Everything I know about teaching: Amazon.co.uk: Mr Michael Gove: Books
For some inexplicable reason between masochism and a love of the absurd, I have signed up for another theatre outing. There was actually one in the middle I didn’t have the heart for that involved a 6th form trip to the Royal Court. Wisely they took the train. Except, if you can believe it, in front of that particular train somewhere between Crawley and East Croydon somebody chose to depart this mortal coil. Which led them grinding to a standstill for 2 hours before returning theatrically empty handed. Again. So this, I suppose, is third time lucky.
We do not make a promising start. The coach company ‘luxury tours’ has sent a bus for 79 when we ordered one for 81. The other coach, it seems, has engine troubles, and this is the best they could do. ‘Well you choose which kid should go home then’, says Judith, head of Drama. We survey the bubbling pockets of countryside kids and realise it would be a bit like drowning puppies, before they ever even left the farm. Which sometimes, I have to admit, is certainly rather appealing, especially when Sophie is involved. But Sophie is not here. Of course it’s down to a teacher to fall on their sword. An identical thought ripples through all 4 members of staff, but it seems somehow unchivalrous to check out so soon and so I keep quiet. Anne is beset by no such qualms and takes the hit. This leaves staff ratios below the legal limit but ‘bureaucracy be damned’ bellows Judith and we’re off, taking a tour on the wild side with 3 staff to 76 fourteen year olds.
An hour in and there is some commotion upstairs, which I am manning alone. There are sheets of rain on the motorway and some of it, it seems, is finding its way through the roof into seat 68. Amy is getting soaked. Amy is not one to complain; she only sits there meekly like an abused kitten, but this makes Rob all the more vociferous in her defence. Bless him, he’s got a bit of a crush. Not so much so that he is actually willing to trade seats with her though. The bus driver is aware of the problem: ‘I told you, the other bus is out of action’ he grumbles. Obviously. You will perhaps remember the last time I raised the grim health and safety spectre of 2 kids to a seat? So instead I make some chippy comment about the incongruity of writing ‘luxury’ down the side of this farting wheel-barrow and for the next 2 hours I perch perpendicular to a soggy seat base, only glad that my black cords will not show too much of a dodgy pee stain for the rest of the night.
The journey is interminable, but it is softened by the inventiveness of bored teenagers. The pair opposite have started snorting Tabasco. Yes snorting Tabasco.They are challenging each other to ever bigger lines and dribbling red snot down the chair arms. The pair behind are heatedly debating whether or not meow meow can kill you. They ask me. Stuck between the truth and a party political broadcast I always opt for the truth. Which is I have no fucking idea, but I imagine it would take some considerable effort to OD on plant fertiliser. ‘All things in moderation’ I say sagely, and then spend half an hour wondering if you can get fired for repeating an aphorism.
Later they take to snapping photos of sleeping staff, zooming up their nostrils, and posting it on Facebook. When Mr. Bream is roused from his slumber he loses his rag and demands that the whole bus pipe down or we’ll be going straight home. Which, of course, is one of those ridiculous things teachers say but can never follow through on (‘you’ll be on early morning military parade for a year boy!’ Actually that did happen but this is not Harrow, thankfully). So instead they start singing happy birthday, which is traditionally sanctioned noise pollution. Except they’ve sung it 5 times in a row now and it’s no one’s actual birthday.
Eventually we roll into London. ‘Look! Look! A homeless!’ screeches Aidan out the window, ‘I told you we’d see one!’
‘Aidan, you can’t say that, that’s prejudiced’, tuts Miss Farley.
‘For God’s sake have you never seen a homeless person before or something?’
‘Er no Miss’.
And you can see from the width of his eyes he isn’t lying. It’s then I realise it’s probably Sussex villages that were the most fitting inspiration for Hot Fuzz. In fact a number of these kids have never been to London before, which seems almost insane to me, but there it is. And many have never been to the theatre either. Like Meg who asks ‘is it true they do Pizza at half time?’ I tell her that of course they always bring round wooden palates of stone baked pizza for everyone, and then feel almost cruel when I see her begin to drool.
