I spent yesterday morning at home, having despatched the children off to school. But instead of feeling gleeful they’ve gone I felt an unexpected pang in my gut. Last year, when the little one started p1 I thought, ‘Well, that’s normal, my youngest has started school. I’m supposed to feel a bit freaked out and think :how the hell did that happen?’ I didn’t imagine I’d feel it this year, but as we entered the gates and the fleeting look of apprehension passed over their faces I thought, this parenting lark never changes. All summer I longed to ‘get rid’ and then, as a new year starts in school their babyhood slips away and I feel bereft. I want to gather them to me but they’re off and in with smiling teachers and I turn and go. They’re in good hands, but I think I need a wee cry.
(The little one was only messing in the first pic. Here she is, full of giggles.)
Incidentally, last night I took part in a Tenx9 in the Black Box on the theme of ‘Back to School.’ Revisiting the trauma of teaching was obviously too much for my damaged psyche. All night I dreamt of unruly teenagers, charging up corridors instead of sitting in my classroom, and one of the friggers smeared an avocado over the floor. It was not a restful night’s sleep. Here’s the story I told, should any of you wish to read it.
Back to School
Never mind going back to school, I feel I never really left school; in a house full of teachers I thought if I can’t beat the feckers I may as well join them. From the age of 5 I had a class in my bedroom, and sometimes, lucky teddy bears had a school trip to the beach. While my mother shivered, I served up biscuits to an assortment of cuddly toys on a rug and took them shell hunting. Once we found a starfish AND a crab and the bears agreed that had been the most exciting trip ever. They all had good Protestant names, not that I knew they were Protestant I just called them after friends and family members. So there was Steven and Julie Craig, Cuddles Stewart, Sweep Black because as an infant I’d stuck him up the chimney and Brandy Baird and Squeak Brown. He was the worst behaved out of all the bears and was once stood in a corner for two whole days after saying ‘One Two Buckle my Arse’ at an inter-school choral competition when a friend brought her school for a visit.
I couldn’t seem to get enough of teaching. Once, after an eighteen month stint in a school where, in the same year I’d taken an entire year 8 class to see an explicit and violent film, and lost another group of year 12 pupils and 2 members of staff on a Duke of Edinburgh expedition, I still retained the urge to teach during my holidays. In Na Trang in Vietnam I discovered a school for street children and spent 2 weeks there. There weren’t just street children at this school, also but street walkers. I found this out at an evening class when I recognised some of the girls who had elbowed me out of their way in the bathrooms of the local beach bar. As they applied their make-up and adjusted their dresses I quickly realised that they were ‘working’ not socialising, and no wonder they didn’t have time to waste queuing for the toilet. It was funny to see them in class, in jeans and tee-shirts, their faces open and hair loose, laughing and eager to learn. One boy, who really wanted to go to university, came along to practice English in the evenings. He shook my hand at my final class and said, with tremendous sincerity, ‘Miss, I wish you all good things.’ I wasn’t in a terribly happy period of my life back then, and I nursed these words on my long flight home.
It took me a while to find a permanent job in teaching so often I found myself as the new girl, which, whether you’re fourteen or twenty-four is still mighty uncomfortable. The politics of the staff room is something I don’t think I’ll ever understand. In one Belfast school, there is an actual dividing wall separating the men from the women. At another, we took our break in the canteen where watery coffee and leaden scones were doled out with less grace and charm than if one were flinging corn at chickens. To say that their seating arrangements were ‘a bit rigid’ would be to suggest that Nigel Farage is ‘a bit’ of a nob. As temporary members of staff, we sat with all the really odd teachers that no one else wanted at their table. Once, my friend was absent and I asked a fellow English teacher with whom I had made friends, if I could sit with her to drink my tea. She and I, had, by now, dined out, shared confidences and drunk copious amounts of wine together. As I sat down she announced, ‘we’re adopting Helen for the day. Or rather, I should say fostering, we’re giving her back tomorrow.’ The next day I rejoined my group of oddities as she really wasn’t joking.
