Yesterday was my last day.
When I switched career, aged 34, to leave my comfortable civil service policy career to became a teacher in a state secondary school, my oldest friend (a teacher) made two observations. He said that he was worried that I’d worked in highly academic organisations with highly professional, very clever people, and he was concerned that I may not enjoy my collision with some of the people in positions of authority throughout the education system. He also said that given my incredibly low boredom threshold, he thought I’d probably mostly enjoy being with the students. A clever bloke, my friend.
I’m feeling rather reflective. I’ve spent eleven years at the same school. It feels like a whole generation of girls (and a few boys) from a few wards of my local borough have passed before my desk. I’ve taught, at a fairly reasonable estimate, about two thousand students, and interacted in one way or another with far more. I’ve marked between thirty and forty thousand individual pieces of work, generated from about ten thousand individual lessons. I’ve had three form groups: one for two years, one for one year, and one for seven years. I’ve worked alongside eight permanent colleagues in the Department, all of whom arrived as NQTs, and three temporary ones. I managed and coached the girls’ Rugby League team for five years and ran the sixth form debate club for three years. I organised four trips to Washington DC and New York, nine trips to France and Belgium, and numerous trips to more local historic sites. I’ve delivered about a dozen assemblies, and made a fool of myself in half a dozen christmas pantos. I have sung and played bad guitar to two particularly unfortunate classes. I was union representative for three years, staff governor for two years, and a pain in management’s collective arse for ten years.
I have laughed at least once every day. I’ve found pleasure in the company of these wonderful young people throughout the entire period. I have experienced incredible emotional highs more often than I can remember, and I have been driven to tears of frustration and rage on more occasions than I’d like to remember.
Eleven years is a long time. I began as a childless thirty-four year-old rugby league player, complete with enthusiasm, idealism and hair. I ended as a father of three, a forty-six year-old rugby league referee, complete with disappointed idealism, depression and, err, facial hair. A lot happened; the good, the bad and the ugly. As I wandered the corridors last week, already feeling a little like the ghost at the feast, memories seemed to come crashing out of cupboards as I opened them, charging down corridors towards me, and peering through classroom windows when they should be in lessons. I thought I’d jot down the memories as they returned to me. I don’t want to lose them.
Don’t try to read this in one sitting. Or don’t read it at all. It’s ridiculously personal and massively over-sentimental. It doesn’t make comments on education policy. Nor is it the sort of hard-hitting tale of misery and woe on the wrong side of the tracks which might get published in a newspaper. I was just an ordinary teacher, in an ordinary school, teaching extraordinary students. So far, there are 17 memories. If any more occur to me, I’ll add them as they do.
1- I Hate Year Sevens
I knew when I decided to become a teacher that primary teaching was never an option. They’re just so damn squeaky, those ankle biters. On entering secondary school, I discovered that they don’t stop being squeaky when they’re in Year Seven. They’re just so bloody needy and irritating; I find them exhausting.
“Can I turn the page, Sir?”
“Should I underline the date, Sir?”
“Sir, I’ve got a long and unintelligible story about how I lost my book, but then found it again, so really all I’m doing is just demanding five minutes of your attention while I waffle on pointlessly.”
“Can I breath out after breathing in, Sir?
“I DON’T CARE! I DON’T CARE! I DON’T CARE! SIT DOWN, SHUT UP AND STOP ASKING ME EVERY QUESTION IN THE WORLD ALL THE BLOODY TIME!”
So at the end of my NQT year, I was less than overjoyed to be told that the following year I was to be a Year 7 form tutor.
It’s undignified to beg. But I begged. Anyone but Year 7. Anyone. But no.
So I met them on the Year 6 visiting day. I did some of the excruciating approved “ice-breaker” activities. One girl was sitting out, scowling. I told her she’d make friends if she got involved. She told me she didn’t want any more stupid friends. One asked to use the toilet. Then they all asked to use the toilet. Like it was a competition. They all looked nearly the same. There were two ginger kids who stood out, but the rest, from my height, looked like a moving mass of different shades of brown and yellow hair. And the squeaking!
God help me.
I couldn’t remember any of their names, which I didn’t understand, because all of the women teachers seemed to already know their names, birthdays, life histories and family tree as far as three connections away. What was this strange female magic? Giving up, slightly bored, and desperate to escape the noise of thirty helium voices, I took them on a walk through the school woods and told them that a psychopath was rumoured to live in there, so they should never come in alone, as previous students had disappeared. That shut them up. Some still looked worried as they went home.
September rolled in, and I wasn’t looking forward to seeing them again. When they arrived they seemed, if anything, even more needy, even more helpless, even more bloody annoying. I hate Year Sevens.
My wife and I had tried for children in the conventional way for two years without success. Then for three years via an IVF programme. Again without success. Then after a year’s mourning, we entered the adoption process. That’s a different story. But in my first year as a teacher, I was in a hard psychological place. I desperately wanted children. I felt the failure of our attempts like an ongoing bereavement. Yet I found being around young children almost unbearable. I could barely manage to engage with family and friends’ infants at all, and would avoid any social events at which small children would be present, which was increasingly all social events.
My lack of children was a permanently bleeding internal wound I had carried around for five years. The prospect of dealing, daily, with thirty very young, very needy kids, at a time when I would generally run across a busy motorway to avoid such creatures, was almost unbearable. I considered quitting teaching just to avoid it. I was in hell.
Childcare professionals (you come across a lot in the adoption process) will tell you about “Attachment Theory”. This is the theory of how human beings respond within relationships when hurt, separated from loved ones, or perceiving a threat. Essentially, attachment of a child to the parent depends on the child’s ability to develop basic trust in their caregivers and self. Attachment isn’t just important in terms of the parent-child relationship. It’s vital for all relationships, because it provides the sense of a secure base from which the child gains the confidence to explore the wider world.
It took me about half a term before I admitted to myself that I liked them. By Christmas I admitted it to other people. By Easter I was looking forward to seeing them every day. By the end of Year Seven, I fought for them, shepherded them, comforted them, pushed them, worried about them, joked with them, and guarded them like a ferociously possessive sheepdog from anyone who dared upset them, child or teacher. I still hated Year Sevens. Except mine. Mine were my Year Sevens.
It’s supposed to be the child who attaches to the adult.
These girls will re-appear either singly or in groups in other memories, I’m sure. But it seems appropriate to recount one more brief anecdote here.
It took place seven years later, and a student from my form was standing in front of me at her Leavers’ Ball. Any outsider would have just seen a happy, confident young woman, clutching a lipstick-smeared glass of cheap bubbly, wearing the sort of impractical posh frock which will only get one outing a year if it’s lucky, and shouting over the noise of two hundred overexcited teenagers who were just realising that they were leaving the restricting comfort of the school cocoon.
I saw a fawn-like eleven year-old, who was a star class athlete despite having limbs which seemed six inches too long for her frame, and with at least two knees on each leg; who helped us win the inter-form championship every year; who had fallen in and out of more friendships than I thought it possible for any single human to have; who’d been a fearless tackling forward for my rugby league team; and who had helped organise her peers through countless form events, assemblies and competitions.
I grunted something about how she looked very beautiful, but she should be careful about how much she drank. She rolled her eyes and laughed knowingly: “Did you know, Mr C, that some of us call you our ‘school dad’?”
Thankfully, the room was dark.
The squeaky annoying Year 7s on the day I met them (when they were in Year 6). These girls are 21 now, which makes me feel ancient
2- Historical Artefacts
When the student came to the door of the office, her class teacher was surprised. She wasn’t the sort of Year 9 to seek out teachers outside class, and had never demonstrated a particularly lively interest in history.
Yet she’d been one of those slow burners who is more interested than they ever show on the surface. Inspired by a series of lessons on World War One, she had decided to bring in a souvenir her father had brought back from a visit to the battlefields, and wanted to show her teacher.
I didn’t know the girl, and was watching only peripherally as I did whatever it is that teachers do in the last five minutes before school begins. My colleague was expressing the sort of well-feigned interest which is really about making the girl feel special, rather than any actual interest in some random old cartridge case or cap badge.
I’ve always been a bit of a military history anorak and, let’s face it, history teachers tend to be interested in history, so I glanced over, mildly curious at what she’d brought in. Then I focused, and looked. Hard.
“Err, where did your dad get that ? Did he buy it in a shop?”
“No, he said he just found it when he went to visit the battlefields.”
“So, not from a souvenir shop?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Right. Well look, it’s a great artefact. I’m sure you don’t want to be carrying it round all day in your bag, in case you lose it. Why don’t you leave it here, and we’ll keep it safe until your lesson ?”
“I don’t mind carrying it, it’s ok.”
“Well really, I’d like to have a closer look at it, so would you mind leaving it here for a bit?”
The girl beamed, delighted that her contribution was inspiring so much interest, and agreed. Then left.
My colleague turned to me, holding the artefact. “That’s nice. She’s usually a very quiet girl, but it’s good she’s interested.”
“Yes. Umm, can I just have a closer look at that?”
The artefact was handed over.
“Ok,” I say, “Can you just pop to the staffroom and ring the Head?”
“Because this is an actual hand grenade, and while I think the detonator has been removed, it looks to me as if the explosive charge might still be in place.”
The Head called the police. The police called the bomb squad. The bomb squad took it away and blew it up.
The girl’s parents were less than pleased. I think that might have been the day we rather sadly extinguished our nice, quiet student’s interest in history.
Not something I wanted to see for “show and tell”
3- The Fight
My office opened on to the busiest corridor in school, leading to and from the canteen. I heard a lot through the thin plywood door which the students (and I) would rather I didn’t hear. I also, like many long-served staff, adopted the role of local policeman during those times, out of lessons, when students aren’t necessarily under adult supervision. So it was, on the day of the fight.
It started with raised voices in the corridor. Nothing unusual there, but these were not the voices of teenagers showing off to their friends by competing about who could do the loudest over-the-top fake laugh. This was serious and vicious shouting. I barged out of the room to find two students, Year 11s, three paces apart, leaning towards each other, fingers pointing, faces contorted with rage, one actually drooling slightly as she lost control of her own mouth. They were seconds from physical violence. One girl I knew: a girl who had a challenging reputation around the school, yet with whom I had a positive and friendly relationship. The other I didn’t know at all.
Incidents like this give you great insight into the truth that all police officers know – what people think happened, and what actually happened, are not the same thing. In very high-stress situations, people react first, and try to process rationally later. The next two or three minutes would be a classic case of that.
