1.5 A Knight’s Mournful Muse

As I drew in to my chosen hideaway one night this week, my lights beamed in, across, and away from two friendly fondlers in one of those not so mini minis. Their eyes lit up, not with abandoned passion, but fearful agility. The game was up.

I spent the next hour or so wondering how the liaison was going before they slunk away.

It was Halloween this week. And on that night I sat in the van wondering what was creepier: the increasingly rapid invasion of a culturally irrelevant night of gore and horror marching the streets, (and possibly the carpark) in search of plastic wrapped sugar or a man sitting alone in his white van, in the cold rain in some darkened car park hoping no one raps a tinny knock on the door.

Thankfully, whether a trick or treater comes, or not, the odds of my sanity surviving in a tin can on wheels is probably easier than it surviving in schools at times. I’ve been told a good school is worth the inconvenience, a bad school is to be avoided despite any convenience. I’m in a great school and finding the inconvenience an entertaining challenge.

I love my job. I probably love it most because the kids are so great. I started this blog thinking I only had four months of it. I can happily report I’m now around till the summer. Prior to half term, when children furtively enquired, “Do we have you after Christmas?” I had to answer, “Sorry, no.” My heart sank. Consistency is key and they weren’t going to get it. But things have changed. I’ve been commissioned for two more seasons. This week, when those furtive voices asked again, “Are you still going at Christmas?” my happy answer was, “You’re stuck with me, sorry.” Smiling cheers were the air-pump to my balloon-like ego.

Kids are simple.

All children want you to like them, and all children want to like you. If we give them no indication we like them, and give them no reason to like us they will not work as well as they could, they will not enjoy our subjects and enthusiasm will rot away quicker than the teeth in the sugar-filled maws of this week’s ghostly spooks haunting the streets.

But contradictions abound. We are asked to be all things to all pupils. Our job is to teach, but our responsibility too is to stand as role models; sometimes play the parent; the exo-conscience; the nimble guide; sympathetic mentor; the gardener to emerging identities. But pulling out the weeds has become a dangerous endeavour.

When to intervene?

When to shine a light on a wayward shadow?

In one corner the plea to play a pastoral role, in the other the threatening cuff of an overprotective parent; the self-martyring administration sometimes one step ahead, sometimes one step behind; this strategy, that strategy. In some schools, not mine, “We don’t use the word behaviour. It’s a dirty word.” A discordant concert of prating knaves and mewling strings.

Good leaders say “Well done.”

Poor leaders don’t say much.

Is it wiser to say nothing?

Protect your wage, not the child.

A call out of the blue pulls me away from the dirge. Mum on the phone.

She asks for a Christmas list. It must be November.

I check.

It is.

Rotting pumpkins give it away.

“Bonjour, mother.”

We go through the usual play script. “I don’t need anything. Okay okay. A couple of books?”

“Is that all?”

At 40. Yep. Got my sock collection sorted now.

“What about you?” I ask.

She tells me about an Australian food show she’s been watching. Bake Off with sun and sand; maybe Kylie too, I imagine. She tells me she’s interested in Vietnamese cookery. Wonders if there is a Vietnamese cookery course she can attend.

“Right? Not Australian?”

I get the back story. Vietnamese refugees. Sisters. Don’t waste a scrap.

“They didn’t win, Jonathan, because they can’t do puddings.”

Ah. I muse. Seems unfair, but I don’t think I’ve ever been to an Asian restaurant that could do puddings. Maybe ice cream.

“Shame.” Say I.

I sit in my tin can, a chill air foaming in front of my eyes as I google: Vietnamese cookery courses.

Items may convey a sense of the beatific in contrast with the reality

1.0 An Errant Knight

Four months of teaching and living in a van.