Amazingly we arrive an hour early and choose, somewhat I’ll-advisedly, to allow the kids to roam free in the confines of Covent Garden. We instruct them they cannot under any circumstances travel in groups of less than 3 or leave the confines of the plaza, and the beleaguered staff disappear off to have a slice of extravagantly priced Jamie Oliver pizza. Half an hour later and a bleary eyed, snotty nosed Rachel taps on the restaurant window behind table, with two blond boys beside her looking sheepish. I figure they must have stolen her pack lunch or something, but no:
‘We were just joking about and then I felt someone squeeze my bum and I thought it was Ed but they were both further behind and anyways they said it wasn’t them but then I saw a weird looking guy vanish into the crowd.’
Rachel is hysterical. You can tell it wasn’t the boys. They are almost as terrified.
‘Right ok. Do you know where the man is now?’ I ask.
‘No he’s gone. I just wanted to tell an adult so I could feel normal again.’
I feel like giving her a hug, but ironically it is because of people like this pervy stranger that I can’t. Instead I find myself wondering how many separate incident slips need to be filled in for this kind if experience. As long as you follow the flowchart protocol you’re protected from any comebacks. Which basically translates into writing everything down on a proforma and passing it up the chain, to someone else who will do the same thing, until it finally reaches the rammed inbox of someone who’s too busy or close to retirement to do anything about it anyway. And since incident slips became electronic I can’t even offer one to Rachel to blow her nose on. I don’t know what to say really. I ask if she feels okay to carry on, tell the boys to look after her and get them to join our table. The boys come up with a plan that she shall walk between them from now on. Two miniature golden knights, but I fear they’re woefully ill-equipped to deal with the orcs of London. Honestly, it’s enough to make you cry that there are country girls who go to the theatre for the first time and then there are phantom men who squeeze their arses before snaking off back into the urban swell. Unfortunately it seems Rachel has set off something of a pandemic. Hannah is now also in floods of tears. She went into a shop leaving her friend alone on the street, and is now convinced that her friend was lucky not to be sold into the sex trade and distraught that she would have had to live with the grief for the rest of her life. Statistical arguments offer scant comfort and finally all that’s left to do is usher the whole lot of them into the theatre early.
Except four of them are missing. Jesus fuck! It’s times like this I’m glad I’ve diligently followed a path of minimal career progression and responsibility. We flap and panic and make everyone form orderly lines and then count again and flap and panic, rinse and repeat. Someone is suggesting the police when a black cab pulls up and the four kids pop out grinning like Big Brother evictees. It turns that they had taken a double decker bus to Charing Cross and then got a cab straight back again because they’d never been in either. Such ingenuity! It’s hard not to admire the brass balls or seizing the chance to cross not 1 but 2 things off your bucket list in half an hour. I have to hide a fatherly swell of pride as Mr. Bream yaps at them.
Amazingly we are still early. Which was a mistake. I am set to patrol the upper circle and by the time the performance finally begins I have had to confiscate a large bag of skittles to stop kids taking pot shots at bald people below. You may assume I should control these pupils better, but I don’t actually know any of them and it’s more or less like telling off someone else’s kids in the park. To my inordinate relief the lights finally dim. An actor walks on and says nothing, staring upwards in an actorly manner for some 30 seconds.
