Sunday, 26 September 2010


Upper School, Chambers meeting

I am in a big room that predates me by over 500 years, lined up with busts of Eton’s most illustrious sons, on the wooden panels on its walls thousands of names proudly carved in heavy Latin script.

I am in the midst of a gathering of a hundred and fifty men (and some 10 women) wearing penguin suits and bowties and harrypotteresque gowns over that, who are all stamping their feet (the accepted form of applause at Eton) and the floor is shaking, in spite of the padded carpet preemptively in place. The Head Master is masterfully delivering one of his encouraging “well done” speeches, which I always enjoy listening to but the point of which I invariably forget the instant he is done. After his final and dismissive "thank you”, the volume in the room rises up from complete silence to a “fahfahfahfahfohfoh” crescendo like there was someone slowly turning a knob.

This meeting is supposed to serve a double purpose: both to hear important announcements by the Head Master and Lower Master and to conduct official school business with other beaks in the few minutes before and after that. Tradition dictates that if you want to speak to someone you have to hold on to his gown (which is why everybody has to wear one*). This is recursive; if someone else wants to speak to that person he (very occasionally she) will then have to hold on to your gown and so on. It is quite common to have chains of 3 or 4 people holding on to each other’s gown.

The meeting finished, everybody rushes off to their divs, some stopping by School Office to check their pigeon holes. Outside the main building, boys are waiting to try and get hold of beaks, most often because they have been told by those masters to “see me after Chambers”. They might have misbehaved or want a quiet word about something.  

CIMG4258-1It is an interesting experience, bizarre and slightly surreal like everything else around here, but once the novelty fades it becomes just a right pain in the arse. This happens every morning, 11:20 to 11:40, Monday to Saturday, and it is compulsory to attend. Us Language Assistants don’t have to be there on a Saturday, but it still means Mon-Fri I have to jump out of bed into a suit just to go loaf around for 20 minutes (bonus picture: me in a suit) and all I can think is: there go 20 minutes of my life I'll never get back.

Of course nowadays most school business is carried over email, which is quicker and better no matter how you look at it. So why Chambers then? Just for an extra bit of social atmosphere? Why compulsive Chapel for boys at 8:35am? Why the penguin suits and the black shoes? Why the gown-pulling and the foot stamping? Why beaks? Why the Wall Game**? 

There’s a saying around here, it goes:

“Ask not why, ask since when.”


* Except us Assistants, nobody wants to speak to us.
** Quidditch

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Eton College

Slough is rumoured to be rough, and this year I am working at a public charity for boys just outside of Slough.

Technically, this is all true, as Slough “has a relatively high crime rate, with figures for all crime statistic categories above the English average and figures for several categories more than double the English average” and Eton College "is one of the original nine English public schools as defined by the Public Schools Act 1868”, Wikipedia dixit. However, it is also true that Windsor Castle (one of the Queen’s residences) is a 10-min walk away, that Windsor is a tourist wonderland and that Eton is commonly perceived to be the cream of the crop amongst the most exclusive schools for boys in the world.

The King's College of Our Lady of Eton beside WindsorOnly boys study here, so a boy is a pupil/student. Yet a beak is a teacher, the headmaster is the Head Master, a class is a div, boys in the same year are a block, a term is a half (Michaelmas, Lent and Summer, so 3 halves), lessons in the morning are scheduled as schools (1st School 9:00-9:40, 2nd School 9:50-10:30 and so on to 5th) and those after lunch as After Four (4:30-5:10), After Five (5:20-6:00) and After Six (6:15-7:15). After lessons and in between them, much sport is done, and a number of games unique to Eton are played here, like Eton Fives and The Wall Game.

So what am I doing here? I am not a boy, not yet a beak, but I am the Spanish Assistant at Eton College for 2010/2011 – though I prefer the rather pompous term Lector, fahfahfah. I am here to teach the boys and help them with their oral Spanish (however that may sound). There is a new Lector every year, all of them from Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, so here is another reason to consider myself lucky to have studied there. This is for me an amazing opportunity to get to know the Tradition that inspired Harry Potter from the inside and to teach in possibly the best environment one could hope for.

For Eton is… special. It is special in so many ways that it will take me many, many posts to point it out. So as this new journey of discovery and understanding I am embarked on progresses I will endeavour to share my discoveries. You’re welcome to tag along!