3.6 On and on and on, until pause

The term has stuttered to an end; it has kangarooed like a learner driver along the road, or a drunk stag stumbling between pavement and curb at 4 in the morning limping towards the promise of repose and retreat or the relief of a toilet bowl for cold company.

It’s a familiar feeling.  Every member of this nation who has courted a British education knows it as a school child, but we live it year after year, our very own special groundhog day; we notch the academic year, ’18/’19, into our very own grease-stained, sweat-stained bandoleers after another perilous cattle drive into our very own special sunsets saying adios to the beasts in our care.  Some will return for next year’s drive across grass plain and dry desert while others, at the end, muster up for the sharp cut of results day.

Over the Summer many of us will soon be tackling the mounting charges of a DIY deficit, flannelling honeying sweat on furrowed brows. Others still will be marking books – yes, there are a few of them. They tend to have those nice gel pens in all sorts of colours while I rely on whatever the latest lost, unredeemed, pencil case has to offer. Still others will be negotiating the sudden demands of parental care without the professionally trained Key Stage babysitter to rely on.  Still others will be aiming for the next personal achievement a, b or c on the latest trending chuck-it list.

For us it is a remodelling of the front bedroom and a new pantry with lime render and reclaimed timber shelves.  I know.  We are on Airbnb and we are Superhosts.

For me it is a year completed living away from home, sleeping in a Volkswagen T4, in builder’s white, with two duvets and sleeping bags in the belly of my tin shelter, moving from one secret park-up to another, listening to the night’s noises, sometimes recognisable, sometimes alien and very foreign.  Some nights I hid away in woody valleys, others on high clifftops watching the sunset immerse itself in a watery horizon, still others brazenly on show in tarmacked car parks.

I made it, they made it, we made it.  A few years back I was only just there, then; with no way of seeing here, now:  survival was one day to the next day.  Surviving that particular school year, in that particular school wasn’t a metaphor, a simile or an analogy for the trials and tribulations shared by many.  It was personal.  That year seemed to entertain only the lows, wining and dining one comment, one observation, one dismissive glance after another in gutter after gutter.  I remember so clearly the day of prescription; the day of judgement and the chalky-white soldiers of clarity enclosed in a bed of silver foil, ordered like a military grave.

In education, as I’m sure in many other professions, it is hard to escape times of severe toxicity.  That particular toxic period was so noxious to navigate that the invitation to escape the rules of life came at me like a siren’s promises and overwhelmed.  And so, one after another, I popped my chalky-white soldiers and stepped back watching the day unfold comic strip -like.

I remember thinking I ought to report this to someone, my doctor having talked about it as an “injury that could impact your effectiveness”, so I did.  My line manager, a voice of solidarity, pointed me towards a deputy.  I remember feeling like I was just bothering him, but then I thought ‘this is an injury and school need to know’.

He nodded.  Thanked me.  Sympathised.

A short while later I had an email.  I still have it.  It told me not to feel like I needed to report the ins and outs, the developments or the changes.  In translation it told me to just get on with things and stop wasting time.

That was it.  White noise.  I was on my own.

I left, handing in my resignation as late as possible, determined I would not return to teaching, but not knowing what I would do instead.  I was in God’s hands.

But, sadly, it’s not only us, the professionals, who have this field of clotted mud to wade through. We share it with others vastly less prepared.

I recently looked back at a year group photograph and counted, more than I care to share, a number of pupils who will not be seen again because they are gone. Some I saw on the corridors, some I knew from the lunch queue, some I taught briefly or for years.

There are days when a child walks towards you along the corridor and, if it’s a girl, has her skirt pulled too high, or a boy, has his shirt untucked, and there have been times when, for a moment, they are another.  Another child.  This uniform exchange is so common that the memory serves up ghosts of children past more often than we might expect from times of reprimand.  I’m reminded of Toms and Joshes, Jacks and Callums, or Sophies and Kayleighs, Chloes and Beths from days gone by.

Looking back at that school photograph, counting the loss, turned me to my keyboard and I sent out a special homework online to my GCSE class.  They had gone.  Exams were over.  The July swelter was here.  The homework won’t be seen by many of them, I know.  I sent it anyway just to remind them that school, this school, is always here.  There’s a family here for them ready to listen.

There’s no white noise here.

On my last night in the van I park up somewhere special.  A church car park overlooking a beach.  The shouts of a hen-do chorus across the sands in between the pitch and swell of the waves breaking on the shore and I sit listening, jotting down a reading list for the summer.  Tomorrow is our last day – I have a school tour to conduct, one lesson to teach, a room to tidy, speaking and listening assessments to record and assess; there are leaving speeches to applaud and the obligatory after school drinks to attend.

Breathing follows.