‘Get on with it!’ bellows Meg to a ripple of tutting and whispers. For some reason I have assumed that the etiquette of a theatre is something you pick up on intuitively, like not eating cow dung or peeing in a graveyard, but I was obviously wrong, and now I can’t teach them otherwise. They whoop and cry and shriek at every twist and turn which, given we’re watching the Woman in Black, is fairly relentless. I swear if she comes into the audience there will be some kind of hysterical evacuation afoot. A rather officious theatre goer turns around several times, but the girls just ape him mercilessly, joyfully tutting each other for the rest of the half. It is Friday night and I am shattered so I decide the best option is to sleep through the whole thing and pretend they belong to someone else like some humiliated Labrador owner. This works surprisingly well until Aidan yells at me during the interval ‘did you shit yourself sir!? Did you?’ He’s clearly so excited I haven’t the heart to tell him off and just grin knowingly, whilst avoiding the roving eye of the disgruntled man in front. ‘I thought so,’ says Aidan, smugly satisfied that this is indeed THE scariest show in the world.
After the show there are 76 fully satisfied teens trying to scare the hell out of each other on the street outside the Stage door. They have enjoyed the show in a way that gives me a sense of nostalgia for the power of childhood stories. We are trying to usher them off to the bus, which brilliantly has parked over a mile away, but they steadfastly refuse to go till they have had the chance to congratulate the actors. The disgruntled man and his wife have to cross the street to avoid the pavement throng, but no one notices. After an age the door opens and the cast step into a cascade of bells and whistles to dwarf the X factor auditions. They smile sheepishly before beetling into the tube, satisfied stars for the night.
Later the bus has gone, and I am left waiting with Bryony for her mother to come since we’re both staying in London. She’s pretty late and it’s past midnight. Bryony and I get to talking. She’s mixed race from the Caribbean and Portugal, but spent most of her life growing up in Kingston on Thames, till her mother went abroad with work and she ended up in a boarding school in pastoral England. She is one of the only kids with a genuinely tough urban shell to her and I ask whether she misses the city buzz. ‘Not really,’ she says, ‘it was weird at first with everything smelling of cow shit and everyone calling you ‘dear’ in the shops. But do you know what? I think I like the countryside best.’
Sir di di sir sir,
I’m afraid I have come down with the flu and that is why I wasn’t in the lesson today, what happened? Was Callan there? Was he drugged up again?? Maybe it’s time for the Rehab intervention with him… Anyway, having the flu has given me good opportunity to watch ‘Withnail and I’. I thought it was amazing, seriously fantastic - Richard Griffiths gives such a good performance and one of the best I’ve seen on screen in a long time. The humour was right up my street and the characters (Withnail in particular) were worryingly relatable. the writing was great and is something I eventually want to write something like this. Also, how are you? I hope you are well, do you still play squash? Do you drink squash whilst playing squash? Is the sport squash just product placement for orange squash? I don’t know. I think it’s time that you try a proper sport, like rugby, let’s be honest, if ageing balding men can’t get drunk watching it then it isn’t a real sport.
I hope you have a good summer or in the extremely likely situation that you don’t check your emails until September, I hope you’ve had a good summer playing squash and getting drunk at train stations as well as going to your slightly pretentious little music festivals and watching box sets one after the other, day by day passing by never opening your curtains.
Well anyway, best wishes,
From the charismatic king who is the envy of Oscar Wilde,
I asked my year 9 class to write a letter to Adele in the character of her boyfriend, describing why he cheated on her in the song Chasing Pavements (I know - this passes for education these days.) Alex, 12, wrote:
If you’re looking for a reason, the sex was rubbish.
Yours endingly, Al
Year 7 Drama
Everyone is sat in a circle talking about fairytales. Suddenly a phone goes off. It is coming from under the piano. The piano has a large cover draped over it, like a tent.
Lucy: Sir, I think Charlie’s under the piano.
Me: Charlie, do you think you could come out from under there?
Charlie comes out rather sheepishly to more laughter. Charlie’s face is over-crowded with monkey eyes and ungainly teeth in translucent skin. For some reason I sense Charlie is not particularly enjoying this attention. I set an activity and go and talk to him.
Charlie: I didn’t know how to play the game. I didn’t know the rules and no one would explain them to me and then I got out and everyone laughed at me. I hate it when everyone laughs at me.
