The Democratic Union School

by Mark Grant

Third Place


Chapter Three Excerpt


A Tea of Troubles


I realise that people who say or report seemingly incredible news are not just brushed aside but are reckoned to be out of their minds. But all the same I’m not going to be put off. While the city is in danger, I won’t hold back. I trust myself. I know what I’m saying is more accurate than other accounts.  [Thucydides History, 5th century BC]


Monday morning. The three days the previous week had been a false dawn, tentative, quiet, dull. Staff training, lesson preparation, departmental meetings. Then the weekend. Saturday breakfast of coffee and croissants spent on a rattan chair reading Le Matin in the gilded Café Hodler on Rue Rachel Crowdy, browsing in Le Polymathe bookshop on Rue Jeanne-Henriette-Rath, the evening at the Alhambra listening to classical Turkish music, a Sunday walk through the vineyards a few miles west of Geneva at Satigny concluding with a late lunch of omelette aux fines herbes, endive salad, tarte tatin, and a local bottle of subtle vintage on a sunny restaurant terrace. Now la rentrée in its full and awful earnestness. Outside, the long line of shiny black cars edging to enter the school site, the revving of engines, the slamming of doors, the hooting of horns. Inside, the voices and colour and feet. Some students had shot up in height during the holidays, others had changed with their hairstyles. Gangly, toothy, bouncy, springy, whiffy. High fives and shouts across heads and slapping of shoulders. No one yet settled into a routine. In the corridors lost faces, puzzled faces, upset faces. Large display boards at the main entrance and at the top of the staircases with room allocations, class lists, subject teachers, timings for initial year-group assemblies. In the school office anxious parents, bustling staff, harassed managers. David beetled along the corridor and closed the office door behind him. Immediate silence, peace, calm. The solidity of Swiss building construction. He lined up his notepad and pen on the round table for the first interview of the day. And there, already, came the knock.

Tabitha set her laptop down. Her pale round face was topped by a luxuriant head of glossy black hair, its ordered curls the imperious majesty of a Roman empress, her hooded red sweatshirt a souvenir of a summer school at Yale. Although she was just eighteen, David sensed power emanating from her, purposeful rather than hostile, so that he was enthused. To engage like this was the beauty of the job, made him feel energised and excited.

“My application forms, Mr Lowe,” she said, tapping quickly on the keyboard with her mauve fingernails before swivelling the screen in front of David. “Can you check them?”

This was David’s sixth meeting with Tabitha. She had joined the previous year when she started in grade 11. The Democratic Union School used the American system. It had taken David a while to grow used to grade 11 referring to lower sixth, grade 12 to upper sixth. His practised eye ran down the page: name, contact details, list of schools attended. In essence, barring the font and layout, every university application form around the world looks similar.

“So you were at Compton Junior School in Massachusetts. Any qualifications from there?”

“A debating award.”

“How long ago was that?”

“Five years.” Tabitha fixed him with her hazel eyes. Her right index finger was looping itself in one of her curls. “Yeah. I see what you mean. Definitely some time ago.”

“But,” David said softly, “if you feel it was an important award, put it in. You might, however, want to focus on other, more recent achievements. I know from Mr Hadas you’ve done some good work in the all-primary division.”

David looked at the list of universities. They were a nice spread. A couple that might be tough to enter – dream or reach schools in American parlance – six that were manageable, one that was there just in case, a safety school in other words. Alongside this US bid through the Common App, Tabitha was submitting a UCAS form for five UK universities and was toying too with Studielink and some universities in the Netherlands.

“You’ve a great set of places, simultaneously ambitious and yet realistic.”

“Thanks,” Tabitha said, a smile at last appearing. “My mom keeps on at me to finish.”

David ran through his usual summary about the importance of reflecting and addressing, how in the process you know better where you want to go because, after looking at a range of reliable websites, you have the necessary information to back your choices. That the client always needs to take ownership of their decisions was a constant refrain in David’s training. Guidance was not dictating, however much some of the students wanted him to map out their lives for them. If he had tried to gaze into a crystal ball, he could be accused of pointing in the wrong direction, muddling personal preferences, misjudging character.

“Tell me about your personal essay.”

“Oh my God,” Tabitha exclaimed, putting her right hand to her mouth. “I don’t know about it. Writing was so, like, stressful. Last night I was up to one o’clock on it.”

