3.1 A New Season and an Old, Bad Man. Part 2

I’ve spent the last few weeks fluttering and flittering from one intervention to the next; answering worry, question and sigh one at a time. How can pupils still ask what is on the paper? It’s been two years. Winks of light speak up through the foggy darkness and concerns calm.

Year 11 dominate the staff room chatter and we pour out our woes and worries. We curse He Who Shall Not Be Named and call upon the stars and the gods. There has been a noticeable increase in sugary items brought in by our fresh-faced, brand new and shiny head of department. It eases the thickness of the air.

I remind myself I’m not piloting the boat. The only thing I can be is the albatross following my little ships as they venture ever closer to shore, hoping they don’t try and shoot me when the wind dies. Currents can be unkind and curses can cut deep. I’m buoyed up one afternoon after two hours of intervention. No less than 10 stalwarts attend and suddenly learning seems alive again. I realise we’ve been in a quagmire on the last frantic furlong. Discussion of themes, meanings and Shakespeare’s position on men, women and the supernatural bubble up and wink at the brim.

This is what the old, bad man has done: stagnation. Since the Change our pupils have been asked to perform Herculean feats that do not tally with what was asked of their predecessors. There’s nothing wrong with rigour and the pursuit of excellence, ideas usurped by the old, bad man – after all, who can argue with a robust education curriculum that challenges the best of ’em?

The application is the problem and a two party state of interest and ability is the result. The disenfranchised struggle more than ever. On the surface they are handed every leg up, crutch and push we can find, but when we wallow in a curriculum that bleeds enthusiasm and love of the subject it’s easy to lose that vital sense of purpose.

Poverty is the biggest hindrance in our society. I lose count of the number of texts that invite a study of the Human Condition. Discussions reveal much. I simplify the ideas for the chérubins rooted in front of me into three questions, just as my teacher had (hallowed be his name):

  1. Where did we come from?
  2. Why are we here?
  3. Where are we going?

The lunch hour often witnesses staff curse the living air with 2 and 3.

The divide is clear. And the divider is clearer. I can rely on finding that pupils from a low income background have rarely considered this, while others click. There’s always a middle ground, but the polarisation is stark. My heart silently breaks when faces happily confess they’ve never thought about it.

“What’s the point, Sir?”

That is the point, I think.

Have they accepted a prescribed destiny?

Are they pressing the levers and pulling the cords blindly themselves?

The workload is frightening. Who wouldn’t balk at the hurdles’ heights?

My week’s load is lightened when a tutee brings in cakes for all.

“What’s this in aid of?” I ask.

“It is your birthday, isn’t it Sir?”

A box of fairy cakes, easily wider than her torso is held by tiny hands.

“Yes it is.”

She offers me one and distributes the rest to the tutor group. A golden moment and an excellent cake. There are spares and I receive a second when all have been handed out. We live in the legacy of the old, bad man, but kindness is still alive and sweet, with a frosty topping, and I have a feeling she knows why she is here.

I dismiss the masses and glide to a double lesson with the year group who are thick in the fray.

I pray to God.

What good are the stars and the lesser gods other than for the frill and flower of poetry and metaphor?

He Who Shall Not Be Named perhaps thought himself one such star, the mover and shaker of fortune, and to a frightful extent he has been, and fortunes shattered and splintered around us.

Though I despair at times, his word shall not be the last.

This generation has a voice too.

To celebrate renewed hope, renewed resistance, I take the van for a hose down and dirty white becomes mildly glossy candy-white with a hint of rust.

3.0 A New Season and an Old, Bad Man. Part 1

In the eye of the brave and the foolish

I got the job. The week before the Easter break I was walking on eggshells. The day of the interview rose with fearful trepidation and fell in rays of shepherds’ delight. The title was mine. Is mine. The mighty London Titan, the feared competition, was defeated. Done. Kaput.

I breathe sigh upon sigh of relief and so do the kids.