In this first Act, I was still calm, thinking logically, and planning my actions. I moved to put myself between the girls. Neither girl was large. I towered over them by a good eight inches, and probably weighed more than both combined. With me between them, their immediate perceived physical threat would be removed, their line of sight would be broken, and the situation should defuse. It worked. The shouting continued for a few seconds until they registered my presence, and then I spoke, firmly and assertively to the girl I was facing (purely random choice, but that was the girl I didn’t know, while the one I did was behind me), telling her to move along the corridor with me. while instructing the other, over my shoulder, to leave the scene and await further contact. I walked forwards slowly, arms outstretched, to emphasise the point.
Directing the girl into a nearby office, I closed the door and told her to sit down. I could see she was still agitated. My goal was to let the cocktail of adrenaline and cortisone in her veins drain from her system, find out her name, and talk to her. But it didn’t work. Why it didn’t work is anyone’s guess. Maybe whatever had started the dispute was something more powerful than I can imagine. Maybe her blood was up. Maybe she was just fifteen and feeling humiliated in front of a rival.
She charged at the door. I was in front of the door. The first time, she bounced off me because I wasn’t expecting it. I knew, however, that I couldn’t stay there. Rule Number One – do not restrain a student physically unless she is a danger to herself or others. Rule Number Two – do not physically block a student’s exit from a room; let her go, and then call for assistance. Sensible rules, designed to avoid any malicious allegations of inappropriate contact. If you’re a male teacher in a girls’ school, these rules are emblazoned into your brain.
I used that neutral teacher language “You shouldn’t leave this room. If you do, I will call the Head of Year, and there will be consequences”. I was throwing gravel at a bulldozer, and knew it. Students occasionally storm out of classes, or away from confrontations. It happens. They usually go to the toilets to scream and cry. Or to the woods. Or occasionally off school grounds. You deal with it through the system. The student is usually found quickly, escorted to inclusion. Home is called. Sanctions are applied as appropriate. It’s a drama, but not a crisis. I stepped aside, already glancing at the phone I was about to use to call for female backup to go and search the girls’ toilets.
I think she had been out of the office for a second before I heard the shout. A shout of real rage. I stepped back into the corridor. Her rival, the other half of the confrontation, had not left the scene. She was standing with a group of friends, all wide-eyed and flushed with the excitement of having had ringside seats to the show. Her presence was too much provocation for my temporary captive. Without pause, completely beyond self-control, she ran up the corridor and threw herself at her opponent. Punches were thrown. Real punches, not slaps. Punches aimed at faces. Act Two had begun.
At this point, I was no longer in reasoned, planned territory. Now I was in a reactive situation. Harm was being caused , and I couldn’t stand and watch. A few half-running strides, and I was there, trying to pull them apart by the shoulders. But the only chance of really pulling them apart was to grab one of them with both hands and pull her off the other. But here my training kicked in. Not my school training – there’s no hand-to-hand combat on the PGCE course – but my rugby training.
As every rugby player knows, when it kicks off, you don’t go in and grab your mate from behind, pinning his arms to drag him away, because all that does is give his opponent a couple of open free shots at an undefended face. Nor can you do that to the other guy, as his team-mates will then see you as an accomplice, and then it really kicks off. Instead, you have to get between them, hoping the opponent won’t clout you on the back of your own head, and then push your mate away. I’d love to tell you there was that much reasoning going on, but there wasn’t really. It was just reactive, and afterwards, I guessed that’s what the reaction was based on.
I stepped between them, turned to face one (the one I knew, as it happened), and pushed her backwards. Then, we were all on the floor.
It turns out (so eye-witnesses later suggested) that both of the girls had a very tight grip on the other’s hair. So when I pushed one, the other came too. The one in front of me lost her balance and fell, dragging the one behind me with her. I was between them, off-balance, and now being pulled by one eight-stone teenager, and pushed by another of similar size. We went down.
I don’t remember the actual fall (although later from the bruises I discovered I’d crashed into a door handle fairly heavily). I do remember that I was on all fours, hands and knees, with one girl literally underneath me, while the other girl was lying on my back. Hands were still flailing past my shoulders and head as the girls, notwithstanding this slightly bizarre situation, tried to continue their combat through me.
I was shouting now, to the girls in the corridor “Get another teacher. NOW!” But no-one moved. All doubtless knew that someone should call for help, but nobody wanted to be the one to miss this scene: Mr C on top of X, with Y on his back! We remained there, possibly in the most undignified position I’ve experienced as a teacher, for several seconds. They felt like minutes to me. In desperation, I straightened, suddenly and with significant force. The girl underneath me had let go of the girl on my back, and so I was now only lifting eight stone, not sixteen. My desperation made her feel like a bag of feathers. She slid off and sat on the floor, her adrenaline turning her legs to water. The three of us paused. One lying down, a ridiculously large clump of hair still in her hand; one sitting, legs out before her; and me, kneeling between them, with one hand, palm facing outwards, pointing at each.
They were panting, red-faced, looking utterly shocked, as if they had been observers rather than participants. The fight had gone out of both, as suddenly as it had arrived.
A fellow teacher was standing there. I don’t know when she had arrived. I pointed at the sitting girl and said “You take her”. Then I stood, offered my hand to the prostrate girl, and she took it to help herself up. Gentle and business-like, as if I was helping one of my daughters off the carpet after a fun board game. She walked calmly with me to another office.
The fight was over.
According to the internet’s images search, when girls fight, they only do so while wearing very few clothes. So here’s a picture of cats fighting instead.
4- The girl who broke into lessons
TV and movies, when portraying teachers, are often fairly bleak and negative about the career, the kids, and the people. Indeed, in US TV and film, the scene in which a character is referred to as a teacher, or is “forced” to become a teacher through terrible circumstance, is now scriptwriters’ shorthand for “here’s the loser”.
Occasionally, though, the writers try to hit the “inspirational” heights, and portray a teacher as a life-changing hero, rescuing children from ignorance/rap music/teen sex. What teacher trainee hasn’t, at some point, imagined themselves as Robin Williams in “Dead Poets’ Society” or Michelle Pfeiffer in “Dangerous Minds“? One of the central tropes in these films is The Breakthrough, in which the student finally does something which demonstrates they have left their old uninspired life behind, and are now on the path to redemption, self-belief and the American Dream. There are echoes of that tale in British anecdotes about “the lightbulb moment”. The idea that finally you hit on the magic alchemy which allows a student to understand something they didn’t previously understand.
It’s a pervasive, and pleasant, myth.
Or at least it is for me. In my experience, such moments – in the classroom at least – are imperceptible. Rather, you take in students at the beginning of the year, or the course, or the school, and then at the end of the set period, they’re mostly able to know, understand or do things which they weren’t able to at the beginning of the period. More of a grind than an inspiration. More of a slow daybreak than a lightbulb switch.
I can probably only point to one such moment in my whole career when I think I may have had a positive impact with a single planned action. The problem is, it’s not something likely to feature in a film. In fact, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit it. So, glancing around furtively, let me whisper to you about that moment : the day I took the piss out of an autistic student.
Helen was a “different” child when I began teaching her at the beginning of Year 10 for GCSE history. She was on the school’s SEN register, although there seemed to be a lack of clarity as to whether the issue was autism, or Aspergers, or both. Her target grade was an “E”, and to be honest, this was optimistic. She liked history because, in her mind, History was essentially the classroom equivalent of watching Horrible Histories – a succession of facts, preferably gory or shocking, to be recounted irrespective of the question in front of her. She would interrupt a lesson on Renaissance medicine with a factoid about Roman emperors, or illustrate a discussion on the Freikorps in Weimar Germany with a list of Henry VIII’s wives and how they died.
In practice GCSE questions, if I told her exactly which question we were going to attempt, and then also told her, step by step, exactly how to answer that question, so that she was effectively trying to reproduce notes she was given by me just minutes before the task, then she was occasionally able to reproduce enough of the previously spoon-fed information to scrape a C. If I marked generously, squinting through rose-tinted glasses. However, left to her own devices, or without advanced specific instructions in how to answer a known question, her answers would be a random collection of facts which rarely had anything to do with the question at hand. Recognising this, after the first term of Year 10, the school decided to withdraw her from History lessons, in order to give her more time for maths and English.
So I was more than a little surprised when Helen turned up in my next lesson. I spoke to her gently and told her she needed to be elsewhere. She looked glum, but gathered her things and left. Then, a couple of days later, she turned up to the next lesson. This time, when I told her where she had to be, she seemed almost tearful. She looked at me pleadingly as I escorted her to the door. She still turned up to the next lesson. This time a Deputy Head appeared in the classroom looking for her. Apparently, Helen was running away from her extra maths and English lessons to come to History. I delved deeper, talking to the SEN support, and discovered that Helen said she “loved” history. She liked hearing the facts. She felt comfortable in that classroom.
In addition to her academic problems, Helen suffered from worst affliction any teenager can suffer in a secondary school. She was “The Other”. She was socially isolated. Nobody would choose to sit with her unless compelled. If I ever wanted students to work in groups, none would ever voluntarily include her, so I ensured that I directed her into the safe company of the nicest kids in the class who would, at best, benignly ignore her, but would at least avoid looking too uncomfortable. At breaktimes and lunchtimes I would see her walking or sitting around the site, always alone. Every school has such children, and it is one of the most intractable problems of secondary school. There may be parents out there who don’t care about such social isolation as long as their child’s academic results are high (indeed, much Govian discourse seems to assume that hierarchy of priorities) but I’ve never yet met such a parent.
I couldn’t tell you exactly how, or why, but I found myself emailing the Deputy, and said that I wanted Helen back in History. Reminded that her result was likely to be a U, I agreed, but noted that her results in all her subjects were likely to be U’s, so where she was made little difference, and if she actually liked three of her lessons in a week, who were we to take that away from her? The Deputy agreed, generously noting that she wouldn’t hold Helen’s result against me when the figures were compiled. Helen was back in the class.
When I welcomed her back, the other kids exchanged glances in that knowing, eyebrows-raised way that all girls seem to have perfected by Year 10: arch and dismissive. They weren’t nasty kids – quite the reverse. They were just normal 14/15 Year-olds, and as such as prone to excluding “The Other” as all such adolescents. What they didn’t realise was that they were now my objective for Helen. I couldn’t make Helen get a top grade in History GCSE. I couldn’t “cure” her condition. I couldn’t force other kids to be her friend. But in that class, three times a week, I made the weather, and so I set myself two goals: firstly, she was going to have a good time in those lessons so that school wasn’t an unrelenting grind of failure and misery; and secondly – by Christ – she was going to be included in my classroom.
My tactic for this was quite simple : I was going to take the piss out of her.
I see hands flying to mouths in reaction to that last sentence. “He mocked a child with SEN?! The BEAST! The MONSTER!!”. Just hang on. Let me explain.