And here I am.   Teaching again.  Four weeks in to living in a van away from home, a county’s distance, now north instead of south, jammed before creamed rather than creamed before jammed – though I’ve never swayed from the true and proper method – I am a wandering foreigner “Doomed for a certain time to” park up at night in secret and precious locations held as borrowed treasures and known only to those hardy residents with nowhere to shelter but their very own trusty, often rusty, van.

Mine’s a T4.  The last of the line of T4s before T5 swept the floor with them.  It is white.  A good service record.  A good runner.  Diesel.  Turbo.  2.5, and home for three nights a week.

I am a 40-year-old homeowner, married, childless (currently), dogless (currently); aspirations (many), geek (certified), four-eyed and fore-armed – yes I have two sleeping bags and two duvets fellow travellers.

The van is currently devoid of insulation.  Cloudy nights are my friends.

The back story:  The school was desperate.  On their knees, they begged me to return (this is how I tell it and may only reflect truth).  I mulled, sighed, considered and agreed.

“I’ll do a term”, quoth I.  “That’ll be ample time to find the one of whom the prophecies speak.”

And here I am. Chronicling the experience of living in a small van for three nights a week, parking up here, there and everywhere, travelling for work, negotiating showers, devouring sandwiches for tea and with time on my hand.

“How has it been?” say you.  “What have you learnt; what insights do you have for us?”

“Well,” I return.  “September has been a month of:

  • Establishing routines.
  • Finding safe harbours, preferably darkened.
  • Hiding from nosy dog-walkers and halogen torches brighter than the sun.
  • Cold sandwiches for tea time.  I’ve said this twice now.
  • Identifying the need to insulate the van.  Soon.
  • Foiling possible attempted robberies of garden sheds.
  • Scrolling through the efforts of Pinterest aficionados.
  • Disturbing a chap mid wild-poo on church grounds.
  • Catching up on my sunsets.
  • Jealously eyeing other van-dwellers with hot dinners.
  • Downloading items from Netflix on Sunday night in preparation for a dull evening.
  • Planning bed modifications, scrapping, re-planning and returning to ogling Pinterest.
  • Talking with a man on a faith walk along the coast with his unfriendly dog and nothing more than a tent, a Bible and the dog’s lead.  I’m sceptical of his credentials.

“And,” you ask, “do you long for four walls and a 16th century roof over your head?”

(We have a 16th century cottage, available for rent on Airbnb don’t you know)

“Well.  I’m coping.  Even though it gets cold.  Even though unseen footsteps draw me to twitch at the curtains.  It’s the 1st of October.  We’ll see.  December is only a sharp wind away.”

Items may convey a sense of the beatific in contrast with the reality

Photo by Nubia Navarro (nubikini) on Pexels.com

1.4 Camelot’s retreat and Battle Preparation

A wise man once said “Survival is key if you want to live”

Half term has come and is now parting like an overly fragrant femme fatale on a busy high street. The whiff wafting, departing into a sea of heads and handbags.

A whole week of bedded bliss with the Mrs. Log fires. En-suite to hand. A shower at any time of the day. Hot food. Beer. Cheese. This errant knight’s very own Camelot.

Luxury. All now to be dropped at the yelling alarm of tomorrow morn.

I have not wasted the week though. I’ve invested against a tinny, chilly future. There’s still work to be done, but I feel the survival basics (plural) have been covered: warmth (singular).

This week I have mostly been reading step-by-step guides, looking at pretty pictures on Pinterest and how-to’s on YouTube. They recommend insulation, electric blankets; goose down; can openers. Even special pee bottles with handy handles and a wider entry point than the one I’ve been using.

I’ve followed two of these suggestions thus far.

Later tonight I will be decanting 4 litres of Lenor Comfort Conditioner and reassigning the bottle to assist with night time procedures. No longer will I have to kneel in the middle of the night, as if to Mecca, while blearily concentrating on precision gunnery. I shall pee with abandon my friends. Abandon. No more dream time risk assessments for me.

