Sunday, 1 April 2012

Thrift: Chapter 1

Tiffany folded her arms and stared hard at me across the classroom. It was a Wednesday afternoon and I was attempting to teach Victorian poetry to my class of thirty students. Yellow autumn light flooded through broken blinds onto a scene of apathy. Two-seater wooden desks were arranged into a traditional linear fashion. Behind each desk plastic chairs supported students who either leaned back casually or slumped forwards close to sleep. The school dress code was openly flouted as ties were undone, shirts unbuttoned and blazers thrown across backs of chairs. Poetry texts and exercise journals were variously open, closed, upside down or discarded on the floor, along with crumpled paper and white specks of chewed gum.

‘My dad works in a factory,’ said Tiffany, and squinted to look angrier.

‘Right, sorry about that,’ I said. ‘About my comment I mean, not his job.’

She continued to stare.

‘I am sure he worked exceptionally hard at school to achieve so much,’ I said, mostly because there was an awkward silence and I felt I should say something. I had made the mistake of losing my tenuous grip on maintaining a professional atmosphere in the classroom. Tiffany had written the date and etched a heart into her desk in fifty minutes of lesson time. She had thrown a ruler at Stephanie and loudly stated that I was boring and my tie did not match my shirt, which was unfortunately true, as an early morning lapse of concentration had resulted in green paisley combined with maroon. It was her complaint about me being boring that had caused the greatest offence. The previous evening I had made the unusual sacrifice of taking my planning to the pub to ensure I could talk with reasonable confidence about Tennyson. I had attempted to be as engaging as possible and even arrived at the lesson armed with a PowerPoint presentation. My brief enthusiasm had shattered against general disinterest.

Fuelled by caffeine and suffering the final echoes of a hangover, I had told Tiffany she would never be a success and I hoped she would enjoy working in a factory. This was not a well-recognized motivational technique, and for the third time that week I found myself in an uncomfortable confrontation with a disgruntled fifteen year old.

‘That’s patronising,’ she said.

‘Innit,’ said Stephen

‘Never,’ I said. ‘It would only be patronising if I was being insincere. I am sure your father is a pillar of the local community.’

My class were unusually quiet, watching with interest to see who would win in the confrontation between teacher and student.      

‘You’s patronising me and my dad,’ she said. ‘And you said he was a pillar. I’m gonna’ call him right now and tell him.’ She took her phone from an unnecessarily large handbag speckled with gold sequins and began tapping buttons, a process made more difficult by her inch-long silver fingernails.

Upsetting a student made little or no impact on my conscience. However, dealing with an irate parent as part of the fallout was a far more painful prospect. I stalled for time while I considered a way to diffuse the situation.

‘There’s no need for that,’ I said. I searched my memory for an image of her father. Big, I imagined, with a shaved head and tattooed forearms. A good number of the parents at the Radley Hill School were rather aggressive in appearance. My previous dealings with angry parents had resulted in me being sworn at, shoved in the chest and, most frighteningly, held in a headlock by an eighteen stone man who had mistaken me for the sixth former who was dating his daughter.

‘How about we all relax a little and watch a film instead of having to read through this boring old poetry?’ I said, hoping Tennyson’s ghost would forgive my betrayal.

Tiffany paused with her phone halfway to her ear.

I held up a copy of Shrek that I kept on my desk for just such emergencies.

‘Seen it,’ said Tiffany.

‘How about a film and sweets?’ I said. I opened the top drawer of my desk and produced three pounds of pick ’n’ mix. The sight of brightly coloured plastic wrapping drew the eyes of the thirty students in the room. I opened a bag slightly to allow the scent of strawberry and cola to leak out into the warm air. Tiffany hesitated then returned her phone to her bag as my heart slowed towards its normal pace.

‘Whatever’, she said, and held her hand out.

‘You’re not a very good teacher are you, sir,’ said Stephen a few minutes later as he licked sherbet from a wrapper.

On reflection, he was probably right.






An average school day began with a staff meeting during which we listened to a short speech from the Headmaster. We were expected to gather in the staffroom at ten minutes to nine where we would listen in respectful silence as our Head, Mr Thomas, read the daily notices.