Charlie has ‘died’ in a game of ‘Bang’ because he was late for last week’s lesson, missed the rules and got shot in the head. The same happened this week.
Me: Is that why you climbed under the piano?
Charlie nods. ‘And it wasn’t even my phone, it was Billy’s phone. I don’t even have a phone, but everyone laughs at me and I’m the one who looks stupid. I hate looking stupid.
Me: Charlie, I don’t think anyone was laughing at you. It was just funny, you being under the piano and everything. And then not knowing where the noise was coming from. People just thought you were being funny that’s all, not in a bad way.
Charlie: But I’m not funny, I’m not funny, I’m not fun at all. I’m boring. All I do is play video games all day.
Me: Video games don’t make you boring Charlie.
Charlie is crying know, sitting on the floor, cradling his knees, with me knelt next to him feeling slightly like a cumbersome giant.
Charlie: And I’m a big idiot. I’m just the biggest idiot in the whole world and everyone knows it and that’s why they’re laughing.
That’s what he actually said. I thought they only said that in bad movies.
Me: Charlie you need to look at me. I’m not going to lie to you. You’ve made a mistake here. No one is calling you an idiot. I know it seems that way but that’s not how they feel.
Charlie: I hate this shitty school. I don’t feel safe here. Not at all.
Charlie is becoming increasingly teary and snotty. I am speechless. I just sigh and carry on sitting next to him in a kind of perfectly still and hopeless bubble. Some girls then start hovering around to complain about a boy who’s ‘tasaring’ them in the ribs and a senior manager arrives to complain I haven’t taken my register. I tell Charlie to sit tight saying I’ll be back asap. I send the Tasar boy out to a referral room, take the register and have a chat outside with the manager. She explains Charlie is fairly high level Aspergers. He can’t read situations and reactions very well. He also gets scared easily and likes warm dark places. Then suddenly there is a serious kerfuffle from the referral room. A teacher is literally screaming at Tasar boy who is trying to push her out the way. Eventually she steps aside and Tasar boy runs out the school completely somewhere onto the high street. Somebody somewhere will have to go and find him now imagine. Perhaps. The referral teacher tries to explain what happened to the manager. She is Eastern European and has slightly different sensibilities to your average UK teacher. When asked what happened she says rather cryptically ‘oh he’s just dealing with discovering he’s Gay.’ This is not the kind of thing you say to a manager in a secondary school about an 11 year old. The manager says, rather inanely I feel ‘in what way?’ ‘Oh you know, in every way’ she replies. The manager is dumbfounded. ‘Did he actually confide that to you?’ she queries.
‘Well not exactly, but it’s obvious.’
And I see at once two things: firstly she’s absolutely right – Tasar boy probably is gay and you can notice it quite clearly once it’s been pointed out, like one of those magic-eye pictures. And secondly she will be brought to account for this peculiar assertion by a school which does not include such observations on its behaviour flowcharts.
I leave them to it and head back to my pulsating Drama class. The groups have got bored of their fairytale scenes, broken into the light box and are creating a Disco style light display dance-off. Which is rather creative I think, though I feel compelled to shout at them anyway. And Charlie is back under the piano. He won’t come out this time. I have no idea what to do. Eventually I find a teacher that knows him and he gets taken to Curriculum Support. He’s deposited back 5 minutes later after a ‘breather’, since apparently it’s important to ‘give him the message he needs to get on with it’. He sits on his own till the end of the lesson, watching kids mime scenes from Cinderella he doesn’t understand. I try and smile at him once or twice but it’s a bit half-hearted. And then he is off again, until tomorrow.
The last time this happened 2 boys were suspended and the head boy was demoted (such dreams of greatness dashed so young!). This was related to an ill-advisedly large budget size bottle of vodka and a crate of special brew. Things were nicely slipping under the radar until 16 kids decided to offer a full-throated rendition of that goon Flo Rida’s tune about a blowjob. In one bedroom. At 2am. All unable to walk. One with his face welded to the wrong side of the toilet bowl by his own vomit.
