I was a little surprised to be handed an ice lolly.
Lunch for teachers and their support staff colleagues is a little strange as we have to sit at least two metres away from each other as clearly social-distancing is more effective in preventing transmission than masks when you are eating. This means we sit at exam-style desks in the former Pre-Prep dining room (fear not – Pre-Prep pupils are enjoying the use of their new dining hall conveniently ready, thanks to the dedication of our Estates Team, for the re-opening of school in September), and munch silently, if contentedly, the many delicious offerings our wonderful catering team serve up. Last week, I had just enjoyed a slice of hot apple pie and cream. As I meandered back up to the hilltop site, taking in the vista of open spaces and tree-lined boundaries, I engaged some Year 7 girls new to the School in what I hoped would be improving conversation: ‘Do you want an example of rampant injustice in this world?’ asked I. My audience bore with me. ‘Well,’ continued I, ‘teachers have to make do with apple pie and cream whereas you, on this sweltering day, have lollies.’ Our cheerful exchange continued, with my bright-eyed, quick-witted interlocutors cutting through my argument and identifying greater ills which plague society. And on we went.
However, a few moments later, as we rounded the open space of the all-weather pitch and the Orchard (wherein nestles the outdoor classroom, a much more tempting venue for my afternoon’s labours than my office), I heard a quietly spoken pupil ask me if he could have a word. Of course, I stopped and asked how I could be of help. I saw he held an unopened ice lolly. ‘Mr Pettitt,’ said he, ‘can I give you this? We thought you ought to have it.’
I was touched, and it made me laugh. This Year 7 is going to go far.
My return to the hill-top site took me past the Memorial Gates on North Road, the ‘gates of unselfishness’ as they were called by the Head Master whose vision it was to have them erected as a reminder to the succeeding generations of school children whose peace and freedom had been guaranteed by the sacrifices of Highgate pupils and teachers who fought and died in two world wars; and then into Central Hall, an architectural jewel in the Senior School’s multi-faceted crown. Eighteen sturdy Edwardian classrooms gather round a wonderful space, a soaring secular chapel, where pupils (now in year group bubbles) gather between lessons and soak up the atmosphere (or chatter animatedly!). It’s the best space for putting up displays and this week there have been two: the first, a ‘meet-the-prefects’ board, where the best, most community-facing Year 13 students introduce themselves: name, subjects, hobbies and, the most gigglesome read, unusual fact. Suffice to say, once you start reading, you can’t leave until you’ve read them all.
The second display is just as arresting. ‘What’s your story?’ asks the headline, and twenty colleagues – teachers and support staff from across our schools – try to answer. Birth parents and their parents, adoptive parents; places you’ve spent time in; languages you speak; how you identify – by nation, region, religion; what has shaped you. Colleagues I have known for years tell me things I had never known or known to ask. Things I have known for years newly, differently refracted in the words of friends mulling openly on where they come from. Hidden stories emerging from the simplifying constriction of the single surname we have had chosen for us.
The theme of the display is inclusion, and what inclusion means and should mean for Highgate, and how it links to equality and anti-racism: how telling and hearing our stories equip us to be inclusive, to being welcoming; to value and appreciate difference as a richness, looking for our alikeness not in race, gender, religion or sexuality but in our lived and shared values – interconnectedness through experience.
This lunch-time odyssey, shared with you because, unless you are in one of our bubbles, we can’t welcome you to wander round our lovely school or even meet our lovely pupils, ended as it does at that time of day, in another of our courtyards, the Science Quad, full of late flowering perennials and hungry sixth formers looking forward to their crack at a late lunch and, no doubt, an ice lolly. Re-ordered, re-staggered and re-masked as we are this term, it’s great to report that life goes on with skittish humour, restless energy, rapier-like perception and unforced, unembarrassed kindness.