Monday, 25 November 2013

5 - London and Thereabouts

It was when I fell asleep standing up that I first understood how hectic London was.
I was coming home from work one afternoon and as I waited for the pedestrian light to change I lent against a handy wall.
Some minutes…, actually, I don’t know how long later, but the roar of released traffic woke me.
The scene had changed in millimetric detail, different cars, other people, and I realised that so tired was I that I had dozed against the wall.
And if I was, then it was no surprise really.
Not only was I living in London, but I was teaching now at one of the hardest schools I have ever experienced.
But all that is ahead.
When we left things I had moved into the terraced house of my friend Don in Lewisham, south east London, and was staring longingly at a Sydney Cityrail ticket I had found in my pocket, which promised to take to Bondi for $2.50.
With a sigh I put it away and went about my preparations for getting a job as a teacher in the metropolis.
To do this I had to sign up with a firm called Timeplan.
This was an agency responsible for finding substitute teachers to prop up the ailing English education system.
You can imagine the sorts of schools that needed the services of Timeplan, obviously any school that an UK teacher wouldn’t touch with a four hundred foot pole.
Even the name, Timeplan, is redolent of a prison sentence, and that is largely what they handed out.
However, I had ended my Asian travels early, and so when I contacted Timeplan they said that the new term doesn’t start for another three weeks, and so to get back to them closer to the time, and they will set me up with a placement.
I was a bit anxious about this, as I was already learning what it cost to live in London, and I would have preferred to get going straight away.
But it wasn’t to be, so I put down the phone and contemplated other options.
When Matt came home from work I asked him what he thought, and he said “Why not try a pub? They always need more workers.”
What he didn’t add, and as I was about to find out, was that Britain then, maybe still, has no minimum wage, and that’s why pubs always need more people.
However, since my preferred work as masseur to the Swedish nude silicon implanted volleyball team was unlikely, at least in the near term, I went out to try a few hostelries in the local area.
Over a long time in the country I came to understand that there are only three things that the English do well.
One is TV shows, the next is the post office, and finally pubs.
However, almost typically of me, the first pub I tried, had to be about the worst in Britain.
I can’t remember what it was called, or if it even had a name above the door, but it was a few blocks from my digs, on the way into Lewisham high street.
It’s not surprising that I didn’t know its name, as my recollection was that at first I wasn’t sure it was a pub at all.
I opened the door timidly and thought I was in someone’s living room.
The carpet was filthy, barely visible in fact, and there was a motley assortment of broken down furniture spread about with various middle-aged men, lounging about, beer guts on tables, drinking pints out of filthy glassware.
One of these barely mobile wrecks turned toward me and said, well, I can’t remember exactly, but it certainly wasn’t “How can I be of assistance, sir?”
I think he said, “What do you want?”, which was something else I was to learn later, that this passed for the very pinnacle of English customer service.
I responded, after some serious thought about whether I wanted to work in such a place, “Do you have any work going?”
To which he gave a deep laugh, gestured at his customers and said, “Nah, sorry, mate, most of this lot just help themselves.”
But he was a kindly soul, and was prepared to help me, he continued on, “If you want some work, go down to the town and try The Plough, they have lots of stuff going on.”
I thanked him for his help and then left with alacrity before the hordes of insect life that I was sure infested the place transferred their attention to me.
I headed down to Lewisham and there on the corner of the high street was The Plough, and it was vastly different establishment.
The sign that announced its name was a vast neon thing, with a “ye olde” horse and plough drawn floridly across it.
It looked more like an alien spaceship that had chosen the dark streets of Lewisham to land, than an olde world English pub, but I could see it was a bright and glitzy place, for the young things to strut their stuff in.
So I entered with a bit more confidence than previously, walked up to the bar and spoke with a large man who was serving behind the counter.
G’day”, I said, “Would you guys have any work going?”
Without missing a beat he replied, “Yeah, interviews tomorrow at two o’clock.
Just come in then.”
I rocked back slightly, talk about good timing.
I quizzed him a little further, turned out that they had run an ad in the local paper that week, announcing interviews in person at the pub on the morrow, and I had lucked in.
So I thanked the barman, and left.
I returned the next day at the appointed time and took my seat at one of the tables in the bar.
Soon another large man, and as I was to learn, getting larger with every meal, came in and sat down at another table.
