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

3.5 Of Squeaks and Scoundrels

It’s only 4 teaching days away, but at this point it feels like it might as well be the distance from Houston to the Sea of Tranquillity.  I too have a cramped shell of tin to shelter me, and I too, at times, feel as far from home as the men of the Apollo missions must have done, but at least they had some company along the way.

This term seems like a special kind of torture.

A special kind of heat affronts rather than comforts.

And, accompanying the stilted summer air is the rather special squawk of the resident seagulls, a veritable colony of litter munching flying rats in residence.  Each call is a deafening dirge and never fails to interrupt the lesson.

It’s time.  Surely it is.

We all feel like we’re just playing out our time on our own special stage.  The Extended Director’s Cut no one asked for, or that Hobbit film that takes longer to watch than to read.

Despite the need for recess it’s been a term I’ll remember.  It’s not one to be filed away and forgotten.  Not this time.

How could I forget a term of nights spent watching sunsets from the comfort of my van?  Having been scared out of my valley retreat, I made for the cliffs and have enjoyed every sunset since.  Pulling up shortly before sundown, I slide the side door open and lounge, book in hand, watching the summer’s light disappear leaving a haze of peach and burnt tangerine behind.

One night, last week I stood on the cliff’s promontory watching a pod of dolphins circle, jump and pick at what must have been a school of mackerel hidden below the table-linen flat water’s surface.

This spot attracts much company and I’ve now spent time swapping trampervan upgrade ideas with other vagabonds, all who are rather more prepared than I have been for van life.  I’ve survived.  Just about.  But I cringe at the looks I get from my fellow campers as they gawk at my humble nest.

Despite the isolation of my cliffside abode, I am sharing the site and I miss the quiet nights in the valley, disturbed only by the tawny owls in the evening and the buzzard call in the morning.  There are times that I lie there, my imagination fully engaged with no hope of sleep, as I try to place the sounds outside: sometimes muted bass music intrudes, or muffled conversation and, every so often, the heavy approach of a new engine guzzles, somewhere, out there, shifting back and forth in first and reverse, first and reverse, until it stops and the night’s noises return to black.

But these nights, despite their beauty, have become harder and harder.  I have less and less work to keep me at my desk and I have found myself done by 4pm, the prospect of 5 hours ahead of me before the time I normally choose to park up appals.  With this breadth of time and the loneliness of it I have retreated, gone home and surprised my wife.  I hate the cost, the waste of fuel, the emissions and the time spent travelling the 80 miles home, but the van is not home, it is a facilitator.  It defeats the point to do this, but there has been an increase in sighs as much as there has been an increase in sunsets: lonely romanticism is no comfort.

The second night I return we slip into bed at 11.  We read, we kiss goodnight and the light goes off.  Almost immediately the town’s minstrel strikes up.  At first we lie there trying to place the sound.  We agree it is a guitar, but the tune alludes us it shifts around so much.  Finally the light goes on, so does my wife’s dressing gown and I trot downstairs.  It’s one thing listening to neighbouring campers play out their last few beats before settling down, but outside my home my patience is thinned.

I step out in gown, bare-footed and bare-balled standing at the edge of the square upon which we are perched.  I spy the musical malady and engage the inner ruffian’s voice.  At heart, I’m not as middle-class as my P60 and profession might suggest.  

“Oi!”Yes, ‘oi’, I know.  “Oi, some of us are trying to sleep sweetheart!  Offski.  Pronto!”

I stand there, arms raised and for a moment I think: shit, what if he doesn’t offski like I asked he?

But he does.  Slinking away into the lamp glare of the high street.

I return to the champion’s trump and we sleep soundly before the 5.30 alarm nudges me back into reality.

That morning I sit at my desk, logging on, opening my documents for the day, printing resources and sipping a coffee.  Two pupils are in attendance, horribly early, victims of parental routines and limited public services.  They tell me I’m the most attractive person in the room and my eyebrow goes up.  I have two eyebrows, but just the one can go up like this, Spock-like.

This is one of those moments some teachers, the good-looking ones, fear.  The inappropriate moment.  My mind begins to carefully record the words in fear of future investigation.

I ask, “And, how exactly do you get to that conclusion?”

“Sir told us.”

Alarm bells really start to sound now.  We have a safeguarding policy and I know I’ll be double-checking it shortly.

“Right?  And why did Sir tell you that?”

“Well Sir, you’re bigger than us.  Not being rude.  So, you have a denser mass.  Therefore, according to the laws of attraction, you are the most attractive person in the room.”

Sweet relief.

For a moment.  Just for a moment.  A long moment.  I worried.

But, in more ways than one, I guess they are right.  I am the most attractive person in the room.

Later that day, last period, I sit at my desk as Year 8 complete a writing task.  I make the mistake of leaning back and let out a little, yet undeniably audible, squeaky little fart.  All work is frozen in time.  This has never happened before.  No one knows what to do.  I look at the nearest kid and besmirch him as quick as I can.

That one eyebrow rises: “Kieran!”

Everyone stares.

Save!

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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