“When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all…”
1973 – Richard Nixon is President of the U.S.… the military draft ends… Roe V. Wade becomes law… Tory Spelling is born… Paul Simon releases Kodachrome… I wave good bye permanently to the ability to do math without a calculator, or, actually, to be perfectly honest, to do math at all.
1973 – the year I entered Dwight Frankin International School, 44 Crowndale Road, London NW1. A school that doesn’t even exist anymore – the only reference I can find to it on the internet is on the resume of some poor sap who presumably feels it gives his CV that certain ‘je ne sais quois’. I’ll say it does: nobody knows what it is, or was, anymore.
But I remember.
I remember that in the year it began, the year I was enrolled, there were only fifty students. We were outnumbered by headmaster, teachers, administrative staff, volunteer mothers, lunch ladies and cleaning personnel, but still somehow managed to skip class, hideout in the lavs, go down to the cafe for buttered toast and tea (sophisticates we!) go visit one of the local seniors in the misguidedly school-inspired Senior Visiting Program who were always good for a smoke and a little mutual midday television watching (not to mention further endless cups of tea), hang upside down from the bars in the gymnasium and talk about boys – anything really, except go to class.
It was the confusion you see – fifty teenagers from at least ten countries that I remember (U.S., Canada, Germany, Japan, Holland, Belgium, Italy, Egypt, France, Spain), kids that didn’t speak a word of English, teachers that didn’t speak a word of their language. (I think we had English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Latin covered – for everything else, there was the good old pocket dic…)
And we were all new – teachers included. I think it was all they could do to stop from pulling out their hair (and I bet there were a lot of despairing staff meetings “What made us think we could EVER do this? They’re monsters!”) let alone call roll, produce text books and lesson plans, police the students and even communicate on the most basic level.
Everything was new – everything but the school itself.
DFIS was based in a space we continued to share with the original occupants – occupants who are themselves still there today – the night school of the Working Men’s College.
Founded in 1854, the college moved to the Crowndale Road location in 1904, and when we moved in nearly seventy years later, I don’t think it had changed overmuch besides the exchange of gaslight for electricity.
The rooms were small and dark and pokey. Most of them had fireplaces, cold stone and tile floors, rattling, drafty windows, unreliable central heating and high hammered tin ceilings (where presumably the heat rose – it certainly wasn’t down with us where we were all suffering from chilblains and chapped skin by October) and were furnished with desks and chairs that still bore the carved in initials of students who studied in years with decades that began with ‘2’ and ‘3’ and ‘4’. There were inkwells (and we used them) and sets of moldering text books some of which I am convinced still hadn’t acknowledged the discovery of the spherical nature of the planet.
The science labs were something out of Dickens, with gas lit Bunsen burners, gigantic glass fronted cabinets filled with brown glass bottles which were subsequently filled with ancient acidic liquids and poisonous powders. We sat at high benches – a room full of shivering Bob Cratchits – complete with scratched and stained stone sinks and our own individual gas taps, and wound our ankles around stools with seats worn shiny by hundreds of long gone student asses who’d polished them since nigh on the turn of the century.
The gymnasium (seriously) was a joke. The walls covered with cracked wooden monkey bars, two frayed and sad little ropes hung from the ceiling and two netless netball nets stood guard at either end of a room that smelled like the inside of a thousand gaping plimsolls: aged sweat and elderly funk fighting it out for noxious supremacy. We never cared who won – we were just trying to keep our gorges in place, for lunch always followed P.E.
(And I shall only take a casual swipe at lunch, as it was the same revolting, monotonous menu day after day – flabby white chips, Spam (cold or fried) and something green, I know not what. Sausage day was the only day we all looked forward to – say what you like about certain elements of British cuisine: those people know their way around a sausage.)
But every now and then we would go to class and have to sit through lessons led by whatever must have been the scrapings on the bottom of the barrel of the teaching contingent in London at the time.
To tell the truth, I remember very little about the teachers save Mr. Bambridge, the huge red-headed P.E. teacher who taught straight out of the Monty Python Sergeant Major handbook, (think Graham Chapman screaming “You ‘orrible little man!” and substitute ‘girl’) complete with threats as inducement to exercise, disgust at the pathetic raw material he’d been charged with shaping up, and headshaking, eye rolling horror at the depths to which his career had sunk.
There was also the math(s) teacher, a man whose name has been long lost under layers of merciful mental scar tissue, but whose manner, health and personal habits were so compellingly revolting that we literally couldn’t keep our eyes off him.
