Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Happy Christmas to all my ex-pupils

Bad role model

'Tis the season for nostalgia and the cinnamon smells of mulled wine triggered a whole series of Proustian moments back in the classroom with thirty kids of varying degrees of bastardliness. If there were less than thirty kids, it was because the degree of bastardliness was proportionately increased per kid, according to the informed calculations of what, as a young teacher, I called 'the Head'. I have no idea why Christmas and mulled wine remind me of Room 13. The nose has its reasons.

I spent nine years in Room 13, after a year dreaming it might be mine one day, and you have no idea how much difference it makes to have a room of one's own. Forget that sissy writer stuff. I mean the sheer physical wear and tear of carrying bags and piles of books while running to get from one end of a large comprehensive school to the other, before the kids have killed each other while waiting for you. I've been back to do writing workshops in that same school and no-one seemed to notice that I left 22 years ago. My ghost still haunts Room 13 and classes even study one of my novels 'On the Other Hand.' This is strange and wonderful to me.

Things happened in my classroom. Not always good things, although the number of pupils who exited via the window has been vastly increased by rumour. There were only two, on different occasions, and it was a ground floor classroom, and home time. I only ever killed one animal, a pet mouse, and I didn't know it was in the schoolbag that I threw onto the floor in mock temper at bad behaviour. I am really very very sorry.

When people asked me what I taught, I always said, 'Children'. Youngsters between 11 and 18, more accurately. As a subject, I could never have taught anything other than English, which to me was a process, with freedom to choose content. As well as being taught by brilliant left-wing tutors at university (York), I was inspired by guest lecturers, including the great educationalists Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich. Freire taught Brazilian peasants to read and write, and was exiled for it. I never forgot that literacy was a political weapon. Illich taught me that schools can never include all the resources for learning that are out there in the world. I never forgot what education was for. The difficulty was to apply those ideals in a roomful of varying degrees of bastardliness. Not to mention the sexism in the staffroom.
Bad parents (probably overworked teachers)

Of course I didn't succeed and I learned more than any of the thousands of pupils who passed through my incompetent hands but we had some fun along the way and things definitely happened. Among my desperate attempts at motivation,  my favourites were:- the extended bank robbery, where an entire class of 13 year olds with literacy difficulties planned and acted out a bank robbery (using the big hall for what we called 'drama'); the blackmail letter written to the Headteacher by my class of 15 year olds for GCSE coursework, in which they pointed out the consequences of him selling wine to fellow Heads during 'meetings', with full details of said wine going into car boots (as seen from the window of Room 13); the 'yes, you can write about something else that interests you', which gave me a reasoned investigation into Kennedy's death and a greater knowledge of body-building, amongst the many many topics which my pupils felt I ought to know more about; and of course those sparky 18-year-old minds, in full literary debate over Shakespeare's 'Troilus and Cressida', in role as Trojan princes, deciding whether Helen of Troy had come to represent some value that mattered, or whether she was an adulterous tart whom Paris should just give back to her husband to stop all the fighting.

Beware strangers online

The numbers add up. I've taught thousands of pupils, and - even more frightening - thousands of teachers. Looking back, the youngsters were far far more tolerant than the adults. They waited, bemused but patient, while I got over attacks of the giggles, even to the extent of falling off my chair on the teacher's platform. 19th century poetry was one of my weak spots - Keat's 'Pot of Basil' is a killer. Is there really some reader who thinks it's romantic to take your murdered lover's head back home, stick it in a plant pot and put basil on top of it? How big a plant pot would you need? If it fits the head it would be too big for your average basil plant. And basil is notoriously difficult to grow. Should I find a severed head to improve my basil-growing? And then muse fondly on it/him when I see how nice and green my basil is growing with all those nutrients? That's on a par with the medieval maiden who stashed her murdered lover under the bed, where he stayed for seven years until the opportunity for revenge came. No, my murdered lovers can stay nicely buried, thank you very much, like all my darkest secrets.

This is just to say thank you and Happy Christmas, to all those to whom I was once 'Miss', who've taught me so much. I also want to disclaim all responsibility for any of my pupils' subsequent careers in poetry, journalism, robbery or blackmail - your successes are entirely your own doing. If I could do it all again, I would, and I'd do it better,  but it wouldn't be half as much fun.

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