2.3 Knights in the Darkness, Light in the Days

I’ve survived 7 months living in the van, discovering one darkened car park after another. I imagine the day I’ll be parking on a beach, looking out to sea, waxing my board in some romantic Pintagram vision of what teaching could allow life to be; leaving at 3.30pm to hit the surf and float away upon a sea of dreams, the occasional wave below my feet.

The light is changing. Spring now. Less and less cover for my exclusive and classified camping lifestyle; my spots remain undisclosed to those who ask, but the light is spreading; the darkness of the early nights provided some security from prying eyes and disapproving twitchers, but now I stay later and later at my desk waiting for the eternal eye to drop low and, finally, below the earth’s end.

The darkness has been a comforter, an excuse to stay at my desk, marking, emailing and calling parents. But now the promise of longer evenings stirs temptations as well as dilemmas. The van is by no means luxurious and hasn’t been for a while now. The light is good enough to leave and enjoy a walk along the cliffs, forage wild garlic in the woods and begin to breathe the air away from school, but that setting sun would still force me back into the van earlier than I would like. So I do none of these things. The van life is a freeing experience, but comes with its own set of prison bars.

Up till now I have parked up around 8.30-9pm every night. It leaves me the perfect amount of time to eat, rest up with a book or a download and then sleep. More time than this would make the trampervan lifestyle unbearable. So, I sit at my desk, still, waiting for that window of opportunity, watching that reflected sunset in a neighbour classroom’s window, before parking my bed in the inky shadows.

At the beginning of term I was late to INSET, delayed by three tractors and a road traffic accident with a fourth tractor. I don’t like to be late. I strolled in and sat at the first available table, alone. I hunkered down. No coffee for another two hours. Eyes from the corner watched. Saw a sullen expression and the next day a bag of golden eggs were pressed into my hands. The giver felt I needed a boost. I did. I saved them. Golden treats at lunch for the next two weeks.

The first day’s training brought more than golden eggs. An announcement. The Head is leaving. The decision made, governors informed. Time at the bar. Uncertainty looms, but when is anything ever certain?

More changes loom large. Set changes. Recent tests have illuminated the need to move children to and fro, here and there. I inform them:

“Children, I know not where thou wilt fall, on stony earth or in fertile soil, but some of you are for re-sowing. Your test scores have revealed you are too prodigious for the shores of this class and you outstretch your peers. It’s time to rise (for some of you). It’s also time for some of you weedy roots to fall.” I mutter this last point.

My lesson starter goes to pot. Pupils look from one to the other wondering who’s staying, who’s rising and who’s for the chop. At the close two remain behind. They know they’re going up.

“Sir, we got the top scores, but we don’t want to go up.”

I’m surprised. The chance to rub shoulders with their own kind is being rejected.

“Why’s that girls? Sir is a great teacher and you’ve worked really hard.”

“I never liked English before, but now I find it really exciting.”

This wasn’t what I expected. This is my tricky class, there’s no time for ‘exciting’ English. Targets, behaviour, assessment, reading and occasional banter if we’re lucky. That’s it.

Sensing a stretch activity, I offer one ray of hope. “If you don’t like it, you can always appeal, in writing, to the deputy.”

They leave. Appeased.

I make a note in my little book of ‘Reasons For A Pay Rise’. It’s maybe my second bullet point under the first: ‘Because I’m awesome’. Each bullet is a step closer, but I feel better about the second than the first.

That evening I forget to prepare my porridge for the next day. Usually I add a handful to a cup of milk and leave in the fridge overnight to eat cold with a banana and honey at 7.30 in the morning. When I roll into the shadows I curse myself emphatically. There won’t be anything open at that time to pick up on the way. I’ll have to make it through till break, but it’s a Wednesday and I have a break-time duty. Quelle horreur: lunch isn’t until 1.30pm. Six hours. I don’t even have any chocolate squirrelled away. My curses turn blue.

In the morning a eureka moment lightens my spirit. The hob in the Learning Support Base offers the opportunity to heat the porridge! 7 months and I’ve never thought of this. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention.

I choose my pot. Empty the oats. Add the milk. Heat the hob. And nip for a quick pee.

Not quick enough.

I return to billowing clouds. I open a window and quickly thrust the pot out into the air.

Save.

A distant bell rings.

Grows louder.

Not quick enough.

I pull the pot back and sink it between a jet of water in the sink before joining the growing crowd at the fire assembly point. It’s 7.50am. There’s a mock exam at 9.15am.