“You sound downhearted. I suppose you’re wondering if the effort of composing means it doesn’t express your ideas properly.” David gave Tabitha a reassuring smile. “Give me a couple of minutes and I’ll read it.”

The essay question was about which interest, activity or attribute made the applicant distinctive. Tabitha had responded with an outline of her life in different countries, a move every three or four years precipitated by her father’s job. Thailand, Australia, UK, US, Uruguay. It was an eclectic mix, the bare sketch of a life’s journey. She had described her father’s profession by the ubiquitous term businessman. What business, David mused, took him and his family across the globe like that? He sensed Tabitha looking at him as his eyes moved down her screen, almost inspecting him, as if he were a curious creature in a zoo, old and delicate and yet possibly of some practical use.

“If you were to pick three reasons why you’re not happy with it, what would they be?”

“A bit samey, I suppose. There’s a bit of first I did this, then I did that. Oh my God, I’m stuck after that.” Frustrated, she paused, looked at her nails, tugged at the sleeves of her sweatshirt. That was his job, to help her find the words. Years of conducting such interviews gave him control over these silences. They were, he thought, the eye through which ideas could be threaded. However lengthy their duration, he never tried to fill them.

“Yeah,” she resumed after torturing herself for two excruciating minutes, “it’s more about my parents than me. I had to go along with the moves. They weren’t my doing.”

“How would you like your piece to read?”

“Kinda zingy. I’m a bubbly sort of person.”

David remembered how Graham admired her readiness to answer questions in his lessons, although to allow others a chance to engage he sometimes had gently to restrain her enthusiasm.

“Shall we look at the questions again?” David scrolled down. “What about solving a problem that you’ve encountered?” She shook her head. “An event or occasion that has marked a transition in your life? You know, something like first communion, becoming a scout leader, a death in the family.”

“That’s morbid.”

“But you have the freedom to express yourself. Put it this way: we’re opening possibilities. I suggest we brainstorm some ideas, themes, visions as it were.”

David rarely played games, few students responding happily to them, but when used with certain individuals they could be a powerful tool. This game involved taking it in turns to come out with a like. It allowed him to gauge a student’s character more clearly and for them to see him in a different light. They batted words across to each other. Cats. Pasta. Ice cream. Shopping. Movies. Tabitha relaxed into the rhythm, realised that whatever its daftness, there was nothing threatening about the situation. Guidance sessions were not lessons. Some students found the difference hard to handle. Many parents were intensely frustrated because they expected David to predict their children’s future. If he knew them properly, so they surmised, he could slot them into perfect subjects, universities, jobs, careers. Suddenly Tabitha raised her right hand, palm out, told David to stop.

“Hair. I’ve got it. I’m going to write about hair.” She was grinning, her eyes sparkled, her shoulders relaxed. “I spend ages on my hair. I’m always looking up new styles, finding out about caring for it. My friends come to me for help with theirs. In fact, they call me the hair guru.” A pause. An anxious cloud passed across her eyes. Huskiness choked her voice. “But it all sounds so stupid in a university application. I mean, I want to major in biology, like, not hair styling.”

“These essays are what they say they are. Personal. To the admissions staff you are showing yourself in a different light. Words, phrasing, meaning. You can highlight your writing skills and really be yourself. They’re not like the personal statement for UK universities where academic enthusiasm for the chosen degree subject needs to be stressed. You want to major in biology. OK. But in the US you can change your mind. Major instead in history or environmental studies. Look at these.”

David had Googled examples of personal essays.

“You can buy books of personal essays. However, don’t. Personal essays are checked for plagiarism. You might inadvertently incorporate a phrase that had stuck in your mind from a published piece. Be original. Reading too closely what others have written may have you snared in someone else’s style. What do you think of this one? ‘Tennyson. He permeates my thoughts like ink. The sheen from my nib is like stars from the sea. My writing is guided by my trusted fountain pen. Or rather fountain pens. And different bottles. Green for when I am happy, red for when I am sad. The pages of my notebooks are a whirl of shades. Ideas, like armies, engage on the white field of the paper manoeuvres. The flags of my thoughts are signalled to others.’”

“It’s different,” Tabitha said. “Weird. Over the top. But it’s not academic. At least not directly. They’ve brought in their love of writing and Victorian poets.”

