Top Ten Tuesday: School Freebie

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.

Previous Top Ten Tuesday Topics

This week’s topic is a celebration of – or a commiseration for – the end of the Summer Holidays and return to school after the long six week summer break. As a teacher and a father, I have mixed – perhaps conflicting – feelings about this time of year. I have revelled in the chance to spend six weeks with my daughter. We have walked, talked, imagined, read, coded, built, explored, painted, played, cooked and eaten together and the thought of something as mundane as work getting in between that again is grievous!

At the same time, there is a small part of me that is somewhat looking forward to some more adult conversation! And new stationary… I do have a couple of really nice new notebooks…

I also, generally, avoid school settings and books about teachers and teaching in my own reading habits. It does happen, of course, from time to time, that a character suddenly reveals that they are a teacher but they are not books about teachers or teaching… I mean, it would feel a little like a busman’s holiday…

But that being said, teachers and schools do crop up all over the place in literature. Places where characters are formed; guides who mould and pique the interest of the young folk in their care. Somewhere between the roles of a parent, social worker, mentor, guide, facilitator, judge, role model, being a teacher is an incredible privilege.

So, let’s meet some memorable (if not necessarily good) teachers in literature and edifices of learning.

The Saxophone Teacher, The Rehearsal, Eleanor Catton

A high-school sex scandal jolts a group of teenage girls into a new awareness of their own potency and power. The publicity seems to turn every act into a performance and every platform into a stage. But when the local drama school decides to turn the scandal into a show, the real world and the world of the theatre are forced to meet, and soon the boundaries between private and public begin to dissolve …

I cannot rave about this book enough! I adore it! The central character, the saxophone teacher, gives private lessons to local children and is a fantastic creation: over-the-top, sensual and sensuous, uncompromising and yet somehow deeply vulnerable and disturbing. She is simultaneously a refuge when scandal erupts in the local school – a relationship between a teacher and a pupil – and also perhaps a more malign presence than anyone else, and yet also utterly compelling. And hilarious. Just look at this snippet from her conversation with a parent:

“I require of all my students… that they are downy and pubescent, pimpled with sullen mistrust, and boiling away with private fury and ardor and uncertainty and gloom. I require that they wait in the corridor for ten minutes at least before each lesson, tenderly nursing their injustices, picking miserably at their own unworthiness as one might finger a scab or caress a scar. If I am to teach your daughter, you darling hopeless and inadequate mother, she must be moody and bewildered and awkward and dissatisfied and wrong. When she realizes that her body is a secret, a dark and yawning secret of which she becomes more and more ashamed, come back to me. You must understand me on this point. I cannot teach children.”

Catton’s language throughout this book is heavily, powerfully charged and sensual, and the intensity of the relationships that the saxophone teacher forms are incredible. Disturbing but incredible.

Mr Brocklehurst and Miss Temple, Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte

A novel of intense emotional power, heightened atmosphere and fierce intelligence, Jane Eyre dazzled and shocked readers with its passionate depiction of a woman’s search for equality and freedom on her own terms. Its heroine Jane endures loneliness and cruelty in the home of her heartless aunt and the cold charity of Lowood School. Her natural independence and spirit prove necessary when she takes a position as governess at Thornfield Hall. But when she finds love with her sardonic employer, Rochester, the discovery of a shameful secret forces her to make a terrible choice.

I suppose we could have included Jane herself as a Governess, but she doesn’t seem to do a great deal of, well, governing…. So let’s focus on Lowood School and the monstrous and hypocritical Mr Brocklehurst damning his young orphans to the fiery pit of Hell, juxtaposed with the wonderful and kind Miss Temple. This sort of juxtaposition is not unusual in depictions of schools: we shall see it again later!

St Kilda’s School, The Secret Place, Tana French

Detective Stephen Moran hasn’t seen Holly Mackey since she was a nine-year-old witness to the events of Faithful Place. Now she’s sixteen and she’s shown up outside his squad room, with a photograph and a story.

Even in her exclusive boarding school, in the graceful golden world that Stephen has always longed for, bad things happen and people have secrets. The previous year, Christopher Harper, from the neighbouring boys’ school, was found murdered on the grounds. And today, in the Secret Place – the school noticeboard where girls can pin up their secrets anonymously – Holly found the card.

The Dublin Murder Squad series pops up on these lists pretty frequently, including last week’s. But that is because they are so good! This novel, the first I read, takes place in a posh girls’ boarding school and French was excellent at creating that intense cliquey relationship between the girls – so intense that something altogether other was sparked by it, albeit briefly. Feed into that class issues, a cold murder case and complicated relationship between the detectives and witnesses and this was a fantastic read.

Hampden College, The Secret History, Donna Tartt

‘Everything, somehow, fit together; some sly and benevolent Providence was revealing itself by degrees and I felt myself trembling on the brink of a fabulous discovery, as though any morning it was all going to come together—my future, my past, the whole of my life—and I was going to sit up in bed like a thunderbolt and say oh! oh! oh!’