I have a good friend who was also a teacher. He worked in a posh private school once, and in his terms and conditions, he showed me a clause which essentially said “You must never use sarcasm with students”. As he pointed out, to my absolute agreement, that ruled me out of ever working there. Sarcasm is part of my default stance of conversation with adults or students. I think I find it easier to be ironic than sincere. Many, many students over the years have looked suspiciously at me when I offered them praise, as they assumed I was still taking the mickey. I like to think this makes any praise even more encouraging for them, as it doesn’t come as a devalued default reflex, as in so many classrooms. However, that’s probably just making excuses for myself: I’m just made that way.
I deploy mocking humour frequently but gently, and never until I’ve sussed out which students are willing, enthusiastic recipients, and which would not be. There are also some basic golden rules: I work in a girls’ school, so never, NEVER, mock anything remotely connected with appearance. Even if her hair is blue, and her skirt rolled up so high on her chest that the effect makes her look like Queen Victoria in a ballgown, I never use mockery regarding appearance. However, with the exercise of due caution, I’ve always found that the students respond very well to gentle humour directed at them and their friends. It makes them feel more grown-up, it closes the gap between the teacher and the student, and in my view encourages an atmosphere in my classroom which is relaxed, warm and purposeful: they work with me towards our goals, rather than for me in isolation. But again, that may simply be an excuse. I like warmth, friendliness and humour. I like wisecracks. My favourite students are always the ones who throw an occasional well-placed barb back in my direction. There are doubtless neo-traditionalists out there now muttering into their thin gruel that this is damned “trendy” nonsense, and teachers shouldn’t be friendly with their students, it should all be desks in rows, gowns and caps, silence in class, stand when the teacher enters, and all that stuff. All I can say to them is: bugger off, you miserable gits.
I’m not alone in this, and lots of teachers use humour all the time. But few of us, I’ll wager, use the sort of piss-taking which the British, more than any other nation, have elevated into an art-form, with SEN students. I certainly didn’t. Far too risky. Instead with students like Helen, I traditionally morph into ultra-kind, gentle, uber-sincere, primary-school teacher mode. Yet I wondered whether, in deploying humour, sarcasm and mockery with the rest of the class, but sincere smiley support with Helen, I was actually reinforcing the social divisions between her and her peers. They were treating her as “other” and so was I!
She’d been back in the class two lessons when I struck. Everyone was quiet, working on a question, so I knew the others were listening.
She looked up. I could feel the rest of the ears in the classroom turn in the direction of this welcome distraction.
“I feel I have to ask you this, as you’re the only student I’ve ever had who illegally runs into my lessons, as opposed to out of them.”
Heads swivelled towards Helen.
“But let me get this straight. You were offered three lessons a week in the inclusion suite. Comfy chairs, tea and biscuits, one-on-one attention from a highly-trained professional. And you threw all that way to come back here?”
Helen nodded, nervously.
“I don’t know.” She had a clipped, rapid-fire way of speaking, without the inflexions and cadences of her peers. “I just like it.”
I raised my eyebrows incredulously. “You like…” I held up the textbook on that day’s page “…how forceps use in medieval births could rip the heads off babies in the womb?”
“Well, not that. I just like history.”
I frowned. “Ah well, I understand that. Many students in this school never have the privilege of being taught by me.” Groans and eye-rolls from some of the class.
“But surely,” I go on “you should have realised that in returning to history, you were also going to have to share your class once more with this pointless rabble?” I gestured to the class with an expansive arm sweep. Howls of indignation and protest arose, which I quickly stilled.
“I don’t know”, she looked nervous, unused to the spotlight being on her.
“I thought you were better than them, to be honest, Helen. A bit more sensible. A bit more able to see which side your bread was buttered on. But you let me down. Given the chance to spread your wings and fly for freedom, you just dashed back into the cage and locked the door behind you. You muppet.”
Helen blinked. Inside, I was experiencing the sort of stomach gymnastics which usually accompany getting too close to a long drop with no barriers. On the outside, I was maintaining a mock-sneery face of head-shaking disappointment.
One of the other girls, a loud, brash future-landlady-of-a-rough-pub type, broke the breath-held silence. “Don’t worry Helen, he’s just taking the mickey. He’s like that with all of us.”
“Us”. “US“. I couldn’t have scripted it better. I could have leapt across the classroom and hugged that student. I wasn’t ready to end my career on the sex-offenders’ register though, so I remained impassive.
“Tsk. Carry on answering questions 1 to 4, while I continue to ponder the failings of humanity.”
“Mr C,” asked another girl “Do you really just hate all people?”
“Only the daft ones in my history classes. Now shut up and get on with it.”
Grumbles, mutterings, moans.
I glanced up furtively at Helen. She was smiling. I’m not sure she understood exactly what the joke had been, but she knew that she had been involved in the joke. For once, she’d been on the same team as the other students in a human interaction, rather than just sitting separately in the same room.
After that, it was gentle progress. I can recall different milestones:
- The first time Helen piped up with a random fact and one of the other students said “Helen, you’re so mad!”, but with a big smile on her face, and on Helen’s, as they engaged in rudimentary friendly banter of the kind which is second-nature to all students, but which she’d been excluded from for so many years.
- The first time I asked them to get in groups of three, and two girls, without waiting to be asked simply shouted across the room “Helen, come join us”.
- The first time I came into the classroom after lunch to find the girls in there as usual, but Helen sitting in – not near, but IN – a group on the desks, while they chatted about whatever the hell they were chatting about.
- The first time Helen actually threw a barb back at me. I can’t recall what it was now. I doubt it was particularly sophisticated. But she used the limited latitude I grant the students to occasionally have a pop. And the class roared. They screamed with laughter. Helen had thrown one at Mr C. They turned around to congratulate her. One even high-fived her. She looked like she’d won the world championships. I felt like I had.
- The first time I saw her talking to one of the girls in our class, outside at lunchtime. I don’t want to over-egg this – she didn’t become school captain, or win any popularity prizes from her peers. But she had a group of girls who, in many ways, adopted her as one of their own. And they said hello to her. And because they said hello to her, others did too.
For two years, for at least three lessons a week, she knew that she would be in a room where she was liked, included, treated as an equal, and could read about a few more historical facts while this was all happening. She smiled a lot.
She got an E in History GCSE. It was her joint best result. I don’t think it mattered a bugger.
Names have been changed
Helen arrives for another History lesson
5- Hotel Corridors
I’m sitting with two colleagues on the floor at the end of a hotel corridor, looking back down the corridor past a series of rooms which house our party of Year 11s. We’re idling the time away, chatting about school, politics, life and so on. It’s gone 10pm, and our charges need their rest, as there’s a big tournament tomorrow. But they are 15-year old girls, and they’re in a hotel. With their friends. This is exciting. You can sleep when you’re dead.
Every five minutes, a door handle turns. They think they’re being really quiet, but the corridor is quieter. The door cracks open, and a head pops out. A glance in our direction.
“Oh. Er. We thought we heard a noise.”
“I thought I’d left my shoes outside.”
“I was just wondering if there was better reception in the corridor so I can ring my mum.”
We don’t even need to speak. We just smile knowingly, while they blush. The doors close again. It’s a waiting game. They know it, and we know it.
At about 11pm, after placing bets amongst ourselves about whose room will be the after-hours party spot, we knackered old folk surrender to the inevitable, and retire to bed. I clean my teeth and switch the bathroom light off. As the automatic fan falls silent, I hear the whisper from the other side of the door.
“I thought they were never going!”
“Shhhhhh, they’ll hear you.”
I smile again. Not the knowing, sardonic smile of a teacher catching a kid out, but one which recognises and appreciates the irresistible force of adolescent excitement.
Yes, kids. We ARE going to see you.
6- What’s in a Name?
Louis Pasteur is rightly taught as the man who represented the turning point in the development of medicine. He’s a key figure in the Medicine Through Time history GCSE course which is taught in thousands of schools. He discovered and promoted Germ Theory, which finally put the Four Humours to bed, and introduced an understanding of illness based on reality. Yet without his great German rival, little could have progressed, because it was only when that German scientist found ways of isolating and identifying individual germ strains, that work could begin on producing vaccinations and even – down the line – antibiotics.
Pasteur allegedly hated that man, despite their symbiotic relationship. I hate him too. Why? Because he didn’t think about the welfare of future history teachers in English-speaking countries, who would one day teach fourteen and fifteen year-old teenagers about his work. If he had, he would surely have changed his name. But he didn’t. So I hate him. That man’s name, was Robert Koch.
“So today, we’re going to look at the role of Koch.”
“Pasteur wouldn’t have been able to do what he did without Koch.”
“So, what did Koch do?”
“Remember, girls, Koch is also really important.”
“Emily, why do you think Koch is important?”
[Girls blowing involuntary snot out of their noses in uncontrolled explosions of mirth]
It’s alright for the female teachers. Somehow, the girls laugh with them.
I once wandered into one of my female colleague’s classrooms to find each of the girls wearing a self-made badge reading either “I love Pasteur”, or “I love Koch”. Apparently, this was to help in a class debate about their relative importance. I looked at them. They looked at me. As innocent as spring lambs. I looked at the teacher, speechless. She just smiled and gently arched an eyebrow.
Yet me? Oh, noooo. So much as the slightest mention, and the spluttering and snorting started. I tried everything. I tried mispronouncing it as Ko-ch (with the ‘ch’ of ‘cheese’), but that made them laugh more. I tried referring to him by only his first name, but then every time I said “Robert”, they’d burst out laughing.
So one year, about four years in, I decided that like a good history teacher, I should try to learn from the past. In this case, my past.
One of my incredibly few memories of what we used to call First Year in old money, but is now called Year 7, was of my mixed class sitting in a science classroom, being given our first sight of the school’s biology textbooks. The teacher, Mr Wise, a giant Welshman who used to play top level rugby, instructed us sternly to turn to the centre pages. We did, and there, to our horror and delight in equal measure, was a huge photograph of a stark naked man and woman, facing the camera. We sniggered. Mr Wise told us to look at it for a whole minute. We sniggered some more. Then the sniggering subsided. Mr Wise growled at us: “Right. You’ve had your look, see? Now if I catch anyone turning to that page again without my say so, I’ll put you in detention for the rest of the yurr. Got that? Now close your books“. It worked. Mostly. Unfortunately for Mr Wise, his Welsh accent wouldn’t allow him to say “puberty” properly, and he pronounced it “pooberty“. We never got over that.
Anyway, I decided to go for the same shock-and-awe approach with a Year 10 class who snorted every time Koch was mentioned. They were just recovering from some mutual giggling, when I held up my hand.
