At some point last year, at the height of Hasmo Legends mania, I was contacted by Rabbi David Meyer, the Executive Headteacher of Hasmonean (Boys’ and Girls’). “Dave”, who was in the year above me at Hasmo, was concerned at the damage the series might cause to the careers of the few teachers – in particular, a Bissli-scoffing one whom I had not yet documented – still at the school.
At the end of our conversation, Dave – who has taught at Hasmo for around 15 years – invited me back to the school on my next visit to Blighty. Dave probably forgot the offer the second after he made it . . . but how could I?! In fact, not only did I not forget it, but, straight from Heathrow, on that sunny late-March afternoon, I caught the Tube to Mill Hill East and, then, the 240 up Holders Hill Road.
As I approached the front gate, one of the few Hasmo landmarks still in the same place since I left the nuthouse almost 25 years ago, I was half expecting to be confronted by a crude East End hunchback effing and blinding about DJ (“the facking cant”). Instead, two young Eastern Europeans – folk known to excel in guarding Jews – now manned Jack Rose’s former position. They took my suitcase, and instructed me to report to the school reception just inside the main entrance (beneath the headmaster’s office, adjacent to the hole allocated to the aforementioned Benippled Forehead when he, so shortsightedly, was appointed Deputy Head in the early Eighties).
The first familiar face that I spotted – and it was the last that I had wanted to – on the other side of the locked double doors between the reception and Dave’s office was that of said Bissli scoffer (aka “Flop”). Even though, as a result of my promise to Dave, Flops, Greater and Lesser had been rather less unkind than it otherwise might have, I immediately suspected that Dave might be laying on a warm welcome – never underestimate an ex-Hasmo, even an Executive Headteacher, in the practical joke department – with Flop lying in wait for me in his office. The image of being put across the knee of the big man – who is no doubt relishing his ‘new’ title of “Urrrggh . . . Director of Management Information Systems” – and having my bottom dealt with, but this time aged 42, brought me out in a cold sweat. But I was being unnecessarily paranoid.
After hanging around for ten minutes (and after Flop had already departed the scene), I reminded myself that this was still Hasmonean and that Dave probably had no idea that I was even there – after all, how many times had Rabbi Roberg had me standing outside his office for an entire day, only to mutter irascibly, at four-thirty, “What are you doing here, boy?” – and, as it transpired, he didn’t!
I knew Dave (right) in our school days – when he was universally known, as though his names were conjoined, as “DaveMeyer” – primarily as the cousin of the Hasmo boy with the least imaginative parents: “Sod it,” Dave’s uncle and aunt, the parents of Meyer Meyer (who was in my year), had clearly resolved, “let’s just call him ‘Meyer’.” But I recalled Dave as a particularly likeable bloke. And he still is.
Warm greetings over, Dave immediately took me into the playground – which seemed a lot smaller to a 42-year old – where an immaculately observed fire drill was taking place. How was our generation to take such rehearsals seriously when, as we would pile back into the school building some half an hour later, we would witness the spectacle of “Cyril” calmly descending its main staircase in his trilby and mac?!
In some strange sense, perhaps because I longed to rejoin the “louts” of my day for the afternoon, I was disappointed that these boys looked so human, and were not fighting, shouting, gobbing, and/or pulling each others’ ties (there was absolutely no sign either, during the course of the afternoon, of a black market in confectionery, penny up the wall, or of searches for spare chairs). But it was just so inexplicably wonderful to be back, a feeling of elation and enthusiasm that lasted well into the evening.
I again avoided Flop in the playground, but instantly recognised, in the distance, my 1BK form master from 1978/9. Even though he claimed to have only “heard about” melchett mike (characteristic diplomacy that I immediately understood), it was lovely to catch up briefly with Jonny Bokor (right), who – against all the odds – appears to have maintained both his sanity and geniality.
There followed a tour of the school – which, though still no architectural wonder (there is talk of a move to a new site), is at least now replete with proper, pukka art, wood and metalwork, music and computer rooms, and even a couple dedicated to cooking (“food tech” they call it) and plumbing – throughout which, so completely have the buildings changed, I had to repeatedly ask Dave where we were vis-à-vis the Hasmo of yesteryear.
Despite the physical changes, the place, for me, was still full of Legends past. So, whilst the old gymnasium may have gone, I could not help but imagine a mad-eyed Cypriot, wielding a white Dunlop tennis shoe, emerge from around every corner. And in Room 1 (right) and Room 12 “over the bridge”, I sat in the very same spots that I had enjoyed the happiest, and most hilarity-filled, hours of my life (in the presence of the Legendary son of Swansea, of course).
Whilst elated to be back, I could not help but feel a tinge of regret that our generations were denied the opportunities on offer to the Hasmo boys of today. Entering each classroom and being introduced to young, enthusiastic, and, most shockingly of all, normal teachers (right), was oddly incongruous on the grounds of Hasmonean Grammar School for Boys. Those who joined that Hasmonean kissed goodbye to any chance they otherwise might have had of learning about art, music, geography, or indeed any of the humanities, in any real depth or at all. Moreover, those who were not motivated or self-starters had very little chance in maths and the sciences either (though we were taught how to execute a basketball “lay-up shot” and not to “double dribble”).