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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 are enjoying this journey then please follow through WordPress, sign up for email notifications when there is a new blog post. You can also find me on Twitter @tin_teacher or on Instagram through Tincanteacher

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

3.4 The Frills Begin to Fray

The end is nigh.  A year spent living in the back of a van, mid-week, away from home, away from the wife, comfort and company.

The nights have been strange of late.  The light has peaked.  I leave later and later from school just because there’s something odd, sad, pitiful and self-loathing about parking up in my hidden places in the clear light of day.  Arriving in the darkness and shutting myself away has been so much easier.

In the light I’m on show and out of place.  A sad man in his van camping on a bed on the floor.  A little more comfortable than a shop’s entranceway. No frills, no allure.  The poetry

stops.

The window blinds, kindly donated, go up, but it’s just not right.  Of course I leave the tin shelter and walk.  Watch the sunset, walk the cliff path.  But still, I feel on display.  I feel driven from my shelter by the light.  The routine creates worry now, rather than contentment.  I was happy working, marking, eating, sleeping, waking, repeat.  Now there’s an interruption and the needle jumps the groove.

The second night of the week I park up again.  The same spot as last night.  The engine goes quiet and I look out and see a sign.

“No motorhomes or campers 23 hundred till 08 hundred hours”

Thanks to a plentiful diet of wartime films on a Sunday afternoon I understand this.  I’m in contravention of the rules.

A new sign.

I’ve made it the whole year till now feeling as though I wasn’t treading on any toes, but now I clearly will be.  I’m not a motor-home though.  But am I a camper?  I don’t have a tent and this isn’t a camper-van.  It’s your bog standard white panel van.  If you needed a man, I’d come with a van.  The only reason my wife took any interest in my online dating profile.

On a technicality I could be okay here.  But.

The paranoia of vulnerability, mixed with the clear, clear light sets in.

Nevertheless I decide to chance it.  I do, however, prepare for discovery and flight.

I wear a pyjama top (a shalwar kameez.  Or long shirt top to me and you) ready for the off.

The sign read 23.00 hours.  At 23.30 a car pulls in.  The lights drag past my rear view and I leap into action.  From my darkened dive I observe.  They park a little way away.  It’s now too dark to see any signage.  No indication of who this is.  I waste little time, taking it for a sign and hop bare-bottomed into the driver’s seat.  The engine hums, I pull out and escape.

But I don’t go far.  Wary that this is just my paranoia playing with me.  I’m parked in half an acre of darkened parking and I’m the only one there.  Have they really come for me?

I park near the road and pull on my shorts and trainers; no time for pants or socks.  Then I retrace my retreat, find a bush and stand watch.

It’s not as if this is the first time a car has pulled in to this particular secluded park-up so late.  Up till now I had assumed they were ne’er-do-wells of one description or another.  Uninterested in me and more interested in midnight fidgets and fumbles or the inhalation of weedy puffs.

But these ne’er-do-wells could be the real deal.  The council.

The story is, across county, the second homeowners are calling the shots and the council are hot to take action against anyone hoping for an early morning surf or enjoying a semi-wild camp out.  Recent planning applications sprang up at one local favourite spot; local interests clashed with the two-week holiday slots of anyone from Surrey and the council gave way to holiday money.

I stand in my bush, and time ticks by, expecting an exit and hoping for a resumption of my slumber.  Eventually I give in and head to my back up ground. It’s 1am. Dreams come quickly.

In the morning I leave earlier than usual in order to scout out other camp spots I’ve heard tell of, and discover a sea view a stone’s throw from the school gates and make plans for the night.

That night the caretaker appears on the corridor with a cricket stump.  We greet each other.  I make the necessary enquiry.  Apparently the Zumba class has been disturbed by foreign gentleman, rather less than sober.  They could be anywhere.  Details emerge.  A campsite has been observed by the school boundary line.  I offer to drive round the site to see what I can see, but see nothing.  On my return we discover the campers.  I’m in a dilemma.  My brethren are at the gates.  From twenty yards two things are immediately obvious: they are asleep (the snores are testament to this) and they are well-oiled.  I’ve never smelt alcohol from such a distance.

These men have unwittingly pitched a tent in a not-so-concealed spot, that, at 8am will be fairly obvious to any passing pupil as will the abundance of wine bottles.  The police are called.  The gentlemen are cuffed, cautioned.  Their English is good and they competently punctuate each sentence with an expletive.  Eventually they move on after complaining about the Zumba music.  Her majesty’s constabulary and I chat while we watch them disappear into the distance.  He too is a camper.  He too has a VW; his a T5, mine a T4. We’re not quite hand twins.

We watch our less fortunate comrades fade into hedgerows and silently recognise the moment and its note of hypocrisy.

He leaves and so do I, to a windy cliffside pitch and a rosy sunset.

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If you are enjoying this journey then please follow through WordPress, sign up for email notifications when there is a new blog post. You can also find me on Twitter @tin_teacher or on Instagram through Tincanteacher

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

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.

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.