An army marches on its stomach – well so, it turns out, do students. One of the first things we showed prospective parents on open days was the dining room. It wasn’t about showing off the architecture, or the nice windows, or even talking about how well your allergies were catered for – it was about telling them about the little lunchtime rituals that gave your house its character, about the prefects who chewed toast over their essays late in to the night while the Lower Fifth clamoured for help with their Hamlet essays, and about pointing out the names of your friends on the trophies, shields and honorary placards.
The dining hall is large and characterful enough to be full of memories and stories, particularly when its inhabited almost full-time by something that could be an army if you gave us enough sharp sticks and pointed us at something worthy of being whacked with them.
So here, dear friends, are is a tale from this cavern of wonders that has stuck with me long after I left the dining hall – and the memories - behind.
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Imagine the scene: it’s the first week of term, and your first time taking the reins on the most prominent of your Sixth Form duties – serving food at the head of the lunchtime table.
I am far from the world’s most co-ordinated human being, and just to spite me, we were dealing with one of the slipperiest meals known to schoolgirl kind. Spaghetti bolognaise. Or, as I thought of it, Slippery Oily Splishy Splashy Deathtrap.
Clutching the tongs in one hand and a ladle the size of a small county in the other, I braced myself for the arrival of my foe. Being the first week of term, of course, the Lower Fifth were just beginnng to catch onto their duties of fetching the food, and so things were a little chaotic between the tables; chairs were dodged, legs were tangled, and fingers were burned from underestimating just how hot the “hot plates” were.
Everyone knows it is the sworn duty of Responsible Sixth Former to remain an achorage of calm and decorum in the midst of this madness, so I tucked my chair in, and opened up a conversation with a new student about how she was finding her first day.
Then, quite suddenly, the world turned to squidge.
Unbeknownst to me, I had not quite pulled my chair in far enough, and one of the Lower Fifth had lost her footing in the gap – and with it, her grip on a pot of warm, oily spaghetti.
I would attempt to describe the scene, but sadly it would be purely an imaginary construct, for it was a rather deep pan, and rather a lot of spaghetti. All I was aware of at the time was the sudden outward rush of stunned, horrified, and (on the part of the perpetrator) monumentally embarrassed silence.
Quite calmly, I prized the pot off my head, set it on the table … and proceeded to sit there looking faintly confused for a few minutes while my ex-lunch slithered down the back of my shirt.
It was only when I skittered out of the dining hall on my way to a shower that I heard the laughter begin. Some even had enough energy left to giggle when I returned twenty minutes later.
The event was clearly even more momentous than I gave it credit for, for not only was it the talk of the house – and a deeply mortifying running joke – for just short of a week, but the event was immortalised in that year’s Christmas house skit, with a real pot of spahetti being upended over the bonce of the very Lower Fifth who had administered that unfortunate fate to me several months before.
Revenge may be a dish served cold, but there’s no matching the lukewarm and slightly-clingy glory of an immortalised embarrassment.