I dismount the stairs and see the caretaker struggling with the fire board. Yellow lights flashing. I raise my hands ready for the shot and shell. I stand in the cold with colleagues who were mid-lesson preparations, coffee, printing, email, loo breaks of their own and just arriving. At first they they think I’m joking. Not attuned to my lifestyle imposed by the van and the commute. When the pennies drop, one after the other, that I am indeed to blame and that I do indeed have breakfast at school, instead of mutters of fury, looks of forgiveness are quickly dished out.

The luck continues when I go to see the business manager and offer to pay the callout charge. There is none. We’ve just changed our policy and I’m quids in. She even offers me a yoghurt to replace my black oats.

The next day I receive a visit from the caretaker. He looks frantic. Peers out of my window and tells me there’s a girl who has gone missing.

“What? Oh, God.”

“She has blonde hair, in braids.”

“What’s her name?”

He turns from the window.

“Goldilocks.”

He smiles and leaves and the day continues, happily.

18 Comments

  1. I was wondering whether you heard the episode of The Untold on Radio 4 about the woman who decided to buy a van so she could travel Britain?

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  2. I read your very good piece in the Guardian. My husband teaches drama at Homewood, Tenterden. Drives 20 miles there 20 miles back. We live near Hastings. He was deputy head of English until managerialism and administration became barriers to good teaching and he dropped the Deputy bit to just teach English until the curriculum changed. He is 70 and retires in a few months. He used to love his job and respects the students. But he has no time for overpaid managers who reinvent the wheel to justify their existence creating more admin for the front line they have run away from. Hope you can turn your experiences into a book!

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      1. Yes. He has changed many lives. I hope he does not get into trouble for what I have written. I better edit out the name of the school but don’t know how to.

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  3. Hi from Barcelona,

    I’ve just read your story in The Guardian. First of all, congratulations for your effort and passion being teacher.

    My point is …reading some of your post I wonder what about your family? I know this is personal, but I can’t imagine myself doing such a sacrifice. Since I have 3 kids, it would be a suicide to leave my home for the entire long week. My husband will became crazy and I know it because I barely survive when he is away for only 1 night.

    By the end, I admire you for the passion you put into teaching. Maybe, my feelings about teaching are not too determined.

    Grettings from Barcelona.

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    1. Yeah I do worry/wonder about how your family is coping with this too.

      I do admire your dedication to your work though. So I’m hoping there is an end in sight only so that you and your family can go to bed every night under the same roof.

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  4. I started reading your blog by accident whilst on MSN looking for news (there was none) and got hooked. I can only admire your commitment to the kids in that coastal school. I trust that you never lose your enthusiasm for the work you do and that the kids in question not lose theirs for a talented teacher they obviously have at least some regard for. I could only wish my own teachers of 40+ years ago had had the same commitment as you have. A veritable plethora of good wishes are winging their way from here to there.

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    1. Thanks Dave, the words of support have been amazing. Thanks so much for reading and finding the blog. There will be more coming so if you want to follow the story you can get email notifications would value your input

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  5. Really enjoying your blog. Thanks for sharing your enthusiasm for teaching and the love of your school. I’m not a teacher, but I have dedicated, hard working friends who are. Some years ago, serious MH issues forced us to drastically change our lives, relocating to another country. In my opinion actual quality of life is the only thing that matters. Please stay as well as possible and be happy.

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    1. Thanks Lynda,
      Sadly the way most public sectors are going it’s very hard to find a work-life balance. I know I’m lucky which is why I’ll be in the van as long as I can be.
      Hope you continue to enjoy the adventure with me.

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  6. Hi,
    What a cracker blog! I used to travel up to Belfast area from north coast by train and back…to teach as a supply teacher. It was a joy to get dedicated thinking time around how to help the classroom kids learn and have belief in that for themselves. I really liked the way you reflect on the fact that the kids notice you your effort and commitment…. to teaching and to them. I believe you may be one of those very special teachers whom young people will remember long after they have left school.

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    1. Thanks for the response and the feedback. It’s fascinating hearing everyone’s stories and hardships!
      I can only hope I’m remembered. Hope you continue to read the adventure. I’m on Twitter @tin_teacher if you want to follow there or you can follow through WordPress 🙂

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  7. I came to your blog form the Guardian article, and read the whole fascinating blog in one sitting. Your writing brought me back back memories of my kind teachers in secondary school 25 years ago, and I was just realising so many years later, how extremely kind and sacrificial some of them were.

    I hope your conditions improve soon, and would like to thank you for the connection. I wish you warmth, peace, and a good night’s sleep.

    – from Singapore

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