Under the influence of a charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at a New England college discover a way of thought and life a world away from their banal contemporaries. But their search for the transcendent leads them down a dangerous path, beyond human constructs of morality.

It has been so long since I have read this book! I recall I read it over the weekend of my brother’s wedding… strange how those details can cling to the mind.What I do recall, however, is a dangerously charismatic professor, another intense clique of students, and violence.

Yale, Ninth House, Leigh Bardugo

Galaxy ‘Alex’ Stern is the most unlikely member of Yale’s freshman class. A dropout and the sole survivor of a horrific, unsolved crime, Alex was hoping for a fresh start. But a free ride to one of the world’s most prestigious universities was bound to come with a catch.

Alex has been tasked with monitoring the mysterious activities of Yale’s secret societies – well-known haunts of the rich and powerful. Now there’s a dead girl on campus and Alex seems to be the only person who won’t accept the neat answer the police and campus administration have come up with for her murder.

I loved this book, taking the different student secret societies at Yale – Skull and Bones, Scroll and Key, Wolf’s Head… – and imagining them as esoteric supernatural magical societies. And mix into that Alex Stern’s natural ability to see ghosts and affinity with the supernatural, and her recruitment into Lethe House which polices the other eight, under the tutelage of the enigmatic and charming Darlington. There is an exuberance about it – an exuberance that perhaps did not sit entirely comfortably with the trauma of Alex’s childhood – that was infectious.

Mr Watt, Mister Pip, Lloyd Jones

Bougainville, 1991. A small village on a lush tropical island in the South Pacific. Eighty-six days have passed since Matilda’s last day of school as, quietly, war is encroaching from the other end of the island.

When the villagers’ safe, predictable lives come to a halt, Bougainville’s children are surprised to find the island’s only white man, a recluse, re-opening the school. Pop Eye, aka Mr Watts, explains he will introduce the children to Mr Dickens. Matilda and the others think a foreigner is coming to the island and prepare a list of much needed items. They are shocked to discover their acquaintance with Mr Dickens will be through Mr Watts’ inspiring reading of Great Expectations.

But on an island at war, the power of fiction has dangerous consequences.

Another fantastic novel, of an unlikely hero: Mr Watt, known in Bougainville as Pop Eye and a figure of some mockery, reopens and maintains the school in the face of civil war on the island and, in the face of increasing levels of brutality and violence, offers refuge in his own quiet determination and in a recitation of Great Expectations.

Ava, Exciting Times, Naoise Dolan

When you leave Ireland aged 22 to spend your parents’ money, it’s called a gap year. When Ava leaves Ireland aged 22 to make her own money, she’s not sure what to call it, but it involves:

– a badly-paid job in Hong Kong, teaching English grammar to rich children;
– Julian, who likes to spend money on Ava and lets her move into his guest room;
– Edith, who Ava meets while Julian is out of town and actually listens to her when she talks;
– money, love, cynicism, unspoken feelings and unlikely connections.

Exciting times ensue.

What I loved here was the way Ava’s life reflected itself in her grammar teaching. Her meditations on class and on Ireland and Irishness, and on language are refracted back beautifully to the reader.

And, as schools and teachers – and the difficulties inherent in navigating and negotiating relationships with adults, friends and learning – are often uppermost in young peoples’ minds, let’s turn to some novels for younger audiences.

Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches, The Worst Witch, Jill Murphy

Hold on to your broomstick for magical mayhem with Jill Murphy’s much-loved classic The Worst Witch- the original story of life at a magical boarding school.

Mildred Hubble is a trainee at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches, but she’s making an awful mess of it.

She keeps getting her spells wrong and crashing her broomstick. And when she turns Ethel, the teacher’s pet into her worst enemy, chaos ensues…

This was a series that matured over time! I personally found the first book rather staid and old fashioned – perhaps because it was first published in 1974 when I was but a year old! – but there was something charming about it and it caught my daughter’s imagination enough to continue with the series.And 6 years passed before Murphy published the second novel, nine years elapsed between books three and four, twelve years between books four and five, during which time a certain boy Wizard found his way to Hogwarts…

The relationship between the two series – The Worst Witch and Harry Potter – is intriguing: both schools are housed in intimidating castles; both series give animals to their witches and wizards; Miss Hardbroom and Miss Cackle seem to be echoed in Snape and Dumbledore rather uncomfortably directly…

Miss Trunchball and Miss Honey, Matilda, Roald Dahl

Matilda is the world’s most famous bookworm, no thanks to her ghastly parents.

Her father thinks she’s a little scab. Her mother spends all afternoon playing bingo.

And her headmistress, Miss Trunchbull? She’s the worst of all. She’s a big bully, who thinks all her pupils are rotten and locks them in the dreaded Chokey.

Despite these beastly grownups trying to push her down, Matilda is an extraordinary girl with a magical mind.

And she’s had enough.

“So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone”.