Indeed, I am of a generation of ex-Hasmos for whom Art meant being chased up and down a long annexe by a white-bearded lunatic wielding a plank of wood – that he proudly named “Whacko” (though it should probably have been spelt “Wacko”, after its maker) – with a protruding nail strategically positioned at its tip for good measure. So, witnessing the quality of art on display in the Hasmo Art Room (below) was a total revelation . . . like someone reared on Sam Fox and Linda Lusardi chancing upon some private pics of Penélope Cruz.
Today’s Hasmonean also offers pupils a wide array of educational trips and excursions. Whilst Boulogne is still in the brochure (though the Hasmo boys of today probably don’t re-cross the Channel armed with flick knives and pornographic playing cards), pupils can also now visit the art galleries of Paris and the World War One battlefields of Ypres. There is a trip, too, to Poland, and even one to Spain and Gibraltar to learn about Sephardic history (Hasmo’s former religious ‘elite’ would have loved that!)
I was more than a little amused to learn that melchett mike had been raised by concerned parents of prospective new Hasmos, and also flattered that every teacher to whom Dave introduced me had read – and enjoyed – Hasmo Legends. Indeed, in the very office that, on more than one occasion, I had begged (God knows why?!) to be allowed to continue at the school, I discussed with Headteacher (Boys’) Andrew McClusky (above) specific stories that I had written. I was amazed by the particularity of his interest, singling out as he did a story (search “Rabbi Fine”) that had tickled him way back in Hasmo Legends II. And it said much to me about the man and his insight, because – however seemingly insignificant – that story speaks volumes about the attitudes prevalent in the old Hasmonean.
The new Hasmonean is winning both plaudits and awards, and not just for examination results – as a result of deft manipulation of which pupils were allowed to enter which exams, it won those even when it was crap – but also for a progressive, imaginative approach to education, which takes into account that it takes more than Limmudei Kodesh to produce a well-rounded adult.
The best example of this is the so-called “Enrichment Programme”, devised by the two Headteachers. This has nothing to do with brown envelopes stuffed with salary supplements (for JS teachers only, of course!) – as alleged in comments to melchett mike – but rather with providing Hasmoneans with a broader, more rounded education. Allotment Gardening, Aromatherapy and Basic Knitting – and I haven’t even got to “C”! – are amongst the eye-opening courses on offer (apparently without fear that one such might, chas vesholom, trigger a sexual self-realisation before a commitment to a double life, and years of frustration, in Gateshead).
In life, however, every silver lining can also have a cloud. And a truly wonderful afternoon was soured somewhat on my way out through Hasmo’s corridors by a chance sighting on a notice board – like a recognition whilst watching Crimewatch – of a photograph (right, snapped while Dave’s attentions were elsewhere) from its summer walking tour.
“It can’t be . . . surely,” I so wanted to convince myself. “Nahhh, not after all these years. Probably just looks like him.”
Apparently, DJ will, at the end of this current term, have been teaching at Hasmonean for fifty years. A scary thought, considering that I gave up Chemistry O-Level because I couldn’t take another forty minutes of him. Anyway, the school will probably be planning some kind of event to mark the occasion (the West Hendon branch of Al-Qaeda may well be able to come up with something appropriate).
But I was not going to allow even so nasty a surprise to spoil such a special afternoon.
“Everyone told me I was mad to invite you,” Dave confessed. Well, Dave, thank you for ignoring them! I am not naive enough not to realise that Dave’s kind, if impulsive, invitation had more than a little to do with his desire to have something positive written about the changes that have taken place in Holders Hill Road under his stewardship. But that is fair enough. As Dave points out, “probably our hardest battle is explaining that the Hasmonean of today has the same name, but is not the same school as that of the past.”
The odd fact remains that I would not necessarily choose to be schooled in today’s Hasmonean rather than our’s: the total absence of “Yoks” – the school, these days, operates a strict Shomer Shabbos policy – must, almost by definition, take away much of its former colour, just as its newfound normalcy must its unique humour and chutzpah. But would I prefer my children to be schooled in the old Hasmo? No, probably not.
The fact that the “Rotter-in-Chief” was welcomed back at Hasmonean, while the Legend who gave him the title can now only rant from the safe distance of Stamford Hill – and those of his ilk have been replaced by proper, responsible educators – suggests that Dave Meyer & Co. are doing a fine job of dismantling an “institution” . . . but of building a school.
Postscript Dave informed me (without any request for assistance) that Hasmonean is running at an annual deficit of around £450,000 (security costs, alone, total over £100,000). If you have enjoyed Hasmo Legends, and feel that you would like to contribute to your former alma mater, please say so via a comment below (but without specifying an amount, to avoid others feeling that what they can – or are willing to – give may be insufficient). I will then forward your e-mail address (from the comment form) to Dave. An extremely generous ex-Hasmo has pledged to match, pound for pound, donations up to a total of £300,000 for each of the next three years . . . so your money will count double!
Next on Hasmo Legends, Part XX: The Witriol Diaries, Part I: Out of the Friern Pan . . . Into the Fire