He took out a pad and pen, then looked about, his eye fell on me, the only one there, and he said, “you here for the job?”.
I nodded and he gestured me over.
I’ll just digress here to discuss a movie with Steve McQueen, Pappillion.
Steve plays a man convicted of murder in Paris and is sentenced to life on Devil’s Island, the aptly named, horrendously brutal prison camp off the coast of French Guinana.
As the prisoners are marched into camp to begin their servitude they are given a perfunctory medical test by the camp doctor.
As Steve’s turn comes he steps up and says, “Is there any way to fail this test?”
And somewhat like that, was my interview at the pub.
I can’t recall in detail what was said, but it was along the lines of “Do you know what that is?” (He pointed to a pint.)
I said “Yes”.
Then he asked, “Have you worked in a pub before?”
I replied “Yes” to that as well, and that was it, he concluded the ‘interview’, and told me to give my name and phone number to the large man I had spoken to the day before.
He turned out to be the assistant manager, name of Simon.
I did so, then Simon brought out a roster of sorts, and told me to come in on the coming Saturday for my first shift.
I left the pub well satisfied and had some unique thoughts, viz: if everything was this easy, my life in Britain would be a breeze.
So I spent the rest of the week doing some tourist things, Trafalgar Square, the Cutty Sark, and savouring London, the city that had stood at the heart of the empire that had ultimately spawned me in a far flung corner of it.
But then I did something that was to lead to one of the most painful nights of my life.
Don, who had found me my digs in his house, had returned from Shropshire, and with his return the football team that he (Don), Matt, up until then my only flatmate, and Pete, our other roomie, still away, played for (Kent University Old Boys) was reactivated for the coming season.
With players still away, Don asked me to fill in and I happily obliged.
The game was due for Saturday afternoon, some hours before my shift in the pub was to start, so I had plenty of time to play and get back.
So I bought some boots and went out and had a kickabout with the lads.
It went Ok, but about an hour in there was in incident in our penalty area.
Don was keeping goal, and a high ball came over, I was just going to jump up and head it away, when Don called, “’Keeper!”
This means he wanted to catch the ball.
I hunkered down slightly and left him to it, Don though, with his eyes focussed on the ball didn’t see me in his path, and as he leapt to catch it, his knee came up and collected me full force on the right side of my rib cage.
Truth be told, it didn’t hurt at the time as I was running hot from the game, so I rubbed it a few times and then went on with the match.
Afterward we showered and headed back to Lewisham and as each minute from the game passed, the pain in my ribs increased.
It was my first experience of rib damage, and I can assure you it is acute.
You can’t really understand unless you’ve had it yourself, but the essential problem is one of movement.
If you break a bone in your arm or leg, you go to the hospital and it’s set in a cast.
Once that is done, the pains tops because the bone is immobilised.
However, ribs cannot be immobilised, and each breath causes you pain.
And so by the time my shift at the pub was due to start I was having to walk like a man with a crystal goblet balanced precariously on the top of my head.
I got to the pub and took my place behind the bar.
I met, very briefly, some of the other staff, but then quickly the Saturday night rush began and I had no more time to think.
However, I strongly suspect I am even today minorly remembered in that pub due to the strange way I was behaving on that first night.
The rush meant I had to move around the bar with as much speed as I could muster, and the pain was a constant hot beat on my right side.
Thus, a customer would come up to the bar, I would go to serve them, and they would shout their order through the roar.
Then the pain would hit and my face would become the grimmest of skull-like death grimaces as I rode the pain.
So the customers began to think I was angry at them, as if they had deeply offended me by simply asking for ‘three pints of lager’.
However, I got through my shift then wended my way back to the house and tumbled into my long looked for bed.
It goes without saying that the next morning I was in considerable pain.
That night’s sleep, being jerked awake whenever my ribs sang out was another in the long line of nights of disturbed sleep I had been having since Asia, and I really needed one of those lifts they use at the hospital to save nurses’ backs to get out of bed.
However I managed it and as the week went by the pain receded.
Thursday came and I went back for my next stint, Thursday through Saturday, at the pub.
The most salient point of those three nights was when Saturday came and Millwall was playing at home.
Millwall was the local professional team, and match over and the fans poured into the Plough.
So just a bit about soccer supporters in Britain, and, as I was to learn, thankfully much later, Millwall supporters in particular.
