Richard Morais in Kindergarten at ICS, with friend Yuko, in 1966
In the 20th century masterpiece, The Magic Mountain, the great German writer, Thomas Mann, physically plays with our sense of time. He seems to be saying in this literary classic that there are moments in life that go by at such a painfully slow pace they seem like years, and then there are years that go by so fast they seem to disappear in an eye-blink. I experienced just such a Magic Mountain time-collapse last week while in Switzerland.
In 1972, at age 12, my family lived in Switzerland and that year I performed in Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado, directed by the theatrically-inclined teacher Ray Wilcox, in the Primary Hall at the ICS Inter-Community School Zurich. Last week I found myself, at age 50, again “performing” in the same Primary Hall, this time to an audience of ICS students listening to me rabbit on about my life as a journalist and novelist.
As the Mikado in Primary Hall, circa 1972
Discussing writing with ICS students in Primary Hall, 2011.
I am not sure what it was – a perky girl turning her head, her ponytail swinging out, or perhaps a sad-eyed boy with shoulders slumped under the weight of teenage life – but suddenly I was not grey and balding in 2011, but a wide-eyed boy making my way down a school hall, trying to find my destiny (or at least the right classroom.)
But a little background before we proceed. My ex-pat parents (American and Canadian) were relocated from Lisbon, Portugal, to Zurich, Switzerland, in 1961. I was 10 months old at the time of our arrival in Zurich and had three older brothers. We all attended ICS in the 1960s and 1970s, and I personally went right through: from Reception at St. Andrews Church and music lessons with Mrs. Atkinson at Seefeldquai, to 3rd Grade in Regensdorf, to 7th Grade graduation from Zumikon.
I had reached this time portal in 2011 because my life as a writer actually started in Reception at ICS, when my teacher, Miss Margaret Evans, calmed us at circle time with a terrific character she herself had invented. Shirty Girty The Witch was a cross old witch who lived in a toadstool, and whenever Miss Evans regaled us with Shirty Girty adventures, made up on the spot, I was transported into a magical world. From then on, storytelling was my thing.
I eventually attended the American high school across the Lake of Zurich, and then, at age 16, left Switzerland altogether for Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Life took its natural course, and for the next 25-years I was a journalist at Forbes magazine. I have always been half European and half American, and I used this multicultural straddle to build myself a foreign correspondent’s life: My wife and I lived in London for 17 years, where I was Forbes‘s European Bureau Chief, and where our daughter was born and raised.
But we all have a destiny. Two years ago I left Forbes to pursue what I always thought was my true calling as a novelist, and I am blessed that my debut novel, The Hundred-Foot Journey, has done quite well. I suppose word got around, because on May 4th and May 5th my former teacher, Linda Kubler, arranged for me to come back to Zumikon to help celebrate ICS’s 50th Jubilee.
For two days I led writing workshops with students from Grades 6 to 10, and it was, for me at least, a deeply moving experience, possibly because I finally had what I have always wanted – a captive audience. They had to listen me.
Woohoo. The 6th Grade was working on “Myths & Legends”, and we identified traits of the Gods before collectively “writing” a story with modern characters exhibiting the same God-like attributes. With Grades 8 and 11, I told my macho war stories from the frontlines of journalism, and passed on some techniques for interviewing which they then tried out on me. (The great investigative reporters aren’t table-pounders, I pointed out, but are totally unthreatening and make the interviewee relax into revealing something they shouldn’t.) Grade 9, meanwhile, were writing their own short stories, and so I showed them how to rewrite a story, line by line.
Moved by the short stories they shared with me, earnest and sophisticated efforts well above student pay grade, I subsequently wrote detailed comments to each of the participating students. It was a privilege to be offered a glimpse of their imaginary worlds and I thought it only right that their best efforts were appropriately rewarded with my best efforts. This is not public relations puffery or alumnus ooze when I say ICS’s students struck me as extremely bright and alert and talented.
On the last evening, ICS organized an Indian dinner in the dining hall, and that night I read from The Hundred-Foot Journey, took some questions, before signing books for anyone good enough to buy my scribblings. My old friend, Ali (Moser) Frey, sat in the audience, her son now an ICS student, and Orell Füssli, the bookstore chain supplying the books, walked away from the evening very content with the number of books they moved.
Answering questions at the 2011 50th Jubilee dinner and reading
Towards the end of my delightful ICS visit, I experienced another one of those tipsy takes on time. I looked out at the dining hall and saw the regal white mane of big-hearted Ms. Kubler (Kindergarten), the high cheekbones and olive-skin of Ms. Will (3rd Grade, now Mrs. Zita), heard the infectious laugh of Ms. Marek (4th Grade, now Mrs. Stucki) rise above the butter-chicken air.
I was once again in class. This time, however, I was up at the blackboard and my teachers were sitting in the orange seats and dutifully giving me their attention. I confess it took all my restraint not to assign them some homework.