He wore the same graying, fraying dirty shirt every day with the same filthy egg-stained tie (we got to know the stain and splodge pattern) the same dirty holey-soled black wing tips (I know nothing of his socks, though I suspect much that doesn’t bear imagining) and the exact same wrinkled, smelly grey suit, the pockets stretched and sagging with the weight of the used and soggy Kleenexes he stuffed down into them relentlessly. His hair was lank and greasy, his black-framed eyeglasses so smudged and sprinkled with dandruff, you had to wonder how he ever managed to so accurately assign detention.
The description may sound pretty cruel, but remember that no matter his financial circumstances, he could at least have showered and washed his hair (even if with school-sponsored warmish water), or sponged or scraped the largest spots off his suit, or wiped down his glasses by sacrificing one of the seemingly endless number of Kleenexes he was constantly transferring from one pocket to the next (and sometimes like a little old lady, shoved up his sleeve!) or even – God help us – polished the top of one shoe against the fabric-clad calf of an opposite leg. But no.
We were mesmerized by the griminess of the man – the utter and complete revolting unwholesome filth he seemed positively dipped in. It became almost (almost) comic; surely he’d have to come to class in a new shirt someday – surely he’d have to stop sniffling and blowing his nose and empty his bulging germ-laden pockets some day.
In a strange way, he achieved a sort of putrid perfection – but seriously: is it my fault geometry eludes me to this day?
Into this ancient, crumbling, not altogether spotless seat of learning poured my new friends – the other forty-nine casualties of an alternate Anglo-American education.
My friends at DFIS were mostly American (Cate, Caren, Gil, Wade, Lisa) a couple of Canadians (Alison, Melanie) a handful of foreigners (Eva, Beata, Masayuki, Mario and Zig) and most of the British contingent.
Interestingly, all the English kids, with the exception of a girl with the unfortunate surname of Slack (and it didn’t help that she was an explosively early bloomer and pretty tarty too) were the children of film directors - Nicholas Roeg and Ken Russell – all boys – Luke, Nick, Waldo and Alex – and all weird. But nice. Definitely nice.
All the kids were nice. And the setup of the school – everybody new, nobody established and school uniforms that cut down on the gaping differences in fashion choices and the cruel neglect of parents who didn’t understand the very real need for blue tie-dyed suede platform boots – led to a certain leveling of the playing field.
Maybe you were gorgeous, but didn’t speak English; maybe you were bright, but nobody knew (or cared) maybe you were rich (but with the exception of the Egyptian boy and his sisters who were brought to school in a chauffeur driven limo every morning) nobody could really tell.
So there we were: at a brand new school in a foreign country (to most of us) not overly hindered by teacher supervision (unbeknownst to our parents) not particularly stimulated by our immediate surroundings (which seem kind of bizarrely retro-cool now, but were simply grim and dismal and cold at the time) and either entering or becoming more firmly entrenched in puberty by the nanosecond.
It was a very exciting time.
Dwight Franklin International School might not have had much of a location, it might not have employed the world’s greatest teaching staff, it might not even have had much of a curriculum, but the one thing it did have was golden: it had proximity to the rest of Europe, and students whose parents balked at neither the notion of travel, nor (for the most part – I exclude my father here) the expense a little travel incurred.
So we traveled.
Our first trip was our French class trip to France for the day. Nothing simpler: we just hopped en masse onto the boat train and slipped as easily into Calais as we slipped down the polished-with-age climbing ropes in P.E. class. Frictionless French. A Dwight Franklin specialty.
The breakdown occurred in the areas of planning, supervision and actually speaking a syllable en francais. Our French teacher was absolutely hopeless. The moment we hit foreign soil, ignoring the little teachery twitterings and squeaks, we split off into groups of three and four and hastened into the shops and cafes and boulangeries of the ugly little town, stocking up on Gitanes and Disc Bleus. And shockingly, for a group aged between about fourteen and seventeen, into the bars where cheap wine and the local homemade Anisette (sold in plastic jugs like milk in Ontario) was provided to us – in school uniform I'll remind you - straight up, no questions asked, merci’s proffered en Anglais.
It seems odd now – to go to France for a day – and do nothing more than eat crusty French bread and drink alcohol (or in my case espressos – I couldn’t stand the taste of liquor until I was in my twenties, a preference that has changed somewhat in the intervening years) caring for nothing more than that we get to sit next to the boy we had a crush on, or be able to blow smoke rings like the older sophisticates who lit their butts with smelly brass Zippo lighters.