As I said before, the juxtaposition of the monstrous and the kind teachers is a familiar pattern: Mr Brocklehurst and Miss Temple, Miss Hardbroom and Miss Cackle, Snape and Dumbledore, and also in these two Miss Trenchbull and Miss Honey. I lvoed the energy with which Dahl builds up Miss Truchbull’s grotesqueness:

“You ignorant little slug!” the Trunchbull bellowed. “You witless weed! You empty-headed hamster! You stupid glob of glue!”

Imperial Personifate Guild Of Medlock, Wildspark, Vashti Hardy

A year after the death of her older brother, Prue Haywood’s family is still shattered by grief. But everything changes when a stranger arrives at the farm.

A new, incredible technology has been discovered in the city of Medlock, where a secretive guild of inventors have developed a way to capture spirits of the dead in animal-like machines, bringing them back to life.

Prue knows that the “Ghost Guild” might hold the key to bringing her brother back, so she seizes the stranger’s offer to join as an apprentice. But to find her brother, she needs to find a way to get the ghost machines to remember the people they used to be.

Yet if Prue succeeds, all of society could come apart…

The Guild in Wildspark is responsible for the education of its apprentices – a useful device for any writer to introduce a very different world to us alongside the plot arcs. Hardy’s personifates are machines in the shapes of different animals into which the spirits of the dead can be invited, at the expense of their memories of their first lives. It was a great and fun novel on one level, whilst exploring grief rather intently on another, and introducing a great heroine in Prue – and a STEM role model!

Deepdean School For Girls, Murder Most Unladylike, Robin Stevens

At Deepdean School for Girls, Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong have set up their own detective agency. But they are struggling to find any real crimes to investigate. (Unless you count the case of Lavinia’s missing tie. Which they don’t.)

Then Hazel discovers the Science Mistress, Miss Bell, lying dead in the Gym. To add to the mystery, when she and Daisy return five minutes later, the body has disappeared. Now Hazel and Daisy not only have a murder to solve: they have to prove one happened in the first place.

Determined to get to the bottom of the crime before the killer strikes again Hazel and Daisy must hunt for evidence, spy on their suspects and use all the cunning and intuition they can muster. But will they succeed? 

I have yet to read more than a few pages of this one. I am waiting with bated breath for my daughter to be old enough to manage murder – at the moment, the game Cluedo (which she is excellent at) can freak her out if she thinks too hard about the dead body aspect!

And there we shall end the list. I still have two more days of holiday to go and fully intend to enjoy them both before heading back into work, ditching shorts and t-shirt for suit and tie, swapping sandals for Doc Martins…

As always, feel free to comment and add your thoughts! Have a great TTT

Upcoming Top Ten Tuesday Themes

September 6: Books I Loved So Much I Had to Get a Copy for My Personal Library (Maybe you received an ARC or borrowed from a friend/the library and loved it so much you wanted your own! Or maybe you read it in one format and wanted another format, like you read it in ebook and wanted a physical copy to display on your shelves or you read it the paperback and would love to re-read it on audio. Change this TTT title to fit your post best!) (Submitted by Alecia @ The Staircase Reader)
September 13: Books with Geographical Terms in the Title (for example: mountain, island, latitude/longitude, ash, bay, beach, border, canyon, cape, city, cliff, coast, country, desert, epicenter, hamlet, highway, jungle, ocean, park, sea, shore, tide, valley, etc. For a great list, click here!) (Submitted by Lisa of Hopewell)
September 20: Books On My Fall 2022 To-Read List
September 27: Typographic Book Covers (Book covers with a design that is all or mostly all words. You can also choose to do books with nice typography if that’s easier!) (Submitted by Mareli @ Elza Reads)

26 thoughts on “Top Ten Tuesday: School Freebie”

  1. I nearly included Matilda, but I’d already listed my ten! Your post has reminded me I’ve had a copy of Mister Pip on my bookshelves for years – it’s time I read it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Matilda was one of my favourite books as a kid. I also really enjoyed what I read of The Worst Witch, though I don’t think I read the entire series, I think I read maybe the first three or four? Very fun books though. I also enjoyed Ninth House, though I thought it was a little slow paced, I’m hoping the sequel will have a bit more action now that all of the introductory worldbuilding is done.
    My TTT:

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Feeling clever because you mentioned the juxtaposition of awful Mr Brocklehurst and lovely Miss Temple and I immediately thought of Miss Trunchbull and Miss Honey! Glad to see the Worst Witch books included too. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A great list. I can’t believe that I missed Jane Eyre off my list, but like you say she didn’t do a lot of governing! I also love Matilda so can’t believe I missed that one too!

    My partner is a teacher so will be back in after the 6 week break. My son will also be starting school this September so it will be a strange time for us.

    Have a great week and hope that school goes well!

    Emily @ Budget Tales Book Blog
    My post:

    Top Ten Tuesday – Books With A School Theme

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I have only read Jane Eyre and Matilda on your list (and love your take on this freebie!)… now I want to read the rest of them.. I always end up adding way too many books to my TBR when I even have a peek here…My TTT is here


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