What Esther Perel taught me about starting anew

Lucy Kellaway (left) with Esther Perel at last Saturday’s FT Weekend Festival

It’s early afternoon on the first Saturday in September and I’m at the FT’s summer festival on Hampstead Heath, about to interview Esther Perel, the world’s leading authority on why married couples have so little sex. For any reader who lives under a stone, she is the woman who shot to fame a decade ago with a TED talk explaining that the lack of marital passion was not due to children or stress or internet pornography but to a clash between our need for security and our need for risk. Familiarity and desire make uneasy bedfellows.

Her books are clever and her podcasts — live therapy sessions with messed-up couples — make addictive if voyeuristic listening. I get that she’s popular but am taken aback by the scale of the adulation. In the speakers’ tent beforehand she comes up to me when I’m chatting to a younger colleague. On seeing her he almost falls to his knees. “I’m awestruck,” he babbles.

So too were the audience members who were shoehorned into the largest tent and who kept breaking into spontaneous applause. One woman asked about people having sex in their seventies and eighties. In her rasping Belgian accent, Perel said there was no special problem about sex for older people — for people at any age it was about more than penises and vaginas. (Wild clapping.)

Earlier that afternoon the same tent had filled up with people who seemed keen enough to hear what Mikhail Khodorkovsky had to say about the biggest threat to the political security of the world, and another crowd appeared mildly interested in Matt Hancock’s remarks on selecting the next Tory leader. But neither got anything like the worship extended to Perel.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky speaking at the festival © Karolina Hubner

Summing up, the FT weekend editor noted it was the first time intimate bodily parts had featured on stage at the festival. But I think Perel’s popularity is due to more than the fact that the word penis commands greater attention than, say, the words postal ballot. She says that having largely given up on religion, we now look to our partners for everything: compassion, understanding, security, great conversation, self-worth and hot sex. This means that a) our relationships are likely to be a rotten disappointment and b) the woman who appears to have some ideas on how to make them better is going to be our new prophet.

Afterwards I go straight to King’s Cross to get the train to my new home in the north. I’ve swapped the FT crowd for a trainful of loud men and women worshipping at another temple: the bar in Coach C. The LNER to Edinburgh must be the hardest-drinking route in the UK. I give in to peer pressure and have a couple of glasses of wine to take the edge off a sense of rising panic.

With the FT Festival out of the way, there is nothing left between me and the start of a new school term. This might be OK if I were returning to teach familiar kids in London. But I’m starting all over again at a school in a suburb of Newcastle, swapping students I’ve got to know well for an entirely unfamiliar bunch. In terms of educational achievement, the north-east is as bad as it gets: the latest GCSE figures show only 22 per cent of students got top grades compared with 33 per cent in London — and the gap is widening. I tell myself I’ve landed on my feet, as I’m teaching in a school with a good reputation — when I visited for an interview, it had that special smell that well-run schools have, with no evidence of rumpuses and many students working in an orderly fashion.

I spent the summer refusing to worry, happily making a vegetable garden and doing DIY. Then last week I had a conversation with someone who has lived much of his life in the north. “A Londoner like you in a school round here, what could possibly go wrong?” he said. “They won’t be able to understand you, and you won’t understand them. If you say Newcaarsel, you’ll have lost them for ever.” I called my daughter, who is now head of behaviour at a big school in London and who used to teach in Leeds. Yup, she said. The students were very likely to laugh at my accent. What should I do, I asked. Stop speaking, she said, give them a stare, resume speaking and then talk to them in private afterwards.

After five years in the classroom I think I can do stares. But now I’m in a state. I’ll be back in the hell of fumbling around on a strange computer trying to retrieve my slides. I’ll have no idea how to take a register. I’ll get lost around the school. I won’t know the new school rules, which will make me look an idiot to the students who do know them. I surely will reveal myself as a spoilt southerner stumbling about in a culture I don’t yet understand. To calm myself down I go swimming in the North Sea and return without my glasses — as I left them on the beach — and with water in my ears. To add to everything I’m now half-blind and half-deaf. Oh my God. What could possibly go wrong?

The only certainty in starting a new school is that whatever you were worrying about will be the wrong thing. Schools are odd places, but the oddest thing about them — given how all of them have the identical aim of trying to get large numbers of students through similar courses — is how different they are. Whatever Perel says, this school has not given up on religion and the staff training day begins with a prayer, which I find not only relaxing but appropriate — I’m going to need all the help I can get. Except that at the end of the prayer I found a new thing to cringe about: I crossed myself the wrong way.

There is a lot of talk of strict boundaries, which I understand and approve of, and the need for forgiveness, which I also approve of but which is a great shock to me after the school in London where I taught, where shouting was routine and where “positive fear” was part of the culture. The most surprising thing is how jolly the teachers seem compared to the put-upon ways of my former London colleagues. If they feel stressed, they are very good at hiding it.

On the second day I arrive at 7.30am and meet a Year 7 boy in an oversized new blazer who has also got to school on his first day far too early and is close to tears. Two teachers and the receptionist kindly set about reassuring him, and I think this school may be OK for him — and for me.

I’m writing this in haste, at the crack of dawn on the third day. I’ve done my printing, I have my lesson slides and I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. I’ve also done my seating plans, moving tiny inch-square pictures of students into their respective places, which in an hour and a half they will occupy for real. I hope they will forgive me my trespasses, just as I will forgive them if they trespass against me (so long as they apologise first, in keeping with school policy). I’m no longer at all worried about our different accents; I think it’ll be fine. My biggest concern is I can’t get the projector in my classroom to work — the slides are dark and fuzzy. At least there is some symmetry here. I still can’t see properly, but my new students won’t be able to either.

Lucy Kellaway is an FT contributing editor and co-founder of Now Teach

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