In 1989, I was a Housemaster in a boarding Prep school in Ayrshire – sadly no longer in existence (not my fault…honestly). It was my responsibility to look after 20 boarding children from the end of the school day at 5.30 p.m. until assembly the following morning at 8.40 a.m. Fortunately, I was young and did not really take the responsibility too seriously. The great thing about being young is that you tend to have suffered fewer disasters than those older than you. I think it’s called ‘the innocence of youth’ or something. Anyway, my educational life had yet to be blighted by disaster and therefore my time as a Housemaster was generally worry-free. However, this honeymoon period did not last beyond my second term in charge of the boarding house – I was the only member of staff living in the main school with the children, by the way. The Headmaster and Deputy Head had houses on the Estate and could be called in an emergency.
It was a bleak, dark, cold and damp February evening. I headed off to bed at around midnight having checked that the boarders were all asleep and that the burglar alarm was set. I was looking after my parents’ young collie pup and he had been walked and was happy to settle down for his night’s sleep too.
At around 1 a.m., I woke up to the sound of a distant bell. It was probably the worst time of the night or day for a bell to sound as I was in the deepest sleep EVER and was only minutely aware that something was not quite right. After a good five minutes of coming in and out of sleep, I realised to my horror that what I was hearing was the Fire Alarm sounding. In a second’s passing my responsibilities struck me and I leapt out of my bed shouting various expletives whilst trying to coordinate my body into achieving the impossible task of putting on a dressing gown. No easy task in complete darkness and with the brain blurred and dulled by a heavy sleep.
I hurtled towards the flat’s front door, considering as I went the possibility that the children had already been fried to a crisp whilst I had happily ignored the bell in favour of a couple of more snores. Of course, at this crucial moment, I had entirely forgotten the fact that I was also looking after Corrie, my parents’ pup. Unlike me, she had heard the bell and had been so frightened by its siren that she had emptied the entire contents of her lower bowel on to the hall carpet. My right foot, unslippered and therefore entirely bare, met with this less than desirable pile even before my hand reached for the doorknob which would have lead me to the dormitory block.
So, I have yet to get out of my flat, the fire alarm is blaring, the dog has messed the carpet and my foot is now covered in excrement. Not a great start to the ‘saving lives’ part of my job description. The dog is barking loudly and I am now hopping on my ‘good foot’ wondering what my next move should be. And this is when genius struck. I hopped into my bathroom, shoved my ‘messy’ foot down the toilet and flushed. This cleared the main area of debris from my foot and I was able, finally, to hobble out of the flat, ready now to be heroic.
I can’t quite remember why I then failed to go to the dormitories. I think I had taken so long to get out of my flat that I assumed, naturally, that the children had managed to get themselves downstairs and out to the fire assembly point in the school’s front porch. Instead of heading to the dormitories therefore, I turned to my immediate right, which would lead me downstairs. What I forgot was that by opening the door to those stairs the burglar alarm would sound and boy did it sound!
Taking the scene as a whole, then – the dog is going mad and barking like a maniac, the fire alarm is sounding, the burglar alarm is also sounding, I’ve still got traces of dog faeces on my foot and I’ve yet to spot any children.
As I reach the bottom of the stairs, I am met by the Headmaster, fully dressed in a suit and standing looking at me with his hands on his hips (It transpired that he had been woken by the alarm too, even though he was 300 metres away in his bungalow, had got up, got dressed and walked up to the school in the time that it had taken me to meet him half way down the stairs from my flat).
‘Ah, Mr. Grant; how nice of you to make an appearance.’ He said this whilst quizzically looking at my right foot, which I was still holding off the ground in a somewhat eccentric manner. ‘Just out of interest, where are the children?’
My brain was still muddled and so I mumbled feebly, ‘Are they not in the front porch, then?’
‘No, I don’t believe so. Perhaps you might like to find them and follow our fire alarm routine – you know the one – where we save the children from the inferno like we’re supposed to.’
The sarcasm was lost on me at that precise moment. I ran back up the stairs, gathered the children and brought them down, where we followed the protocol by taking a roll call.
Unfortunately, the Headmaster hadn’t finished with me. ‘Am I right in thinking, Mr. Grant, that the burglar alarm is sounding too?’
I smiled and laughed one of those nervous little laughs. ‘I think that was me coming down the stairs.’
He looked at me blankly before drawing out an extraordinarily long, yet cutting, ‘Yes…’
Once both alarms had been switched off and reset, I took the children back to their dormitories. I was not in the happiest state of mind as the Head had just told me that he wanted a ‘little chat’ with me the following morning. Little chats were neither little nor chatty in my experience. Anyway, I took this opportunity to get tetchy with the children. ‘Why on earth didn’t you get up and go downstairs when you heard the alarm!’
One wee brave soul then informed me that the Head Boy, also in a state of delirium, had told everyone to go back to sleep because Mr. Grant had everything under control. I couldn’t help but see the irony in that.
Lesson Number 2: Be prepared for anything, keep your head in a crisis and never agree to look after a puppy. In addition, it has made me realise the true power of learning from one’s mistakes.