Sunday, September 25, 2011

Snoozy, Bee and Me and No Lunch at Updown School - Part One

Based on a true story with supplemental moments...

By my mother’s recollection, I only ever smacked her once.  I was four years old, or possibly five, somewhere in the early seventies.

She had taken me to visit a new school.  I hated my old one.  They didn’t teach me anything.  I was ahead of the class in reading and was therefore directed to read in silence by myself.  No further instruction necessary. The less work I did, the more bored I got. And the more bored I got, the more trouble I got into. My parents were apparently no longer willing to put up with any more phone calls detailing flying spit wads and the pulling of ponytails. Besides, the uniforms were scratchy, my teachers were spiteful, and the lunch counter served liver and spotted dick.

Visiting a new school represented new hope, a way out.  My mother had heard about this school from her friend Snoozy.  Not her real name, just the best I could manage when I was first learning to talk.  Snoozy’s daughter went there.  Her daughter was learning her times tables, Snoozy said, and reading Tolstoy, or something like that, and her calligraphy was up for nomination to the museum for perfect five year olds.  This was the school for me, Snoozy said, a place where I could be challenged, and where I could bring my own lunch.

I did not care about my times tables.  I was only four, or possibly five. Beautiful letters did not excite me. But I could bring my own lunch.  I had had my fill of indestructible bangers and mash and rhubarb crumble.  Most importantly I had a massive crush on Bee, Snoozy’s daughter. I was sold.

My mother set up the visit. It was for the following Tuesday.  I wore my special brown and orange striped shirt, my cobalt blue shorts, and I got to choose my very own lunch, a Cheddar cheese sandwich on white bread (was there any other?), a bag of Golden Wonder ready salted potato crisps, and an apple.  This last one was to make me strong, my mother said. I planned on sharing my potato crisps, and quite possibly even my apple, with Bee. It could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The school was in a village a few miles away. Its official name was Updown School, but it was known throughout the universe as Mrs. Brown’s school.  Mrs. Brown was the head teacher.  My mother informed me that Mrs. Brown was completely in charge and I was to be extra especially nice to her.  She had been at the school a long time and it was her decision as to whether I would get in or not.  The stakes were high.

Snoozy came to pick me up in her cream-colored Morris Marina coupe. I sidled close to Bee in the back seat. No seatbelts when I was four, or possibly five, somewhere in the early seventies. Bee was wearing a plaid dress in a gorgeous mélange of green, blue, yellow and red.  She had a red ribbon tied in her golden hair.  My palms moistened. There could be no more perfect start to my new life.

We drove to school, Snoozy chattering on about her new formica countertops and the demise of the shilling and half crown. I snuck furtive glances over at Bee, but she was absorbed in Enid Blyton, an author I would learn to hate.  We pulled up at a moss-covered flint wall, interrupted by grey stone steps.  We alighted. I grabbed my brown paper bag lunch (the much coveted green plastic lunch box adorned by the highly popular Wombles of Wimbledon Common would have to wait until unconditional admission), and climbed the damp stairway. What awaited at the top was a pleasant looking pre-war schoolhouse at the end of a rich English lawn against a backdrop of tall chestnuts.  A pathway wound quaintly to the front door.

Mrs. Brown was waiting. I’m not sure what I had been expecting, but a wrinkly stooped reptilian lady in calico was surely not it.  She looked like she was a hundred and forty years old. She told me to sit down, far far away from Bee, and next to a boy called Kevin. Kevin told me his dad was a fireman.  I had never met a real fireman before.  I didn’t even own a T-shirt with a fire engine on it.  Kevin had three.  My parents didn’t mingle with people who climbed ladders for a living.

Kevin and I were sitting on wooden chairs at a long table, with four other kids next to us.  It was one of four similar tables in the room, all one behind the other facing the front.  Mine was the third one. The walls were covered in maps, a collection of children’s artwork, some writing (all in perfect penmanship), and a poster that listed the school’s agreements about kindness, safety, respect, and responsibility.

