Stephanie Fierz (herself an Old Girl) is headmistress of Queen's College (actually not a college, but an independent high school for girls). When I arrived for my appointment, she said rather sharply, "I don't know quite what you want, but I'm terribly busy with end of term and a funeral to attend so it will have to be quick."
I assured her my needs were simple: "Tell me what you do and why you do it the way you do it."
She laughed, and then launched into a rapid-fire explanation about the school from its beginnings (1848) and today, demanding that I believe its goals and purposes had changed very little since its establishment as the first high school for girls in Britain.
According to Mrs. Fierz, the school set the highest of academic standards from the very beginning, treated each girl and her learning needs individually, demanded a broad interest in drama and music, and put classical studies at the base of the curriculum.
As for what makes Queen's College stand out among its contemporaries, she was equally assured of her ground: "We're very considerate of the children. After all, they are what we're about. We're warmer and jollier; the girls wear what they like; they are free to pursue special interests; and we're extremely academic at the same time that we're noncompetitive.
Thinking I might catch out this dynamic and scholarly headmistress in a contradiction, I asked, "But don't you give grades and rank the girls in their classes?"
How can I convey the way this former Queen's College student for seven years, a degree holder from London University (with honors), a teacher in several schools as well as Queen's, and the school head for 16 years, said no?
I thought maybe the interview was over. But I said something like "How marvellous . . ." and the stream of explanations continued while I was handed ("Yes, you may keep it") a history of Queen's College published in 1972.
"We don't just have them recite in Latin and Greek, we ask them to think in those languages. We don't just read books in our history classes, we teach in the real sense that we expect the students to engage themselves in the history.
"We travel, we go to sites, we explore, and above all we have a good time, we have fun."
While the school doesn't have large playing fields, it does have a gymnasium and in school competitions has taken many "firsts" in gymnastics.
On music: "We're second to none." On drama and acting: "We're second to none." To emphasize these latter points I was told of an original play and music score, written entirely by staff and students at the school, which was performed on the London stage for a short but enthusiastic and well-received run.
And then Mrs. Fierz really did have to run off to other commitments and handed me over to a classics teacher -- on the staff for a dozen years.
Since he hadn't been in on our discussions, I asked this young man what he thought made Queen's different from other schools. There was no hesitation: "It's a friendly -- very friendly -- school."
And an example of some teaching which isn't aimed particularly at preparing the girls to pass university entrance exams: "I teach a Latin prose class. They will have read Cicero, and studied use of language and style, and then be asked to write as though they were Cicero. These we'll share and the goal is to manage the style."
Queen's students do many types of field trips, each with its own focus, but all with an eye to combining learning with character development for the girls.
Mrs. Fierz returned for amoment, assuring me again that I should return when it was not so close to the end of the term, and the classics instructor was sure that many of the girls would be happy to have me talk at an assembly about journalism and The Christian Science Monitor, which, I was told, has long been available in the Common Room.