2.2 Magic Pills in Short Supply

The second half of term has begun. Batteries have been charged and an INSET day introduction to the week dulls the hammer blow. The sight of a lone child walking expectantly to a childless school warms my cockles, particularly as I teach her and now have ready-made tease material for an opportune moment that awaits me.

I’m halfway through the adventure, the challenge and the cold.

Working almost 2 hours from home; living away in a tin can on wheels because the school I teach in is:

A) amazing, and

B) I’m not sure I’d survive anywhere else.

And, as mentioned before, survival is key if you want to live and last another 58 nights in a van before Summer bliss rolls in.

Also, it’s important to remember, not punching children in the face is key. A worthwhile mantra for any hardened educator.

I often wonder what keeps me going after 10 years in the biz, when the number of teachers training and remaining in post has decreased year on year since I entered the field. It’s called the churn. Images of bodies tumbling, drowning, suffocating in a wave foaming into shore is a suitable image.

A tidal wave builds. This time the groaning mouths of children hungry for the entitlement schools offer (or, sadly, an escape from home); after all pupil numbers have increased as teacher numbers disappear like the dead, down into the deep. In 5 years the numbers will be 10% over current figures and those remaining stalwarts, the statuary bedrock will face the swell of the unhappy mob tearing at the paper’s edge, disappearing scissors into murky pencil cases empty of pencils or pens. The hunger for the materials of education already supplant the hunger for inquiry in many children. Sticking in sheets becomes a ten minute activity as a single glue is passed round the fiends itching in their chairs.

The golden prize of a magic pill evades us all, but still, we all flirt with the elusive recipe. One minister after the next hubbles, Guardian columnists sex up the bubble, but the hurly burly continues despite the ardent salvos from TES writers charged with solving the crisis of boys’ attainment levels, or providing the next acronym on trend, hash-tagging its way through Twitter like a smoking sword, bloodily executing the confidence of those bricked into the bedrock: blocks of granite, tried and tested against the swirling storms of social media gurus.

At Parents Evenings we sit across our desks peddling one cure-all after the next. A parent, her silent child and quiet husband sit across from me and we all stare at a piece of paper stiffly waving with a list of ‘strategies’.

“Have you seen these strategies?” I’m asked.

Words like ‘coloured overlay’ and ‘chunking’ float before me.

A number of responses are immediately censored and filed.

I begin to talk to the child about revision.

“Did you do any before the last test?” I ask.

“No.”

The paper goes limp.

“Are you encouraging him to read at home?” I pursue.

“We have a bookshelf.”

Gradually I shift the emphasis back to the child and his owners, focus shifts away from the five hours of contact time I have over a fortnight to turn his prospects around. Parents become co-conspirators. We’re all part of the recipe, and they leave reminded of their roll in the broth.

Driving behind a gritter that night I meet another coming the other way. “It’ll be cold tonight,” the salty spray tells me. And indeed it is. I sleep with a cold nose beneath two duvets while cows low loudly on the hillside above. Sleeping isn’t easy when the air is cold and thick with full-throated heifers in darkened chorus.

1.6 Pit Stops and Paper Jams

I started the week hiding in the cinema, at a late showing, just to avoid the cold. The cinema was toasty, the film was rotten. I give it two stars, but I think I’m being generous on account of the radiating warmth.

Friends are nothing if not utterly essential on this adventure. At various twists they’ve been there. Offers have rolled in from colleagues since I took up life in the tin can three nights a week. Hot showers, meals, beds have all been on offer. But, at every offer, a pang of guilt rickets through me. The challenge is assailed by charity. Temptation beckons. I’m determined to see it through, but it’s good to know there are plenty of safety nets below as I fling my body temperature against the coming winter freeze.

Thermal barriers are becoming creepingly more essential. The coldest week so far coincided with my tin can’s water pump rattling unsettlingly and so the adventure was rerouted to the warmth of four walls and a double bed, courtesy of merciful friends, while the van sheltered in the pit stop.

My first use of the net so far.

Friends swing to my aid again with thermal windscreen blackouts. The drama teacher has heard of my plight; better still, her parents have. Word is spreading. She asks if some blackouts might be helpful and I almost bite her hand off. So far I’ve been blocking up the windows with my wife’s spare sarongs. I’ve parked facing into hedges too, in order to avoid an imagined nightly visitor’s face appearing in the windscreen while I’m mid pee.

I’m grateful for so many things. Even a top tip from a fellow camper regarding Comfort conditioner bottles.

“Ample room for your particulars, mate.”

“Oh?”

“Your willy.”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Get the four-litre one”, he recommends.

“Less time spent emptying it. Yeah, good idea.” Say I.

“Well yeah, but also there’s an offer on.” He winks.

It has been invaluable. Comfort conditioner bottles really do leave ample room for your particulars and the four-litre bottle has the added benefit of feeling as though you’re peeing into an abyss, with no need to worry about overflow – as well as being on offer.

When I was finally reunited with my tin can at the end of the week, I said goodbye to good friends and held out my hand for Adventure’s embrace. There is rain ahead. I’ve avoided the freeze for now.

With the change in temperature outside, so too has there been a change of temperament amongst staff at school.

Mocks have been afoot. Revising, assessing, data entry – watchful eyes scrutinise from the shadows. Even the photocopier is in revolt. Its yellow light flashing, warning of a paper jam.

There is no paper jam.

There is rarely an actual paper jam.

But this is its go to setting when deeply unhappy. It sits idly, winking its yellow light. Ninnering at the end of the corridor, a half wakeful Siren luring in desperate staff in need of that last minute copy for the starter task to the next lesson.

Blink.

Wink.

Plastic cogs cricker, and tap. Blink, wink, blink: Paper jam.

The rising dread of winging a starter creeps in to the teacher’s mind along with those emphatic words we all understand so well: Bollocks!”

In breaks and lunches the rising patois of frustration mounts and breaks surface like the long-held breath of a biblical leviathan. The bi-annual pupil whinge has finally risen up, three days after the photocopier’s last gasp. Lunch, and useful time catching up is usurped by those who cannot contain themselves. Whinge court is in session. Suddenly children are reduced to a number of sighs, groans and expletives.

To partake or not, that is the question.

Curses fly like slings and arrows.

It is an unavoidable necessity for some. An indulgence for others. A requirement of the club. An initiation for some. Our trainee teachers watch on, quietly bemused.

That night, as predicted, it rains. It’s not warm, but it’s not freezing and I bury myself beneath three layers of bedding, at ease with the idea that three nights a week I sleep in a car park, somewhere between moorland and open sea.

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