The Other Half

by Diana Wynne Jones

This is not about my own school. I prefer to forget that. This is about how a large part of the job description when you write for children is the remorseless visiting of schools. When I was young and strong, I was required to do this almost once a week. Half of the time, the visit was entirely rewarding: the children, as always, were lovely; the staff, enthusiastic; and I could find the school entrance. Even when I lost my way (or, on one memorable occasion, when a silly old man jumped off the moving train and someone had to pull the emergency cord) and I arrived late, this kind of visit was always wonderful. On the occasion of the man jumping off the train, one of the boys actually gave me the idea for my book Howl’s Moving Castle.

These visits kept me going for the other half of the time, in which there was never any problem with the children, but the adults behaved atrociously. At the very least, the Headmaster would rush at me as I arrived, wring my hand in a crunching grip, and say, “I haven’t read any of your books, of course.” I was always too busy shaking my right hand and wondering when I’d recover the use of it to ask the obvious questions: “Why haven’t you? And why of course?” Headmistresses were less predictable. Here the common factor was that they regarded me as an intrusive nuisance and were liable to have arranged for the whole school to do something else. I would arrive at the school at the stated hour, having allowed time to hunt around the buildings for the way in, to be met by the School Secretary saying, “The Headmistress has them all in Maypole Dancing practice. Do you mind waiting an hour and a half?” It often took strong resolution not to simply turn around and go away.

The visit which caused me eventually to decide not to visit schools anymore was arranged as part of a citywide book festival. All schools in the city were supposed to participate. I was escorted to this particular school by two nice but nervous librarians in a small old car. As we chugged up the forecourt to the dark and forbidding school buildings, an obvious School Secretary came rushing toward us, holding out one hand to stop us. We stopped. “No Supply Teachers today,” she shouted. “We don’t need any extra staff. Go away!” Somewhat shaken by this welcome, we explained that we were not in fact spare teachers but an Author Visit arranged by the city. “Oh, then come in if you must,” she replied, “but the Deputy Head won’t be pleased.” The said Deputy Head, whom we encountered at the entrance, seemingly standing by to repel visitors, was indeed not pleased. She told us brusquely that we had better get ourselves to Room Eleven then. After some hunting about, we found this room. It was large, anemically lit, and full of empty desks. Scattered about at the desks were seven or so depressed-looking girls and boys. The skinny, angry-looking teacher in charge said to us, “The rest of the class have gone to a Latin lesson. You wouldn’t want them to miss their Latin, would you?” I suppressed a desire to tell him that, yes, I thought they might miss their Latin just this once, because the librarians by now both looked as if they might cry. Instead I sat where the man told me to and started to get on terms with the remaining children. After six or so minutes, we were beginning to loosen up and enjoy ourselves and the kids were starting to ask questions when the door burst open and the Deputy Head reappeared, energetically ringing a large brass bell. “Everybody out!” she shouted. “Children, go home. The rest of you go away. We’re on strike from this moment on!”

There was nothing to do but go. The librarians and I went and had coffee and stared at one another limply. Schools, I thought, would be fine if it wasn’t for the adults running them.

Diana Wynne Jones’s latest book is The House of Many Ways (Greenwillow).

From the September/October 2008 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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Comments

  1. The staring at one another limply is so very much classic Diana Wynne Jones. *reads again with chin in hands*

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