“Right, girls. We have to get past this. It’s his name. I can’t do anything about that. We have to use it. So I’m going to desensitise you. Laura, say ‘Koch’.”
“Good. Keep saying it. Ok, now Jordan, join in.”
“Koch. Koch. Koch.”
“Good, well done. Ok, now the whole back row.
“Koch. Koch. Koch. Koch. Koch.”
“Great. Ok, everybody.”
“Koch. Koch. Koch. Koch. Koch. Koch. Koch. Koch. Koch. Koch.”
The whole class chanted in unison. No giggles. No snorts. No snot. It was working. I’m a champion teacher. I should run CPD on this sort of thing!
Then the door opened.
It was a difficult conversation with the Head of Faculty, but after taking advice, I decided that in future, I’d just put up with the giggles.
Every. Sodding. Year.
Robert Koch & an actual cock. Wait. Why were they laughing?
7- Beating the Pie-Eaters
Without question, if I were compiling a list of the best times of my teaching career, several of the top ten places would be occupied by my beloved Girls’ Rugby League team. In fact, if I just turn my head 90 degrees to the right from where I currently type, in the study of my home, there they are on the wall: decked out in their fine RL kit, complete with traditional chevrons; front row kneeling, back row with arms around each other; all smiles with a folded-arms coach (me) , in an unwise baseball cap, proudly standing next to them on the school sports field.
Rugby League isn’t a sport one would normally associate with girls’ schools in southeast London. But then, I’m from St Helens, and I’ve made it a point of almost religious principle never to bother to learn the rules of Rugby Union. So when a ridiculously enthusiastic young English teacher, Mr Fermor, persuaded me to start up a Year 8 rugby team, it was always going to be Rugby League. It took me a while to be convinced that these – frankly, a bit, well, girly – schoolgirls could play the most demanding collision sport in the world. However, Mr Fermor knew my weak spots. That year’s Year 8 just happened to be the year of my adopted form, and a number of the students were drawn from my class. It gave me more time with them in a fun environment, and so the deal was sealed.
I’ll share more good times with the team, doubtless. But my proudest moment – the moment which even now makes my heart swell a bit with pride – was when we beat the Pie-Eaters in the national championships.
It was Year 9, and we’d travelled up to the outskirts of Leigh for the Nationals. We’d qualified as the southern girls’ champions, which wasn’t perhaps as big an achievement as it sounds, as there weren’t too many other girls’ teams in the South. Nobody expected much of us as we took part in the tournament to decide which two teams would go on to play in the national Final, possibly at Wembley as a curtain-raiser to the Challenge Cup Final.
The games were shortened ten-minute contests played on shrunken pitches, usually 9-a-side. But the essence was all Rugby League – passing, running, and ferocious head-on tackling. Just to make it even more traditional, the heavens opened and a biblical downpour turned the pitches into Passchendaele. In fact, the only thing which distinguished this mighty physical confrontation from the real thing, was the fact that adult male rugby league players rarely sing “Build me up Buttercup” while skipping to the pitch, and nor do they complain that the rain will ruin their hair.
The competition was seeded, with each group containing two strong teams from traditional rugby league areas, and two no-hopers from “development” areas. The idea was that semis would see the winners of Group A play the runners up of Group B, and vice versa, with the final between the top two to be played in the summer at a different venue. As shandy-drinking (when they’re older) soft southerners, we were allocated a no-hoper slot, alongside a Welsh team with far too many consonants in their name to be pronounceable, and the two “strong” teams, from Cumbria and Wigan – traditional Rugby League heartlands.
The thing was, as we lined up pitchside ready for battle to commence, I knew something the organisers didn’t.
We were GOOD.
I take my Rugby League seriously, and from the beginning I’d made it clear that this wasn’t a dossy throw-the-ball-around-and-shriek event. Oh no. I made them practice tackling, and defensive linework, and collisions. In training, myself and my fellow teacher-coaches would make them run full-pelt into tackle shields we held, and we’d knock them on their backsides. On top of that, we had two girls who were high-level soccer players, playing for Charlton and Millwall girls’ teams respectively. These girls were real athletes – fast, agile and highly competitive.
First up was the Welsh, who we despatched summarily. None of the organisers or small collection of spectators (which – bizarrely – included my parents who’d come out from St Helens to see me on a rare trip back north) paid any attention, because it was just the two no-hoper teams mucking about in the mud.
Then Cumbria walked onto our pitch, and we beat them three tries to nil. They could barely get off their own line as our relentless tackling drove them back and forced spillage after spillage. I shook hands with their coach, who looked like a woman who was convinced we’d cheated somehow, but just couldn’t work out how. Then an old feller wearing a flat-cap (I’m not making this up – he didn’t have a whippet) approached me:
“Tha’s number seven can play reet well, ‘appen?”
I replied that, yes, my scrum-half was top class.
“What’s t’name of t’school?”
I told him. He looked confused. Congratulated me again, and wandered off.
We were going through to the semis already, but there was one team left : Wigan.
For those who don’t know, Wigan are the historic powerhouse of the entire sport of Rugby League in this country. They’ve won more trophies than anyone else, usually get larger crowds, produce more players and obtain more media attention than any other club. For a period from the mid-80s to mid-90s, as the sport’s only full-time professional club, Wigan dominated Rugby League to the extent that it seriously threatened the sport’s continued existence.
Wigan are known by all RL fans as “the Pie Eaters”. Some people think this is a basic insult because they’re fat. It’s not. Although they are. Others think it’s because a lot of pie shops are based in Wigan. It’s not. Although there are. The real reason is one of those wonderful slices of local history which run through the ex-industrial north like the coal seams which run through the earth itself.
In the 1926 General Strike, Wigan miners were the first to go back to work digging coal. So while everyone else remained on strike, eating scraps and going hungry, the Wiganers were eating pies. This betrayal of working class solidarity has never been forgotten, and for the rest of time, Wiganers whose grandparents weren’t even born when the events unfolded, will be known as Pie-Eaters. Couple this wonderfully convenient historic grievance with their domination of the sport, and you understand that the only thing in rugby league better than watching your team win, is watching Wigan lose.
This, I hasten to add, is particularly true if you come from their nearest and fiercest Rugby League rivals : St Helens. As I do.
I tried explaining this to the girls, but their eyes glazed over as I started talking industrial history. For some inexplicable reason, they didn’t feel as passionately about historic betrayals as I did. Philistines. So my pre-match team talk went like this:
“Girls, I hate Wigan. Hate them. I want you to smash this lot. They think you’re scum. They think you’re soft southerners (at which point one of my props piped up “but we are”, which wasn’t helpful). Hit them as hard as you can. This is war.”
They looked at me a bit nervously. They’d watched the Pie-Eaters destroy Cumbria and Wales in their previous matches. The Wiganers had an inch or two per girl over ours, and size matters a lot in Year 9. So, I tried a different tack.
“If you win this, I’ll buy you all a happy meal at a McDonalds back on the motorway.”
Loud cheers, and the girls took the field. I still wished they wouldn’t sing that bloody Buttercup song as they took their positions. The weather gods, sensing a true clash of titans, increased the velocity and volume of the rain so that it became difficult to see the other side of the pitch. I had a small waterfall running from the peak of my sodden cap. The whistle blew.
We scored almost immediately. A lucky try. Unpressured, they spilled the ball in the mud, and it practically landed in the hands of an astonished Becky, who simply fell over the line into the slush. A great start, but then it tightened up. The Pies had a couple of girls who seemed far too tall for Year 9 (being Wigan, it wouldn’t surprise me if they were ringers from Year 10). My girls had to put two or three bodies in the tackle just to stop them. That left gaps on the pitch, and sure enough, an offload was squeezed away, with a Wigan back finding the space out wide to slide over, equalising the scores. The momentum had swung their way.
They pounded our line, and only last-ditch defence and their own handling errors prevented further scores. But we were hanging on grimly. I felt every tackle. I cringed as they threw their frail 6 and 7-stone frames into collisions with these giant pie-eating monsters time and time again. These little 13-year-old kids almost indistinguishable from their opponents as they carried round an extra 50% body weight in accumulated mud. It seemed inevitable that we’d have to crack.
Then the Pies dropped the ball when the line seemed begging. One of my props, Susannah, dived gratefully on it before getting wearily to her feet to play the ball. Amy, the hooker (people should think harder about position names if they’re going to encourage girls to play rugby), passed the ball to Lauren, the half-back, who used her elusive pace to run sideways across the pitch, dragging the Pie defence across with her. Then, instinctively, as if they’d been playing the sport for years, my star centre, Rachel, cut back inside, took a drop off pass from Lauren, and shot straight through a gap in the line left by defenders desperately trying to change direction in the quagmire. She appeared to float on top of the mud, rather than run through it, and glided past a Pie fullback who seemed nailed to the ground. It was a length of the field try. Mr Fermor and I briefly forgot ourselves, shouting and hugging like celebrating footballers.
There was only time for one set of six after the restart, and my girls weren’t going to let that lead slip. They threw themselves at their opponents, who could make no headway, although every tackle seemed to me like the cliffhanger of a suspense movie. I could barely watch. Then the final whistle was blown. We’d won. Reader, my triumphal roar could have been heard the length and breadth of the M62.
The flat-cap wandered over again.
“Eee by ‘eck them lasses are grand.”
“Yes, I’m very proud”
“Wurr do they come from, like?”
He looked at me incomprehensibly. Then realisation dawned, and he smiled.
“Ahh, Bramley. That’s near Leeds, in’t it?”
Sadly, in the play-offs, we were well-beaten by a Castleford side which was to go on to win the national competition. But I didn’t care so much.
We’d beaten the Pie-Eaters.
Best Rugby League Team. Ever.
8- Party on the Potomac
Only one of the four trips I organised for my A-Level students to New York and Washington took place in Summer. The other three involved the sacrifice of the autumn half-term break, and while all were worthwhile, the teachers who accompanied those trips were a bit grey and tired by Christmas. But on one occasion I managed to persuade the Head that the sixth-formers weren’t missing much if we went during the risible “Enterprise Week” which we put on at the end of each year.
So we went to the States in July. As it happened, it was my beloved form group, now freshly minted into Year 12, and leavened with a collection of my rugby players. Who am I kidding? I wrote that as if it was a coincidence. It wasn’t, of course. I organised the trip then because it was those students.
