The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Friday, 28 February 2014

Do you really love me?

I like February.  It’s a short month.  This year, for Valentine’s Day, a scratch card was on sale, £1 each, nine red hearts, just match three.  Two win nothing.

Lunchtime at the girls’ school.  When the bell went, I headed for the gate.  A half-day booking.  I hadn’t been sent home.  There was a teacher on duty, and some girls were standing next to the fence, which is made of steel wire, ten feet high.

“You’re on the right side, girls,” I said.  “It’s dangerous out there.” 

I'd just stepped through the gate when I saw Famina, in the yard, with Melissa.  Two Year 9s.  They both ran over.  The teacher, who had locked the gate behind me, opened it again.  Famina gave me a sweeping high-five.  When she saw it, Melissa complained: “I want to do that!”

“Excellent high-fives,” I said, after they were done.  Silence.  My small talk is not so good.  It’s even worse when teachers are listening.  I could only say: “Are you wearing lipstick, Famina?” 

I often asked her this.  Sometimes, like today, I added, “Are you allowed to?” thinking that the answer would be no, but I never got a straight reply. 

“It’s sexy!” was all she said that lunchtime, by the steel fence.  Was I the only teacher who noticed her lips?

We’d been friends for a while, Famina and me, I’m not sure how long, and best friends after that. In the middle of a lesson – it was French or History – she had popped her head up and asked, “Best friends?” as if she knew the answer already.

“For life,” I said.


“For life.”

“For life, for life,” she echoed, very seriously.

How long is a girl’s life?

The next time I saw her, it was Double Art.  A famous lesson now.  Other girls still point her out to me – “There’s that girl!” – as if I need reminding. 

The Year 9s walk in.

“Hallo, Sheldon.”

“Mr Cooper to you,” I reply.

“Oh, that’s so sweet!”

They settle down.  Girls like drawing.  

“I love you!”

It’s Famina.  She’s standing by my desk.  We look at each other.  Then she returns to her chair.  

Double Art is never-ending.  Famina pops up again.  This time, I see her from the start.  She trips the few steps to the teacher’s desk, and pulls up just before it, as if she’s been tugged by a string.

“I love you!”

When she has her head down, drawing, I pop up too, in front of her.

“Do you really love me?  You don't know me.”

She giggles, thinks a bit, then says, “Like a teacher!”

She’s sitting with her friends.  I ask if they’re from Bangla Desh.  They don’t answer.  A moment later, Famina is up again, dancing around, giving each girl a warm hug.

“Famina’s very affectionate,” I mention to the girls in front of me.

“She might hug you,” someone says.

“She might.”

The lesson is about to end. 

“Start tidying up now.”  My teacher voice.

“I love you too!” says Famina.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Happy Birthday, World War One

You weren’t so bad after all.

Not everyone had a hard time.  The generals weren’t all idiots.  You weren’t simply a conspiracy between arms manufacturers and Europe’s elite at the expense of a duped and exploited working class.

The centenary of your birth need not highlight our problems with Army recruitment, which has been declining for years.  Young men need no longer worry about joining up. They need to join up, just not worry about it. 

Thanks to the British government, we now have a clearer understanding of what went on a hundred years ago.  It really was a Great War.

In 2013, we all nodded when the Education Secretary, Mr Gove, caned history teachers for using Mr Men to help teenagers follow World War Two.  This year he is criticising teachers again, this time for using Wilfred Owen’s poetry to illuminate World War One.  It turns out that generations of teachers have been gulled by a left-wing agenda.  Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori is not an ‘old Lie’ at all.  War can be fun, if history lessons can’t. 

Mr Men have been dismissed, but the yes-men are still lined up.  Like the poet, Ian McMillan. Not poet and historian, just poet.  In a BBC article, he asks whether ‘our focus on poems like Owen's distorted our view of the war…Although Dulce et Decorum Est is written from the poet’s point of view, it's important to remember it is a work of fiction.’  Don’t take the poems literally.  It wasn’t like that.  Owen was going over the top. 

Mr Gove was criticised recently for making political appointments to civil service roles, that is, for wanting a yes-man to head the schools inspectorate rather than the presumed no-woman he had just fired.  Sir David Bell says that he should listen more closely to contrary views: ‘The day-to-day grind of policy battles, firefighting and political ding-dong can start to cut you off from outside ideas and thinking.’ 