Mrs. Brown conferred with the other teacher, a rather rotund Mrs. Boyd, and then came and sat herself next to me, armed with a small collection of books.  She had me read to her from a couple of them and that seemed to satisfy her.  She gave me some math problems which I managed to do without terrible trouble, and then it was time for milk.

This was a time in England when the government provided free milk to all school children under the age of eleven.  It made our bones strong, even if it didn’t make our teeth straight.  It must have been good policy, because a couple of years later when then Secretary of Education Margaret Thatcher eliminated the practice in a cost saving maneuver (thus becoming for a while affectionately known as Maggie Thatcher, Milk Snatcher), the energy crisis hit, the unions rose to power, and the Empire collapsed.  It took her a decade of premiership to sort it all out.

The milk was delivered every morning to the school in one-third-of-a-pint-sized bottles.  Presumably because Mrs. Brown feared spillage, the oldest students in the school were given the job of piercing the little metal bottle tops with straws and parceling the bottles out to each child.  I got my bottle, sucked down the milk, and watched all the children head outside to play.

Mrs. Brown would not let me go.  We had work to do, young man.  She explained that I wasn’t staying for the whole day, that my mother would be here soon, and she wanted to get a sense of my writing.  Oh, the injustice! While Bee and Kevin and a couple of dozen potential new friends were kicking around a football, I was inside being made to write about my summer holiday.  And I had just been informed that I would be going home soon.  I wouldn’t even get to share my crisps with Bee.  This was unfair!  How could my mother have packed me a lunch and not known that she would be picking me up before I had a chance to eat it, denying me a chance to enjoy the gastronomic delights of the paper bag, a school lunch not manufactured by the proletariat classes of industrial postwar Britain?  I began to sulk.
To the sounds of children playing joyfully outside the window, I begrudgingly refilled my fountain pen at the inkwell (even in the early seventies, this was clearly a practice whose time had come and gone several decades before) and sat down at the wooden table, noticing for the first time generations of etchings in its surface. I harrumphed. I wanted to be outside.  I did not want to be sitting here waxing not particularly lyrically about what I had done that summer.  Mrs. Brown shuffled by every few minutes, a faint smell of onion emanating from her print frock, and made slightly worrisome clicking noises.

After twenty minutes, the bell rang outside, signaling the re-entry of a playground-load of happy, rosy-cheeked children back into the school.  Mrs. Brown bade me write on.  I had not finished.  At that moment, catching me fully off guard, into the school walked my mother.  She had arrived at my moment of maximum frustration. While Kevin and several others were clattering the chairs in an effort sit down, Mrs. Brown summoned me to the door.  I threw my chair back, stomped over to pick up my brown paper bag, ignored the friendly “Hello, darling, how was your morning?” from my mum, swung my lunch bag as hard as I could against her legs, and stormed outside.  The bag split. The brown paper failed me, catapulting its contents across the room, the apple rolling to a gentle stop up against Mrs. Brown’s feet.
“Well,” I heard Mrs. Brown exclaim as I headed across the lawn, “we certainly don’t tolerate that sort of behavior at Updown School.”

“But…but…” my mother stammered, “he really is a very nice boy…” which is all I heard as I made my way down the steps to the car, sniveling and sad.  After all, I was only four, or possibly five.

Mrs. Brown informed my mother that my presence at the school was not welcome.  It took a phone call from Snoozy to persuade Mrs. Brown that I really was a very nice boy and would not only benefit from an education at Updown School, but that quite frankly I needed the challenge. Mrs. Brown relented and I was admitted the following week. 

Part Two to follow…..

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"The Greenest School in Boulder"

While this website is principally intended as a place for me to park a wide range of personal thoughts, once in a while a work-specific topic comes along that is too good not to share. In the spirit of "finding the good in this crazy world", I offer the following news from Friends' School (while also conveniently and not so subtly parading the amazing new branding look we've adopted at the school, created by the wonderful people at Thinking Davis).