I have so many happy memories of that trip that I could write a book: the guide’s astonishment and delight at our girls’ tendency to sing loudly on the coach as we moved between sites; the sudden rainstorm which caught us as we walked round the Washington monuments, causing much hilarity amongst the Yanks as a plague of drowned English rats scampered up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial towards temporary shelter; the Central Park cyclist who literally rode into a bush as he stared in awe at thirty London teenagers out and about in their summer finery; the girl who switched seats on the plane to sit next to me because she was scared of flying and thought my presence reassuring, not realising that I’m terrified of flying, and was trying to sound relaxed while almost ripping the seat arm off in mortal fear; the sheer joy of the students when they realised that the Broadway show we’d booked to see – Rock of Ages – was much more, er, adult, than any of us had expected, and their great delight in taking pictures of their mortified teacher with his head in his hands during the lapdancing scene.
The finale trumped all, however. Our inspirational organiser, Barb, a Jewish New York Grandmother who was so clichéd that she seemed straight from Central Casting, had booked us on what she termed a ‘dinner and dancing cruise’ on the Potomac on the last night of our stay. The boat was a large river cruiser, about the size of a floating church hall, with three levels, plenty of outside railings, and a large open deck for dancing after the buffet had been cleared away (typical American food – damn tasty, but all yellow).
Earlier in the day, our dutch guide, Pym, (who had been breaking hearts throughout the trip, largely because the girls’ gaydar was seriously underdeveloped), had told me that there was going to be another school on the same cruise. I’ll admit to feeling some nervousness about this. On arrival at any hotel with a school party, my first question to the management is usually “Are there any other schools here?”, with the supplementary question “Are there many boys in that party?” if the former answer is affirmative. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say. However, I decided that the best way of deflecting any of my nervousness was, of course, to wind up the students.
So I told them that we’d be joined on the boat by a party of uniformed officer cadets from the nearby US Air Force training base.
I’m not saying the students were excited, but one girl who had been pushed around in a wheelchair since spraining her ankle on our walk around Washington, actually managed to heal instantly and don a ridiculous pair of heels – living proof of the miracles which can occur in God’s own land.
As we queued to board the boat, I had to admit that I was suitably impressed with how our party turned out. While I looked pretty much the same as I had during the whole trip – jeans, shirt, unsuitably uncushioned trainers – the girls and the female teachers looked like the sort of people you see in the background of party scenes in a Bond movie. I felt a bit like an adopted hobo. But by now, I was a worried adopted hobo. They were so excited about playing their role as Tom Cruise’s love interest from “Top Gun” that I didn’t have the heart to tell them it was just another school. I worried that the reality could only be an anti-climax.
As I led the way on to the main party deck, my heart sank (a poor phrase, considering the circumstances). The other school was already there. They were kids about the same age as ours, sitting in silence, with grim countenances. They weren’t talking to each other, and their teachers looked more like probation officers – huge, hard-faced men and women who were clearly taking a sabbatical from their normal jobs as Tony Soprano’s heavies. I learned later from conversation with one of them that their students were from the poorest communities of Alabama (the US equivalent of Wigan), and most of them had been nominated for the trip to Washington by their schools in order to try and provide them with some sort of expanded horizons, as most of them had never been further than a few miles from their home towns. We hadn’t gone to Hicksville. Hicksville had come to us. And we were trapped on a boat with Hicksville for the next four hours.
As the girls piled on to the deck, laughing and excited, the expressions on the American students’ faces changed. The Yankee girls’ frowns deepened into scowls. The Yankee boys, on the other hand, actually gaped. I’m not making this up. I’ve heard the phrase “his jaw dropped open” many times, but until that point, I’d never seen it. I think one of them actually drooled.
One of my louder students raised an eyebrow at me.
“They don’t look like officers?”
“That might have been a bit of an exaggeration.”
“I KNEW IT!!!”
“Girls, he LIED!”
“Mr C ! You LIAR!”
The American teachers now took their turn to look shocked. I’m not sure what their procedure was for having a mass of outraged students accusing a teacher of dishonesty. I suspect it might have involved tasers. But I knew it was a fair cop, and all I could do was shrug and grin while looking sheepishly in the direction of my colonial cousins to explain that, really, I deserved this.
Two things saved me. First, the music began, and that helped drown out any potentially awkward silences. Secondly, those girls were just wonderful, wonderful human beings. They were on holiday, they were on a boat, they were dressed to the nines, and they were damn well going to have a good time even if they were sharing the boat with the All-American Obese Wind-Breaking Society.
The rest of the evening I remember as just golden. I wandered around the boat in a daze, constantly coming across laughing, delighted students, having a wonderful time. They danced with such exuberance that even the American kids started cracking smiles and joining them. They wandered the decks in laughing groups, sharing jokes and reminisces of the past week. I even caught a few looking reflectively at the shoreline, as the setting sun’s red glow was reflected in the calm waters of the broad Potomac. One such group hailed me and I wandered over.
“Mr C, we just wanted to say thanks.”
She waved her arm at the vista. “For this. All this.”
People often refer to the taking of vicarious pleasure almost as an insult. But that evening I drank deep of the Well of Vicariousness.
As the boat returned to dock, I was sitting with my fellow teachers down by the dancefloor, when suddenly I became aware that our table was surrounded by the students. The music stopped. Something was up. Then the DJ came over the microphone.
“We’ve had a request for a Mr C…. [he massacred my easily pronounceable name], from the students of [he then massacred the school’s easily pronounceable name]. And their message is: you need to dance.”
Then came the easily recognisable opening bars to the cheesy 1980s soft rock classic “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey, which just so happened to have been one of the main showpieces from the Rock of Ages musical which I’d found so cringeworthy mere days before.
The students began clapping to it. I looked desperately at the teachers for support. They all developed a sudden and all-consuming interest in their shoes.
Understand me: I don’t dance. I never dance. There are some colleagues who clearly enjoy those Godawful school-leaver videos which are now so routine, in which teachers make idiots of themselves trying to mime badly to popular songs du jour (I’m looking at you, there, Mr Leonard). I don’t. I have never been in my own school’s versions, although that’s never stopped them asking. Not only do I not dance, but I have never danced, even when I was young and thin and thus had less chance of resembling a collection of sweaty pink boulders bouncing around in an arrhythmic earth tremor. What’s more, I was stone-cold sober, as befits a school party leader. The horror.
But the students were all there, and they looked so happy, and it had been such a tremendous end to a tremendous trip. And I recalled my deception about a boat full of young George Clooneys in uniform. I owed them some reparatory humiliation.
Reader, I danced.
The American teachers seemed delighted to see us
9- Summer Sports
It’s a Saturday in June. I’m on the school sports ground. It’s half-time in a rugby league game against a school from Croydon.
The sun is beating down, but there is a breeze, which makes it quite pleasant. The father of my stand-off has brought down a massive gas-powered barbecue, and he’s making burgers and hotdogs which other parents and siblings are eating. I’ve already had to restrain my front-row forwards from trying to stuff a burger down during the half-time break.
Groups of parents stand around, drinks in hand, chatting and laughing, slightly incredulous that they’re watching their London daughters play this bizarre, violent northern sport.
Over there under the shade of a tree, our opponents are having their team talk. I’m trying to deliver mine, but I’m distracted.
I can’t find Rachel and Lauren, two of my star players, who seem to have disappeared. But more importantly, while I can see my eldest daughter by the barbecue, scoffing a hotdog, I’ve lost sight of the other two, including the youngest, who has a tendency to wander off. They’re only five and six. It’s a big field, surrounded by busy roads.
My colleague sees my distress and intervenes. Like all teachers, she has an in-built child-radar which allows her to keep track of dozens of targets at all times.
“They’re over there.”
She points past a cluster of parents towards the long-jump. Youngest and middle daughter have found it, and to them it’s just another sandpit. Their shoes are off, and they’re squatting down in the sand.
With them are Rachel and Lauren, wearing their rugby league kits, down on hands and knees helping my girls build their sandcastles. The big girls smile at the little girls. The little girls are absolutely overjoyed to have the attention of the big girls.
In that moment, as the sun lit up the smiles on the faces of my daughters, Rachel and Lauren were mysteriously transferred into my sixth form group, escaped numerous detentions for being late, never heard dozens of scoldings from other teachers which I solemnly and falsely promised to deliver, got away with countless minor dress code violations, and generally found that many of the brickbats which headed in their direction, whether deserved or undeserved, bounced harmlessly off an invisible wall.
All of which coincidentally happened in their remaining school years, after I watched them making my girls happy in the sun.
A great day for me and my team. Not so good for the opposition. Have some of that !
10- The Watchtower
Teaching a lesson on Medicine Through Time, I was prompting a class discussion about the impact of religion on medicine through the ages. I explained that this was not just an issue of the past, and asked if anyone knew of any circumstances in which religion still influenced medicine.
A student correctly identified Jehovah’s Witnesses, who refuse to allow blood transfusions, even if that can result in severe problems or even death. Inevitably, other students were aghast : “But why?”
I’d love to say that I’m always deeply respectful about religious beliefs. It’d probably be a lie though. My position is what has occasionally been termed “muscular liberal”, in that I absolutely respect the right of people to hold stupid beliefs, but I don’t actually respect those stupid beliefs. Like a lot of atheists, I’ve never understood the logic of saying it’s ok to mock the beliefs of someone who believes the moon is made of cheese, or believes that white people are a superior race, but somehow it’s not ok to mock people who believe that the world was created in seven days, or that blood transfusions are evil. Labelling something a “religious” belief, as opposed to any other kind of belief, shouldn’t give it carte blanche protection from scrutiny and, yes, scorn.
Before any lynch mobs start searching for their pitchforks, however, let me add this: the last five teachers I’ve recruited have all been believers. Catholics, Methodists, Anglicans, even Salvation Army. I’m an equal opportunities intolerant atheist. The buggers co-ordinated my leaving presents so I got a low Anglican bible, a high Anglican Holding Cross, a bottle of catholic water from the River Jordan and a non-alcoholic bottle of grape juice from the Methodist. It’s like a religious smorgasbord of choices to save my soul. Thanks folks!
So normally, when religion comes up, if I’m erring on the side of caution, I’ll mutter that “I don’t do God”, and refer the student to my good friend Mr Stone, the Head of the RS Department. However, on occasion, such discretion is just not to be found when I need it.
So I offered a view of why. It involved drawing comparisons with historically stupid religious beliefs, like demons causing illness, witches, curses, flagellants and the black death, and then wandered into the modern day, poking fun at US televised faith healers, believers in magic crystals and all that rot. I believe I may have used the opportunity to introduce the class to Mr C’s First law of Politics : “Most people are stupid and/or lazy”.
I’m not saying it was a tour de force, but some of them clapped.
Anyway, another hand went up. I indicated she should speak.
“I just thought I’d say I’m a Jehovah’s Witness.”
My career flashed in front of my face.
