JOHN I. CLARKE
In the crowded dining hall, even with the big screen showing pop videos, Melanie’s assault on two fellow students caused something of a stir.
It was afterwards in my office that the full extent of the provocation was revealed. Continual name-calling had resulted in the two boys in question receiving the full force of Melanie’s school bag.
“If that had been happening to me,” I told Melanie, trying to show my skills of empathy, “I would have found a better way to deal with it.”
The thought of a grey haired male teacher being called a tart by two twelve year olds produced in Melanie a look which can only be called long and cool. “I guess we’ve all got stuff,” she told me, “and besides, I did what both of my consciences told me.”
I couldn’t resist asking the obvious question and Melanie indicated both of her shoulders and said, “My good conscience and my bad conscience.”
Yes, I guess we’ve all got stuff, as the events of the next few days proved. Terry, a boy in Year 10, refused a polite request to remove his cap in the school corridor. As the situation escalated he used foul and abusive language within the hearing of younger students. As the inevitable disciplinary measures were imposed it became obvious how much “stuff” Terry was carrying around as emotional baggage, the extent of which put the wearing of a cap into perspective.
And so to a Year 7 English lesson and a popular starter. If you can remember one of the Shakespearian insults from yesterday’s lesson, you may say it to your English teacher now. Showing remarkable powers of recollection, the students hurled the insults as thick and fast as the arrows from English bowmen in Henry V: “tickle-brain,” “cream-faced loon,” “roast meat for worms” and most unkindly, I thought, “box of wrinkles.”
Jordan though, excited by this particular educational opportunity and unconstrained by classroom requirements to stay in your place and not shout out, or the stipulation that the insults had to be genuinely Shakespearian, yelled, “Big-Ass.”
What followed was the immediate collapse of pupils, teaching assistants and, it has to be said, teacher as well. When the lesson was eventually restored to order, it resumed as a testament to the therapeutic powers of verbal expression and laughter.
That evening was a rare escape from the tyranny of marking exercise books. And what do English teachers do on such occasions? This one attended the launch of a poetry book he’d edited. Not Dark Yet is a collection of poems in aid of the Samaritans. With a foreword by Ian McMillan, the book contains fifty contributions from poets prepared to donate their skills to a good cause. Thus Jack Irving in Mired refers to a heron on the marshes, “Taking off / the mad flap canvas in a gale / our argument.” And Roger Manns concludes his heartbreaking entry, From the Cradle with the lines: “Are these the hands that led me gently into life / then slowly let me go? / That now lie shrivelled, marbled, / crossed upon her gown.”
The launch was a great success. A fund-raiser yes, but also a reminder of the restorative power of words.
As for myself, I was asked several times why I had taken on the task of editing a book when the demands of an Ofsted visit, SEF forms and updating documentation hung around my neck. I could say quite simply that both of my consciences told me to do it. Because Melanie is right, we all have it and I suppose the trick we all try to learn is how to deal with stuff.
(published in The Times Educational Supplement 06.01.06)
From Of Chalk and Talk and other stuff – Views from in and beyond the classroom
First published in 2014 by Currock Press
«Thirty-one years is a long sentence and yet some people serve much longer than that. But after thirty-one years I felt I had done my bit and I took early retirement.»
This is taken from the Introduction by the author, who, during his sentence, sorry, career, took in five full-time posts, two of them as head of English and one as Assistant Headteacher. This career inspired him many written reflections on aspects of the job, which were occasionally printed by The Times Educational Supplement.
This is one of them.