Due mainly to the fact that Britain is a rotten place to live, certainly in the cities.
The only real social option is going to the pub.
The other great outlet is watching your local soccer team, and these two pastimes collide on Saturday evening after the game.
Often the rage and frustration of every day life spills over into angry feelings at the game, particularly when, as ever, your team loses because the referee was biased.
Various teams’ supporters claim that they are the toughest, but in the end, the title goes to Millwall.
And they, god help me, were my local team.
Anyway, the pub filled up with Millwall supporters, already well-oiled from the game, and the testosterone level of the pub filled to overflowing.
One of the other barman was a Millwall supporter himself, a nice lad, and as the White-shirted soccer fans began to arrive, he came over to me and said, “If this kicks off while I’m out there collecting glasses, will you come to help?”
I was a little taken aback, but while not ever welcoming a fight, wasn’t prepared to see my barman friend set upon, so I said I would.
However, things passed off peacefully enough, I think Millwall had won, which always helps, and even these barely sentient dregs of ‘souff landin’ knew not to destroy their own pub.
But later on, Mike, my friend from Shropshire, was telling me a few stories, which I’m glad I didn’t know on that Saturday night.
Millwall fans are known as ‘bushwackers’.
The reason is because their home ground at the time was the aptly named Cold Blow Lane ground in New Cross, just a few stations up the line from Lewisham, and the ground is a long way, ten blocks or so, from New Cross station.
So supporters from the away team have to leave the station and make their way, as of some intrepid African explorer of old, through the back streets of New Cross to the ground.
The Millwall supporters would therefore hide in the back yards of the tenement houses and when they saw some opposition fans coming, they would jump out and attack, or ‘buskwhack’ them.
Mike himself experienced this unnerving process.
He was from Liverpool, but due to uni in the south and moving around a bit as a boy, hadn’t a full scouse accent.
However some of his friends did and one day they went to see Liverpool play Millwall at Cold Blow, and after the game they were walking home when they chanced upon some Millwall supporters.
One of these said to Mike’s friend, “What’s the time mate?”
He didn’t have any requirement for same, he simply wanted someone from Mike’s group to answer, then he would hear the Liverpool accent and they would attack.
Mike, with his non-descript accent answered, but this didn’t satisfy them, and eventually one of his mates said something, I can’t recall what, but that was enough. The Millwall supporters attacked, and one of them brought out a Stanley knife and slashed Mike’s friend down his back from shoulder-blade to hip.
Blood gushed and Mike and his friends had to gather up their injured pal and race him to the nearest hospital where he received nearly a hundred stitches.
So as you can see, I’m bloody glad I didn’t know that story that night in the pub.
A fist fight I could acquit myself reasonably well, but clearly some of these soccer fans would have had weapons on them and if it had kicked off, blood would have certainly flowed.
Anyway, the night passed peacefully and on Tuesday of the next week, I went in to pick up my pay, and here things turned comical.
I got my pay packet, in cash, inside an envelope with the various tax and other deductions on the front.
I opened it and there was 14 quid in there.
I held the envelope upside down and checked it against the light while shaking it to see where the rest had got to.
But no, that was it.
I kind of cringe here, but I went up to Simon the assistant manager, and said, “ there’s been a mistake with my pay, I think?”
Simon said, “Oh, sorry, what’s the problem?”
“Ah, there seems to be some missing.”
Simon took my envelope and examined the arithmetic on the front, then he turned to me and said, “No, this is right, I think the problem is because you’re a foreigner, you have to pay a higher tax rate.”
He then showed me the form from the tax department which they use to work out the pays, and sadly he was right.
I thanked him for his time and then walked home.
As I ambled my thoughts were a little tumultuous, but not overly confused.
I wasn’t going back there again.
14 quid for four nights work, sod that for a game of soldiers.
To put it into context, my monthly rail pass cost ₤32, so if I kept that up I’d have to work a month of weekends in the pub just to catch the train.
I can’t remember if I called back and said I was quitting, or if I just never showed up again, but I think it was the latter.
Anyway, it didn’t really matter because the new school year was finally upon us, and that meant I could finally start work as a teacher.
As I was to learn, my pay as a teacher was to be ₤350, of which I would get to keep ₤250, for five days work, or ₤9 an hour, the pub barely registering above ₤3 an hour.