“Well, that’s very interesting. How fortunate that you’re here to explain this to us. Do you have the inside story on this fascinating issue?”
She explained to an attentive class. I was effusive with my thanks, and then changed the subject very quickly before setting them quiet work for the remainder of the lesson.
As the bell went, I asked the student to stay behind.
“Look, I’m really sorry if I made you feel in any way uncomfortable. I hope you understand that I wasn’t being particularly critical of your specific faith. I’m actually pretty critical of all faiths, and indeed plenty of non-religious “faiths” too. Like Thatcherism. I’m an equal opportunity critic.” I was blathering.
She smiled patiently.
“It’s ok, Mr C. I understand. I didn’t see it as a personal thing. I’ve already heard you slag off the catholic church in previous lessons. And there was that time you went off on one about radical Islam after we asked you about the 7/7 bombings. And you were very funny when you were making fun of why the Jewish God wanted circumcision.”
“I did? I was? Oh dear.” I think a sweaty droplet of fear actually rolled down between my shoulder blades at this point. “Look, anyway, I’m sorry. I’d hate to feel I made you uncomfortable in class.”
She brightened. “Oh no, you didn’t at all. It was good to be able to talk about my faith.”
“Excellent.” I’m was thinking I might get away with this by that point.
Then she paused.
“Actually, I was wondering if I could give you this.” She rummaged in her bag, and pulled out what was clearly a Jehovah’s Witness recruiting leaflet.
I took it wordlessly, and stared at it, speechless. When I looked up, she was smiling happily.
“It’s just, you seem to have a lot of anger at the world. And I thought you might want to see if Our Lord could help you with that.”
She flashed me another beaming smile, and left.
If only He was able to do so for my students in their exams….
Phoebe: “Mr C, Mr C. We’ve got a problem.”
Me: “What’s that?”
Lucy: “Phoebe might not be able to play tomorrow.”
Me: “Why not Phoebe?”
Phoebe: “I’ve, er, lost my contact lenses.”
Me: “Can you remember where you put them?”
Phoebe: “Well, not lost so much.”
Me: “What do you mean, ‘not lost so much’? Do you know where they are?”
Lucy: “Err, yes.”
Lucy points at her stomach.
Me: “Lucy, you’ve eaten Phoebe’s contact lenses?”
Lucy: “It was an accident.”
Me: “An accident?”
Phoebe: “Lucy thought it was just a cup, and she wanted a drink of water. But it was the cup I used to put my contacts in when I took them out.”
Lucy: “I’m really sorry. I didn’t notice.”
Phoebe: “I can’t see very well without them.”
Me: “No, that’s what contacts are for, really.”
Phoebe: “Is there anything we can do?”
Me: “Do you really need me to explain to you how we’d get them back?”
Phoebe: “Oh my God. I’m not looking through Lucy’s poo.”
Lucy: “I don’t want you to look through my poo.”
Phoebe: “I might not be able to play tomorrow then.”
Me: “Are you sure?”
Lucy: “I’m really sorry Mr C.”
Me: “That’s ok. Can’t be helped. Go get some sleep now. Lucy, maybe check any more glasses before you drink from them, hey?”
Lucy: “Sorry Mr C.”
Phoebe: “Sorry Mr C.”
Students leave. Fellow teacher emerges from room.
Ms Wiffen: “What was that about?”
Me: “You know we were worrying about having to play Phoebe because she can’t tackle?”
Ms Wiffen: “Yes?”
Me: “Turns out God’s on our side, and he truly works in mysterious ways.”
12- In Memoriam
Some years ago, a student to whom I taught History A-Level, tragically died in an awful accident at his university. Three years afterwards, I wrote this letter to his parents. Names have been changed.
Dear Mr & Mrs X
Please accept my apologies for not writing to you before now. When I was informed of John’s tragic accident, I wanted to write and tell you what he meant to me and my colleagues in the history department who taught him here at the school. However, as a parent, I could not find words which seemed adequate to offer any sort of comfort or condolence, and as one of John’s teachers, rather than a close family friend or relative, it felt somewhat presumptuous to do so. I don’t know if time is the healer it is reputed to be in the case of tragedies such as yours, but I am sure John is never far from your thoughts, and perhaps particularly so at this time of year. I hope you will forgive me for writing to you now, to tell you what I remember of John, and why he made such an impression upon my colleagues and I.
John made an immediate impact in our history classes. He understood the world with a depth which usually eludes those of his age. Unlike many of the boys who enter [the] sixth form, he was politically aware, and although I occasionally teased him for his “lefty” views (only from professional even-handedness – our views on most matters were pretty much identical), he never adopted the unthinking posturing of so many who pretend to political opinions in adolescence. He also had an appreciation of nuance and the grey areas which plenty of adults never seem to acknowledge, but then John was unusually mature for his age.
As his teacher, it was such a pleasure to be able to debate issues with a student who was not only willing to hold an opinion, but was able to justify it and even provide some evidenced back-up. In many ways, that made it all the more frustrating that he couldn’t write essays ! His eloquence would sometimes survive the transition to paper, but if I’ve met a slower writer, then I can’t recall them. It was clear from the start that John would not be able to obtain the rewards he deserved for his obvious intelligence in a traditional history A-level exam. His other subjects’ results, which required less extended writing, are clear testament to his intellect. The history examination, however, is not yet suited to dealing with the talents of someone like John. I always felt that this was more of a frustration to me than to him, as I wanted him to receive the recognition his impressive mind deserved, while he always seemed far more relaxed about the outcome. That in itself was another sign of his maturity and self-confidence.
When John spoke, as he freely did in discussions, the class listened. Even I had to listen, as he would often challenge something I said. He was a strong speaker : clear, concise and charismatic. It was no surprise then – indeed it was entirely predictable and right – that he should be chosen by teachers and his peers as Head Boy. In that role, he flourished, as his natural good humour, good character and strong sense of responsibility shone through. He was head and shoulders above the majority of boys who come through our school, and that is testament to him, rather than a criticism of them.
All this, I am sure, you have been told by others, although it bears repeating. John was a credit to you, and you should be so proud of the young man you raised. If I may, though, I would like to share a couple of memories of John. In many ways, they encapsulate his character, and illustrate the reason why I and my colleagues still recall him so clearly amidst the thousands of students who have passed before us.
The first event was a special Mothers’ Day assembly which John was required to deliver as Head Boy. He wasn’t wildly keen about the task, as he made clear in one of my lessons prior to the assembly. However, one of the characteristics I liked most about John is that he had a mischievous sense of humour, and coupled with his understanding of the environment and people around him, this gave him the ability to see the potential for poking fun at the sort of conformity upon which most schools are based. He didn’t inform me or my history colleagues of his plans, but I knew he’d been asked to find examples of great mothers from history for his assembly. We’d dutifully provided some examples to the Head of Sixth Form, to pass on to John, including traditional models of sacrifice and wisdom such as Eleanor Roosevelt. On the day of the assembly, the tone was very much one taking a traditionalist view of mothers as nurturing, loving and gentle. John then stood up to deliver his piece. He then proceeded to describe as “the greatest mothers in history”, a series of women who included Boudicca (a mass-murderer driven wild by revenge), Medea (betrayed her father, attempted to murder her stepson, killed and dismembered various family members), and my personal favourite, Agrippina, who plotted to kill pretty much every member of her own family and was finally murdered herself by her son Nero. John didn’t mention these acts. Instead he portrayed them as powerful women, trying to achieve the best they could for their beloved children. He did this all without so much as a wink or a smile to give the game away. In the best possible way, he was challenging clichés and lazy stereotypes while apparently reinforcing them. Probably only the members of the history department had any idea what he was doing, and it was all we could do to keep a straight face. I believe I may have had to fake a cough to cover a snort of laughter. I’ve never taught a boy other than John who would have had the knowledge, sense of humour and sheer chutzpah to be able to pull that off. My colleagues and I thought he was marvellous.
The second event was his participation in the school show, or more to the point, the way he participated. He often had his guitar with him when he was in school. I occasionally invited him to play it in class while I rummaged for books. When I discovered he was planning to play it in the show, in front of all the assembled girls of the school, I was taken aback by his self-confidence. Even hardened teachers shy away from anything other than clowning parts in such shows, hiding their fear behind farce, but John was willing to risk sincerity, even amidst the comedy. That sort of confidence is rare in any teenager, let alone a teenage boy in a girls’ school. Yet he did it with humility, and was rewarded with genuine affection and admiration from students and staff alike. This inner confidence never spilled over into arrogance, which is all too often a consequence of being one of a couple of dozen boys amongst more than a thousand girls. The teachers hear rather more than the students think we do, and it’s not uncommon for the girls to rapidly denounce this or that boy as arrogant, cruel, or worse. But in two years, I never heard anything but kind words for John. He was a handsome young man, intelligent and good-humoured. He had a female fan club amongst the student body which probably numbered in the hundreds, and he could not have been unaware of that. Yet despite the ego-boosting potential of the environment, he never acted in any way which could be described as ungentlemanly. I recall a conversation in the history office shortly after I had adopted my three daughters, and was being gently teased by my colleagues about the prospect of having three teenage girls at some fast-approaching point in the future, and what that might mean for boyfriends. After the usual discussion about shotguns and suchlike, someone pointed out that the boys might be like John. After a moment of reflection, we agreed we’d all be pretty pleased if any of our daughters brought home a boy like him. I still feel that way, and woe betide any future beau of my girls who doesn’t measure up to John’ high standards.
In John’s life, I and my colleagues were just peripheral figures, occupying a few hours of his time during term-time, for two years. Yet he made such a big impression on us; far greater than the imprint left behind by the average student. This is in itself remarkable given the number of students we teach, most of whom become hazy memories rather too quickly, to be replaced by the next year’s cohort. It seems trite to say that John was special – all our students are special, particularly to their parents. Yet John was exceptional. I still occasionally cite his example to my students as someone to emulate, and several sixth form classes have been subtly encouraged to follow his example of intelligent subversion. Young men and women who never met John will be positively influenced by him, even if only because he helped establish my benchmark for the sort of young adult I want all my students to become.
I am not a religious man, although I know that religion can provide answers, or at least some comfort, and occasionally I feel envious of the certainties of pulpit or scripture. Rationalism and reason seem less than helpful in the face of apparently random tragedy. However, I believe that what gives life meaning or purpose is to add to the general good of the world, or to advance the welfare of those around you: friend, family or stranger. In that sense, I suppose I accept there is an afterlife, in the impact that one makes on those whose paths one crosses, and the traces we leave behind in the memories of our families, the examples we set our friends and the behaviour and values of our children. It is an extraordinary soul who makes a significant impact in such a short time, on so many people who are some distance from the centre of their lives. John had such an impact on me, and on my colleagues.
