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.

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.

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