Simon Williams ’88 says when he set off for his year abroad at Harley in the late 1980s “Travel was expensive, phone calls were expensive, there was no internet—America was still a long way away.” He’d exchanged a couple of letters with the McLear’s, but arrived with only the haziest of ideas of where he was going and what to expect. And despite the (mostly) shared language, he walked into Harley feeling “very foreign.” But, he says the joy of Harley was that despite this, he never felt like an outsider. Instead the school took him in on his own terms, and while he needed time to find his place, “Harley allowed me to be me in a way that my much more familiar British schools hadn’t–it was a demanding environment but also a safe space. I Ioved it.” He says he looks back and is struck by how readily his new friends (“no shout outs, they know who they were”) let him be part of the rites and rituals of senior year and how proud he was to be part of the Harley community.
Some of the academic experiences have also stayed with him. “In England, we specialize very early, but at Harley there was a breadth of opportunities to learn, and faculty who had such a passion for what they taught.” Thirty years on, he says he still thinks of Ron Richardson whenever he visits a modern art gallery and can feel adrenalin pump at the idea of debating English Lit with Michael Lasser. He loved Psychology with Maggie Schneider and says that Edna Deutsch encouraged him to make the most of all that Harley offered.
Outside of academics, he played a lot of sports, earning varsity letters in soccer and even baseball (his son still uses his Harley baseball glove). He also learned he had no prospect of ever being an even half-way competent cross-country skier. He participated in mock trial, sang in choir, read to kindergarten, performed in school plays, saw Shakespeare in Stratford (not that one), went to prom and graduate. He wishes he’d had the nerve to join his more heroic ’88 class peers and tried to dye the swimming pool Harley green. He also remembers representing California in the school’s mock electoral college ahead of the 1988 presidential election, and it helped him out this past year. He was one of the few Brits who watched the 2020 polls already knowing how many delegates a candidate required, and why.
Straight after Harley, Simon spent two months traveling the US by Greyhound, getting a taste for road trips that has never gone away. He returned to the UK to study at the London School of Economics, leaving with a decent degree and, more formatively, a year as editor of the university student newspaper. He took a few months off after graduation and visited Israel. He says the trip was spur of the moment “I had no connections there, but I also had no money and it was cold in London, while Israel was warm and I could work my stay on Kibbutz.” However random, the trip proved serendipitous, as he met the woman who is now his wife, and began a fascination with the Middle East that has turned into a career.
Indeed, he went back to the Middle East a few years later, this time to Syria, spending three years in Damascus learning Arabic and teaching English. He got there overland from London via Moscow (where Ian Watson ’88 gave him emergency Chinese lessons—he says he can still count to 10), Beijing and the Karakoram highway into Pakistan and Iran. He left Syria to return to London to get a Master’s Degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies before starting for The Economist as a Middle East analyst. From there he moved to the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC), moving to the United Arab Emirates with his family in 2006 to run the bank’s economics research. After eight years of booms, busts, and revolutions, he returned to London where he continues to work as an economist for the bank. He says that though he can’t quite believe he’s spent 14 years “as a banker,” the work involves a lot of economics, a lot of politics, a lot of writing and a lot of talking—all the things he loves. In normal times, the job also requires a lot of travel to the Middle East, the United States, Europe, Africa, and Asia. But since the pandemic hit, he’s been working from home.
Simon says he looks back at Harley with enormous affection and appreciation for a year that no doubt changed the direction of his life. But he says that the key to it at all was his host family, the McLear’s, who “opened their home to someone they’d never met, and then treated him with such love and kindness.” He says that he knew at the time how lucky he was, but its only now that he has teenage children of his own he really appreciates how generous Eleanor, Bruce, Rob, and Gavin were to let him be part of their family. And while time and distance means he doesn’t see them as much as he’d like “I think they’d be surprised how often I think of them. And when we do cross paths, I feel at home again, straight away.”
Simon can be reached at email@example.com.