The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The Big, Bad Teacher

It was playtime.  While the children were out in the fresh air, Miss stayed at the computer, checking lesson plans, or something.  English was next.  The windows were closed.  The room was starting to smell. 

“Have you got a cold?” I asked.  I’d heard her coughing.

She grunted.

“I don’t want to sound bossy, it’s your room, but is it OK if I open a window?”

She looked up from her screen, without much desire.  I was wasting time again. 

“I open the two windows above the door.”

She went back to her screen.  I glanced up.  The windows were shut.

“I don’t like to interfere.”

“Stop going on about the windows, would you!”

I was impressed.  She was sharp.  She had seen through my elaborate politeness.  Miss understood words and their real meaning.  English was going to be fun.

When the children came back, she typed the lesson objective onto the big screen:

WALT (we are learning to): Descibe a character, personailty

It had to be a character from the story they were reading.  She stressed the importance of powerful language, and not using the same word twice.  As good teachers do, she gave an example of her own.

The big bad wolf,

Whatever she was doing at playtime,

is a huge scary beast.

sitting at the computer,

He tal pointy ears

she wasn’t preparing this.

always alert

She typed the words now, as they came into her head.

with a long point jaw

It wasn’t just a lesson in descriptive writing. 

and ferocious sharp pointy teeth

It took us to the quick of the creative process.

She didn’t explain the meaning of alert.  They would have known that already, the six-year-olds.

When she finished her presentation, Miss sat at the table with the higher achievers.  She liked to challenge the brightest children.  Good teachers do that, too.  She put me with the weakest group.  There was a new boy who had no English, nothing, so I sat next to him.  When he realised someone was helping him, he woke up from his doze.  I thought we could try the date.  It wasn’t easy.  It was taking a long time, but his face began to shine.  He saw I wasn’t giving up.  Miss noticed too.  You know her eye for detail. 

“Words in the book!” she snapped.  

She was right.  The date was just a number.  I wrote the word pointy on a piece of paper and made foreign Abid copy it.  The whole class had got this word, and now so would he.  Even nicer if he knew the meaning.  I found a sharp pencil, and tapped my finger on the point.  Abid watched closely.  I wasn’t sure.  In case he thought pointy was the word for pencil, I drew the wolf’s ears, big, pointy ones, and got my finger out again.  He smiled.  I smiled.  It was clear this time.  Pointy meant ears

I started talking to someone else, and Abid went back into his private coma. 

“Write the question down first.” 

“Write the question down first!” Miss repeated, loudly, to the whole class.  She had started doing this.  It sounded peculiar.  Was I not always wrong?  I couldn’t see any malice in it, and I had looked quite hard.  I think she just agreed with me on certain things when I didn’t expect her to.  I tried to keep my voice down, and spoke as little as I could, but you can’t stop saying things completely, not when you’re a teacher. 

“Be careful with your handwriting,” I whispered to a little girl. 

“Be careful with your handwriting!”

My instructions kept coming back, amplified, on cue, like a responsorio.  It wasn’t my last day in a British school, or I might have tried some other kinds of phrase.  Abid, foreign Abid, would have understood.  

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Pyramidss, Shperes and Cyinders

“I’m telling off you!”

Year 2, quiet reading.  A single voice had piped up.  Not the teacher’s.  Miss couldn’t let it pass.  The child’s tone, she said, was sarcastic and nasty.  She didn’t want that kind of thing in class.  She didn’t ask why the child was cross.  It couldn’t have been important.  Instead, she explained the difference between off and on in the phrase which the child had used.  She sorted out two things at once.  I’d just sat down, but Miss was looking good already.  She must have thought so too because she went through the whole thing twice. 

I wasn’t sure why I’d been put with that class.  Normally, I fill in for an absent teacher, but Miss was there, no doubt about it.  Miss Times-two, teaching things twice. 

