24 May, 2006

a festival of Thanksgiving

I know what you're thinking: they've been gone only six months and they've already forgotten the placement of major holidays on the calendar! No, no, don't panic. Since American Thanksgiving means nothing here, but it would seem that the impulse to institutionalize gratitude is universal, in spring there is a Thanksgiving, although it's called Summer Thanksgiving. Now I don't know if it's nation-wide, but King's College observes it and that's good enough for me.

So above here is Avery with her beloved Mrs Bickley, who just seems to love her to pieces and in consequence, we love Mrs Bickley. And the proud Form Four contingent of Avery, Sophia and Anna, for once not trying to beat up on Anna's long-suffering little sister Ellie. Although in general, as far as self-defense goes, my money's on Ellie!

To celebrate this festival, the girls have been working long and hard on a musical performance, held at the most elegant church you can imagine: a John Nash creation called All Souls', Langham Place. Directly across the road from the church is the Langham Hotel where Avery and I tried to have tea one day after school, early in our stay, but it was hosting a private party and we ended up at Claridge's (nothing to sneeze at!). There was a jolly, jovial clergyman, the Reverend Mark Meynell, who delivered a very nicely balanced address, designed to appeal to the girls' sense of justice: if you give somebody something, the somebody should say thank you. So he pointed out all the good things God had given us, culminating in his only child, and the children were impressed. And a clever touch, too: if we forget to say thank you, there is always forgiveness and a second chance. I think it's a lovely sentiment. Forms Four, Five and Six were seated on the giant stage-like altar area when the parents started filing in, and I felt very, very happy to know so many people, so much thanks to Becky who has been so generous with her friends, not just in Avery's and Anna's Form Four, but Ellie's Form One, which along with my reading to the gulls gave me a warm sense of belonging that has been long enough in coming. So thank you, Becky.

The gulls were, one and all, trying mightily to look a combination of dignified, proud, pious and well-behaved. The sight of over 100 gulls in their plaid dresses, knees crossed, hands folded, was so different from what our experience of school has ever been that I felt quite teary! Susan, Sophia's mother, had gone out for lunch with me beforehand, and she said, "Bring on the tissues," so we each clutched one just in case. Good thing, too, because once the organ began to play and the children to sing their "Little Latin Melody," it was pretty touching. The senior choir, made up of Forms Five and Six, were remarkably accomplished (to use Jane Austen's favorite phrase!), all singing in tune and with expression. Each group stood up to sing, and then sat down again in perfect unison, but no clapping! I am going to file an official objection. OK, it's in a church. But to listen to all those four-year-old angelic voices singing "Hello, Mr Sun," and not reward them with some applause was very hard! The English accents, too, and the pitch of their tones, and the sheer number of little people singing, made it very, very enjoyable and painfully sweet. I had heard Avery rehearsing the various songs many times over, and I have to confess I didn't stop at any point to think that she was awfully cute. But Avery times 18 in an enormous historical church filled with flowers was very affecting. "This is a lovely wuhld..."

And the readings! Two Form Six gulls had been chosen to read extremely serious and rather punitive passages from something or other, and the gravity and perfection of their delivery was something to be proud of. Then when all the girls sang together, there were also orchestral accompaniments: several gulls including Ava played their recorders, and Anna and others their violins, and Avery and some of her friends mysterious percussion instruments. From his vantage point as father of a Form Six girl, my friend Tony hissed from the row behind me, "What's Avery got, a pepper grinder?" Sure enough, it was a very weird object, but it must have been producing appropriate sounds because Avery looked quite happy. Every time I caught her gaze, however, she removed all traces of smile and put on what John and I call her "pony face": complete concentration.

Just lovely. Susan and Becky and I gave the kids flowers, and then it was arranged that I would bring them all home for a playdate, which is just now winding down. Wish you could all have been here. Tomorrow will hold two momentous occasions: the First Grandparent Visit (John's mom!), and the annual All-School Photograph. So Avery is being forced into a bath so as to look the part of the clean, well-pressed schoolgirl, while a garlicky tomato sauce simmers on the stove. I think I'll toast some little baguette rounds as well and spread them with a fantastic goat cheese from the Royal Windsor Food Festival. Are you tempted to come stay? We'll pay John's mom to do a good testimonial and then the visits can come flooding in.

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