Once upon a time, at a conference in a galaxy far away, a very new headteacher (like, two weeks in post) attended her first association conference. She had seen Heads under whom she had served shoot off for such an occasion towards the end of a busy year, returning refreshed to the fray, reporting on great speakers, nice locations, how lovely to see old friends from their teaching past. What was not to like?
It was slightly tricky to be attending this prestigious conference with just two weeks’ experience of headship to bring to the party, and to feel just a little like an imposter, the place having been booked originally for her predecessor. But hey, thought the new Head, “You’re a big girl now – you can hack it!”
It was a long way from home and, since she was so new, she expected to know no one who would also be attending. She expected that everyone there would be trailing clouds of glory and experience and revelling in the simple familiarity of this annual occasion.
“My second headship – so good to see old friends again!”
“Lovely to see you, I hear things are going well at Bloggs College!”
“And how are you – how long is it since we started out as housemasters in that funny little school in the north? You have lost so much weight!”
For the new Head, effectively deputising for the original Head who had moved to a school outside this particular association, attending at all was like a first day at a new school arriving in mid-term. How many attendees would also be new to Headship, new to the school, new to the association and in post a mere 10 days, consequences of a booking made for the previous Head and a bizarrely late Easter?
Answer: none. None except your humble correspondent. And you might reasonably be thinking, “Now get over it and get on with it.” So, once upon a time – what?
I ask you to imagine dinner on the first night, the first major hurdle for the newbie, because no one gets chatty during presentations or lectures or seminars, so your isolation is invisible and unremarkable. Who would know? And there was not, in those days, much in the way of group work or requests from the stage for us all to “Get into pairs, and discuss…” So, in the working part of the conference, the newbie is safe, one of the crowd, unremarkable.
“It occurred to me that almost regardless of exam grades and university applications, an independent school is often able to offer connections, avenues, openings, simple introductions to a much wider world beyond the classroom.”
But the first night dinner? Sorry – First Night Dinner? Now the truth will out, and ‘Billy and Betty No Mates’ may be completely exposed. Their only defence is a table plan.
God bless table plans, for taking the whole, ‘Where do I sit? Who do I know? How do I do this?’ agony out of your hands. The table plan says, “Do not worry, little newcomer, we have got your back. We will tell them all where to plonk their sorry asses, and you too shall be included, as if, in truth, you actually belong in this august assembly. There will be no freezing out, deliberate or cordially unintentional, of those who are new to our ranks. Trust us, you are one of us, you are welcome.”
Or not, as was the case on this occasion. The second night of the conference gala dinner was formal, organised even unto the seating plan posted in advance. There would come a time when I had to write these plans. Lordy, were they difficult! Social, political, time-consuming, ‘You’re never going to get it right, so sod it’ nightmares. But I did not mind, to the point where I would toil with the intricate jigsaw until the small hours, and weep when someone failed to turn up and the plan went wrong and there was a gentle chorus of, “I don’t know why you bother – these are grown up people, they can find a chair!”
But once I had suffered from the lazy alternative, usually dressed up as, “But people want to catch up with old friends, let them sit where they like!” I knew that in reality no table plan for the first night was an organiser’s cop out, saving hours in the office but virtually pinning a label on the newcomer’s back – ‘Billy/Betty No Mates.’
But to return to the plot: on that memorable night, the excitement of a new Headship coupled with the excitement of a lovely conference to attend giving me what I thought was a gentle glow, I smiled as I approached a table for 10 with three people already gathered. And I asked, “May I join you?”
And they said, “No”.
After that, I barely heard the rest – “We’re keeping these places for our friends – we always meet up at these conferences – so sorry!”
I wanted the ground to swallow me up. Was it my frock? My accent? My perfume? None of the above of course – they’d have been ‘keeping these seats’ even if the Queen had approached. What do I do now? What if it happens again? At every table? Where was the nearest exit from the dining room? Should I pretend I was ill? And if I left, did the hotel do room service?
“How many attendees would also be new to Headship, new to the school, new to the association and in post a mere 10 days, consequences of a booking made for the previous Head and a bizarrely late Easter?”
With a brand-new Headship and at what was then the peak of my career, I was 11-years-old again, and trying to crash into a new and casually hostile world. Running away to room service was very attractive indeed.
Somewhere deep inside I found the nerve – today, perhaps, we would call it resilience – to sashay nonchalantly down the long narrow room in pursuit of a table far enough away for the gentlemen (hah!) of the first table not to see if I got turned away again.
And I found a home. The Head who beamed, “Of course!” to my hesitant (terrified) request to join him at his table had an unusual surname, and I said, “Years ago, I got salary checks signed by a person with that same name!” And he said, “You must have worked for the University of Cardiff – and that was my dad!”
And we were away – connected. The fact that his school turned out to be 10 miles from mine was a bonus, and he became in due course, not just a dinner companion, but a mate in the bear-garden which Headship can be. And that, as they say, is another story.
So what connection might there be between this particular occasion and the here and now? It came to mind when reading of opportunities which were available to children in independent schools. It occurred to me that almost regardless of exam grades and university applications, an independent school is often able to offer connections, avenues, openings, simple introductions to a much wider world beyond the classroom. There’s more to an education than classrooms and books and numbers and grades. As in a complicated crochet pattern, one connection can lead to another. Having the confidence and the grace to welcome the stranger is part of it; and just as important is the capacity to take the odd knock to your confidence, gather your thoughts, and bounce back.
Hilary Moriarty is an independent advisor for schools, a former Head and former National Director of the Boarding Schools Association.