So I traversed London on the next morning for my second day at Eastlea Community School.
To say I was trepidatious barely hints at the levels of fear burgeoning in my breast.
My first day had been anything but successful, five classes, four of them out of control, with only year seven being considered vaguely human.
Also, I had checked my timetable for the day yesterday evening before leaving and a large D&R had been stamped on my afternoon for this, my second, day, and so tired had I been that the full realisation hadn’t hit me until I went about my desk that morning.
As a casual teacher, I was simply given the timetable of the teacher that I had replaced, or shoehorned in to best fit the school’s requirements.
Thus, 0.8 of my teaching load was science and 0.2 was D&R, what’s D&R?
It’s a ‘Yes, Minister-esque’ renaming of woodwork and metal work, and it stands for Design and Realisation.
It’s a ‘Yes, Minister-esque’ renaming of woodwork and metal work, and it stands for Design and Realisation.
And, apart from the hopelessly optimistic name, this subject was a problem for safety reasons.
High school teaching is of course divided into subjects, and each subject has its challenges for the teacher.
Maths for instance, is the hardest in one way, as it is the subject that most students struggle with and so boredom is endemic and boredom in class is invariably followed by misbehaviour.
However, the easy part of maths is that it requires little preparation for the teacher.
Back then, the maths teacher would simply show up to class and assign a page out of the textbook for the class then assist as they got on with it.
Of course things have changed now with the computer age, and a friend who teaches maths currently, was telling me that most of his time now is not spent on the intricacies of calculus of the vagaries of trigonometry, but how to download and install bits of software required for maths teaching packages from the internet.
But then, as I say, maths prep was relatively easy.
Science is the opposite of this, as the only thing kids care about is doing an experiment, and the amount of preparation a science teacher has to do to do an experiment is massive, and if you want to do say three experiments in one day then the work you and the laboratory assistant have to do is large, intricate and a constant battle with your own anxieties if you have forgotten anything.
Then, further to this, the only thing kids want to do is light the Bunsen burners, so even if the experiment doesn’t call for the burners, the kids will moan that they cannot use them.
And of course, once lit, the kids, well boys mainly, then take about four milliseconds to start burning each other’s books, clothing and body parts.
So a science class using the Bunsen burners takes teacher anxiety out of the normal range into the stratosphere.
But then even science with its gas lit danger is as nothing compared to the most stressful and dangerous teaching of all, woodwork and metalwork, D&R, Industrial Arts, whatever you want to call it.
A room full of out of control kids with hammers, chisels, nails, screws, and of course the power tools, like the drill press, the power saw and the electric lathe, is a clear and present danger to give teachers blood pressure that goes off the graph.
And I had both these subjects on my timetable.
What’s more, the classes I taught D&R to were two year eight classes, including my own previously mentioned out of control science lot.
What’s even MORE, Thursday afternoon I had those year same eights for D&R, then we all crossed the school together and I took them into my lab for science.
So I had a class that I would have been happy to not see for one minute, for the entire afternoon.
However that was all ahead, and so I went about my Tuesday morning as best I could.
Then lunch came and as I have previously mentioned the first lesson after lunch is the worst for any teacher in any subject, and so I entered the industrial arts block to take my first D&R class.
I checked with the head of Industrial Arts, as a casual teacher it wasn’t up to me to set the lesson, and he gave me the plans for the year eights to build a wooden money box shaped like an animal, amusingly designed so that if you inserted a coin the ears of the animal wiggled.
He showed me an elephant money box built to these plans.
And I did enjoy seeing the large ears of the elephant gyrate gently as he inserted a ten p piece.
I then showed my massive naïveté and inexperience by saying, “Is that enough work to keep them going for the term?” (I had been booked by Timeplan for a ten week term.)
He then raised his eyebrows and looked at me with surprise, then asked, “How long have been here?”
“This is my second day”, I replied.
He nodded knowingly and responded, “OK, well if anyone finishes this project, come back to me and I’ll give you something else for them to make.”
I have to say, I got the point immediately, judging by their output in the one science lesson I had taken them for, if any year 8 student made an ear wiggling elephant it would be a first, possibly in the history of the school.
So I took the plans and went into the room and showed my year eights what we would be doing.
And just to digress to describe my naïveté again, which I might add, all new teachers have to a varying degree, but mine was large.