I hope I have not been presumptuous in writing to you, and that I have not reopened any wounds in doing so. Please accept my best wishes, and know that John will continue to be something of an inspiration to my colleagues and I, and through us to our students, for many years to come.
13- This Sporting Life
Sports days are educational marmite. Some teachers love them, others hate them. I’m in the latter camp. Standing unshaded in the boiling sun whilst pretending to give a stuff who wins an egg and spoon race isn’t something I would volunteer for. Nevertheless, they’re part of the job. Like discovering chewing gum on your trousers, and drawing pins in the soles of your shoes.
Yet occasionally, even the smelliest swine turn up a pearl. And my colleague and friend, Matt, provided it.
I had so much respect for Matt. We joined the school at the same time, but whereas I was already a world-weary, married career-changer, he was fresh out of university, and with the boundless energy of a Duracell bunny. We bonded over a shared sense of humour, and a shared set of values.
One of the reasons I had so much respect for him was that, as a young, handsome and athletic male teacher, he instantly attracted a huge fan club amongst the students. As anyone familiar with girls’ schools will know, this is as unavoidable as rain at Wimbledon. Some male teachers crack under the pressure of this, coming to resemble particularly nervous foxes when they hear the sound of a distant horn. Others probably enjoy the attention too much, although I’m going to hasten to say here and now that I know of none such personally.
Matt played it absolutely straight. His professionalism belied his tender years. Striking the perfect balance of professional warmth and distance, he navigated the challenges of his institutional existence with the confidence and sure-footedness of a mountain goat.
But Matt was still a young man, and young men are, well, young men. In Matt’s case, his weak spot was not the girls, but the sixth form boys.
Re-reading that, I should probably clarify: Matt was ferociously competitive. There were only four or five years between him and the young men in our sixth form, and no young man likes to lose. Which is exactly why it’s a terrible idea to have a joint teachers and students race on Sports Day.
In any contest against the students, I’d generally adopt a “let them win if they really want to” attitude. Especially if I was well aware I had no chance in the first place. Which, of course, I wouldn’t. But Matt liked to win.
It was the last event, a relay over 400 metres of the not-quite-400m-long running track. Sixth form students against teachers. None of the teachers were beyond their mid-twenties, so an outside observer would have been hard-pushed to tell the difference between the two teams. Well over a thousand students from Year 7 to Year 12 were arranged around the track, a crowd which any athletics event outside the Olympics and Commonwealth Games would generally kill for.
The starting gun cracked, and off they went. I recall little about most of the race except for the incredible, intense noise which a thousand, overwhelmingly female, teenagers can generate. Other teachers will know what I’m talking about. It’s the sort of noise which shatters windows, perforates eardrums, and kills weak-hearted dogs for several hundred yards in any direction.
Matt was the final leg for the teachers, and by the time the baton reached him, the teachers had a good lead. Up against him was a sixth form boy. The hand-over was pretty good, and Matt took off. Because it was Matt, the noise from the students intensified further, from the sound of being too close to an industrial turbine to something akin to a being strapped to the engine of a Boeing 747 taking off with a particularly heavy load. My brain protested under the strain.
Unfortunately for Matt, two things were about to go wrong for him. The first was that his student opponent on the final leg was, it turned out, the result of a bizarre genetic experiment which had crossed a human with a whippet. He took the baton ten metres behind Matt, and I swear to God that he actually flew over the ground. I’ve seen slower bullets. He was eating up the yards as if they weren’t there. Now the excitement of a close race was added to the excitement of seeing Mr Fermor run, and as the girls hit previously undiscovered frequencies, birds began to fall stunned from the trees, and ripples of acoustic shockwaves could be seen moving across the longer grass.
The second problem was that I was commentating on the mike from a tent in the middle of the track.
Now it’s possible that what happened would have happened anyway. It’s possible that if I hadn’t shouted “My God! Look at him go! He’s catching Mr Fermor! He’s going to take him!”, then Matt might still have decided to glance briefly over his shoulder. It’s also possible that – even if he hadn’t glanced over his shoulder – he might have nevertheless foolishly tried to alter his running stride mid-flight to put on that extra kick of speed. Although it’s also possible that both the glance, and the running adjustment, were a direct result of being informed that his athletic triumph was under immediate threat.
Would he have won, if he hadn’t been informed of this fact? Possibly.
But it’s apparently a hard thing to change your stride when at full pace (I wouldn’t know, I spent my entire rugby league career moving from “stop” to “dead slow” and back again – speed is an alien concept to me). It can lead to catastrophe.
Matt’s smooth, athletic style suddenly faltered. It was like watching a sprinting antelope immediately after it’s been shot. Suddenly his legs weren’t moving in a way which even an amateur would recognise as “running”.
“Falling” would be a far better description.
The most peculiar thing about the next second or so is that the time-space continuum was disrupted. The actual stumble and fall couldn’t have lasted more than a second. Yet I can still recall it as if it played out in real-life slow-motion. His legs were no longer underneath him. He was not running, but diving. His face was colliding with the ground.
And as all this happened the volume was suddenly switched off. A thousand students, and a hundred members of staff, simultaneously stopped screaming and took an involuntary collective breath which sucked the previously ear-shattering sound from the sports field. All that was left was the sound of distant car alarms, and the sickening thuds of Matt’s body rolling and flailing across the ground to come to a stop in a cloud of dust and dead grass, just a few metres from the finishing line which his student opponent duly crossed.
Nobody laughed. Everybody stared. I realised I still had the microphone in my hand. Suddenly, from nowhere, rose up a folk memory of Eddie Waring commentating on the ‘Watersplash’ Challenge Cup Final of 1968, when Don Fox missed a simple conversion in front of the post which would have won the game for Wakefield, but instead gifted a victory to Leeds.
“Oh, he’s a poor lad. He’s a poor, poor lad.”
What Matt ate
14- The Geek
Sophie was a B student. Nothing we could do would ever get her an A. She got Bs in everything. She was hard-working, conscientious, funny and kind. She listened attentively, and completed all the work. I taught her history from Year 8 to Year 13. I don’t think I or any other teacher ever managed to give her an A for any serious assessment. And we really tried. I mean, we REALLY tried. I tried all sorts of creative interpretations of the mark schemes, but it was always B. It killed me a bit each time, because I liked Sophie.
Not just because she played prop for the rugby team, but because she was self-evidently different. In a school where most girls carried round glossy magazines about clothes and celebrities in their bags, Sophie would have Marvel comics. Where cool kids feared to tread for fear of being seen to be too enthusiastic, Sophie charged in unselfconsciously, happy to talk to popular and unpopular alike. She was a lovely, lovely kid. She didn’t know it, but the entire history department loved her.
At the end of one lesson, I found her crying gently in her seat by the window. As I approached, she tried to wipe away the tears and put on her usual cheery face. She failed. I was appalled. This was Sophie. My ever-cheerful B student. Crying.
“What’s up Sophie?”
“Come on, now. You and I both know that’s not true.”
I watched the brief internal battle between confession and discretion. But Sophie wasn’t the sort of kid to hide things. She had a huge heart, and it was always open.
“Some of the others were taking the mickey.”
Tears started to flow faster. She snurched her nose.
“They think I’m weird because I like fantasy books. They say I’m a neek.”
I don’t know why “geek” became “neek” at my school. The vagaries of teenage slang culture escape me completely. Life is too short.
“Just because I like Lord of the Rings, and read comics. They were nasty.”
The tears were by then accompanied by great, heaving sobs.
There are some teachers who are completely unmoved by students crying. There are some, it is rumoured, who actually LIKE to make students cry. Although I hope most of those are fictional. But I am hopeless in the face of tears. Defenceless under the assault of lachrymosity. Particularly female tears. Especially female child tears. I become a stereotypical useless male, who would do anything – anything – to stem the flow, up to and including promising things I know I can’t deliver.
Yet here, I could deliver. It felt almost joyous to be able to help.
“Sophie, I read Lord of the Rings. It’s my favourite book. And film.”
Sophie turned to stare. She was uncertain whether this is good news. On the one hand, I was a teacher, and thus deeply untrendy. On the other hand, I had a reputation of being an anti-establishment teacher who was a bit different, a bit unconventional. Not “cool”, but also not “boring”.
“Yes. I took up reading fantasy fiction when I was about your age. I’ve an older cousin in New Zealand who’s now their leading pathologist. She reads it too, and she got me into it. She always used to say that it was a way of escaping the tedium of reality, and so she reckons clever people are drawn to the genre. She’s the cleverest person I know.”
Many kids would have been suspicious, but Sophie wasn’t the suspicious type. She wanted to believe it. It also helped that it was true. The tears stopped flowing. She dried her eyes, wiped her face and left.
I’d been fooled into thinking that her general cheeriness meant she didn’t have the self-consciousness of many other kids. But she did. It’s easy for us as adults to forget how terrifyingly lonely many teenagers feel, even when they’re surrounded by friends, schoolmates and family. So many of them mask a seething cauldron of insecurity behind certain behaviours or attitudes. The teenager’s long-noted desire to belong to tribes and sub-cultures is less a form of confident expression in many cases, and more a desire for a protective shield of common identity.
I was able to tell Sophie she wasn’t alone. That people who were ok liked the same things she liked. I wasn’t telling her she wasn’t a geek. I was telling her that there were lots of geeks like her. Including adults. The trick was finding a way of convincing her that it wasn’t just reassuring empty words, and ensuring that future Sophies knew they were safe with us too.
I recounted the tale to the history Department, which just so happened to be staffed almost entirely by geeks, from Trekkies to Tolkienites. A Department which nevertheless had a very positive and popular reputation across the school with the students. This was something we could really deal with.
For the rest of that week, every history class in Sophie’s year found itself, apropos of nothing, regaled with self-admitted geek stories from the teachers. We found ways of discussing our love for fantasy fiction, science-fiction, elves, trolls, timetravel, Dr Who. You name the geekery, we banged on about how much we loved it.
And so out came the admissions from students. They loved it too. Maybe a little bit too much emphasis on dodgy vampire-werewolf teen novels for my liking, but in for a penny, in for a pound. Fantasy references became a common lingua-franca for the relaxed parts of the lessons. In History, if you liked such stuff, you were normal.
We instituted a game which still runs in the Department now. The History teachers identify the Middle-Earth race of every student in their class: human, elf, hobbit or dwarf (we omitted orcs and trolls, for obvious reasons). Everyone wanted to know their race. What was bizarre was how much absolute agreement there was amongst the teachers about who belonged where. It still forms part of end of year quizzes even now, when there’s always a round listing every student in the class and asking teams to try to identify which race they belong to. I have heard sophisticated, confident sixth-formers arguing about whether their friends are elves or humans while strolling unselfconsciously down 5th Avenue in New York. We did that.
