The School

by Alice Howlett

The school, sandstone, soot-darkened,

A maze of striplit corridors and chilly stairwells

Drilled through by bells at nine and four,

Is a site of great importance. It should be protected.

It should be blue-plaqued, revered, respected;


For in these classrooms,

The atom was split for the first time.

Each year it was seen to shatter

In the heads of a new batch of fourth-formers; sometimes a neat

Of one hemisphere from another, sometimes an enormous

Microscopic Hallelujah, shock-headed physicists

Blinking in awe; some girls saw many-petalled

Explosions, protons and neutrons spinning out like beads;

Some saw mercury quivering and scooting away from itself

As it did in the teacher’s demonstration; similarly, Newton’s apple

Shape-shifted: a russet, a Braeburn, a lunchbox Fuji

Tumbling away in the grass as gravity

Appeared like the Cheshire Cat. Four times a week,

We were biologists; we found soft knots of life

In underground pockets, burrowing, burying

A desert wasp’s clutch and guarding it viciously,

Vicariously. Heads down, we followed khakied naturalists

Into a cave in Papua, a whispering cathedral, air dense with bats

And travelled north and west, geographers, noting land use:

Rice paddies, poppies, mangoes, tea; and made our pencilled way

Along the Mekong, learnt Mahayana, Theravada,

Weighed them in our hands, held them like charms. In a
top-floor classroom

We were enlightened, and rising to the edge of space, bore witness to it all.

We were there at the dawn of the nuclear age. We were those scientists

At Los Alamos whose bitter new light bleached the air, who

Melted the ground, stained the sky black with guilt

Like ink from a broken pen, sent tremors through certainty.

Philosophers rose

And fought their corners; the house lights went down, writers entered

Stage left and sang through us. We were Juliet, Antigone;

We acted out the arc of tragedy; we conjured metaphors

In Technicolor; fiction was a never-ending garden; we could see everything.

Our school was a house of dreams, for here

Anything that could be thought was possible; God was

Proved, refuted, revealed, denied; technologically

Blessed, we could reach further into deep space

Than our parents knew existed; not only the Hubble Telescope but

A walk on the beach would reveal Eternity

Billions of times over, and we could see Rome burn,

Troy brought to its knees for Helen, and to the tune

Of the assembly hall’s off-key upright piano, imagine: above us only sky…