Showing that an author's life is not always a happy one
This account is put together from nearly a hundred school visits. Everything in it happened more than once.
I have been asked to arrive at 10.30 without fail to spend the morning with one class of children. After driving 80 miles and hunting all over town, I reach the school at 10.29. The school is being rebuilt. There is no door and no one to ask. I force my way under scaffolding and get in through a hole in the wall. An angry lady in glasses rushes down the corridor at me. "You can't come in here!" I explain. She says she is the school secretary and she has heard nothing about my visit. "You'd better wait in the Staff Room," she says. "The Head's got the whole school in singing practice until 11.00. I would offer you a coffee only the water's cut off at the moment."
The Staff Room is like an airport lounge. I sit there for half an hour until a breathless teacher rushes in. She says, "You'll be starting in twenty minutes. That gives you less than an hour to get round the whole school."
I say, "But you told me I'd be with just one class."
She says, "Yes, but since you're here you won't mind, will you? It's all arranged."
There follows a breathless rush round the classrooms. The children crowd to ask questions and try to show me their writing in the few seconds available. Each demands two autographs, one to keep and one to swap. The teacher says wonderingly, "I'd no idea they'd be so interested. Is there anywhere I can get hold of your books?"
The kitchen ladies have decided I would prefer a pilchard and lettuce. They have kept it in a hot cupboard all morning because there are chips with it. They fetch it out, lukewarm, wilted, with the chips turned to a pile of kindling. So they freshen it up by pouring a large ladleful of gravy over everything. "There!" they say proudly.
I have been asked to come at 1.00 to spend the afternoon with 60 children. I arrive in pouring rain and the only person I can find is a Dinner Lady, who eventually finds a child to take me to the Staff Room. The Head is there. He wrings my hand until the bones crack. "I haven't read any of your books of course," he says. "Can you sit quietly in that chair by the wall we're having a Staff Meeting."
I sit quietly through the Staff Meeting. At 1.30, a teacher springs out of the dispersing staff. "I've got great news for you!" she cries. "We've given you the whole school for the afternoon."
I say, "But you told me sixty children."
She says, "You won't mind, will you? It's all arranged." And she sends me out to queue in the rain until someone opens the Hall.
It is not all arranged. The only children present are half one grumpy class who stare and say, "Who's she? Why are we here?" The other classes have not been told. While they are being fetched, the teacher says, "You'll have to arrange the Hall the way you want it. I'm not used to this." I spend half an hour dragging chairs about.
At last several hundred children rush into the Hall, accompanied by shouting teachers. When the children are seated, the teachers turn in a body and start to leave the Hall. I recollect that it is illegal for me to be left in sole charge. "Where are you all going?" I ask. They do not admit they are going to the Staff Room to put their feet up. They say, "You don't need us."
"Yes I do," I say. "You might want to follow this talk up."
They look puzzled at this. Resentfully, they find chairs. One stands up and takes revenge. "This lady," he announces in a sickly voice, "knows all about magic." Half the children recoil. The rest look round for my conjuring kit.
I stand up and explain, after which I do my best with the short time remaining. The children, once they understand why we are all here, become keenly enthusiastic. Those who do not get a question in are near tears. The teachers bear me a further grudge for this. At the end, they hasten me off the premises, saying, "We would offer you a coffee, but the water's cut off just now."
I arrived with the County Children's Librarian. We were met by a teacher in the playground who said, "Go away. The Careers interview is cancelled." We explained and got as far as the entrance. The Deputy Head met us there saying, "Go away. We don't need any Supply Teachers today." We explained again and eventually reached a classroom where six depressed children sat dotted about among empty desks. "The rest have gone to Latin," the teacher explained. "You won't mind. You wouldn't want them to miss Latin, would you?" I clenched my teeth, smiled politely and started trying to cheer up the six depressed children. I had barely spoken two sentences when the Deputy Head reappeared, saying, "Everybody out of here at once. We're on strike."
I had, I may add, come 300 miles to visit that school.
Copyright © Diana Wynne Jones