If you read my last entry you will know that my journey into the challenge of living in a van and teaching at a coastal school of beatitude has now been extended. It’s like that New Zealander’s version of The Hobbit. Three films of endlessness. I hope my adventure will be rather more joysome than the aforementioned bum-numbing dribble.

So, to encourage myself I break it down. 23 nights. Twenty-three nights in the van till Christmas. With this in mind I have rolled out the thermal barrier and now the van’s innards look like the belly of Oz’s very own Tin man. There’s work still to be done, but stage one of the dream is complete.

If you’re reading this hoping for some advice, I used the following things:

  • A claw hammer
  • A screwdriver
  • A paint scraper as a handy lever
  • Spray glue
  • One onion

Once you begin, the use for all these tools will become obvious. The onion is to dispel the smell of glue. That glue smell is like the smell of Duncan’s blood after Macbeth murdered him in his bedchamber. All the happy couple needed was a skinned and cleaved onion. No need for all the perfumes in Arabia at all. So much cheaper. A happy conscience.

What’s also essential is that your work and progress is appreciated. Make sure a huff or two is heard when family members pass by. Coffee will come a-pouring. My brother-in-law played a vital role this week. He too is a van owner so we talked shop. He showed me his and I showed him mine. His is bigger and red.

Adopt a knowledgeable position and cross your arms, making sure to spread your legs while pointing out the obvious. In-laws will approve of your craft without hesitation.

It’s been a week of sacrifice. The weather has been amazing and enjoyment of this has been short-lived, but the endgame and its benefits has kept me going. I’ve even given the look some necessary thought and bought a beanie hat. My main issue has been fringe in or out.

I’ve gone with out.

1.3 Elsewhere is a shadow

Stop press. New season announcement.

I started this blog, this endeavour to live in a van and teach away from home, thinking I had four months in this tiny tin belly. Little did I know it would become eleven months.

I do a four day week. This gives me an optimal balance: 3 nights in the van, 4 days away from home; four nights at home, three days with my lovely wife.

That’s 44 nights sleeping in the van. That’s okay, I breathe.

Now it’s 73 nights from January to July on top.

One-hundred and seventeen nights in total. 117.

Exclamation marks are overrated.

“What happened?” you ask.

I pause. I don’t know how to tell this story. Let’s start with the fact I had two job interviews this last week.

One was twenty minutes up the road from the warm bosom of home, the other requires a DIY camper-van. What could go wrong? My head said, “Bosom. Bosoms are good. Stick with the bosom.”

My heart beat the loyalty drum. “Stick with what you know, you’ve managed two months in the van you can go the distance.” My heart is a competitive creature. It beats to the rhythm of challenge.

“Shouldn’t it have been an easy choice?”

No. No it wasn’t.

In the blue corner: A school I know. Colleagues I know. Children I know. Abounding affirmation from pupils and fellow champs. My love language.

In the red corner: A school, unknown. Twice the size. Twice the monster. Smiling faceless colleagues. Faceless children. A future on paper. Not lived.

I haven’t always taught in the same school. I taught elsewhere once. Elsewhere opened a door. Behind the door was a stairway into shadow. Colleagues were shadowy beasts, sneering, leering, lunging wretched wisps keen to find fault, find cracks, and all with a smile and a slip of paper reading “Could do better.”

At the end all I knew was I could not teach. I was not a teacher. I was less than I was when I began. My learning objectives sometimes took 27 minutes to appear. That was bad, apparently. It didn’t fit the checklist. I was the other. I was different and different was bad. I took pills, but the shadows were never dispelled. Not even now. After that I was a man with two shadows. One, my loyal partner, the other with breath of its own, a step of its own and a consuming stare that waits on every weakness.

Elsewhere’s scars are still felt. Still give pain. So, I was cautious of this new place. Even if it was close to that bosom. I can’t go to Elsewhere again.

