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Mr Harkins Looks Back

Questions, directions, warnings and advice: Barnaby Harkins, Head of English, reflects on his experiences of South Hampstead High School (so far).

I arrived at South Hampstead in 1997: my first proper job. I remembered clearly how disconcerting I’d found the teacher training year. A lot of scary crowd control and not much literature. I wasn’t sure teaching was going to work out – at all. Then, a friend found the job advert for South Hampstead High School. “Girls’ independent day education: it’s definitely for you,” she urged. Okay, I thought, but aren’t teachers supposed to crusade and suffer?

I nearly walked past the old Victorian main building on the day of my interview. It didn’t look much like a school. Thinking back, it’s strange the building no longer exists. I got very used to walking through the front doors, having survived gruesome manners on the tube, to be greeted brightly: “Hello, Mr Harkins!”

Very quickly, I realised that South Hampstead was unlike other experiences of London. Whatever happened outside, I knew there would be innocent good humour as soon as I reached the lobby.

About ten years into my time at South Hampstead, I found myself working alongside two women I trained with at King’s College, London (Ms Shah and Mrs Keyte). Between us, we counted how many of the forty people we trained alongside were still teaching: none that we knew of. It was a salutary reminder of what makes South Hampstead such an unusual place to teach.

In my first year, I remember being dispatched by Mrs Margaret Cullen, my first Head of Department, to teach ‘Sons and Lovers’ to Year 10. I never expected the girls to read the whole book – but was shocked that some of the toughest nuts (even South Hampstead has them) absolutely loved it. I waited for their enthusiasm to waver but it never did. Lives and reading habits changed a lot almost immediately afterwards (the internet, social media …) and I wouldn’t try ‘Sons and Lovers’ with a whole Year 10 class now, but that was an enlightening moment. Still, if things have changed at South Hampstead, they must have changed a lot more elsewhere.

Sometimes I bump into South Hampstead old girls. They usually ask ominously and suspiciously if South Hampstead has changed (apart from the massive new building). I suspect they secretly want the school to be less fun, now they are no longer part of it.  I always disappoint them: South Hampstead girls are as much fun to teach as ever.  One strange way the school has changed, however, is that girls now seem much more grateful.  At the end of each lesson, girls shout, “Thank you!” as they leave.  That never used to happen.  In fact, I used to smile to myself that South Hampstead girls didn’t realise how great a school experience they were having.  I even thought a couple of weeks in the real world would change their attitudes entirely.  For me at least, South Hampstead keeps the real world at bay.

Strangely, South Hampstead old girls also tend to ask me incredulously: “You mean you’re still here?!” Yes, I reply patiently.  Where else would I go?  And I remember explaining my experiences of South Hampstead to a wise friend years ago.

“You won’t leave that school until you’ve finished with teaching,” he told me.  He’d listened very carefully to my tales of school and knew me well.  His prediction remains to be proved, however.  I certainly have no wish to teach elsewhere.  A different (also wise) friend once commented portentously that I never complained about my students.

“But why would I?” I asked, surprised.

“I know many teachers,” he said drily. “It’s all they ever talk about.” I realised then that my experiences of education had become as wonderfully sheltered as the average South Hampstead girl’s.

I’ll leave you with a realisation given to me by Mme Raitz, when I used to accompany her Loire Valley trip.  Inevitably, there would be delays with coaches, at ports and queuing to enter châteaux. “Look closely,” ordered Mme Raitz, “and listen!” Of course, I obeyed – aware that I was being directed by my de facto boss to a profound observation.  Around us, dozens of young South Hampstead girls sat in small groups, chattering and entertaining each other kindly.  It never failed to happen: time-defying, patient, kind chatter.

And to my former students, I hope your careers have been as amusing and fulfilling as mine at South Hampstead.

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