The van hauls me into the school carpark at the beginning of INSET day. I have a bag slung across my back and a new box of resources in hand; a member of the senior team sees me disembark and calls out:
“Are you still living in your van?”
I only imagine the emphasis on still, dismissing the black tendrils of creeping paranoia.
I am still here and I am still in the van; tonight’s the first night back.
Year two is underway. I am back in the van during the week, gladdened for the glistening silver of the insulation covering the guts. The weather has turned, it’s dark now when I park up, no sunsets to accompany the end of the evening. By the time I park up sleep has begun to ravel up the world’s cares and mine won’t be far behind.
Coming back for another year, after a summer’s release, a season’s sun with the comfort of wife, family, home and a Warren’s mattress are now magical memories.
Work and the routine of it, the ebb and flow of it, are friendly companions and I return with little complaint knowing the weeks will be seemingly short and the weekends seemingly long and the magical unreality of time will be nothing but a balm.
This magical unreality of time is worked at; a state of mind fought for over the last ten years of teaching, so that the day slips away without grudge despite lesson calamities, tantrums, tears and dead ends.
We gradually rehydrate, soaking in new timetables, new faces, new policies, a new head who promises to get to know us; there are twenty new staff and a new set of results to digest; hibernation’s cwtch is slowly shaken off.
It’s a mixed picture. I look at my GCSE results and I’m happy. There is success; there are children who worked, reaping the rewards they earned, but there is the red column too. The red column of indifference and none are a surprise, but each still carries a sadness. They are the victims of end of year testing over coursework.
In years gone by, these red rogues learnt to write, learnt to express and reflect given the opportunity to hone word and phrase, to craft and edit. They learnt skills they could take forward into Life’s Big Asks, but now, Gove’s legacy leaves a generation fated to repeat and repeat until a ‘4’ takes the place of whatever came before. Parents still ask what a 4 is, what a 5 is. I still ask what the point is, but answer that it’s a bit like a C.
I start my first lesson with Year 11, the crunch bunch, and it’s Macbeth; I start lightly, sharing amusing nuggets of nuttiness from my season of marking for the exam boards. My favourite statement from the marking season opens the lesson on ‘Answering the Question Directly’. I took note of one particular response and present them the wisdom of vaguery:
“The witches start everything off, but he’s really to blame because once the tea is stirred, it still stirs when the spoon is taken out.”
The words of a young karate sensei make their point and we move on using key words like ‘consequence’. Accuracy of meaning is key in Gove’s dystopia.
This is the beginning of the second year living and working away from home in the back of a van. Word has got out; some of my Sixth Formers follow the online journey and my year 8s ask if I’m warm enough. I assure them, as I assure everyone who asks (kind of them as it is), that I am snug and happy. I tell the Year 8s I even get a bit too warm just to reassure them, but then I’m asked if I keep my feet in or out:
“Yeah, I get my feet right out.”
A chorus of agreement replies. We’re in good company. We all like to have our feet out apparently.
Before we broke up we said goodbye to our Head. On the up and up after her stint served taking us from Requires Improvement to Good. Her speech was a memorable one, telling us that teaching has a moral imperative and a nobility.
But, though it might have a moral imperative, she admits that never stopped her from issuing the advice to hide the shit books on the chance of a visit from Her Majesty’s finest and brightest, offering their professional insight, touching nerves and fraying relationships.
When I leave my night’s camp, for Day Two, I see a crow diving ahead on the road. A ball of grey tumbles about at every dip. The closer I get the clearer it is. A crow is diving at a baby rabbit, a kitten, so I rev up and aim my white beast at this dark menace. It disappears into the heavens and the grey fluff into the hedgerow and in no way whatsoever do I attach any sort of prophetic meaning to the day’s shenanigans, but by the end of the day I’ve lost a tutee. His own fault: his attitude and his behavior, his undoing. The day before I emailed his teachers to keep an eye on him but now, sadly, he’s just one child I no longer need to worry about.
That night I park up somewhere new. Overlooking the sea, up high. I am more public here and others join me. I turn the key and the engine dies, the blinds I’ve made block up the windows and I sit in the driver’s seat for a while emailing parents. Noise from a neighbour calls me to peel back the blind to see a little red Fiat enjoying the seclusion here. The bass beat from some indistinguishable tune blares and I think about sounding my horn in complaint. A fight breaks out in the front, but it is quickly apparent it is only horseplay and at the same time the music stops.
Moments later a new tune fires up.
A club version of ‘Let it Go’.
These children, old enough to drive, sit and enjoy this while they are parked up high overlooking this coast’s white breakers.
I pray for curfew.
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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: