A true story by Julian Kirkman-Page
Another entry in our Write Across Sussex competition.
I was perched on one of three identical chairs smartly lined up outside the headmaster’s office, to which the door bearing that forbidding legend was closed. I was perched rather than lounging in my usual nonchalant style, because I was feeling stressed to the point of being physically sick. I knew the feeling well; it was as if every misdemeanour I had ever committed, especially the countless ones I thought I had got away with by cheating or lying, had come back to haunt me, and I knew my face radiated the guilt that lay within. I sensed that once it was my turn to be summoned into that office, the truth would inevitably spill out and I was doomed.
The school was uncannily quiet at that morning hour, so everyone else must have been in lessons, although from my vantage point near the main entrance no classrooms were in evidence. The building itself was very old-fashioned, and the scuffed and dented walls of the high-ceilinged corridors were painted a dull cream colour with a dark green dado rail. Opposite me, a noticeboard displayed a hierarchically organised set of mugshots of all the school staff, and the topmost image was of a very scary-looking middle-aged man in a suit. The floor beneath my feet was bare grey stone and even the small friction of my shoes as I slid my feet back and forth in nervous anticipation made a loud echoing sound. I took slow deep breaths to calm myself and licked my lips despite being dehydrated.
Sitting next to and ahead of me in the queue to see the Head of this establishment was one very small freckle-faced boy, who looked like he might have been crying.
‘What have you done wrong?’ I asked, noticing at the same time that he was also perching and looking similarly apprehensive.
‘I’m wearing trainers,’ he replied in a high-pitched squeak and lowered his head, thus indicating the inherently sinful element of this admission.
‘The Head must be very strict for you to have to see him just for wearing the wrong shoes,’ I replied. ‘I was only once sent to see the headmaster when I was a schoolboy, and that was when he wanted to say goodbye to me after I set fire to the gym!’
It was only much later I thought I should perhaps have been less forthcoming and not revealed anything of my past to this very small unknown boy. Because at that moment the headmaster’s door opened, and as the scary-looking face in the suit poked out and said in ‘Stanleyesque’ fashion, ‘Julian Kirkman-Page, I presume?’ I could clearly see he was wondering why the small boy was looking at me in so shocked a fashion.
And so with this somewhat less than auspicious start, after having been marked absent for thirty-six years and accidentally treading on the boy’s foot as I leapt up to shake the Head’s hand, I was ‘back to school’ once more.
You will, of course, be wondering what on earth a boy who was ‘asked to leave’ school at age seventeen was doing back there in his mid-fifties, and the answer is simple. Having completed a ‘late in life’ science degree with the Open University, and with science-based candidates for the teaching profession being in such short supply, I had been invited to partake in a scheme to see if I was suitable teacher material. Never having been one to pass up a challenge, here I was on a three-week trial at my local secondary school, and I was to be thrown in at the deep end.
After a brief and clammy handshake by way of acknowledgement, the Head passed me onto his equally scary Head of Science to mentor me for the duration. I say scary but only because my mentor was female and I never had any women teachers when I was at school. (There was, in fact, one ‘female’ who taught us French, but she smelled of pipe tobacco, what we assumed was exotic Parisian cologne although it was probably B.O., and she had a flourishing beard and a deep voice, so she doesn’t count; although being adolescents, we all fancied her anyway.) My mentor was also slightly older than me, had her hair tightly pulled back and was wearing glasses, giving her an intimidating appearance.
With no time to waste in mere niceties, as soon as the Head’s head disappeared back into his office, we rushed down a corridor, ran up a flight of stairs, hastened along another corridor and burst into a laboratory containing thirty year-nine boys and girls, all of whom immediately scurried to take their seats and look eager to learn, because my mentor had a reputation for being ferocious and for taking no prisoners.
Now mentally I had rehearsed this moment time and again over the previous few weeks ever since I knew I would be undertaking this challenge. This was, after all, to be the first time ever I would be in a class of schoolchildren as a responsible adult. In my imaginary scenario the children would give me their full attention and stare enthralled at the tall imposing businessman in his smart suit and regimental tie, who had come to impart some of his vast experience and wisdom. They would laugh politely at the amusing anecdotes I told them as I introduced myself, and eagerly write down Mr. Kirkman-Page in big letters in their exercise books, so as not to forget this star of a man who would shine for such a short but memorable time in their young lives.
‘This is Mr. Page,’ said my mentor, pointing at me and saying as an aside, ‘I can’t be having with all this double-barrelled nonsense.
