On a misty February day in Lockdown 3, I am lucky enough to meet up via Facetime with the gloriously exuberant Ali for a catch-up about his time at Hurtwood and how the various twists and turns of time and history have taken him to his current career as a teacher of Maths. Today, it turns out, is a rather special birthday, so it is a real pleasure to catch up with one who joined the school in its first decade, in 1978. I find him now, over four decades later, thoroughly enjoying his life as a teacher of Maths in the independent sector in leafy North London, and generously taking time to share something of his journey and experience. Perhaps it is the teacher to teacher connection, but within five minutes Ali feels like an old acquaintance. Certainly, Hurtwood proved a good friend to him, he tells me at once, nurturing him for five years, as the Iranian revolution and the war with Iraq that followed placed him in a kind of limbo. Richard, in particular, gave him self-belief and support in those tricky years away from home and family, helping him to find his way into the world. All kinds of quirks of time and place combined to bring him to the school. Having arrived in London for a holiday and ‘some shopping’ he found himself marooned by history in the form of the Iranian revolution. His father instantly advised him to find a school, and he tells me another of the many quirks of fate that led to his time with us. He heard about Hurtwood through an encounter with ‘a very pretty young girl’. She told him about this school on the hill, but sadly she had already left by the time he finally pitched up along with his father bearing, of course, the gift of a beautiful carpet for Richard, a revered Iranian tradition. He was in, but, before long, war meant curtailed visits and indeed little prospect of a return home. Ali was at Hurtwood and he was here for the duration.
Learning was not, however, high on his agenda, and we share the joke that statistically teachers very often admit to rather chequered school careers. From the start it is clear that he brought with him a rather mischievous spirit as well as a lot of wit. There was much to keep him challenged, and in spite of his best efforts to the contrary, focused. Richard features largely in Ali’s memories of the place and those formative years as ‘a very charismatic guy’, and one who quickly had the measure of Ali himself. He recounts glorious tales of misdeeds and smoking, backchat and mutual laughter. ‘I had a great time,’ he tells me again and again as the stories tumble out. But he also had to accept the expectations of the place and to work extremely hard; alongside all this were the tragic circumstances of his country and countrymen. The role of victim clearly has no appeal for Ali, however, and his energy and good spirits are infectious. Hurtwood, and in particular Richard’s sustained belief in him, has shaped his life, and Ali is delighted to share his journey with us from reluctant pupil – his words – to inspirational teacher – my assumption. Let us look for the tracks.
So those years, from 1978 to 1983 saw many changes at Hurtwood as it grew into itself. Tales involving Richard’s Black Porsche 911 being sprayed light blue abound; another jape involved Ali being allowed to take a Porsche out for a test drive, and he recalls being joined on the benches of the dining room by the big man himself for a cadged cigarette (yes, really). But he is adamant also: he was constantly encouraged, and indeed expected, to study and to achieve. This, and all the supportive and innovative teaching, kept him on his toes. The horrendous nature of the war in Iran meant that Ali was fundamentally in exile in this country and at the school: any return to his home country would have meant military service in a war that ultimately cost over a million lives. So, marooned away from family and funds, Ali was forced back on study, the good will of the school in general and Richard and Linda in particular. For this his thanks are profound and sustained. He found both home and support on the hill, and with the encouragement and ultimately the friendship of David and Gill Broome, he forged his way in the world. Having earned – through the requisite ‘good behaviour and high grades’ – the right to move over from Leith Hill to board in the House itself, he often found himself babysitting for the two little Broomes, Jaime and Tiff. He was also invited to spend holidays with the family down in Suffolk, ultimately earning himself some holiday cash through helping with their barn renovation project there.
Consolidating his A Levels, Ali pursued an HND course initially, followed by a degree in Mechanical Engineering, with postgraduate studies in fuel technology, studying successively at Middlesex Poly, Brunel and ultimately at King’s College London. Throughout much of this, Ali continued his relationship with the school, coming back to help with Summer School, finding himself managing the mischievous student pranks that he recognised so much from his own behaviour. One year this involved him living with Richard and Linda in Radnor and being made most welcome with a generously stocked fridge (mostly beer) just as he had found with David and Gill in the school holidays. The years rolled by as he fulfilled himself in various occupations, and ultimately finding himself eschewing the world of engineering for teaching: maths teaching, in fact, taking himself back full circle to the methods that he had found so inspiring back at Hurtwood.
So: teaching? Certainly it was a challenge, he tells me, initially at least, as he earned his spurs in inner-London schools. It was a baptism of fire, but at least he had insider knowledge of – ahem – mischievous behaviour and classroom antics. So now on the other side, and having had plenty of time to observe and absorb the lessons of life he set about mastering the dark arts of the classroom. ‘You have to earn respect,’ Ali makes clear, and we agree that with the best will in the world, attention has to be won, and is most certainly not automatically given. ‘Back in Iran, the teacher is central,’ he mourns, but he doesn’t linger. Does he enjoy it? It certainly seems to be the case, and we share the sense that it is precisely the classroom interaction, the inspiration and sense of growth, the relationships, that are most valuable and enjoyable. He has happily eschewed the pursuit of greater responsibilities in his career, regarding the challenge of education an end in itself. Even in this short catch-up with Ali, it is clear that he must be a charismatic teacher. Any Hurtwood shaping here, I ask? Seamlessly he cites the brilliant teaching of a youthful Ray Peacock, ‘just out of university and barely older than us’ as inspiration aplenty. ‘He made it come alive, made it clear.’ Job done – and still being done I would imagine, even in the depths of Covid.
So, time to get back to the working world for me – and frankly, birthday celebrations for Ali, albeit socially distanced and confined ones. It has been a joy to hear how Hurtwood has been so central, nurturing and successful for him. ‘I really enjoyed my time,’ he tells me on several occasions. ‘I just had a great time.’ I confess it felt like a celebration just catching up with this buoyant, upbeat old pupil. His stories of the generosity of the Jacksons, the unique individuality of the first decades of Hurtwood, and his clear acknowledgement that it has shaped his whole life, seem a lovely affirmation as we celebrate the school’s first 50 years and how far this particular educational experiment has come. Thank you, Ali, for sharing your Hurtwood journey with us on such an auspicious day; you’ve summed us up, made me laugh out loud, and identified the charisma, humour and occasional anarchy that makes the place unique.