I told them the truth. Why not? “I have another job interview tomorrow.” The school that restored me, I think. From mental dingy and back from the brink. The school that reminded me I can teach. Mental healthy. Told me my lessons are stunning. Quote. For real. That’s not even in the Ofsted vernacular. Special.

So I hedged my bets, cautious. Unsure whether I should risk it. There were some signs and they gave me pause, as they must. A text at 11 o’clock at night from the red corner was one. A TLR on the table, “but 24 staff uninterested?” I asked the question.

“They all have too much on.” The reply.

Oh.

“You have a great CV. All these things you’ve done. The TLR?”

I pause. New school. Midway through year. New children. “We don’t call it behaviour,” they tell me. So many ropes.

I think, but do not say, TLR posts should come from within not from the outer rim.

The blue corner, with arms wide open want me to stay. And it turns out the red corner isn’t interested anyway. An apology a day later. “We called yesterday. Employed the NQT. Left a message, but just realised not on your phone.”

A message is out there on the airwaves, somewhere. Elsewhere.

1.2 The Knave and the Night

The nights are not always as lonely as I’d like.

It’s time to expand my dominion. I have my nightly routines, but I must not go gentle into the comfort of routine. Routine stiffens the will and it becomes a brittle beast. Last week Ezra stood in my routine – the Tizer (it was not Tizer). I can’t get sloppy with anything, particularly the slop. Colleagues seem concerned and I am the recipient of numerous offers of a shower. I hope it is purely kindness and not, instead, a comment upon my freshness.

At the moment I’m reliant on school for some key essentials. I wake at 6.30 am, stretch my legs in the brightening morn’s light before heading to school. It opens at 7.30 am. I shower at 7.31 am. I often muse, while scrubbing up, on the “what ifs”. “What if the caretaker is ill one morning and doesn’t open up? What if the boiler goes? What if Rose just shuffled over and made a bit more room for Jack?” The important stuff.

Because of this I have backups. I have wet wipes, tooth paste in my desk drawer and my Dior pour le homme-iest of hommes. It’s like Tip-ex for the unwashed.

These are my dilemmas and in the grand scheme it could be worse. I am reminded of my first month at it, in the tin shed on wheels, and the night I met Steve jumps to mind.

My routine isn’t complicated. I park up, block out the windows as best I can, swivel the captain’s seat 180, open up the iPad and settle into whatever is on my Netflix download that night. This particular night it was something about vampires. Bluetooth headphones on, the world on mute, the gore begins. Half an hour in though – a shadow. I turn. Not everything is blocked out. The shadow moves. It’s a head.

This night I’m parked in a church car park. Below me is the church and the head. I watch as it bobs down the bank, before shaking furiously and returning to cover. Odd. I think. Odd.

It appears again, a moment later, and makes its way to a shed. It opens the door, furtively shines a light in, back and forth, before returning to cover.

Netflix is on pause mid neck-bite.

At this point I realise horrors are better in the comfort of your own home rather than the back of a VW Transporter parked in the darkness.

I also realise I ought to check what’s going on. Are the tools safe? Did I see him remove the pick axe?

I make my way down and from the darkness he springs. His trousers around his ankles mid business. Out of common courtesy I pretend not to notice this. But he’s standing and his trousers are at his ankles.

“Alright mate?” Say I.

“I’m fine.” He returns as he pulls his breaches up.

I question him further, my teacher voice doing all the work for me. His plight tumbles out and there is no sign of a pick axe. This night I have met a fellow traveller, though his circumstances are rather less comfortable than mine and his need of a shower rather more obvious. He is jumpy. Thought he heard a sound from the shed. It is windy I allow.

He talks without listening, rehearsed in the story of his fall from grace. His life to-date takes about twenty minutes because it’s too cold to hear any more. He’s camping on church property, has poo bags, a bible and an unfriendly dog for company. I leave him to it and save my Netflix download for another time favouring the safety of the adventures of Captain Picard and his crew mates. I wake once, remembering we shook hands, and reach for the wet wipes. After this I sleep deeply.

