Zadie Smith delves into her time at Hampstead School
In our latest questions and answers instalment the author of White Teeth, Zadie Smith, looks back at attending Hampstead School between 1986 and 1993.
What were your first impressions of Hampstead School? How much of a daunting experience was it in your first year?
The size of it was overwhelming. And like most new arrivals I couldn’t get over the idea that we had to move from class to class, look at a timetable, organise ourselves. I remember thinking these were the coolest collection of kids I’d ever seen. There were so many tribes – Goths, ravers, hip hop heads, punks and preppies – everything. Then Sikhs, kids in yarmulkes, kids with bindis, kids with death metal slogans drawn in biro on to their bags. There was no uniform so every day was this explosion of fashion. I think my first year was mostly occupied with stressing about what I was going to wear.
What was the school’s ethos at the time?
I don’t think students concern themselves with ethos much, but my sense was that everyone in the school had the sense that as a school we were kind of interesting. We had in our community the kind of kids that you found in a dozen entirely different schools but we had them all in one place. We had the son of the Oxford professor and the daughter of the bus driver. We had kids straight off the boat and families who’d been in Cricklewood for generations. I always had the feeling that the kids from other local schools saw us as somewhat cool and whatever else we lacked we enjoyed this feeling.
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What are your fondest memories of your time at the school? Do you get any pangs of nostalgia upon returning?
I am deeply nostalgic about all of it. Even walking through the playground can make me cry. It was in many ways the most thrilling period of my life.
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What aspects of your schooling would you say were in stark contrast to the modern world of education in the UK? How much pressure was there on you with regards to exams?
There was a great deal of pressure – I wanted to do well. But the teaching on the way to that exam didn’t feel like ticking boxes. And as I remember it the English A-level at that time was almost entirely essay based, which you did in a controlled exam setting, and it was not different from what I ended up doing in my finals in college. It was along the same principles. It was very frightening to try and sum up all that you had learnt in those A-level classes in a few hours under great pressure. I understand now the format is very different and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I was good at those kind of situations but many brilliant kids in my class simply could not marshal their thoughts in that form in that moment. But I still remember their contributions to those discussions on Antony and Cleopatra, and they were as insightful as any one else’s. The difficulty is in finding a form that draws out and measures the real abilities of people. But whether it’s coursework or exams what I dislike is the ideas of having very precise notes that each student has to strike so that almost no free thought is involved. I felt a lot of freedom during my A-levels and it was good practice for what came after.
What was it like to go to school in Camden?
I never thought of it as Camden. To me it was Cricklewood. I did go for a brief time with a few other Hampstead School kids to Camden School for Girls. We had convinced our school to let us go and study classics there. I lasted about four weeks. I couldn’t believe the classrooms there. Everybody was so quiet listening to a teacher talk. I just have never done it that way, and it was a bad fit. I couldn’t get used to the absence of people shouting out ‘Yeah miss but why do I have to care?’ I realise now that what made Hampstead School teachers so great was how good they were at answering that question.
Looking back on it, what would you say the style of teaching was like?
Let’s say it varied widely. I had teachers as good as any in the country, and then I had the guy who came in and did an Adolf Hitler impression before bursting into tears. But we wanted him to cry – we considered it a kind of sport to try and make these teachers have some kind of a mental break down. So the best ones did not have any truck with that, they gained your respect and you listened to them. It’s a strange thing to say but I remember many teachers at Hampstead as being very funny – like actually witty. And that went a long way. I was especially lucky in a forward thinking and yet traditional English department. Those teachers were not ‘teaching to the test’, They had us discussing Antony and Cleopatra as if it were something vital and important in our own lives. They were great enthusiasts.
Which subjects did you most enjoy and which topics or books particularly piqued your interest as a teenager? Was there anything which impacted on the career path you took upon leaving school?
I liked English and history and theatre studies. I liked the sciences, languages, and maths too but I was dreadful at them. My English teachers set me on this path, especially a man called Graham Walker, who had been to Cambridge and was also one of the first people to mention university to me as an option.