Years later, Sophie was one of the contributors to a beautiful leaving video which my students made for me before they packed off to University. Sophie recalled that conversation. To her, that was more important than a hundred lessons. I agree.
She got a B at A-Level.
Good effort, Sophie.
The History Department on any given day at work
After the Brexit vote, I received a friend request on Facebook from an ex-student now in her mid-twenties. We’ll call her Emma, because that’s her name. She had decided to get in touch because, shocked by the Brexit disaster, she and another ex-student had wondered how I’d react, as they remembered me as being very interested in politics.
Emma was one of my very first students. She was in a Year 9 class in my NQT year, when I was rather ill-advisedly given four Year 9 classes to teach. Like many NQTs before me, and many to come, I found the Year 9s the trickiest. I don’t know if it’s different in a boys’ school, but for girls, Year 9 is the long, dark night of the adolescent soul. The most difficult students start to undergo the process we termed “becoming a Year 9” sometime in Year 8. Most emerge, like a butterfly from a chrysalis, as lovely young adults sometime in Year 10 (although a few don’t). But Year 9 is the pits. Or just The Pit.
Even nice girls can be tempted to the path of darkness during Year 9. Especially if placed in the care of a new teacher who doesn’t have the slightest clue how to manage that difficult time. Emma was one of those students. Later on, she’d become a much-respected and well-liked sixth-former. But in Year 9, she was a monster. A flame-haired harpie who seemed to be making it her personal mission in life to reduce me to a quivering wreck in every lesson. She wasn’t alone in that, but I felt her barbs more keenly precisely because I could see that she was actually a really clever student, and I was failing absolutely to reach her.
I used to return to my small shared office/cave after lessons with her class to sit and stare blindly at the wall. When a fellow NQT raised her own head from weeping into her tea, to ask me what the matter was, I recall blurting out:
“I’m being bullied by thirteen year-old girls”.
I’d been shouted at directly by enraged Cabinet Ministers. I’d told a roomful of drug charity workers and recovering addicts that I was taking their funding away. I’d been roundly abused by members of the public for representing the Government. And I’d played hundreds of games of the one of the most violent and brutal team sports one could imagine, with the associated verbal and physical intimidation.
Yet I was being bullied by thirteen year old girls, and I didn’t know what to do.
At some point in the spring term, it was decreed that I would be observed by a Deputy Head. And to my horror, the class chosen for the observation was Emma’s Year 9 class.
I did what NQTs tend to do in such situations, and over-planned. Lots of whizzy activities. Squeezing in too much. My school at the time still had a space on the standard lesson plan for “learning styles”, and even though I was already quite clear that such things were nonsense, I still stuck in Visual Auditory and Kinaesthetic activities. The shame, the shame.
An more experienced colleague reassured me that the mere presence of a Deputy (nobody ever used the word “leader” back then, because we hadn’t yet been infected with 1990s West Coast Managerialist bullshit), would prevent too much trouble, as the girls would be cowed.
No they weren’t.
With Emma leading the way, they destroyed me. The Deputy may as well have been invisible. Shouting out across the class. Ignoring instructions. Demanding loudly to borrow stationary and wandering across the room to go get it from their friends. It was a catastrophe. Remembering it now brings me out in a hair-stiffening burst of historical shame.
The Deputy left. As an aside, in a good example of how important first impressions are, she had not unreasonably decided I was a terrible teacher. I didn’t stay a terrible teacher, but until she left the school, she never changed her mind.
As the bell went, I dismissed all the class except Emma and one of her co-conspirators, and pointed out to her, more in despair than anger, that there had been a Deputy Head in the classroom, so what did she think she was doing.
Emma looked me coolly in the eye, and said:
“You’re always telling us to be honest. So we thought she should see what it’s normally like.”
She then turned on her heel and flounced out in the way that only a Year 9 girl whose hair comprises 50% of her body mass can flounce, leaving me staring at the wall.
I accepted her friend request. We exchanged messages.
She told me she had considered becoming a teacher.
Thanks Emma, for your honesty
16 – On The Buses
For reasons which I can’t explain, a lot of my memories of teaching seem to involve transportation. Plenty of coaches and minibuses, but there are a few planes, trains and even boats in there too. I’m sure if I was cleverer than I am, I could construct a wonderful argument which linked the concept of transport from A to B with the journey all students are on in school. But I’m not, so I won’t.
*It’s dark outside, and we’re all shattered. The eight-hour flight from London was less than comfortable, and we’ve been going now since 6am. Outside, in the USA, it’s only 7pm, but our body clocks are telling us it’s time to sleep. Despite this, there’s a meal to eat, a hotel to arrive at, and an Empire State Building to ascend before we sleep. It’s my first trip to the USA, with thirty girls and two boys in tow; I’ve already managed to leave the school mobile phone on the plane; and I am experiencing the uncomfortable permanently-falling sensation which seems to accompany me on all trips for which I am responsible. I’m not sure how they, or I, will get through it.
Then we round some sort of hill, and there, just beyond the dark reflection of the water, is Manhattan Island. The lights of the skyscrapers stand out against the dark night. It’s an impossible scene. Unreal in its artificial Hollywood beauty. The students emit an involuntary shriek, and all those from one side of the coach dash over to the other side, to literally press their noses against the window, drinking in the view. Smiles return to previously tired faces. Eyes gleam with new energy. Their excitement is like a shot of adrenaline. My colleague, Vicki, her own eyes as bright and excited as the girls who are, after all, only a few years younger than her, reaches out and involuntarily touches my arm and smiles. This will be ok. It’s going to be worth it.
*London traffic never stops. Even at 11pm there’s a queue at every set of lights as we cross the river, heading for the safety of Kent and fifteen sets of waiting parents. I’m tired. I’ve been driving the school minibus now since we left Rochdale some six or so hours ago, and as the only teacher with the minibus license, there’s no relief coming. The girls have been pestering for me to stick the radio on Capital since they saw the signed for the M25. I reluctantly concede. It’s awful. The sort of music I recall having to pretend to like when I was desperate to listen to the ‘right’ stuff at their age. Having achieved their goal, the girls then ignore it, chatting and squabbling amongst themselves. Six hours is a long time for fifteen teenagers to be locked up in a space the size of a minibus. But the music is making me grumpy. I’d rather not be grumpy when driving lots of other people’s precious children around in busy traffic. I mutter to Becky to change it, and she fiddles around with the knackered stereo.
She finds a nice, safe, middle-of-the-road station. Heart, I think. The girls, as one, moan. They may have been shouting to make themselves heard over the noise they were previously ignoring, but it was cool, damnit, and this isn’t. Then Robbie Williams starts the opening bars of “Angel”. Lauren, perhaps the bravest, coolest kid, starts singing along. Ironically and exaggeratedly. The others join in. Her friends first. Then the rest. They become tuneful – they can’t help themselves. And nor can I. Becky and I are joining in on the front seat. Not slightly-embarrassed-hope-the-kids-don’t-hear-us murmurings. Proper, full volume, lung evacuation. We’re driving through Lewisham, and there are lights sliding past outside the minibus. The windows are open, causing more than a few late-night pedestrians to stop and turn to find the source of the noise. We’re singing like we’ve won something. And I don’t feel tired any more.
*Chloe, my pint-sized fullback who tackled like a fearless rhino, managed to wreck her ankle ligaments in the last tackle of the match. The good news was that we were only in West London. The bad news was that, because we were only in West London, we’d gone on the train rather than in the bus. But Chloe couldn’t walk. I scrounged a lift to the local station from a teacher at the opposition’s school, but when we got to Waterloo, there was no transport. We didn’t have time to muck about, as we had to get from the main station to Waterloo East, to get the connecting train home. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. It was time for a piggy back.
Carefully instructing my female colleague to watch and record everything so that there was no misunderstanding re: physical contact, I took a knee while Chloe climbed on board. Then I straightened up, and started to walk across a platform crowded with slightly disbelieving commuters, staring at the big white guy with the increasingly red face, carrying the little black girl who looked as embarrassed as only a fourteen year-old can. That day I learned three lessons. Firstly, the reason why Chloe’s tackling was so ferocious was that, despite her diminutive height, she had the density of Tungsten, and weighed an absolute ton. Secondly, it’s a bloody long way from Waterloo Mainline to Waterloo East. And thirdly, we never went to a match without the minibus again.
17- Phones in the Classroom
Spring 2008, and I’m teaching a class of – I think – Year 9s. I’m in mid-exposition, when the unmistakable sound of a text-message arrival interrupts me.
Girls instantly adopt the tormented expressions so familiar to teachers everywhere. On the one hand, they all know that phones mustn’t be turned on in school, and the penalty for breaching this rule is confiscation – the nuclear option to any teenage girl – so they try hard to look nonchalant. On the other hand, it could have been their phone, and knowingly having a message which can’t be viewed is, to a teenage girl, a subtle but powerful form of torture.
I see most of them glance at their bags. The ones who don’t are probably illegally keeping their phones about their person: tucked into the rolled-up waistband of their kilts, or stuffed down their bras.
But this is my phone. And I’ve left it on for a reason.
My mind goes so blank that I can’t even think of setting them a piece of work to distract them. Finding my mouth has suddenly become the Sahara and no words will come, I merely hold up a hand mid-sentence; a gesture that they should somehow remain in stasis for an unspecified period of time. They look confused.
Heart pounding, I duck into the stock cupboard and close the door behind me, dragging my phone out of my jacket pocket. It’s an old-fashioned small-screen-and-keyboard variety. It says “message received”. I fumble with the buttons. My thumbs feel like sausages.
The message is from the social worker. It says:
“The Panel have approved the match. Congratulations.”
I slump against the shelves of tatty textbooks. The words blur on the screen.
I can hear the volume increasing in the class outside the door. They’ve all had chance to check their phones now, and will be overcoming their disappointment about not receiving a message by conjecturing about what’s going on with their teacher.
A couple of deep breaths and I push the door open and re-enter the front of the room. Thirty pairs of eyes stare at me. They’re looking worried.
“Mr C, are you ok?”, asks one of the more confident students. I wish I could remember her name, but I can’t.
I look up.
“Yes. I’m ok. I’m fine. Let’s just try to have a go at the questions on the next page.”
Normality is restored. The children breathe a sigh of relief. Pages are turned. Pens are clicked. Hair is flicked out of eyes.
I sit at the front, looking at them but not seeing them.
I just became a father.
Some phone calls, you just have to take