It was customary for me to arrive late, for no other reason than poor timekeeping, so on the Thursday morning after my run in with Tiffany I beeped my horn to force a group of loitering year ten students to move from the only available parking space.

‘Well rude, sir,’ said a girl with pigtails, as I opened the car door.

‘Whatever,’ I said, and made the short walk to the staffroom, ignoring the personal comments that followed.

There were still at least two minutes until the arrival of the Head, so I took the opportunity to make myself strong coffee from the tub of instant granules that attracted a large group of teachers each morning and took a seat on a faded blue chair by the window. The majority of the staff drank coffee, mostly black and with sugar. They looked unhealthy and in most cases they were unhealthy. Some ate heavily buttered toast or sugared doughnuts. One talked loudly about calorie counting. She ate two croissants with a wedge of margarine and blueberry conserve. I said some brief ‘good mornings’ and was received with lukewarm indifference.

At exactly ten minutes to nine the Headmaster strode into the room and cleared his throat to gain the attention of his staff. A man of average height and possibly intelligence, he was as always dressed smartly in a dark suit. His skin was still lightly tanned from the summer spent in Tuscany. He gave us a cheerful smile before he began his speech. He was particularly talented at smiling in even the direst situations. I believe he subscribed to a branch of philosophy that taught people that the more positive and aspirational they were the more likely things were to turn out for the best.

He was followed closely by the deputy head, Mr Stevens. He was also a jovial figure who, as was the tradition, fulfilled his role as deputy head by displaying an excellent skill-set in making students miserable. Rarely losing his temper, he was a master of giving unnecessarily long detentions or taking away what limited entertainment was offered to our students. He was also adept at eating biscuits, which had contributed to his broadening midriff.

‘Good morning,’ said the Headmaster.

‘Good morning, Headmaster,’ said the keener to be promoted staff members.

‘Notices for the day,’ he said. ‘Reports are to be completed by three o’clock this afternoon. I know how busy you have all been working on them this week.’

As usual, I had been particularly busy copy and pasting mine from the previous year’s reports.

‘There will be a concert this lunch time in the main hall where some of our year seven students will be delighting us with a rendition of some classic songs. Please come along and give your support.’

I made a mental note to avoid the event completely.

He made some other announcements about important meetings after school and various forms we had to fill out.

‘On a much more serious note,’ he said, ‘I am afraid to tell you that Adam from year 10 has been expelled from the school. It seems he was involved in the deplorable activity of selling washing powder as marijuana to the younger students.’

‘Cocaine,’ I said, without thinking.

The Headmaster swivelled to look at me with sudden intensity. The rest of the staff also turned their heads so they could get a proper view of the colleague who had spoken out of turn. As I had started, I felt I should continue.

‘Cocaine,’ I said. ‘Washing powder would be more like cocaine. Except much more fragrant. And it would give your nose a good clean.’

‘Indeed,’ said the Headmaster. He turned his attention back to his notebook where it took him several seconds to find his place. In the background, Miss Waters was shaking her head in a disapproving manner.

‘And a final notice – there is to be a social gathering on Friday evening. Drinks at the Green Oak for around 7.30. Partners welcome of course. Before we begin our learning for the day, would anyone else like to contribute?’

A single hand was raised in the air. Miss Dean was a spectacularly enthusiastic newly qualified teacher who had established a wide range of after school societies that I assumed no one attended.

‘Just to let everyone know that there will be an ornithology society starting on Tuesday next week. Staff are just as welcome as students.’

‘Thank you, Miss Dean,’ said the Headmaster. ‘That sounds like a fascinating opportunity for our young people.’

I managed to restrict my comments to my inner monologue.

After some final mouthfuls of coffee and a hazelnut biscuit I found abandoned on the staffroom table, I walked towards my classroom with Mr Dale, a chemistry teacher and a rugby coach; a man whose heavy frame looked uncomfortable in the restraints of a shirt and tie. We stepped into the mayhem of a Radley Hill morning as students performed a number of activities including loitering, bartering, shouting, running and trying to hide behind various bushes or around the back of buildings to squeeze in a cigarette.

‘Teenagers,’ I said, for no particular reason.

‘Quite,’ said Mr Dale.

‘They seem so pointless.’

‘Totally.’