So this time there is a staff ‘crisis meeting’ to discuss tactics. I feel slightly like I am in the Pentagon. Until I am given the role of just generally mingling with the kids on the dance floor and making sure no one eats each other in public view. Everyone else is given a high vis jacket, a clipboard with a list of names and a key vantage point to monitor all comings and goings. The boss says this is cos I’m ‘down with the kids’ which is curiously both flattering and offensive simultaneously.
It is a mere 30 minutes later when 2 worried girls tell me there’s something they have to say but they need me to be cool about it cos they don’t want anyone getting in trouble. SHIT. My teenage and vaguely adult side are immediately at war. I decide to proceed with caution. ‘If anyone’s dying I’ll tell someone’, I promise myself. The 3 of us approach the stair warden to go upstairs. I can’t think of an excuse cos I’m a teacher so I simply say ‘I’m just going upstairs with these 2 for a few minutes’ before nodding with what I imagine to be a kind of special agent discretion. Through the door both girls crack up. ‘Nice one sir, that didn’t sound weird at all’ says one, before the other adds ‘you’re not very good at this are you sir?’ Well no I guess not, though I still don’t know what ‘this’ is.
And then I find out. A polite and moderately behaved Chinese kid called Jake is rolling around on the bed protesting ‘I’m fine, I just need to throw up and then I’ll go back down.’
‘You alright Jake?’
‘Fine’ he flops onto the floor like a fish in a boat.
‘I think you might be a little drunk Jake’
‘Fuck off Sir. I’m not fucking drunk … You’re not going to tell the head are you?’
Alice chips in ‘Of course he’s not. Don’t worry it’s Churchy’.
I am beginning to worry why kids seem to think the links between me and authority are so tenuous…
‘Well that depends Jake. How drunk are you?’ I say gravely.
‘I’ve told you I’m not fucking drunk.’
‘Well if this is you sober then we’ve got a lot more to worry about’.
At this he raises both middle fingers and rolls backwards emitting long and dejected fart noises, like the deflation of some teenage balloon of enthusiasm. He lies spent on the floor.
The kids are arguing it’s because he’s Chinese and everyone knows they react badly to booze. Everyone except me it seems but then Scotland is not replete with marauding Chinese alcies. I decide to give him an hour to sober up, putting Alice on nursing duties, telling her to find me if he changes colour.
I head back down to the dance floor where things are getting a little tastier than I imagined. It’s amazing this propensity of teenage boys to want to bump and grind with their male teachers. In some circles school homophobia really does seem to be on the wane. Since I’m leaving soon it seems uncharitable not to join in so I do and largely forget about Jake. Until his nurse tells me he has decided to leave his room and is trying to throw the corridor photos of the head’s children out the window. There’s nothing for it, I’m off to the head’s office. I find it dark and shut. I’m about to leave when I hear a voice. The head is hunched over an immense bank of cctv cameras. There’s even a joystick that rotates them automatically. I’m pondering this rather sinister Orwellian nerve centre, when I realise he is watching an earlier recording of Jake bouncing up and down the corridor like a 10 pin ball in an inflatable children’s lane.
‘Ah yes’, I stammer, ‘I was just coming to mention this.’
I tell him the full story from the point of view of ‘concerned teacher come medic who made the tough call the situation wasn’t life threatening whilst searching tirelessly for the head who was nowhere to be found.’ ‘Sitting in the dark!’ I exclaim, ‘who was to know!’.
‘Thanks Will, I’ll take it from here,’ he pronounces. As I’m leaving he adds ‘nice dancing by the way…’ On the other screen there is a paused picture of a Russian lad wearing a snow leopard onesie bumping and grinding in front of me, with a matching Cypriot lad balanced precariously on my shoulders. The only blessing is the lack of volume. At least he can’t hear my looped screeching of Rihanna’s ‘shine bright like a diamond’.