Friends' School has exciting news – the solar panels project that we have been working towards for a number of months now is about to become reality.

Friends' School is soon to be “the greenest school in Boulder” according to Eric Hinckley, the engineer and system designer for Solar Resource Consulting.  A whopping 93% of the energy needs for the school's elementary building will be provided by our solar array.  It is a system comprised of 144 solar modules which together will generate 33,000 kilowatts of power a year.

The installation crew will begin work this week, with an estimated completion date of November 1st.  In early November we will have a “Flip the Switch” opening ceremony and we will send out more details nearer the time.  In the mean time, we are excited to tie everything we are learning about solar energy into our curriculum and we will host a gathering, giving the students opportunities to touch and learn about the solar array.  There will also be a web-based portal which will allow us to see how much power the system is generating and how much we are using.

We are indebted to many people both in and outside of our school community for getting this huge and amazing project off the ground, in particular Tom Cohen, Carol Hampf, Ryan Martens, Fred Marienthal, Jen Greene, Ryan McIntyre, Mandy Best, our Community Board, and the good people of Renewable Energy Ventures, Solar Resource Consulting, City Electric, and the City of Boulder for their generous grant.  Installation of the solar panels on the school roof has allowed us to meet one of the major goals of our Strategic Plan, that of environmental stewardship.

Let the sun shine in!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Few Gentle Thoughts

It feels like it’s been a good weekend.  Had dinner with friends, finished up a creative project I’d been meaning to do for some time, took the train downtown to walk with friends to help raise money to find a cure for juvenile diabetes, cleaned the house a little, read the New York Times magazine, didn’t do some work for school that I probably should have done, took my girls out for ice cream, helped with a little homework, now heading this evening to a friend’s birthday party armed with some decent wine.  Nothing spectacular, but all good things.
Yet there is a feeling of emptiness and loss.  It’s September 11, the ten year anniversary.  While I did not know anyone directly who was killed in the attacks, it has effected us all deeply and I mourn.  On Friday I learned that a friend has been diagnosed with breast cancer.  Today I heard a parent at my former school committed suicide.  The papers have reported in detail the usual collection of tragedy from around the world, and I have been thinking a lot about a local story about a young college student, no one I knew, whose leg were severed after she failed to jump onto a moving train.

It’s tough to make sense of it all.  I feel so fortunate and blessed in my life and yet around us all tough things continue to baffle us.  Why these events?  Why my friend?  Why now?  Why not me?  There’s not much I can do.  So much is out of my control.  So I continue to show love, to be present for my loved ones wherever and whenever possible, to take a little breathing time for myself, and to feel immense gratitude always for the amazing relationships in my life.  For my partner, for my daughters, for my family, for my friends, for my colleagues, for living where I live. 

We should all be so lucky.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


This falls in the category of things I never thought I'd write about.  Which is, of course, exactly what I love about writing.  As Winnie the Pooh once famously said, "You never can tell...."

Three questions, and answers, about donuts:

1) Did you know that June 3rd, my birthday, is actually National Donut Day in America?
Neither did I until I stumbled upon a big yellow sign advertising this double celebration in my local supermarket on my special day.  I feel blessed.

2) Can you appreciate the irony when my place of work (which I love) should call a staff meeting on health insurance and serve donuts?
Well, they were sitting alongside the gluten-free muffins and it was in Boulder, CO which is pretty much the healthiest place on the planet, so Meg, you are forgiven. I appreciate you agreeing with me that a fed staff is a happy staff. I do wonder if the health insurance company jacked up the premiums right then and there.

3) In England, where I grew up, we ate doughnuts made of dough.  Does that mean in America, we eat donuts made of do?
You can head to Wikipedia, which knows everything about everything, and read extensively about the disputed history and etymology of the donut.  As in all academia, the experts disagree.  What is undisputed is the formal name for the classic ring-shaped donut is toroidal from the geometric shape torus.

I bet you're glad you know that.  Now go get a cup of coffee and a donut and impress your friends.