‘He will be here for a week,’ she continued. ‘He will sit out of the way at the back of the class’ – she pushed me in that general direction – ‘so take no notice of him unless you need some specific help. He apparently knows something about science, so feel free to test his knowledge, but don’t expect too much, as to all accounts, he’s spent most of his life commuting on the train, hah!’
Much giggling from the pupils accompanied this outburst, and they all turned to stare and leer at me as I sat down on what seemed to be the class naughty seat – so much for Mr. Kirkman-Page the shining star!
Today’s subject was conservation of momentum, and the class of fourteen-year-olds sat as attentively as can be expected at that age, whilst Miss rattled through some PowerPoint slides. True to form, I was bored of this lesson within two minutes and so spent my time marvelling at the fact I was there at all, and evaluating my surroundings. The laboratory looked somewhat similar to the ones I remembered from my schooldays, with three rows of wooden desks all bolted to the floor and with the pupils sitting on high stools behind each. At the rear of the room were some deep china sinks, and to the sides there were lots of ancient-looking chests of drawers and a few glass cabinets containing intriguing boxes and jars. To the side of the teacher’s large and imposing desk at the front was something special I was always magnetized towards, but as children we were never officially allowed to play near – a fume cupboard, within which all manner of hazardous, noxious and explosive substances can be, and often were, concocted.
Of more interest to me was the 1970s-style hostess trolley situated near to where I was sitting, on top of which instead of cheese and pineapple sticks and a bottle of cheap Frascati were a collection of little wooden trolleys that seemed to have some sort of trigger mechanism attached, and which were within my reach. Having accessed a few of these, I became so absorbed crashing them into each other and watching them spring apart, it took me some time to realise that the entire class had fallen silent, every head was turned round to look at what I was doing, and Miss was giving me what would become all too familiar, her ‘you stupid boy’ scowl.
But now it was time for the whole class to experiment with the trolleys, so I stood well out of the way and watched them separate into small groups with the mission to follow a simple task sheet of instructions linked to a simple set of questions. They all seemed well behaved and to be having as much fun as I had had, and I noted that Miss was busy spending her time helping a disabled boy at the front of the class.
Then I heard the magic word sir for the first time, which filled me with an overwhelming sense of self-importance, and I turned to espy a sweet and helpless-looking girl holding her task sheet out before her and accompanied by a similarly confused and distinctly dim-witted-looking couple of female pals.
‘We don’t understand question one, sir. Can you help us, please?’
The question read:
As my conscious mind reeled with the horror of the words before me, my subconscious-self explored deep into its years of experience as a salesman, and despite the confusion within, I knew that outwardly I was nodding sagely and looking calm and thoughtful. ‘Buy some time,’ my inner self whispered, ‘and why weren’t you paying attention to Miss, you idiot?’
‘You can’t have been paying attention to Miss,’ I replied to the girls and deliberately omitted use of the word idiot, which I assumed would be less than politically correct. ‘It’s quite straightforward, really. I suggest you sit here together and have a good hard think what the answers could be.’
Now, there were a few options open to me. I could move away from these three and forget about them, but if they then told Miss they were stuck and said they had already asked me to help, it wouldn’t look good. I could make up some answers, but that would be even worse when they were found to be hopelessly wrong and the girls started waving to Miss and pointing at me. I could be honest and go into a lengthy explanation as to how when I was a pupil, I was usually down in the changing rooms looking for cigarette money in other people’s pockets during physics lessons, and consequently I must have somehow missed this bit of my education; but I didn’t think that would come across that well either. So instead I did what came most naturally; I cheated.
Luckily for me I espied two pupils working feverishly together at the front of the class, both of whom were wearing glasses. In my youth, any kid wearing glasses was deemed as being brainy as well as being prime target material for a good dose of bullying, so I made my way over to see if they had managed to answer question one. And joy of joys, not only had they completed question one, they had additionally finished questions two and three, which looked even more incomprehensible!
‘Let me look at your workings if I may, please, boys,’ I said in a bold voice, ‘and how confident are you that your answers are correct?’
‘Oh, very, sir,’ replied the one with the most spots and a big piece of Sellotape holding his specs together. ‘Peter is already doing AS level.’
‘Ah,’ I replied, not having a clue what he was talking about, but nevertheless pretending to check their workings and doing more sage-like nodding. ‘These look very good to me, well done. I will just borrow these a second to check them properly at my desk.’ And I marched triumphantly back to the three poor confused girls still staring blank-faced at their own task sheet.