So for financial reasons I was desperate for the school year to start, and as I think back to that time, me and a few other penniless southern hemisphere teachers must have been the only people the length and breadth of the British Isles who actually wanted school to start.
Certainly, as ever, the kids didn’t.
And I’ll just digress here to take in a Ginger Meggs cartoon that sums things up nicely.
For those who don’t remember, Ginger Meggs was an animated strip that appeared in the Herald every Sunday.
The main character was a red-headed scamp who hated school.
The comic I was thinking of went like this.
Ginger comes running up to his boon companion, Benny, during the school holidays, out of breath and with momentous news.
“Benny, Benny!”, he shouts.
Benny replies, “What is it Ginge?”
And Ginger goes “I just went down to the school to break the windows of the staff room, and I discovered that THE TEACHERS ARE ON HOLIDAYS TOO!!!!”
Ginger thought teachers only lived to persecute him, and the idea that they had holidays was just out of his comprehension.
And as I was about to discover, it was even money who out of the students and teachers at my first school hated the end of the holidays more.
The school was called Eastlea Community School and was situated in West Ham, down the end of the central line in the very heart of East London.
Few geograhic areas of  London, or the entire UK for that matter, were as financially strapped.
I was walking into the Lion’s den all right.
But more of that in the future.
My first task was to physically get there, and being London, where even moving six blocks was a major logistic exercise, crossing the river and going down east, was not easy.
I got up at six, showered, shaved and got dressed in my teaching clothes.
I got my rain gear, which would not have disgraced Edmund Hilary’s expedition to the top of Everest, clad myself in it, then walked out the door.
A light drizzle fell upon me on this grey (Is there any other kind?) London morn.
I walked ten minutes down to the main road, Loampit Vale, and began my first wait of the journey.
Eventually a bus came and I got on it.
Once on board, I went to take my outer layer of rain gear off, so as not to wet the other passengers.
However, so crowded was the bus, that I realised that taking of my raincoat would shed droplets all over those near me, and so abandoned the idea and stood dripping in the aisle.
Ten minutes later the bus had inched it’s way down to New Cross station, so I disembarked and went down to the platform.
New Cross was a terminus, and so I was able to get on the empty train and wait for it to leave.
Eventually it did, and I travelled five stops north to Whitechapel station.
There I changed train for the Central line tube.
I caught that down to the East end, twenty minutes or so, and got off at West Ham.
Then I walked ten minutes to the school.
The whole trip took an hour, but the constant changing, meant there was no real time to relax.
I mention this, because if there was no time to relax on the journey, there was deffo not a shaved second to relax once I entered the school grounds.
Eastlea was populated by students who just didn’t care, and teachers who, while dedicated, had long ago run out of the energy needed to keep a lid on the place.
Some of the households that fed students into the school had three generations of unemployed living there.
Grandad had worked on the docks, but any maritime facility on the Thames had long since closed down, and he had finished his working life on the dole.
Then dad and mom had entered the work force, with no real industry to sustain them, and had therefore in their turn, spent most of their working life at home watching Oprah.
And now the next generation was at Eastlea school, and none of them valued education at all.
Many students views of being unemployed were distorted by their parents’ activities, to the student, being unemployed simply meant that you got up when you liked, watched TV all day, then went down the boozer on dole day.
What a great life!
So with this attitude from most of the students, from day one life in the classroom was hard.
And I might add, as logic dictates, what sort of school needs a substitute teacher on opening day? A school that is so shitty that no local teacher would go anywhere near it.
The only thing the students, well, certainly the boys, cared about was soccer, either playing it, or watching their local team, West Ham, when they could afford a ticket.
Their only goal in life was to be a professional soccer player, and thus education was seen as a complete waste of time, time they could have spent more usefully on the soccer pitch.
Indeed once I’d settled in I learned that the only, ultimate sanction on their behaviour was to see the P.E teacher, Grant, and ban them from playing soccer for the school team.
So on my first day started by attending a meeting of all the staff, then we broke into groups and were given our home room classes, (I was allocated a year 8 group), then we broke further into our subjects areas, and I was given my classes for the term by the head of science.
I had one class in each year, seven through eleven.
And the battle of wills between me and my various groups began.
First up was home room and I entered my room to mark the roll, and was confronted by all the students sitting on the desks, with their feet on the chairs.
Stifling a muttered paraphrasing of Basil Fawlty, (“Don’t you people even know how to use furniture?”), I told them all to sit in a chair, they did so grudgingly, and I marked the roll.
