School Life

John Leyton and his wife Amanda have taught at Headfort school for nearly 50 years. Neasa Ni Chianáin’s documentary School Life follows the Leytons and their students through a year at the school as they navigate classrooms and band practice and play practice. Amanda’s class produces an interesting variation on Hamlet and she enjoys it as much as they do.

Headfort School, founded in 1949 by Lord and Lady Headfort, is Ireland’s only preparatory boarding school for children from the ages of seven to thirteen. It is located outside the village of Kells in County Meath, 75 km north west of Dublin. Headfort House is over two hundred years old. It looks like Hogwarts.

“During their private time the couple often shares a cigarette and compares notes about this year’s pupils…”

John leads the after-hours school rock band with his “hard but fair” approach to the kids that speaks of many years in his role fully confident of his experience and yet never tired of helping them achieve the best they can. He takes no prisoners, but he’s always kind and the children soon learn that he’s being short with them for efficiency, not from impatience. He’s quick to correct them and and even quicker to apologize if someone takes it personally. 

During their private time the couple often shares a cigarette and compares notes about this year’s pupils. Who is progressing? Who is causing trouble? Who is too homesick to be effective at boarding school? Who will make it into Eton? They talk fast and listen intently. They give and take criticism ego-free without a hint of offense in either direction. These are people who absolutely trust each other, the faculty, the headmaster, and they wear this life like it was a favorite old sweater still looking sharp after all these years. This is what mastery looks like.

“John and Amanda are acerbic and utterly charming at the same time…”

The couple care about the children above all, and their thoughts drift into dark denial and dread when they begin to discuss retirement. They both mean to go on until they are either physically unable or convinced that they can do no more good for the students. 

The filmmakers demonstrate mastery of documentary style by achieving an extraordinary level of on-camera comfort with their subjects, intimate access where everyone seems unaware they are being filmed.  Staying true to their “year in the life” plan for the film, there is no ginned up drama or startling event, they simply spool out a quiet year at Headfort school with daily moments of victory and failure and where that brings everyone when the term is over.

John and Amanda are acerbic and utterly charming at the same time and watching them carefully and wisely balance disciplined structure for the kids with compassion and deep understanding is a pure delight. They have created a beautiful legacy of love for life, the school, the children, and each other.

Look for School Life In theaters Sep 8th, 2017.

School Life (2017). Directed By: Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane. Written by Neasa Ní Chianáin. Starring:  Teachers: John and Amanda Leyden, Headmaster: Dermot Dix, and the staff & students of Headfort School.

7 out of 10

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