The Easter break is like sinking into a warm bath, think Herbal Essences without the suggestive groans of inappropriate contentment, and staying there undisturbed. We rest for a week before venturing out on holiday: our dreams say sun, sea, sand, but our pockets say Wales.

The ground comes rushing up to my feet, to our feet, and before you can say Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch we’re back in the fray of fiends and friends and the occasional fiendish friend.

The first week back is a shock to the system and not just because we have a new Head teacher joining us after the summer, or that we have a new Head of department, wellies on and waist-deep, but because I have only brought two pairs of pants away with me to make it through the week and the school shower is on the fritz. I won’t be making it to a sweaty game of squash this week. On the bright side I have plenty of socks.

Halfway through the week I uncover my backups, stashed between a tool bag and a pile of wood in my trampervan. I’m saved. Too many of our children work in the shops around here and I don’t know how I would have felt purchasing underwear from one of my year 10’s. I wisely make a new list for the new term:

  1. Stock up on spare pants, and socks
  2. Stash socks and pants in a more readily accessible corner of the can
  3. Replenish emergency rations of nuts and chocolate
  4. Leave a couple of spare shirts at work, they’re just as important as pants

On discovery of the backup pants the week begins to pick up, briefly.

The summer term is all about Year 11. They’re on the home stretch now. The first GCSE only weeks away, but they still seem to lack the bite and excitement of a horse on the final league. We all pause and wonder if it’s a national concern. Do we have a generation of non-runners? In an email with a parent I share that I hope their child had some fresh air between all the furious revision.

I’m worryingly reassured.

Plenty of fresh air was had:

“We went abroad. Did some revision, yeah, but got out lots thanks.”

(Fluency and command of grammar has been altered to protect the identity of the individual while trying to maintain tone and sense of assurance intended)

This is it. Not much can be done now. It’s their future so I spend lesson after lesson convincing them of the need to fight for it. I set essays, mark essays, set essays, mark essays. I create an imagined Viking sentinel at the drum and he beats out a rhythm to the steady sink of the oar and pull, and pull and pull and pull as I mark, mark, mark.

The sea is rough.

One morning a boy tells me not to worry so much. He intends to win the lottery. He sums up the apathy and the reliance on chance, but he’s really only conveying his fear. Before his attitude takes root. I tell him.

I tell them all. There’s only one lottery worth entering:

“The only lottery I ever won was when I met my wife.”

Most of them get the point and they work. Gradually it catches on.

The truth is, this year group, and the ones following, have it harder than previous years. The ladder rungs have been greased and climbers slip and sink. The reliance on memory is paramount; the value on Victorian Literature is far and above, and the list of those writing in English of Britishness is bitterly terse and the shortlist the bad man provided is nothing other than a blight for both teacher and pupils.

But how else to weaken the masses than rely on a blight?

Years ago the big bad man came along. We don’t say his name. He changed the system. Bad men like him had changed it before and he didn’t like it. So he changed it. He took away the system that enabled children to achieve and disenfranchised them. He cut and he hacked until the vine toppled and only wingéd angels could fly from this earth to clouded heights above in some sort of predestined gamble of luck or fitful ambition. The children left behind were left behind to languor in disenchantment while education lost its enchantment and its enchanters.

This is a narrative that holds truth, but I refuse to swallow it.

Swish, swash. The magic wand will have its day.

I imagine the term ahead as a warrior-teacher, a bandelero of board pens over one shoulder and my pockets filled with spare pens because “Sir, I don’t have a pen” has become part of the day’s mantra and I can either Ryu-Ken sonic punch the child, or hand them a Bic.

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Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to get in touch and share your responses to the adventure my wife and I are on. Mental health is a rising issue for many and this blog has been, in many ways, a life saver, as has the feedback.

If you missed the article in The Guardian you can find it here:

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/apr/16/teacher-live-back-van-personal-story-anonymous#comments