Lights Out Ladies!

Follow one woman's tales from the staffroom of a quaint, newly co-educational, English boarding school in deepest, darkest Dorset. (*all names have been changed.)

Summer Term - Week 5

Posted by Lights Out Ladies
Lights Out Ladies
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on Tuesday, 07 May 2013
It's my weekly duty night in house tonight. I'm attached to one of the boys houses in school and am attempting to get them to do "prep" from the hours of 6-8pm. Then I'm attempting to get them to not wrestle each other or play football/cricket/insert other dangerous sport indoors from 8pm-10.30pm. It is the latter part of the evening that is always the trickiest, particularly as Rob and Ben have decided that the new pool cues can, and should, be used as light sabres.

Lights Out Ladies

My housemaster is a tall, terrifying tower of a man. He moves silently around the corridors and appears in a whisper when there is trouble. Last week he sat me down and walked me through some of the "trickier characters in the house".

"You'll have to watch out for Hugo. He's a bit of a drip and the boys have found out he sleeps with a teddy bear and have done some unspeakable things to it in the last 48 hours."

"Oh gosh," I say mouth falling open, the world's most disturbing images flashing up in my mind.

"They've also taken to de-bedding him on regular occasions so do be alert for that one."

"De-bedding?" I repeat. "Er what exactly does that involve?" I ask.

He looked at me over his whiskey. I shift a little under his gaze. It's enough to make you want to pee your pants with nerves.

"Well a group of the boys go into his room in the middle of the night and tip his mattress straight up."

"Oh that's terrible," I state.

"Quite, quite, but there is little we can do about it. De-bagging is much easier to catch."

I don't bother to repeat this time, brain churns as I apply the same logic.

"Tipping up his bag?" I hazard.

"Exactly," his smile is wide, the smile of successful teaching.

"And there have been some suspicions this term that the prefects have brought back fagging, I've questioned my head of house but he is adamant I am mistaken."

"Smoking?" I ask, "In house?"


"Having fags?" I check.

"No, no fagging, you know the usual tricks: getting the younger boys to warm the loo seat before the older boys use it, getting them to fetch things, making them type up their prep - one has a fag if one is nearing the end of one's school career (pronounced 'carrahh')," he finished his whiskey.

"Does one," I whisper.

"So best to be vigilant and report anything to me using this," he says, tapping an A5 burgundy book, "It's my 'Book of Suspicion'," he states, stroking the cover fondly.

He hands it over and I flick through the pages, lighting on one message from the week before that simply says,

'Jack - don't put in bedroom of tower - first form spotted dangling from window.'

I gulp.

Summer Term - Week 4

Posted by Lights Out Ladies
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on Monday, 29 April 2013
I adore so many of my classes but I loathe the last period on a Friday afternoon. It is not natural to teach kids things when it's dark outside. It should be made law or something. And fine it is not exactly dark, dark but I swear yesterday I saw the moon in the sky so that means it is basically night. Henry VII - as boring as he sounds?Henry VII - as boring as he sounds?

Anyway it's Year 7 who are called "Removes" for no discernible reason that I can make out. They are pretty tiny, the youngest in the school, and they can be way too energetic at the best of times. The teacher I replaced (by the by no one is giving me any reasons for his speedy departure: there are rumours I am yet to piece together) left me no scheme of work to follow and the kids tell me that they spent the Lent Term learning about "Canada and Premiership Football" which doesn't match my Head of Department's insistence that they should have learnt about the Tudors.

I'm doing a storyboard lesson - Henry VII's life as if it was a film - and have laid out paper and pens on tables around the room. They troop in, shirts untucked and ties askew and I send them out again reminding them "we queue up, remember". They don't, and insist Mr Phillips never made them, which makes me grind my teeth further.

I get them in, and it's going pretty well and after about twenty minutes of group work I get them to ask questions. Things they want to know about Henry VII's life that they haven't read on their research sheet. Hands go up and the questions come,

"Was he as boring as he sounds?"

"Well Charlie that's an excellent question, I suppose lots of people thought he was dull because he was quite a greedy man and didn't like flashy things or wars."

"Did he love his wife?"

"Well Alice supposedly he had a good marriage to Elizabeth of York and had plenty of children."

"He looks like Torres with brown hair."

"Well Harley, that's not really a question is it. Do you want to ask anything else?"

"Yeah Miss, what do you think dinner is?"

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Summer Term - Week 3

Posted by Lights Out Ladies
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on Saturday, 20 April 2013
I have been at Brockfield House for less than 48 hours and have already been signed up for First Aid Training, Fire Training and a Minibus Driving Test. I am standing outside the office of the Second Master who needs to sign a green form for me that gives me permission for being out of school the following week. It's called a 'greenie' which I think is hilarious but have no friends yet to laugh with about that.

He appears in the little window of the doorway which makes me jump back and yelp. He opens the door and beckons me in. His office is like a cell in a monastery. A desk, a sofa, a bookshelf with philosophical tomes and little else. It is cold and I instantly hope he can sign my greenie and I can be on my way.

"And how are you finding things?" he asks.

"I am enjoying it, it's very new, I am well." I babble this quickly, like a shopping list, practically able to see my breath in the air.

"I am drawing up a Risk Assessment for a trip to the cinema," he chuckles inexplicably and points to his desk.


"The Hobbit." He laughs again.

I smile sympathetically and explain the greenie.

"The Headmaster will need to sign that," he says handing it back.

"I'm not sure he's here today."

"He's not."


I wait for a solution. I get:

"He's at the opera this evening."

Silence. I turn to leave.

"La Boheme."