My first ever school was Bourke High School in outback NSW.
I went there for ten weeks to save up to fund my trip to Asia and Europe.
Whilst there I became friends with the other, almost uniformly young, teachers there, including a nice young industrial arts teacher, Oatsy.
One Saturday he was heading to Dubbo, the nearest large town to do some general shopping and make one specific purchase.
I had to get back to Sydney for the weekend for a friend’s wedding and got a ride with him to the airport in Dubbo.
As we drove I asked him what he was going to buy, and he said, “A computer table. One of those with the shelves above it, and the sliding tray for the keyboard to go on.”
And, showing my ignorance, I said, “Oh, why don’t you get the kids to make you one in class?”
Oatsy gave me an exasperated, if-one-more-person-asks-me-that-look and replied, “Well considering I asked my year ten class to make a stool, and none of them have finished a year later, in fact Bugsy…, (This was a student who was well known for misbehaviour and never doing any work), all Bugsy has got is a piece of wood with his name on it, and that is still sitting on the window ledge in the workshop. The only work he has done in three terms is write his name on a piece of wood.”
Oatsy continued, “So I’m only going to get a computer table if I buy one.”
So this morning in London, I added the head of department’s knowing look to Oatsy’s answer, and knew that I would not be overburdened by students finishing their projects and beating their way to my door asking for more work to be going on with.
And so it proved, but if they weren’t planning to do much, if any, work, they were planning to get their hands on every dangerous bloody tool they could get their hands on.
So most of my time in the industrial arts section was spent more like a prison warder than anything, with counting of all the tools in the room my most important task of the day, a single chisel missing for instance meant that a corner store in the district would be held up with it later in the week.
Thankfully, the technical assistant for the industrial arts block was a nice man and very switched on.
He was a cockney in his fifties, by the name of Terry, and he had presided over the various classrooms there for twenty odd years.
He would assist me by always keeping an eye on the room when I was teaching, and if he saw a student up to no good, would bring it to my attention in subtle fashion, nodding in his head in the direction of the misbehaviour for instance, and that meant I was able to nip most incipient trouble in the bud.
However, even with such help, I became fatigued to levels I had never thought possible.
As I mentioned in the previous chapter, I felt I needed six months off after my first class, but as the weeks went by, teaching a full load with both science and industrial arts, my energy levels down to a place I wouldn’t have thought possible.
And as mentioned previously in this narrative, a hellish journey in Sumatra had so depleted my energy levels that it began to change my character, stripping away my emotional shields and, thankfully, my arrogance.
Well I can assure you, teaching at Eastlea continued, and accelerated the process.
Everything about that job was designed to make a new teacher feel small and incompetent.
The kids had no other real position than teachers were the enemy, to be attacked, belittled and laughed at.
With my less than well adjusted childhood, I quickly began to become depressed and anxious to levels that I could not believe.
My journeys across London in the mornings became overlaid with dread, and my reverse journeys in the evening correspondingly full of joy.
So it was no coincidence really that I started mental health treatment for the first time in my life whilst teaching in that war zone.
And that only happened by accident.
I had hurt my ankle playing rugby and had gone to my local GP’s surgery to have it looked at.
While I was in the waiting room I saw a sign behind the receptionist’s desk saying, ‘Stress Counselling – See Sandy through reception.’
Sandy it turned out was the practice manager, and I was stressed out, believe me, so I enquired and the receptionist buzzed through to Sandy and she came out to speak with me.
She was an attractive middle-aged English woman, and she came up and offered me her hand, I shook it and she said, “I believe you’re interested in some stress counselling? Is that correct?”
“Yes”, I replied, “I am not sure if I need it, but thought I would enquire.”
She nodded, then said, “what work do you do?”
“I’m a teacher”, I replied.
And that was all it took.
She booked me in then and there with not a further word.
In fact, if I’d asked for rapid removal under sedative load to Colney Hatch she would have organised that no questions asked.
I have to say, the reason I only went by accident was due to the repressive nature of my parents regime.
As slave owners of old had carefully organised it so that none of the slaves got an education, or could even read or write, thus stopping anyone getting any ideas above their station, freedom for instance, likewise my parents, my father in particular, had made it clear that only fools and weaklings go to counselling.
What’s more, my brothers and I had it “so much easier” than my parents, as they never stopped reminding us, and so there was no reason ever for us to complain since we had food, clothing and a house to live in.