“Personal quirkiness. If you were admissions staff, would you accept this applicant?”

“Perhaps. If the grades were good. Yeah, why not?”

“How do you feel about your own personal essay now?”

“Happier. I’ve got a lot of ideas buzzing around my head. Thanks. Time for biology now. You’ll see me on my laptop in the library after lunch.”

“Use the sheet on the office door to book another meeting. I’ll see you again when you’ve finished.”

There were a few minutes before the next appointment. While he typed up brief minutes of the meeting with Tabitha to add to her file, David glanced at his calendar. Tea after school with Jeremy, the college counsellor at School No.1. Over the past three years such occasional meetings had provided a friendly chat about work and the ancient world. David took pride in keeping track of each student’s progress. That there had been an evening session towards the end of the summer term on writing personal essays he had ignored. To have reminded Tabitha that three admissions staff from prestigious US colleges had recently talked on the subject would have set the wrong tone. The audience had been predictably small. Whatever way David advertised these events, the outcome was the same. Sometimes David wondered if they were more for him, to keep him abreast of admission processes, to fill his fortnightly guidance bulletin, rather than for the students and their parents. Tabitha had probably been out with friends that night. Or trying to complete a lab report. Or writing an English essay. At the meeting he had wanted her to open up. If he had told her off, even gently, he would have soured the meeting.

The bell rang for the end of the school day. David closed his laptop, slipped it into his black cotton bag, and caught the No.15 tram from Place Helvi Sipilä to Cornavin station. Looking out of the window, he thought how Jeremy had arrived at the school three years before, fresh from teacher training at Exeter, new to university counselling, eager to question any adviser with experience. As with Graham, however, David could not brush away the hovering suspicion, that behind the affable façade was something sinister. Maybe it was the probing, which pushed further that it should have done, or else it was the eyes, which even when his mouth was smiling bright had a darkening dab behind them. Of his first-class degree, he made frequent mention, the nervous habit of a tyro teacher, or the threatening action of psychopath. Mrs Smith had unnerved him. He doubted whether she had affected many others to the same extent. His situation was peculiar. Which was why Jeremy remained in the classroom. If you could do it successfully, teaching was safe, while the survival of university counselling was at the whim of management. David alighted, wove unevenly between the multicoloured jackets, blouses, T-shirts, dresses, sweatshirts that pressed against him from all directions, before he entered the calm of the tall, creamy, neoclassical buildings along the Rue Louise Boulaz. In front of him was the Café des Beaux Arts. In design it reminded him of a park lodge in London, mock Tudor black and white overhung by shiny linden trees. Beyond an adjacent nineteenth century marble monument, however, any English illusion was broken by the blue brilliance of Lake Léman and the jagged white Alpine peaks.

Jeremy was sitting next to the wickerwork fence that screened the terrace. His glasses in their dark round frames were perched on the end of his nose, his brown hair was swept in a wave across his forehead, his goatee beard was carefully timed. Short and round, he reminded David of an industrious bee, neatly attired and mellifluous, but ready if provoked to give a nasty sting.

“Good to see you,” he said, proffering a soft hand while David was drawing up a chair. “Tea’s on me.” As if anticipating his arrival, the waiter was already in attendance. David knew the menu, but he looked at it briefly, a chance to gather his thoughts. He chose his usual tarte au citron and Lipton tea.

“Good choice, old chap.” Although he was only in his mid-twenties, through his dress and diction Jeremy feigned an older persona. Suddenly he broke the dramatic effect by flacking his arms around to ward off a sparrow that was trying to peck the crumbs on the table.

“So, how are things going? I gather you got three into Oxbridge this year.”

“They got themselves in,” David said. “Entrance tests, interviews, right grades in the final exams. I merely write their references.”

“What are they studying?”

“Classics, Human, Social and Political Science, Engineering.”

“Very good. You’ll have to come over to School No.1 and talk to the students about applications for these more, shall we say, recherche subjects. It’s good that you can persuade them to apply for them. I’m always saying to the little darlings that applying to something unusual gives them a better chance.”

“I can’t say I influence their choices unless the talks on classical topics in the general studies sessions are a factor. These are subjects the students have chosen for themselves. Oxford and Cambridge look for academic prowess, intellectual curiosity, active participation. Constructivist career theory at work.”