‘Now let’s see how we are getting on,’ I stated in my best teacher fashion, exuding a new air of confidence. And sure enough, with the answers secretly positioned on my lap, I was able to mightily impress them with my knowledge and tutoring skill by not only helping them with question one, but questions two and three as well – amazing. This teaching lark seemed easy enough – I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.
It was now week three, I was with a year-ten class, and I felt fear. For the first time I had been left alone in a room full of schoolchildren. My mentor had sneaked out to go off and do something or other and had asked me to keep an eye on them and stand no nonsense. My fear was irrational; after all, I had been a potential officer in the Territorial Army many years ago and had quite happily ordered forty heavily armed maniacs around. But this was different.
Before me were twenty-five fifteen- or sixteen-year-olds of mixed sex, and some of the boys were so grown up they looked like they could be in their thirties. They were used to me being in the classroom by now and even to my helping out on occasion, but I hadn’t taught them anything specific yet and I certainly hadn’t had a chance to go solo. Unfortunately I hadn’t taken the trouble to learn any of their names either, a major mistake. Luckily they had been set some experimental tasks to perform involving electrical circuits and I had a crib sheet of answers at the ready should I need it, but I was more concerned about behaviour management than anything else.
I remembered from my own school days how merciless we would be with a student teacher left in this situation, and it would usually start with the slow but steady slamming of desk lids, steadily building to a crescendo until the poor man fled from the room. What was I to do if someone ‘kicked off’, as the expression goes? What would I do if a fight broke out and it turned into a bloodbath? I knew I was not allowed to touch any of the children. I also knew I was not allowed to leave them on their own even for a second if I needed to get help. I also knew I was not supposed to be on my own with them, especially in a laboratory full of dangerous chemicals, and consequently the responsibility lay heavy. What was I to do if the whole lot of them started messing around and the class ended up looking like a scene from Dante’s Inferno, with me lying on the floor helplessly screaming and the pupils dancing around and prodding me with their tridents?
I waited awhile and tried a gentle, ‘Keep the noise down a bit,’ for effect and to see what happened. The nearest pupils looked up and shrugged because no one was making a noise anyway. In fact, there was nothing untoward going on to ‘behaviour manage’, which was actually a bit disappointing, and I started to relax and enjoy the power of being in charge. But pupils kept looking towards the front and it seems my ‘keep the noise down a bit’ had alerted them to Miss no longer being in the room. There was a rising background level of sound I hadn’t noticed before and my senses heightened.
Even without my glasses on (I am short-sighted, but the ‘target for bullying’ stigma holds strong, so I only wear them reluctantly), I could see what looked like a fight breaking out to the left of the class, there was some definite tussling going on, and I walked purposefully over.
‘What are you boys doing?’ I said, in a big authoritative voice.
‘Oh, can you please help us get the kinks out of this wire – sir?’ replied a red-headed boy with a large grin on his face who blocked my path. And it seemed all that the pupils had been trying to do was stretch some copper wire back into shape. I could hear sniggering coming from behind me and the background volume increased, although not loud enough to concern me.
Now there was a girl sobbing, but as I approached, another girl laid her hand gently on my arm to stay me and said in a knowing sort of way, ‘It’s okay, sir, she’ll be fine. Off you go.’
I nodded to her as if I understood it was probably something female and hormonal – not for me to know about, and certainly none of my business, and I swiftly walked away.
The volume increased markedly.
Oh my God! Now there were two giant boys by the sinks, which were in any event firmly out of bounds, and it looked and sounded as if they were waterboarding a third boy.
I rushed over, prepared to save a life.
‘Simon’s pen was leaking, sir, and we are trying to get the ink off his hands,’ said the nearest giant. And as I stared suspiciously at his soaking wet clothes and guilt-ridden face, out of the corner of my eye I could clearly discern rapid movement and white things being thrown across the room. The volume had been turned up to full.
‘WHAT ON EARTH IS GOING ON HERE?’ shouted a scarily familiar voice from the open doorway, and the class fell immediately silent and stood stock-still. ‘Why are you boys fighting? How dare you try drowning each other in the sinks? Why is that silly girl crying? Who has been throwing paper darts around? Why are none of you sitting in your proper places? Why is nobody working, and what is all this dreadful noise?’
I deliberately avoided making eye contact with my mentor and sheepishly made my way back to the naughty seat – this teaching lark wasn’t going to be such a doddle after all!
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