It is October now and thus far I have established three pitches for my darkened slumber. Now is the time to venture further and deeper into this coastal quietude. This time, living in the van, should entail some discovery at least.

This week I shall rest my head in an abandoned village. There are many here in this coastal county, home to summer spirits. I will be nestled between the hillsides with my own silent harbour washing back and forth.

I pray for an absence of midnight encounters.

1.1 A Knight in Moonlit Armour

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Sometimes your chips go cold when you’re in the damsel in distress business.

The end of the week. I’ve had a month of it, but I’ve only been blogging since the start of the week. What to tell you, what to delight and enthral. The moonlit knight perhaps.

I fear moonlit nights. They are cold, and the mornings colder. I have one side of the van insulated now, but I seem to remember heat rises up and not to the left side of my van. But where does cold come from, the left? The top? The bottom? Thankfully the moonlit nights, while rather stunning, have taken a break, the moon sits above a thick pall and I sleep, cosily: deeply. Until the next day.

Someone took my pink marking pen this week. It is gone. My happy marking colour, now sadly lost. It is a sign of the times. Hard times. Govian times. He wanted a legacy and this is it. Poorly funded schools, overworked teachers and academy reputations in tatters. Not that you should know. Not that our trusty media outlets have any interest in the bowels of the education sector.

I remember the days when I strode through the class with two different colours in my pockets (sometimes three). Black, blue and green. My learning objective boldly displayed at the start of the lesson because that’s the way Ofsted like(ed) it, not 27 minutes into an outstanding organic furore of learning. No, the beginning. Leave no surprises. No revelation. Discovery. Development.

Now I must hide my board pens, all one colour of them. I put them in Gollum’s hidey-hole (I have nick-named it so). We don’t have the good black, only the black that dries up in an instant like a vampire in the dawn light.

But now I must also hide my pink pens. The early onset of cannibalism. Teachers in a Odyssean drama, gnawing at the bones of the fallen.

I must also stream-line my streamlined copying. Monday morning’s friendly plea:

“Our budget is being bled dry by over copying!”

As an English teacher I appreciated the emotive and visceral use of “bled” and this is where we are. Bleeding. You may infer ‘dying’. Teaching is the haemophiliac in a room of sharpened knives held by teenagers, jumping maniacally to the fartlings of Simon Cowell’s familiars.

But tonight I think not of this for I am a Moonlit Knight. I have completed the day’s battles and return to my tin beast, driving into the darkening night towards my shadowed space of rest. I pull up and the routine begins:

  1. Lower driver’s windows.
  2. Wedge blackouts in place, but before I do, this night, I must reach for the bottle of Tizer-coloured liquid that must be poured from my driver’s window. An offering to this green glade. (It is not Tizer).

Out of the darkness a voice:

“Excuse me!”

“Shit.” Think I. But thankfully it’s Tizer. “It’s only Tizer mate.”

He steps into the light and onto the fresh pool at the ground below my driver’s door. This is the morning’s brew so there is no steamy mist to give it away.

I’m going to be asked to leave. I’ll have to go to pitch number two. The chips from the shop are going cold. Who is this man in the dark?

“Hi. Yes. You alright mate?” I venture.

Thankfully he is in a dilemma. I can stay. His camper-van has broken down and he can’t get it going. He asks after the particulars of my charger’s pedigree. It is just what he needs. I drive round. Align our beast’s hearts and jump.

Nothing. Jump. Nothing. Jump…

Twenty minutes later, my chips soggy and cold, but a sense of purpose sustaining me; a Divinity in the fall of a sparrow as much as my choice of hideaway, Ezra shakes my hand and Angel leans out of the window to tell me there are good things in my future over the sound of our engines in the dark.

He disappears into the night on his way back to Glastonbury and I settle in, happily, to cold chips and my most recent Netflix download.