The waiter set the lemon tart in front of him. Its surface was dull and slightly dimpled. Sour sharpness cut across the creamy smoothness of the filling. In his pleasure David left the fork suspended in his hand. “And what about you?”

“Reorganising the department. Getting it to focus more sharply. That’s what the praesidium wants. By the way,” he said, absently rummaging in his waistcoat pockets, “have you seen this amazing app?” He took out his phone and rapidly thumbed the screen. “I’m getting the teachers to write their comments on the students directly. By the time it comes to writing references, all I’ll need to do is rearrange their ideas into a coherent whole and voila.”

“A bit like a continuous report,” David said. He preferred to talk to the teachers in the corridor, over lunch, at after school meetings.

“But more detailed. If I can persuade the admissions staff about the personal merits of our students, the numbers of successful applicants to top universities will go up.”

“And the grades?”

“Good Lord, David, you’re so stuck in your ways. Better references will swing things. We can’t continue being enslaved by grades. Think of wider learning. My debating club, Model United Nations, the European hockey tournaments, volunteering for the Place Jean Sindab soup kitchen.”

David sensed he was being patronised, that Jeremy was quietly putting him in his place over references. Amid the machinations of the Soviet politburo, David guessed that should he have been a commissar, he might have had only a short spell in office, picked off ruthlessly at the first opportunity by a scheming official like Jeremy. He puzzled over his enthusiasm for the app. At first sight it seemed a way of reducing the work involved in writing references. On the other hand, he could not imagine many of the teachers writing much, if indeed anything. After preparation, marking, revision, reports, there would be little impetus to add yet more ideas to the app. Beyond benevolent phrases and sentences, the need for good grades was paramount. An excellent in a subject could not be substituted by a very good. Even with a glowing testimonial. There was, in any case, only so much that could be said in one side of A4 paper or its electronic equivalent. State schools in Europe cut out the Anglo-Saxon waffle. Très bien or sehr gut. Admissions staff could sort and select their future undergraduates with that.

Jeremy must have read David’s face, noted the shadow across it, realised he’d pushed too far, because he abruptly changed the subject.

“In class the other day, we were talking about Alexander the Great.” Jeremy got up and, with a flourish of his right hand, assumed a pose. “No, faith, not a jot. But to follow him thither with modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it, as thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust.”

A couple behind in their late twenties turned with curiosity to look at this performance. Jeremy bowed first to David, and then to them, before sitting down. For a moment his embroidered brown and red waistcoat had transformed itself into an Elizabethan doublet.

“OK,” he said, his face shinily flushed. “Where’s that from?”


“Well done. And the play?”

Julius Caesar?”

“Wrong,” he smiled with teasing condescension. “Hamlet. In your opinion, who was the better general, Caesar or Alexander?”

David sensed he had become the student, that Jeremy was manipulating him, yet he still wanted to reply, because he liked this historical discussion. He talked about Alexander conquering the Persian Empire, despite limited resources and tenuous supply chains, pushing even into India. Just replenishing the ranks of his army after battle was an issue. Caesar, by contrast, conquered just the area of modern France. Yet he established Roman rule with such force that some modern historians reckon he committed genocide. During the ensuing civil wars that ended the Roman Republic, there were no serious rebellions.

“In his memoirs Caesar tells us of some victories that hovered close to defeat. He was inspired by Alexander, wept when he realised that, when he had reached the age at which Alexander had died, he was still just a minor provincial official. I’ll go for Alexander.”

Jeremy lent back in his chair. “Very good, old chap, I liked that.”

This teacherly compliment, and then he patted a pocket to check his wallet and went inside the cafe to pay, his resolute gait emphasising his chubby assiduousness.

“Great to talk,” Jeremy said. With a brief twinkle on his glasses reflected from the evening sun, he boarded the tram and abruptly disappeared among the other passengers. David turned in the other direction to walk back to Rue Dora d’Istria. As he passed the busy cafes, the queue outside the Italian ice-cream shop, the shoppers emerging with their bags from the Co-op supermarket, he thought how he had to nurture Jeremy, keep him on side, show him that he was decent at his job. To have School No.1 decry the competence of School No.2 would be anathema. With Peter, the other college counsellor at School No.1, he sensed friendship, easygoingness, mutual respect. But there was friction. Too often Jeremy mouthed unfavourable asides about his colleague.