A Housemaster's Tale
by Al McNeill, Housemaster Cumming House
I have an extraordinary job at Gordonstoun as the Housemaster in Cumming House. The first purpose-built Boarding House at the school, its cedar-clad walls lean quirkily outwards and it is as distinctive on the outside as it is lively on the inside. During the Summer, the House lies in quiet anticipation of the arrival of up to sixty thirteen to eighteen year old boys, who burst enthusiastically through the doors at the end of August, breathing life into the walls and filling the corridors and dorms with seemingly boundless energy. The challenge is to harness that energy to good effect.
It’s a busy job! We do all we can to help the boys navigate their way through their formative years. However, despite all the mandatory paperwork, processes and procedures that we must comply with to meet the necessarily exacting standards laid down by the Care Inspectorate, the job essentially amounts to parenting on a grand scale. We do our best to provide a safe, nurturing and fun environment for our boys. In turn, they keep us busy and fill our lives with endless amusement. Of course, there are frustrations and times when teenagers exasperate; however, these are more than offset by the positive experiences and moments of immense pride in their achievements.
The boys make the long hours worthwhile and it’s a genuine privilege to be a part of their lives. As an HM, one of the most rewarding parts of the job is to invite the boys into our flat for ‘Brews.’ These informal social gatherings are most often for one of the year-groups and, occasionally, for a mix of year-groups. In Cumming House, we have weekly Brews with our Year 13s on Saturday nights and the other year-groups have a brew on a weekly rotation. We also celebrate the boys’ birthdays with birthday brews when they fall in term-time.
‘Brews’ provide an opportunity to chat informally to the boys about all sorts of things. Conversations range from international affairs and politics to deliberations over which girl to invite to the Cumming Concert. They are also a great source of gossip, mainly about fellow students and often about their teachers. Clearly, there is a line of decorum and respect that must be maintained; however, some of the best impersonations of colleagues exploits in the classroom have been show-cased by my Year 13s during Saturday night brews. They can also often take unexpected turns. Last year, I found myself being persuaded to allow one of the boys to teach me his latest dance moves. ‘Dad Dancing’ was taken to a whole new level. Whilst our typical format is to serve food and drink around our dining-table, Brews have been known to degenerate into out-of-tune sing-songs around the piano, human pyramid-making, ‘After Eight’ eating challenges, and rap battles. However, in amongst all the fun and games, there is almost always an invaluable insight into the general mood of the year-group, an explicit mention of a wellbeing issue or concern with a student, or a hint that something needs to be looked into in more detail. Most importantly, they provide an opportunity to really get to know the boys and to see them interacting with their peers.
As an HM, it is humbling to think that the boys’ lives may be shaped, to a greater or lesser extent, by the experiences we share with them, the things we do for them, or the things we say to them. It is fascinating also to think that the seeds sown in their time at school may only germinate in years to come. Only today, I read an e-mail from a parent of a prospective student. Her son had been at school previously and she wanted to secure a place for her daughter. She wrote so fondly of the time that her son had enjoyed at Gordonstoun and how it shaped his future career. One of the many privileges of being an HM is to welcome ‘old boys’ back to the House and to listen to their exploits from their time at school. Almost all of them look back with such fond memories.
I work alongside some incredible people in our Pastoral Team at Gordonstoun. They all work with the students’ wellbeing at the centre of their thoughts. Whilst most of the Cumming boys’ lives are relatively uncomplicated, with stable and loving families, some have more difficult and complex backgrounds. Many of them consider school, and especially the staff and their fellow students in the boarding house, to be their extended family. Through thick and thin, the boys will always rally in support of each other. There’s a strong bond of friendship and camaraderie between them which often continues into their adult lives. For me, the most rewarding part of the job is to be a part of the boys’ character development as they progress through the school. Those who take full advantage of the opportunities available at Gordonstoun develop a strength of character, self-confidence and resilience that makes them clearly identifiable as Gordonstounians.