You don’t want to cut your ding-dong off.  Not in Conservative politics.  It really is No-Woman’s Land.  Nice imagery, though, the bit about battles.   Wilfred will approve, looking down from his grand trench in the sky, at least when he is going over the top.

Like his predecessors, Mr Gove is used to being vilified.  At this very minute, pinned to staffroom noticeboards across England and Wales, there is a teachers’ union poster showing a giant, grey image of his head, or most of it, with some extremities cropped.  It looks a little monstrous.  The text reads: This man wants your pay, your pension, even your holidays.  In one school I visited, Mr Anonymous had penned in: and your ears.

WW1, WW2….  We don’t have to wait for another one.  This country has already contributed to a large number of wars.  They were all fun – for some people, anyway – and all worth fighting, so we shall probably be hearing from the minister again.

Dulce et pudendum est pro patria gove.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

There was no class called Uranus

You keep trying to upload an author image that is clearly not an image of the author. We will continue to flag and remove such drawings, but how about you please just stop breaking the rules, okay?

I got this message on a book club website.  It serves me right.  Why hide my face?  Just because every other website allows me to.  What’s my problem?  You’d think a teacher, even a substitute, would know about rules, what’s appropriate and what’s not.

In a job last week, one of the ten-year-olds asked me if I swore at home.  He hadn’t heard me swear, and couldn’t understand why.  I said yes.   

“I knew it!  You’ve got a swearer’s face.” 

Maybe I have a bad-mouth mug.  Maybe that’s why I don’t put it on the net.  

The internet is one of our newest democracies.  The book club volunteer felt that she could rap a stranger on the knuckles.  ‘Kindly refrain from choosing an illustration of the sun as an author image,’ or ‘Cut it out, dumb fuck.’  Or something in between.  In the end, she leant towards dumb fuck.  The ten-year-olds would like her.  Depending on her face.  I can’t find an image of it.

When I get a personal question in class, I often wonder what other teachers might do.  I sometimes think about the episode in Friends when Phoebe is pursued by children wanting ‘the lady who tells the truth.’  Then I do what is convenient.

The last time I swore in a classroom, at least one with other people in it, was during my second spell of teaching practice as a student in Australia, a long time ago.  The lesson was on Keats’ poetry. I lost my place in the little lecture which I was reading to the boys.  I said “Shit!”  The word is not in Keats.  I don’t know why the class teacher, who was observing me at the time, let it pass.  Things were more relaxed in those days, I suppose.  In the same school, the PE teacher told me a joke about aural sex, then described his recent holiday in Thailand, where a mother had sold him her fourteen-year-old daughter for a few hours and dollars.  They were saving up for a dowry.    

At school, PE teachers are no longer so trusting.  You need to watch what you say.  A misplaced phrase can get you the sack, or make people laugh.  Belle Nolan sent an email to the BBC describing the recent fires in Australia: ‘I live in Warrandyte in Victoria State with my fiance, Ryan - one of the worst affected areas.’

An ordinary name can also turn around and smack you in the face.  There is probably more than one South Park Primary School in London, but a few years back we nearly lost one of them.  Some parents agitated to change the name of the South Park where I was working.  The TV show with the same name was very popular at the time.

The agitation failed, but the goal remains – to avoid ridicule.  At the school where the ten-year-olds queried my abusive face, each class bears the name of a planet.  A senior management meeting would have taken place to choose the names.  Despite their distance out in space, Pluto and Neptune appeared warmer and more homely than 6S and 5C.   You have to be careful, though.  Remember, we are dealing with a world where the mere mention of ‘underpants’ will get a laugh.  There are more than a dozen classes in the school.  In order to cover them all, the senior team had to resort to names like Star, Galaxy and Supernova.  But they still left one planet out.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Executed by tireless:

I wrote poetry when I was sixteen.  It could have been worse.  The choice of pastime.  I could have taken up flower arrangement.  The poetry could have been better.
O Penis, Penis, Penis,
What has come between us?
When I laugh, why do you mope?
When I devil, why do you pope?

Publishers might go for this teenage poetasting.  A #0.5, a prequel, and a hormone sponge for my little book, which has been falling into the hands of white, male, North American sci-fi fans.  Unerringly.  Given the frequent, ironic references to planets and stars, I suppose it serves the little book right.  Sentence these fans to tireless:.  I can hear their whimpers.

“Cut off my biggest penis, but don’t make me read tireless:!”