Updated: Apr 1
“This is Herstmonceaux, Pevensey, Arundel and in here is Bodiam,”
My guide pointed through a small anteroom to a door with a small, hand painted wooden plaque that read “Bodiam.” My six foot five inch English boss and temporary tour guide moved with ease through the second floor of a house with similarly tall proportions. He was administrator of the school’s “Summer Programmes.” A few months before, Nigel interviewed me over the phone (this was back when transcontinental calls were on a land line, cost a fortune and were a big deal.) For that reason, we agreed on a time for the call in advance. This was orchestrated via post, as in paper letters with stamps.
On the agreed morning, everyone in our house was waiting for the call from the "man from England!" and we repeatedly instructed one another to “STAY OFF THE PHONE!” Like a proper English gentleman, Nigel "rang" just when he said he would.
From the brief interview, I remember only one question. Nigel asked, “What would you do if you had sporting event scheduled outdoors with your group of students and there was an unexpected rainstorm? Without hesitating, I said, “I’d host the Indoor Olympics!” Not my idea. They’d done it at a week-long 4-H camp I went to once. They’d had outdoor events planned. It rained. I remembered. They say you can tell if someone is smiling on the phone, and I know Nigel was as I explained that we’d use cotton balls as shot puts and popsicle sticks for javelins. I wanted this job so bad, I’d have harvested the memories of strangers to come up with answers to his English-accented interview questions. Luckily, the Indoor Olympics sealed the deal. And so here I was getting the welcome tour at an English boarding school turned summertime foreign language camp. “These stairs will take us up to the other dormitories.” He said in an accent I would have donated any organ I have two of to call my own. I followed him up a burgundy carpeted back stairway and I imagined the “help” used back in the day and quickly realized they were still using it. We arrived on the third floor landing with doors on each side. “There’s Chartwell, Chiddingstone and Hever, the young ladies dorms.” It took me a week maybe more to put it together that dorms at the school were named for the castles and houses in the southeast of England. Cute. “And this is where you’ll be staying.” My huge duffel bag in tow, he led me into long and not quite narrow room with windows all around, most looking out over the lawn of the school, which was right out of an episode of Downton Abbey. Gravel path surrounded by an impossibly green lawn that looked like it had been vacuumed or maybe brushed, certainly not cut in any sense of the American tradition I knew. My job? Teaching English to European children every morning.
In the afternoon, camp activities: games, arty things and excursions to local attractions.
(I write about one of those visits here) I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. It must have been obvious to Nigel Because it was right about then he shared with me that he’d spent a summer in America. “I was in Alabama,” he said. The word “Alabama” was transformed by his accent. For a minute I wondered if we were even thinking of the same place. My mind reeled at the thought of this erudite Englishman in what would have been 1970s Alabama. Nigel went on, “One of the southern ladies told everyone my accent was a ‘put on.’ She said if you wake him up in the middle of the night he’d talk just like all the rest of ya’ll!’” He tried for the southern accent, but mostly missed. Nigel was as English as tea and I was sure the Alabama dowager who called his accent a “put-on” was as country as a chicken coup. Many years later, an old salt of a human resources exec I know shared a rule of thumb. He said, “You’re never happier in a job than on your first day. It trends downward for the first 18 months, at which point you decide to stay or go. If you stay, chances are you’ll remain there for about five years.” I worked at the school for three summers.
It was 12-hour days, six days a week.
I spent an unknown, but I suspect improbably large percent of my earnings at the Chalk & Cheese pub, which was within walking distance. Looking back, there were a some inherent limits combined with smart strategic moves Nigel (or someone) took to make the place work.
And it worked exceptionally well. They built a team first. We got three full days of well-facilitated team-building at the start of every summer. They hired really good people to run it. We weren't a band of temporary staff. We were a team. End-dates were fixed. This was the nature of the beast there, but it doesn't have to be to work in your favor. The politics and competition that spring up when you work somewhere long-term didn’t have a chance to germinate. In toxic cultures, the wretched dig in and often run the good people out. Beware of this. No raises or promotions to inspire comparison, resentment, jealousy or self-doubt. There was a bonus scheme, but it was tied to delivery: meeting the basic demands of the job and keeping the kids happy. We all had the same set high-limit we could get as a bonus, i.e. If Andy got 60, it didn't mean I could only get 40.
Do I wish I had a fixed leave date for every job I ever started. Yes. (And a pub down the street, too.) Cheerio Court. Want more? Grab my 12 Top Strategies & Actions and get started today.