So, what about a role after Hurtwood that has not yet been celebrated? A wonderful one, arguably amongst the most valuable and influential of all roles: full-time mum. Meet Henri Bast, as she was – Hadjipateras, as she is now. Up to her eyes in home-schooling, managing, feeding, supporting and cajoling her four kids (and husband) and finding time to tell me that Hurtwood literally changed her life, and has played a central role in it ever since she came to us in 1986 at the tender age of 14. It is a role, she tells me, that has been totally shaped by Hurtwood, its values and fundamentals.
Her studies began with the difficulty of the earliest prototype GCSEs, and our paths were to cross briefly as I began teaching English whilst juggling the demands of my own kids. I remember her as a name only, but it is a real pleasure to catch up with her enthusiasm and memories of four happy formative years in the Surrey Hills.
We meet online on a cold lockdown February day of swirling snow and bitter winds. Her memories are warm, however. With her parents separating and she was at a school in Athens that was as unimpressed with Henri as she was with it, she arrived with her father to see what was on offer at an experimental school called Hurtwood House. She was already wary and bruised by schools, particularly one that casually categorised her as a ‘Euro child’, making her feel like a commodity. Hurtwood appealed immediately, she tells me. ‘It felt right from the minute I walked in – it was warm and welcoming; we had lunch with Georgina in the kitchen’. The fire, the chat, the focus, the fact that it was co-ed boarding and friendly; it worked and the decision was instantaneous.
So Henri arrived in the September of 1986 for four years of education that, as she tells me many times, ‘made me who I am.’ Her memories are of friendship and camaraderie, a place to grow into herself as she stretched her own boundaries. She shared a room in Hurtwood itself with five other girls also away from home blending together their various international roots, and all affectionately remembered, but particularly 14-year-old Petty. ‘It was wonderful,’ she tells me, as she settled into the routine, ‘although I was quite naughty that first year.’ But from the start she felt that the school had invested in her. ‘They gave me the chance, they took a punt on me,' and she had found her base camp. Respect was clearly earned on both sides over the coming years, friendships were forged, fun was had, exams were achieved.
Faced with the considerable challenge of O Level exams, she jumped at the opportunity to study the very first GCSE on offer, which was Drama, and loved it. With a distant mother in Greece and a diplomat father whose Third World specialism meant that he was always travelling, frequently in war zones, Hurtwood was central, and comforting. ‘I was often left there at the door with a suitcase,’ she tells me, and ‘I was taken in.’ Her life became entwined with the homely ethos of the school, with Richard, her teachers and David and Gill Broome in particular, babysitting their little girls and spending time down in Suffolk with them. ‘They took me under their wing a lot.’ she reminisces with great affection.
She loved the international nature of the school in the 80s, the fact that there was no age barrier between years, and that she at 15 years old sometimes found herself in class with a student who turned out to be 20. She watched the place grow, and change, enjoying the amazing international breadth of the school. The theatre was built and became central, the dining room, new boarding houses added. We swap memories of productions, students, and of course student romances.
So, as A Level studies followed and her four years drew to an end, where did English, Theatre Studies and French take her? Well, with mastery of five languages on top of everything else, she launched into a degree in Modern Languages at Queen Mary’s in London. Four years later and she found herself in Brussels working for the European Commission. ‘I loved my work,’ she enthuses; ‘I had just the best time.’ Her work was varied and fascinating, including elements of PR, guiding round visiting dignitaries and parliamentarians from all the member states, organising delegations. Her different skills came into their own over the course of the next three years and more, but as is so often the case, life in the form of numerous shifts and demands put an end to this amazing working life. A spell back in London saw her working for BUPA in their PR department; they proved supportive and flexible employers through the challenges that followed. The illness and death of her beloved Dad took her back to Holland for a while, and life unfolded, as it must, alongside tragedy, romance and marriage. Workwise, she had a few years of fascinating challenge: temporary contracts, including some really interesting maternity cover, gave her different opportunities, including a year at the Royal Opera House. Settled now permanently in London, everything changed with the arrival of her first child, and Henri fitted comfortably into the marvellous challenge of full-time motherhood, as three little boys followed in close succession. ‘I just got stuck in and I looked after my children. I feel blessed and lucky and very privileged that I could do that.’ It is lovely to hear such clear pleasure in what she has chosen, and interesting also to hear of her extraordinary strength of character. By sheer chance she reveals that the surprise arrival of her fourth child, a little girl who is now 5, coincided with a battle with skin cancer. She bats off the horror of radical surgery and nearly 10 months chemotherapy with sweeping modesty. How refreshing it is to hear the crystal-clear focus on this role, even if we are both sadly aware just how much of a luxury this has become in our world, when so many women have no economic alternatives but to return to work.
We talk of ‘the magic of Richard’ – how he encouraged her from the start to develop her languages, concentrating on the positives, and not on the negatives of a kind of numerical dyslexia. It was the school’s commitment to recognising and encouraging her abilities that turned around her attitude to school and indeed her own self-confidence. We discuss the fact that smoking was permitted at Hurtwood, and Henri recalls with horror how clearly it featured as a bonus in her student years with us. Happily those permissions are long gone, but we share an understanding that it was the liberal tolerance of Hurtwood that encouraged in Henri a growing maturity and respect for the system. She points out that it quelled her desire for rebellion for its own sake: ‘I was very happy with my Marlborough Lights in the smoking room.’
Richard and Linda, as well as David and Gill Broome, have remained part of the texture of Henri’s life, and it was at a wedding and a wonderful day at Hurtwood 14 years ago that led to some personal advice which helped shape her decisions about schooling for her own growing brood. ‘Hurtwood has played a big role in my life, all my life. I’m definitely an advocate. I think I mother in the Hurtwood way: I give them freedom and make them take responsibility for their choices. Thank you, Richard.’
I think that Henri has been doing a great job over the last two decades, and I sense also that she still has much to give in the world, both inside and outside the home once her children are (very slightly) less demanding of her day-to-day time.
Henri, it was a joy to catch up with you and your proud celebration of mothering. You have turned negatives into positives, and have confirmed, for me at least, that what we offer here on the hill is an education that encourages us to fulfil our talents in the way that we choose. You’ve done us proud indeed!