This request, “everyone in a chair, please” then became a perpetual refrain with my home room group, they sat on the desks as a form of protest, and were still doing it a term (ten weeks) later.
That done, I then went across to my science lab, and began sorting out my actual teaching for the term.
My year eight science were first up, and as I watched them cavort in the corridor outside my room, my heart sank.
Cavort is a ludicrously jocular term for the behaviour that was going on.
I might add, there were three classrooms in that corridor, and each class had a year eight class outside it.
So there were some 80-90 students all corralled in there, and the behaviour was a cross between a Tyson fight, World Championship Wrestling, one of those reality TV shows and Cirque de Soleil.
I remember standing there looking at them all and thinking, “How in god’s name am I gonna control this lot?”
So I got out my machete and hacked my way through the thicket to the door of my lab, then told them to line up and stop talking.
Well I might as well have said “everybody give me ten quid”, that would have been equally likely to have been successful.
After a few moments I gave up on that idea, and decided to just get them into the room, and where I would only have my class to deal with.
So I unlocked the door and told them to go in.
NB: Every door at Eastlea Community School, from the tuckshop to the little hutch where the garbage bins were stored were locked with triple strength titanium locks, such was the need for security.
NBB: While I was there, a very enterprising thief broke into the computer room and stole all the RAM chips from the school computers.
This was a brilliant crime as the thirty or so chips fitted easily into the thief’s pockets, left no trace of ransacking as the plastic coat of the computer was put back in place and were worth twenty quid each.
So I unlocked the door, and felt as some dam building engineer must have upon opening the sluice gates for the first time.
Like a pacific ocean tsunami, my class burst through the door.
They scattered immediately into the age old seating patterns, tough boys up the back, with the prettiest girls near them, while the nerds and well-behaved students found a place closer to the front.
Once they had done this they began to climb on the desks and sit with their feet on the lab stools.
So my first job (again) was to get everyone in a chair.
Once this was done, and I more or less got them to stop talking (Talking? Forget that, they were yelling like they were trying to reach China without a microphone).
I took the roll.
Never in the history of humanity, with the possible exception of the forged Hitler diaries, has there been a document with less veracity than that roll.
To explain: I had already learned a few tricks in my short teaching career, and most important of these was never to ask any student their name unless you already knew it.
A common way to do this was to look at the name on the exercise book on their desk, then ask.
If they gave a name at variance to that on the book you knew if this student was a troublemaker, or at least a smartarse.
But this morning in the East end of London, even this was denied me, because I came across something new to me.
None of these students carried bags, and none had books.
This was a facer.
So I did something that no teacher should ever do, particularly on the first day of school.
I left the classroom to confer with the head of science, a nice young woman named Rebecca.
And just another tip here for new teachers.
One way you can tell if your school is badly behaved is if the staff are generally young.
Young teachers indicate that anyone who has done a bit of time has taken one look at the place and moved on to more peaceful pastures.
Rebecca was in her early thirties and had just had her first child, so to be already the head of science at a relatively young age was a pretty good indicator of a bad school.
I raced up to her office, and in a somewhat panicky tone said, “None of these students have books or pens, what do I do?”
She replied, “Oh, you have to give them to them each lesson, then get them back at the end. Else they take them away and throw them out.”
My eyebrows went up, this was new.
“Why do they throw them out?”, I asked her.
“Well, if they throw them away, they can come in next time and say that they have lost their book, so can’t do any work.”
‘OH, great’, I thought to myself.
“So where do I get the books to give them?”
She turned to her desk and opened a draw, “They’re in the supply room.”
She gave me the requisite key and then told me where this room was.
I raced down there, got thirty or so books, and a matching amount of pens, then raced back to my classroom.
Somewhat to my surprise it wasn’t on fire, and so I gave out the books and then asked the students to put their name on the front.
Even then, this (to me) seemingly innocuous instruction raised problems.
Most of the class did so, but already some of the tougher kids had learned a few tricks of their own.
Toward the back two boys sat, and even now, just writing their names down here brings back storms of rushing hormones throughout my endocrine system.
Billy Moore and Billy Williams were their names.
They shouldn’t have been in a classroom, prison maybe, or perhaps a zoo.
Both sat defiantly on their stools and when I got around to them gave me the same line, “I can’t read or write.”
