Saturday 7 September 2002, A level Year 1, Surrey, England

It was one week into the new school year and I realized Hurtwood was not a typical English school already. Instead of being in a town or city, Hurtwood sat in the middle of the Surrey Hills. With no walls around the campus, the school’s buildings just blended into the forest around us. One could wander into the woods and the hills freely in all directions and I often ran into little animals that I had never seen before growing up in a city. I was sad to discover that the stories I read in which squirrels would happily interact with humans and let them touch their furs were not true. They ran away immediately when I approached them.

The school was 30 mins drive away from Guildford, the nearest large town. The first time I was here for my interview, once the taxi driver drove off the paved road and started to climb the hill, I thought I was getting kidnapped. When I returned to Warminster afterwards and went past its high street, supermarket and Chinese take-aways, I no longer considered it to be in the middle of nowhere. Warminster was as good as London. I was glad Hurtwood was not my first destination in the UK, otherwise, I would surely have cried for weeks instead of merely days. But through the past year, I had got more used to the English way of life and this time around, I was more prepared mentally. Plus earlier this week, I discovered a more convenient transportation method to the school when a helicopter landed in the playing ground and a family stepped off from it. Maybe, I could get a lift some time down the road?

During the past week, we were explained the school rules and policies by the director of study, David Broome. And it seemed the school’s location was not the only thing it stood out amongst others. Hurtwood was academically rigorous, with study time, periodic quizzes and weekly chat with one’s housemaster. But we didn’t adopt the widely popular practice of attending classes six days a week. And we definitely did not “encourage” students to re-take exams until they got full marks neither. Coming out of China, I was initially very surprised to see these somewhat brutal practices used in England as well. I thought the world-famous English education system would be able to nurture its students at their own pace instead of pushing them to the limits. But I guessed when you had entrance exams to deal with all the way from 7+, 11+, 13+, 16+ to Oxbridge exams, there was really no alternatives. I was happy to see Hurtwood was different, or in David’s words “we encouraged learning for the sake of learning itself, not for the sake of passing exams.” But maybe I should keep it from my parents, just in case they worried that I would fall behind of others again.

The school also had a very free and relaxed environment. I was able to retire newly acquired skill of putting on a suit and a tie was as there was no uniform or dress code. Everyone was on a first name basis as well. So it was David rather than Mr. Broome who talked to us and my housemaster was Roy rather than Mr. Bickenson. Interestingly, I was one of the few people that was addressed by my last name as my first name was too hard to pronounce in English. And So far this week, Mr. Yao had a few talks with David and Roy and was happy with their performances at the school. Keep it up, boys!

PS: It is hard to believe I have graduated from Hurtwood for so many years already. Even today, I still have the beautiful view from the main car park in front of my eyes. But I am glad to see Hurtwood has been gone from strength to strength in the meantime. The fact that I was no long there with no doubt contributed to that success. Hurtwood’s reputation in media and theatre study is so well known nowadays whenever I mentioned I studied at Hurtwood, I was asked “Are you an actor?”. While I took it as a compliment, the answer was sadly no, I was no Emily Blunt equivalent, but just a poor economist.