As a sub I always feared I wouldn’t bond with the kids, but it wasn’t always the case. Once a child whom I knew to be slightly troubled came up to me after class. ‘Sometimes,’ she said softly, ‘I just feel like I shouldn’t be here.’
‘Oh pet,’ I said. ‘Sometimes I feel that too. I had that terrible accident and was almost killed and I think maybe I shouldn’t be here too. But I’m so glad that I am and I try to remember that every day.’ She looked up. ‘Aww Miss, thanks for saying that. But I actually meant should I be doing A-level English.’
Cheeks aflame I said yes, that literature was the answer to everything and she went on her way.
And then I finally landed it, a full-time permanent position in an excellent grammar school. At first it was great. I had my own room, so there was none of that hoiking all your belongings round the school and waiting for teachers and pupils to vacate your classroom while stood outside gormlessly with your class. I wasn’t expected to do a million extra-curricular activities to prove my worth, and I quickly made friends. Both my Heads of Departments were terrific and we remain on good terms to this day. But the workload. Dear God, the workload. In English and French the specs kept changing. This made children nervous and teachers more nervous. Increasingly children liked to be told EXACTLY what was going to be on the exam, and if the question they wanted didn’t come up, they were none too pleased. ‘I don’t have a crystal ball’ I used to say, but that didn’t seem to wash.
Parents had NO compunction about telling you at parents’ night how WONDERFULLY their child had done last year and really, what had happened, since they had started your GCSE class. ‘It’s a different course, a harder course, and it takes time to adjust,’ I would try to explain, but often in vain.
I got castigated for putting too much pressure on some kids, and not enough on others. ‘He feels like he’s failing French’ bleated one mother during a parent’s meeting, whose child’s marks had fallen into the eighties and not the habitual nineties. The father actually snorted in my face.
I got tired of hearing phrases like ‘How are YOU going to get me my ‘A’’ and‘Mr So and So has done this with his class, why are we not doing that?’‘Because it’s not the same F**KING text, THAT”S WHY!’ (I didn’t actually say that.) Other teachers seemed able to shrug these remarks off, but I couldn’t. My faith in my own ability was completely eroded.
It became the school’s policy to introduce continuous assessment. Never a week passed where there wasn’t some sort of test happening. ‘Is this a continuous or a controlled assessment?’ my exam classes used to ask. ‘Does this count towards my GCSEs?’ I didn’t blame them for asking. There were just too many tests: too many to set; too many to mark, and too many for pupils to do. The stress was huge, on everyone.
For me, all the fun went out of it. I used to love playing the kids music, reading them funny poems and doing a bit of yoga. It felt like we didn’t have time for that anymore. They didn’t have time for songs, they had an assessment on Thursday! It didn’t matter if I told them I had planned for it, had it under control. I lost my va-va-voom; my confidence; and finally, what felt like my mind.
Then, one day, I was beetling along the corridor, when I remembered something urgent that I had forgotten to do. And involuntarily, within earshot of a pupil, I dropped the c-bomb. Now I write a blog called Sour Wee Bastard, but that doesn’t mean I have no standards. This would not be my ‘go to’ profanity of choice, and so I took the fact that I was using such expletives audibly and without my own volition, to mean that I was not in the right job. The child, God bless him, didn’t seem to hear. I made a decision. I could keep being the unhappy, unfulfilled version of me, or I could take a break and consider my options.
I applied for a career break and I got it. I took three years to spend time with my children, to work on the house and to work on myself. I started to write, and discovered that though it wasn’t paying much, it brought me something akin to joy. This year, I had to ask myself if I was going to go back to school. Since a part-time option wasn’t available I decided that no, I wouldn’t be. I don’t think my smile has ever been wider, nor for that matter, has my husband’s. Turns out, it’s not that much craic being married to Frankie Boyle.