Notes from The Jungle - International education in our time - Excerpt from the book
In this excerpt from his book, Price begins his candid and sometimes irreverent account of headmastering in a large international school and of expatriate life far from his native UK.
by John Price
Author of Notes from The Jungle
New contributor to the Gazette
February 1, 2009
I am too young to be writing memoirs. Later, perhaps, I shall bash out the standard work of self-aggrandizement on how I took Jerudong International School to the top tables of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, if it ever happens. This is more a ragbag of recollections and reflections on leading an international school and on the practice of British education at home and overseas. I hope it will amuse my friends, who begged me not to write it for my own sake. But, since all my attempts to get a job back in the UK have been fruitless, I can tell the story frankly without pandering to the sensitivities of future employers.
Maybe this book will appeal to a wider audience. The writers of soap operas have always preferred police stations and hospitals to schools, but they are missing a trick. They don’t realise that the English independent school - and its avatar, the British international school - has great dramatic potential.
Browsing in second hand bookshops, I often come across the memoirs of independent school headmasters, so there is no doubt that the genre is well established. These books are read avidly by those who have worked in private education. They are full of innuendo and unspoken truths, if you read between the lines. They may be written in a slightly haughty style and seem dull and conventional to the uninitiated, but to cognoscenti, they are full of allusions to treachery, cover-ups and blighted ambition.
Headmasters are of course bound by a code of secrecy that prevents them from washing their dirty linen in public: the protagonists of the dramas they describe may not yet have departed for the great classroom in the sky. That the whole, unadulterated truth remains unspoken, improves their writing immeasurably. Like Solzhenitzyn, who has the NKVD to thank for his allusive style, the headmaster turned author must be thankful for dire sanctions that restrain any tendency to glasnost: to tell all would be to risk being blackballed by the East India Club, a kind of academic excommunication.
Headmagisterial confessions are interesting to the insider as much for what they omit as for the jolly stories they tell of life at the chalk face. The public and international school worlds are small and news travels fast on a grapevine with many tendrils. One phone call can usually establish the truth of any matter and, after twenty years in the private sector, one can usually find out most things. In my experience, the worst scandal mongers are the headmasters themselves, who like nothing better than to regale their peers with tales that would bring a flush to the cheeks of the lower fourth.
Most headmagisterial memoirs skate over failure: the badly handled sacking; the pusillanimous suppression of a scandalous relationship; the disastrous financial decision that lost the school millions. In recent years one has heard of torrid affairs between nymphomanic geography mistresses and hunky eye-candy in the Upper Sixth that make Hollywood’s pedagogical iconoclasm, in films like Notes for a Scandal, seem decidedly tame. In any decent school, the boys occasionally bed the cleaners or vice versa and senior twinks seduce the chocolate box cherubim, recently arrived from Surrey’s exclusive prep schools. None of this ever gets into the headmaster’s memoirs and I have to say they are the poorer for it.
In a local bookshop I recently found Letters from School by John Rae, who is more frank than most about the problems of headmastering, but he sublimates and generalises with such Olympian discretion that we shall never now know the incidents to which he is referring. Ian Beer’s But Headmaster! is full of very amusing anecdotes, but he is always very proper. Occasionally, the headmaster’s wife has a go. Daphne West’s A World Apart gives a frank and very honest view from behind the throne. It would have been amusing to hear the conversations in the kitchen, as she threatened her husband with publication. The best books about public schools are not written by the headmasters, but by the College Chaplain or the Senior Housemaster. They have less to prove and are unguarded in their dissection of the past: these memoirs are often better, if the authors have an axe to grind or scores to settle.
I am not aware of any memoirs by the headmaster of an international school, certainly not a sitting one, so I do believe I have found a niche in the market. The book is intended for my friends in international schools around the world, for any teacher who is considering applying to one and for all my colleagues in Winchester and Brunei. That should ensure a reasonable print run.
John Price never meant to be a teacher, but after a short stint as an accountant and rejection letters from the Foreign Office and MI6, he succumbed to the inevitable. But he never looked back. He taught at the Edinburgh Academy, Bedales, Winchester College, where he was Under Master, and then secured his first headship in Malaysia. There he helped to set up a new school in Lembah Beringin, 40 miles north of Kuala Lumpur. After that, he returned to Winchester, but soon got itchy feet again. He has been Headmaster of Jerudong International School in Brunei since 2004.
Price is a linguist (French, Russian and rather rusty Arabic) and writes for the Brunei Times as a feature writer and education correspondent. Notes from the Jungle grew out of weekly missives to former colleagues at Winchester and is his first book.
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