"That's nice."

"He prefers Madame Butterfly."

"Who doesn't!" (I have never been to the opera and this is NOT the right response.)

I have to sit on the sofa, I have to be educated. I learn about opera. For the next half an hour.

I wonder when I should tell him I'm meant to be teaching Year 10 in 5 minutes for the first time.

I wonder, again, how I got here.

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Summer Term - Week 2

Posted by Lights Out Ladies
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on Monday, 15 April 2013
"Gentleman and Ladies." The Headmaster claps his hand together and we all fall silent. It is break time and I'd been mid-reach for one of the world's smallest tea cups. I have missed the moment. Andy (PE) puts his biscuit whole into his mouth, smiling at me apologetically as I hastily try to look away.

The Headmaster's PA is huffing as she drags a mannequin into the staffroom behind him. Her arm is hooked over the slender neck of the rigid female figure as she drags her across the Common Room floor. She props her into a standing position, rearranges her necktie and neatly smoothes down her skirt before exiting with muttered words and reddened cheeks.

The staffroom, Senior Common Room or "SCR" as it is known, is full to bursting for Morning Notices. Enormous sofas, well worn, are all occupied, teachers are propped against the walls which are lined with severe-looking portraits of past Wardens of the College. One is pictured seated at an ornate desk, one pointing at the artist. Nearly all have dogs. The Headmaster claps his hands. They are walnut brown from an Easter holidays skiing in Verbier. This morning he has combed his hair backwards into a rather neat quiff.

"I hope you've all had a splendid rest and are ready for the challenge of a new term." He claps his hands together again.

Most people are looking at the mannequin.

I am wondering whether to leg it out of the nearest exit and back to London.

He points to the mannequin, "Meet our new pupil," he begins, then he looks around at us all. There is a rumble of polite laughter. I fix a smile on my face, trying desperately to focus on what he is saying. The mannequin looks as vacant as I feel.

Perhaps realising he has lost his audience already he circles her/it. "This is what I want," he announces, "As you know we have accepted a whole cohort of girls (pronounced 'gals') to the school this year and I want them to look like this."

He gestures to the mannequin who is dressed in a simple knee length navy blue skirt, a rather thin, cheap looking white shirt and an alarming orange necktie that would not have looked out of place on an aeroplane. In the 1980s.

"Note the length of the skirt, note the shirt, tucked in and note the neat knot." And so it continues... for 10 minutes. Tea has gone cold, teachers are fidgeting and Andy is looking longingly back at the remaining tray of biscuits.

It is at the end of all this that the Headmaster turns in my direction and gestures towards me. "And as you have no doubt noticed we have taken on a new member of staff too." If I had tea I would have spilt some.

I try to look confident, glance at the faces turned towards me. "Clare here will be taking over in the History department and will run our rounders teams this term (will I!?!), so do introduce yourself and make her welcome."

A whole horde of men, or as it seems to me a sea of tweed, turns towards me nodding and mumbling a welcome. I can feel my face blending in with the burgundy velvet curtains behind me.

It is my first day at Brockfield House, my old life in London seems a million miles away already. I nod back wondering how I am going to fit in. Then I stare at my navy blue kitten heels, so slender, so feminine, and realise it might take more than a new wardrobe. The headmaster's secretary reappears, rolls up her sleeves, seizes the mannequin once more and drags her out, feet first.

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Summer Term - Week 1

Posted by Lights Out Ladies
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on Sunday, 07 April 2013
My new Headmaster is standing next to me, wearing a candy-floss pink waistcoat coupled with a startling floral tie, introducing me to the Deputy Head of Co-Curricular, a small bald man holding half a biscuit, a smudge on his glasses. I can't hear what he is saying because I am still trying to work out what his job title actually involves, and whether my Headmaster's tie is worn in irony.

I'm not really sure how I have ended up here.

Last month I was bored and scanning The Lady in the little staffroom of Greycoats Comprehensive in South London. A 1,400 strong secondary school lagging in the league tables, constantly short of money for various building work, so much so that my classroom looked like a large portaloo on stilts.

Keith (IT) was holding court about his girlfriend (imaginary) and I was trying to block him out scanning the page of adverts whilst wondering what to teach Year 9 the period after break. I spilt some drops of coffee on the 'Jobs' Page and I noticed this quaint advert in the corner. A stock photograph of smiling happy, uniformed pupils taken against the most incredible backdrop. Fields of green stretching away, neat fluffs of little white clouds and then a gorgeous honey-coloured manor house, roses trained around the windows. Even the font was romantic, all swirly and enticing. I was transported instantly into the pages of a Mallory Towers novel, expecting a girl to appear in the window holding a pillow from a recent fight, or a group to run out from behind the building holding wooden lacrosse sticks.

"And then she said..."

Keith was still trying to share but with rampant enthusiasm I reached out, tore the corner of the page, hopped up and legged it to the computer in the corner of our ageing, browning staffroom. Post-it notes scattered the screen warning of future inspections, the extension number for the school nurse and a reasonably offensive picture of what I think was meant to be David Beckham. I logged on and started typing.

Three days later I had left the smog of London and was racing though the countryside on a train, feeling my lungs expand with every mile we passed. After a successful interview I handed in my notice and accepted maternity cover here, at Brockfield House to be a teacher/housemistress. A co-educational boarding school in Dorset numbering 450. I'd packed my life into boxes, announced it on Facebook (which made it real - 14 likes) and moved into a cottage in the school next to a meandering little stream.

And now I'm standing in this enormous staffroom being steered round by a man who looks like one quarter of a barber shop quartet. I feel afraid...

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