It was Handwriting next.  A few of the children had finished their books the day before.  Miss asked me to get some new ones.  The stock room was down the corridor.  She can’t have had the time.  When I returned to class, she was solving the complexities of upper and lower case.  The children watched in silence as she modelled both forms of the letter p, coaxing out each trick and turn.  I waited at the door, books in hand.  After a moment, she turned to me.

“What do you think you could do with those?”

“You don’t mind me handing them out while you’re presenting the work?”

Silence.  I had forgotten the first lesson.  She could do two things at once.

After Handwriting, it was Maths.  Subtraction.  The children sat together on the carpet, where they could listen better.  Miss thought a number line would help.  She was right.  They knew what a number line was.  They could draw one on their whiteboards, and then go on to answer in their books.  Looking good again.  Very carefully, the children filled their little boards with glistening, black strokes.  Lines appearedtrain tracksherring bones and millipedes, mostly crammed with numbers, not always the right numbers, perhaps more numbers than were needed, or fewer, numbers that were not in their usual places, with upside-down digits, fancy, half-imagined numbers, or no numbers at all.  They had English after break.  I wondered what would happen when it came to words.   

Miss looked over at the table next to me.  On it was a pile of number lines, stiff, laminated strips.  An assistant put them down at the start of the lesson.  Miss asked me to hand them out.  Without getting up, I passed a couple to the children who were closest to me.  

“Quickly!” she snapped, at me, not the children, then snatched up the strips herself, as if showing me what to do.  She couldn’t stop teaching for a second.    

Listening now?  She wrote an example on the board, 43–15, drew a number line, and started counting back on it.  She used partitioning as well.  The kids are pretty smart here, I thought.  The assistant pointed out that the plastic lines only went up to 30.  She kept on with the same example.  It didn’t really matter.  The kids were still drawing on their whiteboards.

Time to put the learning down on paper.  Different groups were given different tasks, for each ability.  Miss typed the group names into her computer, along with the question numbers, and it all came up on the big screen at the front.  Pyramidss, Shperes and Cyinders.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Paul Paul’s

I’d been having a drink with Cassie and Candy, at my place, but it was time for them to go.  Their apartment was down by the harbour.  We walked along to the arch to find a taxi.  It was a cold, December night, and I had my coat on.  I opened it suddenly, like a flasher, in front of the two girls, and kept it open for a moment, then I sprawled out on the road, on my back, arms and legs apart, pretending to be dead.  I can still see their faces in the dark, turning about with laughter, framed by the stonework of the arch.

                    Byzantine wall, Salonica

          We walked through the arch and took the first road left.  A taxi appeared immediately, like a sniffer dog.  The girls were ready, but I couldn’t let them go.  I looked at the driver and said, “He’s no good,” as if I recognised him, in a sober voice, without explaining.  They laughed again. 

The road is level here, at the top of the hill, and follows the old wall.  To the right, as we were heading, the ground falls sharply away.  If you do without a taxi or a bus, and walk down instead, it’s so steep that half the time you feel like running; the twisting lanes carry you along until you’re not quite sure which one to take next.

The lanes are bordered with little houses, each house touching the one next door.  Windows open right onto the street.  At one house, the shutters were still open, and a face was sitting behind the glass, lit by a yellow lamp. 

“It’s Paul Paul!  Quick!” I said, and we scurried on.  I wasn’t going to share the girls with him.  By now, they were giggling all the time.  The way I said Paul Paul! and Quick! was meant to make them laugh.  They hurried on without knowing why, laughing without knowing why, which made them laugh even more.

His face looked strange in the yellow light.  He peered after us, with recognition, but with questions, too, only for an instant, though long enough to look offended, while the slope and the laughter drove us on, until it was too late, his wall got in the way, and we were gone.  I’d hurt his feelings again.  Perhaps he’d even heard me.