As if to reinforce my point, a fight broke out metres from where we were standing. A boy with patches of coloured paint on his jacket was busy telling another boy to leave his girlfriend alone, or stronger words to that effect. They stood inches apart, while other students gathered around them, keen to witness any outbreak of violence.

‘Chelsea’s mine,’ said the first boy, who was turning a shade of red.

‘I see her first,’ said the second boy.

Some heckling quickly followed as the onlookers decided whose side they were on.

‘Like I even care,’ said a blonde girl with folded arms who I assumed was the Chelsea in question.

Seemingly unbothered by this the first boy threw a wide, looping punch at the second that thumped uselessly into his opponent’s shoulder.

‘Ow,’ said the recipient. In return he threw a punch of his own that missed by a good distance and sent him stumbling off balance.

The first boy seized the advantage and grasped a handful of hair, pulling a chunk from the other boy’s fringe.

‘That’s well unfair,’ said the second, whose eyes were watering, and he finished the fight with an untidy kick to the groin that left his opponent crying in a heap on the floor.

‘Bet that hurt,’ I said, as the students cheered the winner.

‘I’ll say,’ said Mr Dale. ‘Best break this lot up.’

He stepped into the crowd and with his oversized hands grasped the victor by the collar and hauled the loser to his feet.

‘Cool down for you two,’ he said, and marched them away to a series of ‘boos’ and ‘borings’ from the onlookers.

I walked alone through the students who were invariably dressed in the black trousers, white shirts and red jumpers of the Radley Hill uniform, most with their own interpretation of what constituted a neatly knotted tie. It was fashionable to have either a big knot or a small knot a foot below the chin.

Some students nodded to acknowledge my existence, or in other cases looked in my direction then returned to their positions, leant against the grey stone walls of our sixties build or huddled around illicit videos on phones.

My class were stood outside my room, watching my approach with no noticeable enthusiasm.

‘Alright, sir,’ said Melanie. She was sporting pigtails with pink bows and had a streak of chocolate on her chin.

My year 11 class found most English lessons confusing and I spent my limited planning time thinking about ways to explain what they had to do in the simplest terms possible. I unlocked the door and allowed them in, jostled somewhat in the process as they vied for the back row where minimal levels of work were the norm.

‘Right then,’ I said, and spent some time telling students to remove earphones and finish cans of Red Bull.

I distributed the tattered remnants of their books and gave out twenty pens as no one had thought to bring their own.

After ten minutes of organising I was ready to begin.

‘Well, we have all been doing really excellently brilliantly in our English lessons recently.’ This was not true. In fact, they were one of the most incompetent classes I had ever taught, and my own teaching skills were nowhere near the level that was required to help them pass their exam.

‘So to follow on from all the superbly great work we have been doing, today we are going to write a short story,’ I said.

Billy put his hand up. He had a cold and a line of mucous was visible below his left nostril.

‘Yes, Billy?’

‘Can I write a true story, sir?

‘This one has to be a story from your own imagination,’ I said, and waved my board pen in a convincing manner. ‘I want you to think of a story that is totally your own idea and write it up.’

I wrote ‘write a story’ across the whiteboard in big, bold letters.

‘Can mine be a film?’ said Melanie. ‘I saw a film about some werewolves the other day.’

‘Story,’ I said. ‘I would like everyone to come up with an idea for a story.’

‘Mine is going to be about the time I went on holiday to Greece with my mum,’ said Marvin, a boy whose eyes seemed strangely too large for his head.

‘That’s an autobiography,’ I said. ‘I want you to think of a story.’

‘That’s where you is wrong, sir,’ said Marvin. ‘My dad told my cousin’s friend all about our holiday when we was in the pub having Sunday lunch and he said I have a few stories for you so it’s a story.’

‘Your dad,’ I said, before a pause to reconsider my words carefully. ‘Is totally right. My mistake. Everyone your task is to write a story about whatever you want.’

I sat at my desk and plundered the secret stash of triple chocolate biscuits that resided in my drawer. I watched the general lethargy and confusion as my class either relaxed and did nothing or started writing something irrelevant.

‘Mine is called EastEnders,’ said Melanie, to anyone who was listening. ‘It’s about some people who lives in London.’

‘That’s great Melanie,’ I said, and rested my feet on my desk. ‘Really great.’