I will always associate the smell of butane with Calais and the soul-stirring profile of Wade Cunningham. (Sigh.)
But we did return to the train on time, and even promised we wouldn't say a word about the drinking and the non-French speaking. The teacher was such a craven coward, we were thanked; the thanks, however, should have waited until we’d arrived back home, as some clown offered one of the boys (one of the film director’s sons – I’ll say not which, my lips are sealed) a quart or so of anisette which he drank down in minutes, and which occasioned a trip to the lavatory – a trip from which he was unable to retrace his steps by dint of complete and utter rat-assed drunkenness, locking himself in the toilet and wedging himself in by passing out sideways, inextricable until the door was removed by the police at the aptly named Waterloo station, where he so soggily met his.
Somehow, covered in shame (and vomit) he and we managed to keep the disastrous trip quiet, with the result that we were again scheduled to travel to Switzerland for a ten day ski trip. Two teachers to chaperone, all the cute boys were coming, and I begged and begged and BEGGED my parents to let me go.
I cannot remember what I promised – I hope I did whatever chores or penances or promises were extracted – because the trip to Montreux was an adventure… a transformation… the most exciting thing I had ever done.
This time about twenty of us had signed on for the ten days – plus two teachers/chaperones: Mr. Bambridge and some female teacher… the mists of time etc – all my favourite girlfriends, plus the boys they liked, PLUS Wade (sigh) Cunningham. All of seventeen years old, he was a towering manly figure in my mind; he was cute, he could shave, he knew all the best music – he was unutterably cool, and I pined for him like the proverbial pony.
And then magic happened: another boat train, another occasion, but Wade asked me to sit next to him and casually put his arm around the back of my seat and actually TALKED TO ME! I cannot imagine what I said – I cannot remember what he said – all I remember is that at that moment I went into something like a drug-induced high that lasted from embarkation to debarkation and every day in between.
I was a pretty shy kid, skinny, sort of plain, but funny; and I actually had had boyfriends before. But this was something different – this was something deliberate and grown-up seeming and intoxicatingly exciting because after all that travel and all those new schools and all the mysterious functionings of cliques and gangs and groups I had never been quite able to wrap my mind around, I finally felt like I belonged.
Wrap that in a romantic haze and plop it down into a sunny spring ski trip to Switzerland, with virtually no one (like in the Octopus’s Garden) to tell us what to do, and I’m only surprised (even now) that I didn’t explode or burst into spontaneous flames from pure excitement and joy.
And the trip by itself was wonderful. We had an entire chalet to ourselves, within walking distance of the ski slope which was so smooth and gentle and warm and sunny, that learning to ski was a piece of torte; and passing the time in between runs was just day after day of drinking hot chocolate or coffee in the chalet and nibbling on bar chocolate in bed, and spending most of the time in between learning how to French kiss with Wade Cunningham.
To the strains of Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water’, Neil Young’s ‘Harvest’, Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, Cat Stevens ‘Teaser and the Firecat’, Paul Simon ‘There Goes Rhymin' Simon’; Good lord – who wouldn’t fall madly and passionately in love?
But it ended – the trip and my romance – Wade grew cool on the boat train home, and by the time we reached London he was flirting with another girl.
I arrived home at Albert Court in the middle of a dinner party from which my mum excused herself to come rushing up to welcome me home. I fell into her arms and sobbed and sobbed. And sobbed. I couldn’t speak. She had to excuse herself from the party and put me in a tub of warm water and rub my back until I stopped crying. I had a farmer’s tan – brown arms and neck and face – but under my clothes I’d lost at least ten pounds from excitement and eating nothing but chocolate and drinking coffee for ten days. I looked healthy, but I was a debilitated toothpick, exhausted and confused and totally and completely overwrought. I was sick for a further ten days and at the end, though I had regained my weight and composure, my heart was a bedraggled little organ – one I thought would never mend.
A few (!) years have passed since then, and I have since seen more beautiful sights than a sunny spring in Switzerland, and I have loved more beautiful men, more deeply and more truly than Wade Cunningham.I've even been kissed by better kissers.
But I don’t think I’ve ever been so purely happy, or so completely, heart-stoppingly, blood-thrillingly excited as I was on the Dwight Franklin International School ski trip in the spring of 1974.
But who knows what the future holds? After all, I’m still pretty crazy after all these years.