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School without Tears

Updated: Nov 9

The book starts with a simple dedication:


For the Pickley Wizards: Deborah, Rebecca, Jose, Sebbie, Catherine, Nicky, Isobel, Graham, Michela, Candy, Clare, Elwyn, Edward, Antonia.


The Original 14

These were the members of an experimental preschool in Oxford, England, run by the educator and author Mollie Jenkins. The name was apparently given to us by a mishearing of "prickly lizard." We were the children of mostly affectionate parents in the early 1960s. Call it 7-Up, Oxford style. In School without Tears, the 1973 book Mollie Jenkins wrote about this experiment in creative learning, each of the fourteen dedicatees was given a short biographical note. Here's mine:


The first time I met Sebbie he was wearing a blue pram suit, but what I remember were the huge eyes alight with happiness and laughter that shone out from amid the blue. He grew up small, wiry, and bubbling over with mischief and energy; his ready humour prevented us from ever taking ourselves too seriously. His chief talents lay in an unusually good grasp of number, and a facility for composing limericks.


The "grasp of number" was clearly a false positive, but I stand correctly accused of a penchant for limericks. And let me say at the outset that anyone who even thinks of calling me Sebbie will be lined up and shot.


NB - none of the people in this photo were actually in the preschool

48 years later, on January 31, 2021, we all met via Zoom for the first time in (I think) the 21st century. There had been an earlier reunion in Mollie Jenkins's husband's castle in Durham, which I mostly remember for 12 enormous paintings by Zurbaran and being severely spoken to for using too much hot water when doing the washing up. (In England everyone gets a castle - it's very traditional. Plus David Jenkins was Bishop of Durham, so there.)


We were a motley crew today. One American and 13 Brits. One was sick, one went deliberately missing (called in the book "the atom bomb" of the group), one was never found, one was a no-show. Of the 10 remaining there was one MBE (for Urban Renewal) and one Entrepreneur of the Year. Some of us had found their calling - one had to beg off from the call in order to respond to peremptory editorial questions about his column in tomorrow's London Times - and others were still searching (our lovely shining host, on her third wedding, this time to a woman). One I had to studiously avoid because I knew that his father had bought our house when we moved to America in 1974, and that the roof fell in immediately after we left. ("What did he expect from a listed building?" Dad said when he received an indignant letter from the buyer in the post.) There was a doctor, a psychotherapist, a gamelan player, and a novelist: the whole rogue's gallery of a very British murder mystery. We even agreed to meet again in my best friend's thatched cottage in Tackley, which I remember as a hobbit-hole full of fossils and Maori treasures: a more suitable scenario for a whodunit could not be possibly imagined.


My friend from Tackley's parents had died within two weeks of one another. "Which one went first?" I asked, always the gaffe-prone American putting his foot in it. I loved them both: Douglas Gray was the Tolkien Professor of Literature at Pembroke College, and from New Zealand (hence the Maori influence), and his wife Judy was a brilliant pianist who introduced me to Sgt. Pepper ("this is really good," she said, putting on the record in 1968). I would take the train from the Oxford Station to Tackley every Saturday to have my piano lessons with their neighbor, Mr. Brooks. (Later on I discovered that the normal thing was to have the piano teacher in the room during the lesson time - he went upstairs, I think to have his way with a lady up the street. It was a more innocent time.) "Dad was the first," said Nick. "Which was odd, since Mum was the sick one. He died in front of the telly." "What a lovely way to go," everyone agreed. "Well, I don't know," I said, to people I hadn't spoken to in 50 years. "It depends on what he was watching."


Why do I do this? I think partly because of the Pickley Wizard. It was a place of laughter, where School was not just a place without Tears (as the title of Mollie Jenkins book rightly insisted) but a place with Joy. We did maths through Cuisenaire rods (Google them). We studied biology by assigning each snake a musical clef (or at least I did). We did what made us happy. And on a random day in a pandemic 10 out of 14 happy people, none of them having changed a bit, went around the boxes on the screen saying just what made us tick.


Me not having changed a bit (those sandals tho)

Mollie Jenkins, it is fair to say, had a withering satirical eye. In the opening to her fourteen biographical sketches, she admits to the difficulty of "providing a picture of each one that will make their story come alive without embarrassing them. I have no doubt that they will read my account with a critical eye, hence the egg-shell delicacy of my assignment."


Did she know that we would be reading her book together aloud, 48 years on? Did she know that her "critical eye" was the one thing I needed, most of all, in order to write the books that I ended up writing? That reading between the lines, as she invites her readers to do in the quotation above, is precisely what gave me a reason to work and live for thirty years as a professor of English? Who knows. I do know that the reason I wrote books on humor, music, and what's-wrong-with-education all started in her little school. It was because of what was wrong with education in the 1960s in Oxford that the Pickley Wizard school was formed. We are all children of that rebel instinct (though you could have fooled me with some of them. Flower children we ain't...).


What else. I loved the bit when it turned out that we moved from our original location on High Street in Oxford because a game with a perambulator rolled over some unexplored ordnance from World War Two. I admit to a secret relief when one of our number failed to appear, since she had been responsible for most of my nightmares as a small boy (she had a particular torture named after her that involved pinioning the arms with her knees and bouncing up and down on the exposed midriff, giving me a horror of gray underpants that I have still to this day). I was boastful and rude with the group, as I always am when nervous. I don't think I've learned very much socially since preschool. But I did come away with a new respect for anyone who teaches 5-7 year olds.


All preschools, to paraphrase Tolstoy, are happy in their own way. But ours, I think, was a singularly happy place. And it felt good/important/vital/life-affirming to see that fourteen easily bored children of affectionate well-meaning parents had turned out just fine. Catherine - I wish I could go to your third wedding. The third time's a charm...


Updates and Corrections: "High Street" was originally given as "Jowett Walk," which was the place we moved to later. The story about the ordnance has grown in the telling: it was in fact discovered after we moved. The man whose father bought our house, only to have it fall down around his head, has graciously forgiven me.

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