Now I knew where Paul lived.  I went to see him before he flew back to the States.  His little house resembled mine, although his walls were made of stone.  Windows in the Old Town are small, but in the morning, the Greek sun, which let you stay the night, retakes the whole building, possessing it with light, and ferrets things out with a magnifying glass. 

His fly was open.  He wasn’t wearing underpants.  I think it was the fashion then.  The underpants, I mean, not the fly.  Do expats wear underpants today?  They’re often tight, you have to wash them, and they slow you down when you’re getting dressed.  You know I mean the underpants.

I tried not to stare, but his prick was quite large.  It looked snug and soft, like a pet curled up in its favourite place.  I don’t remember what we talked about.  That's not surprising.  I remember what he said, half an hour later, when he saw his penis.

“You should have told me!”  The same, indignant voice.  He was looking at his penis, but he was talking to me.

That’s Paul Paul, the artist who exhibited his paintings, and then himself, and was frequently offended.  Pink Penis, a still life, hanging in my head.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Paul Paul

Paul Paul was a Greek-American living in Salonica.  Παύλος Παύλου.  Some things are more convincing in Greek.

He was an artist and needed money, so he had an exhibition.  To advertise, he put some posters up in town.  When I bumped into him, he took a rolled up poster out of his pack and gave it to me, an example of his work, presumably the best.  It seemed to be a copy from a photo, or another painting, a Monet by the look of it, the garden at Giverny.  A figure was in the foreground, or was trying to be.  Afterwards, I showed the poster to one of the English girls.  When she saw the misshaped person, she said: “It’s not outstanding.” 

I had enough posters.  I fixed Paul Paul’s on the wall inside my toilet. 

You don’t know my toilet.  It was out the back – it still is, I expect – an old Turkish thing, just a hole in cement that fed into an underground tank.  You had to watch your trousers when it flushed.  If you put paper in the hole, it blocked, so I used a shopping bag for a bin.  

“I hope I didn’t put anything down there I shouldn’t have,” said Liddie, in her girl voice.  I’d told her about the bag.  They don’t always do what you say.  She didn’t come again. 

One day, Paul dropped in.  We talked about Mt Athos.  I was going to see the monasteries.  He’d been already.  He talked about the beauty of it, and the awkwardness.  In those days, the toilets on Mt Athos weren’t even Turkish, just platforms on a monastery wall, balconies with holes in them.  You didn’t go at night.  On a warm day, peering down, you noticed little flowers on the face of the cliff, and watched as seagulls circled in the air, between you and the ocean.  On windy days, the surf looked miles below, hitting rocks in miniature.  They’ve put in proper toilets now.  The monks deserve their comforts, like the rest of us.

I brought up the rumours I'd heard, to see what Paul would say.  I was sceptical.

“They’re true.  I was propositioned.”   

I believed him, although I didn’t want to.  He was thirty or so, but looked much younger, nicely built, too, with a fair complexion.  An all-Greek-American boy, the sort of person who could interest a monk.  I was never propositioned, and I went several times.  There was hardly any wickedness.  A monk asked me for dollars.  Another wanted me to stay.  I don’t know if that counts.  He said I’d make a good monk.   

Paul had to use my toilet.  You can’t tell someone not to.  I smiled as he went out.  I don’t normally smile when people use the toilet.  When he came back, he said, “You put my painting on the wall!” 

He was hurt.  He sensed that where I’d put his poster expressed my opinion of it.  Why else would I put it there?  I knew he’d be offended when I did it, but I didn’t care.  I don’t care much now.  It was a lousy painting.  I think I wanted him to see it.  

The exhibition went very well, apparently.  People bought his work, and he made enough money to fly back to the States.  So he said.  Dollars for boys.  He left some wooden frames with Graeme, to post on later.  Graeme left them with me.  In Salonica, a lot of foreigners passed through like that, in the Old Town in particular, leaving other people to clean up after them.  As for the holes in the ground, in Turkey they’re called Greek toilets.