This was difficult, if this were genuinely the case, then I couldn’t make a big deal of it.
So I made an annotation next to their names on the roll and moved on.
Later I was to discover that of course they could read and write fine, but had already discovered, in one year, that if they said they couldn’t, they could sit around the classroom and do nothing for their whole school careers.
My recollection is that for that first lesson all I achieved was to get the students who orbited within good behaviour bounds to write their names on their books.
Then came the noise that would soon signal blessed relief for me, the bell announcing the end of the lesson.
I grabbed their books and pens like a man doing a trolley dash round Safeway, and they left with no semblance of order.
I went and sat at my teacher’s bench with relief.
What I needed, after only 50 minutes of teaching was a six month stress leave of absence on a beach in Acapulco, but just as I was wondering if I could get some sleep in the little storeroom adjoining the lab, a riot started outside, and I checked my timetable and with a lurching, sinking heart realised that my next class was here.
It was 9.50am and already I was exhausted as if I hadn’t slept for a year.
This class was my year 11 group, there were only 15 of them (there were thirty in the first class), but they came with a whole new set of problems.
Before I go into that, a quick bit of housekeeping on school structure.
In Australia students study in junior school till year ten when they do the School Certificate, then they may leave if they choose.
Those students who choose to stay, go on to years 11 and 12, and do the Higher School Certificate, or HSC.
In England, junior school goes up to year 11, the students then do the GCSE, General School Certificate of Education.
Those who are uni bound go to a different institution, a senior school or college and do their ‘A’ levels.
So this year 11 group was ‘studying’ (Ha!) for the GCSE.
Well that’s what they were supposed to be doing but again, the lack of care for education was writ large.
They stampeded into the room, punching and kicking each other and the furniture, ignored me, and then scattered themselves around the room like they were lounging at roman feast.
I stared open-mouthed in consternation, what was I going to do here?
My year eight group had been riotous, but at least I was bigger than them, this lot were every bit as rambunctious, and two, at least, were taller than me, and I’m not small.
I draw a veil over that fifty minutes, not because I ma trying to keep anything hidden, but simply because I had no recollection of the entire lesson.
But it was chaotic I do know that.
The reason I can say this with certainty is that as soon as that lesson was over, it was time for morning recess, playlunch as it was called ever-so-whimsically when I was at primary school.
Here that adjournment had nothing to do with ‘play’, it was simply a chance to get the fighting done without any teachers stopping it.
I left my room and went back to Rebecca.
“Who’s head of year 11?”, I asked without preamble.
“Nigel”, she replied.
“Which department is he?”
“English”, she responded.
I left without a word and hot-footed it across the play…, sorry, the fightground, to another building, then up the stairs to the English staffroom.
I entered like an action hero, swinging through the door like a more than agile monkey, one arm gripping the door post, my body airborne in haste.
The various staff members were at their desks, coffee on desk, “Nigel?”, I asked.
I black-bearded man of mid forties turned to me, “Yes?”.
I skidded to a halt in front of his desk, and began, again, without preamble.
I’d been in the school less than two hours and already I knew not to waste time with chit-chat, things had to be done urgently of classrooms would burn.
“I’ve just had year 11 science, and I can’t control them, can you help me with that?”
Nigel replied, “Who was in that group?”
I cast my mind back, “Um, a few of them, but Steve Garrad and John Wellcombe, are the two that concern me.”
As soon as I said these names, the other staff members began chuckling to themselves.
I stared somewhat wildly about me, this was no laughing matter, to me anyway.
However Nigel knew what he was about, he nodded and said, “Yes, those two can be difficult.”
He went on reassuringly, “What I can do if you like is get them to come to me for your next four lessons, then if they behave they can return on a sheet.”
I let out a sigh of relief.
Firstly, I was spared them for the rest of the week, they would sit in Nigel’s room with work to go with instead of coming to science and secondly, a ‘sheet’ meant that I would have Nigel monitoring their behaviour remotely.
A ‘sheet’ refers to a Behaviour Sheet.
Any troublesome student carried this with them to each class, and the teacher of that class fills it in, grading their behaviour for that lesson.
At the end of the designated sheet-carrying period, usually a week or a fortnight, the head of year, in this case Nigel, checks their marks and if the student’s marks are say, seven out of ten for the period, or whatever is previously agreed with the child’s parents, then the student is off the sheet and goes back into class as a normal student.
