Trunchbull and my pupils played the class were one of my funniest memories of my time in education.
Schools I’m So Glad I Avoided
Malory Towers, Malory Towers
Enid Blyton based Malory Towers on St Andrews, since one of her daughters went there for university. I also went there – it’s amazing. The swimming pool that was actually out in the sea which Blyton got so excited over really exists, it’s on Castle Sands but is severely dilapidated. Having been to the real thing, the pale imitation holds no attractions. Plus, the girls are really annoying. Gwendoline Mary? Yuck. Alicia? Trainee psycho. Darrell? Anger issues! Sally Hope? Prig. And then there’s the teachers! Even worse. Then there’s the weird fact that at the start of every book, when the new term begins, one girl always says to another, “Hello X, why didn’t you write to me once during the hols? I wrote you pages!” Are they secretly all programmable robots? Actually, let’s be honest, Enid Blyton just wrote her books as a strange kind of colour-by-numbers exercise and certainly didn’t think about accuracy. Go to the University of St Andrews, but don’t waste your time with Malory Towers. Incidentally, this is the only Blyton series I was allowed to read, since my mother banned all others while I was growing up so it kind of represents my first literary criticism exercise since I metaphorically ripped the books to shreds for all their plotholes.
Dotheboys Hall, Nicholas Nickleby
In a strange way, I feel as though I have been to this school. Around twelve years ago, my mother and I stumbled across the filming of Nicholas Nickleby
, specifically the set being used for Dotheboys Hall. I actually used the rather posh Portakabin toilets since there was nobody around to stop me. Rebellious. Dotheboys Hall is typical Dickens in that it has all of the rage of outsider as well as an unsettling preoccupation with how small all the victims are. His character Nicholas Nickleby has arrived as teacher and is outraged by how the boys are being treated, with one seeing his boots stolen by the young Master Squeers, all of them being starved and general horrors going unchallenged. The Yorkshire schools were a national disgrace, paid for by parents desperate to educate their children but unaware of the unprincipled charlatans ready to take advantage and Mr Dickens leads the charge against them with typical fervour.
Lowood School, Jane Eyre
Lowood School always caught me more than Dotheboys Hall because Charlotte Bronte writes not as an outraged bystander but instead as one of the victims. Charlotte and her sisters were sent to Cowan Bridge school as their vicar father could afford no better; the economy claimed the lives of Charlotte’s two eldest sisters. Many readers find the figure of Helen Burns, friend to the young Jane, to be overly saintly but she represents an idealised view of the young Maria Bronte, as remembered by her adoring younger sister. Like Beth March in Little Women, we should forgive her for her lack of flaws and still see her for what she is, a symbol of her loving sibling’s grief. That Charlotte could write this so long after the event shows how the scars left by Cowan Bridge were never truly able to heal and that Carus Wilson, the inspiration for the headteacher figure remained unforgiven by the Bronte family.
This one had the potential to be quite tempting. I think Ransom Riggs was trying to go for the semi-Hogwarts thing – it was a nice big British house run by a nice British woman, Miss Peregrine and also while you’re there, you can live forever and there are no consequences for your actions since you are living in one day forever. Riggs was even able to stir in some ideas about the possibilities this might lead to which made the set-up very compelling. But then he added in the Awesome American Kid Come To Save Them All, the creepy wight things that can kill you, and the fact that once you settle in, you can’t leave without going through extremely rapid aging and death … it’s a thanks, but no thanks from me.
Hailsham is most disturbing of all because it is so idyllic. Kathy, Ruth and Tommy grow up there, in a world of team games on the sports pavilion, kindly guardians, long sunny days. The teachers encourage the children to produce art, poetry, stories – life is happy and responsibilities are nil. But if this seems like paradise, the time comes when they are kicked out of Eden. The pupils are clones, destined to be harvested for their organs. They will have short lives devoid of meaning of fulfilment – Hailsham has been a place to assuage the guilt of the guardians, giving the children this glittering childhood since no adulthood is on offer. As the novel closes, it is noted that Hailsham is gone and that young clones are treated far more harshly and one is left wonder if it is worse to be fooled by such a beautiful beginning or whether Hailsham really is enough to sustain the clones until their inevitable completion.
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