It sounds pretty pathetic when written here, but it actually works quite well, with the student often becoming quite keen to get good marks.
The trouble is that it doesn’t work for real hard cases, as I was to discover, but Nigel seemed confident that it would work for these two students.
I might add, did you notice that second student’s name, Wellcombe? It is pronounced as ‘welcome’, but I can assure his presence in my classroom was anything but.
With my time spent with Nigel during that recess, and of immense value it was for sure, but I came out with no time to have a coffee myself, I looked at my watch and saw it was already 11.15, end of recess, and so I raced back across the Fightclub, as I was already starting to think of the playground, just in time to welcome my third class of the morning, year seven.
This was a blessed relief, all classes should be year sevens.
My oft repeated aphorism is that all school students should be shipped off to forced labour camps for years 8 through 11, and I stick by that.
These years sevens were, firstly, all smaller than me, and to my unholy surprise and relief, some in the class were intelligent students who actually wanted to do some work.
Being late back from my unscheduled meeting with Nigel, I hadn’t got their books out, so once again had to race off to get the supply room key off Rebecca.
I went down once more and got their books, handed them out, and spent the only enjoyable thirty minutes of the day with them.
They left and it was lunchtime.
I went across to the little shop run by a motherly cockney woman and had a meal.
I wolfed it down quite quickly and then raced back to the science block.
I re-checked my timetable and saw, with a kind of unknowing horror, that my next group was year ten.
I was already learning that the lesson straight after lunch was the worst for behaviour.
The kids have spent lunch time eating shit food like crisps and drinking coke and worse, energy drinks.
Then they play soccer and fight for the rest of the time.
Then when they are as high as kites, the bell rings and they are sent back into the prison of school for the next lesson.
At Eastlea, the school day was two lessons in the morning, then recess, then third period, then lunch, then fourth period, finally fifth, then it was time to go home.
Thus, at the end of any period which had a break following, you could keep the kids in, and this was a sanction that worked, as they were missing their break.
But since first period and fourth were ‘only’ followed by another lesson, you couldn’t keep kids in as they were only missing another class, plus you usually had a class of your own, and thus couldn’t deal with them at that time anyway.
So fourth period, straight after lunch, became an unholy triptych of stress for any teacher, new or otherwise, at Eastlea.
If you were lucky, your best behaved classes would be scheduled for this post-prandial lesson, but on this first day I was well out of luck.
Year ten came in and a bloody rodeo it was an’ all.
Once again I paraphrase Basil Fawlty by saying at the end of that lesson I was sorely tempted to go out and see if the roof was still on.
They left and once more the shouting in the corridor grew to a deafening level and year nine arrived.
Another shouting match came and went and finally, blessedly, my first day at Eastlea came to a close.
I checked my timetable for the next day, then packed up and repeated my five step journey in reverse until I stepped across the door at Lewisham near 5.30pm.
I felt that I had lived a thousand life times in that day.
To say I was exhausted barely hints at the total dissolution of body and mind I was undergoing.
My flatmates Don, Matt and Pete got home a little later, usually about seven pm, so I had the house to myself.
I went in and sat on the couch, I switched on the TV and turned to the highlights show and began watching a soccer match.
I thought about making a cup of tea but even that pick me up would have been hopelessly underpowered, mainlining cocaine would have been about the only thing that could have changed my energy depletion.
The next thing I knew was Don’s facing leaning over me and his hand gently shaking me by the shoulder.
I had dozed off sitting upright on the couch into a dreamless sleep that had lasted a solid hour and had not even been relieved by the sounds of the lads coming home, opening the door and coming inside.
They later told me that they saw the top of my head over the back of the couch apparently watching the soccer highlights, and had spoken to me for a minute or two, while they moved about the place, until noticing that I wasn’t responding, had come round to the front of the couch and seen I was out like a light.
NB: Some time later they said that this silence was the most sensible reply they ever got out of me.
And so my first day at Eastlea Community School ended, not with a bang or a whimper, but with an exhausted sleep that couldn’t have been beaten by general anaesthetic.
I went about the evening, making dinner, eating it, watching more soccer, then we all went off to bed around ten.
As I fell asleep, the nightmares came to me like fast moving storms boiling over the horizon.
And the worst nightmare of all?
I had to go back there tomorrow.

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