The odd beating to within an inch of dying was therefore considered a just price to pay for these material comforts.
Indeed, it wasn’t till thirty years after I had left high school that I learned through a girlfriend who had come up to visit me in my coastal resort town home, that we had a school counsellor when I was at high school.
I didn’t know of this counsellor’s existence, and even if had got wind of it, I would not have been allowed to go as my father would have forbade it.
So here was stress counselling and boy, as it turned out, did I need it.
I had no idea what form it was to take, I had a mental picture of some sort of yogic deep breathing session and listening to gentle music, but it was more than that.
Turned out it was full on one-to-one psycho-analysis, and though I won’t go into it too deeply (‘cos it’s boring, rather than confidential), it was the biggest and most effective step I took along the road to understanding my arrogance and heavy drinking.
In Sandy’s warm office, in the suburbs of South-East London, I finally came to understand that my childhood wasn’t normal, and that my parents had a lot to answer for.
In Sandy’s warm office, in the suburbs of South-East London, I finally came to understand that my childhood wasn’t normal, and that my parents had a lot to answer for.
I retrospect, if not for this lucky accident and Sandy’s careful ministrations, my mental state, which was bad, would have continued downhill, until I was in a padded cell claiming I was Jesus and telling people to repent before the rapture came.
And so the weeks went by I taught Monday through Friday at Eastlea, then played rugby with Beckenham in the Kent league on Saturday.
My first game with the ‘Becks was probably the most memorable, not for my play, which was appalling, but for the idiosyncratic nature of the field we played that game on.
Britain is avery crowded place, every piece of land has something, either a house, or more likely these days a road or a carpark on it.
The first match I played was in a small town not far from Tonbridge about an hour to the south of Beckenham in south London, and due to the ‘thousand-year crowding’ of the area, the only place left to put a rugby field was on the top of a hill outside town.
And even then, about two thirds of the field was aon the eastern side of the hill, with the quarter line being on the brow of the hill.
I was playing full back, and as such was at the back of my team, waiting for any kicks to come spiralling down, which I would catch and punt back.
Well that’s how a normal full back does it, but on this field, where I stood behind the quarter line was below the hill brow, and so once play passed into the other half, I couldn’t see anyone else.
I was standing, therefore, on a peaceful green hillside, all alone, when one of our forwards, Mick, called to me from the other side of the hill, “LOCK, COMING TO YOU!”
I perked up and then over the brow of the hill came the ball, spiralling down from a kick, and then, a few seconds later, the opposition forwards, intent on jumping all over me in cleated boots.
I judged the trajectory of the ball, backpedalled till I caught it, then hoofed it back over all the other players and down the other side of the hill.
And so that most irregular of first halves went, I would patrol the brow of the hill and then race back to catch the ball, before charging up to as close to the brow of the hill as I could before sending the ball back down the other side.
The second half I was on patrol on the downhill side, and so got to see the ball coming and most of the game.
Saturday night I would go out with the rugby boys and we would get loaded in typical rugby fashion.
I would love to be able to report that things improved in my classroom, but sadly it was not to be.
The problems of that school were endemic and were completely out of the control of a single teacher.
The socio-economic issues of the suburb from which Eastlea drew its pupils were of such magnitude, that me in my little classroom had as much chance of holding back the waves of bad behaviour as a single bricklayer would have had of damming up the mouth of the Amazon.
The best I achieved, if that, was to maintain a sort of thin blue line sort of control in which I at least made sure that the no room I was teaching in burnt down.
In retrospect I should have just rung up Timeplan and said “enough, I want another placement”, but I still had some sort of protestant work ethic thing, or perhaps, noble-young-idealistic-teacher-fighting-the-hordes-of-ignorance thing going on and so I stuck it out.
I stayed three terms as I recall and that was a near record for that school, in hindsight I wouldn’t have been surprised to show up at the start of third term to find the Timeplan boss on site ready to award me a gold watch for long service.
After I left I learned that a number of other supply teachers, as they are labelled in Britain, casual teachers in Australia, had shown either less stoicism, or greater shrewdness, than me and had left without completing a single day, walking, if not running full tilt, for the next train out of West Ham as soon as the lunch bell rang.
I remember one day walking across the playground one day when a school book landed nearby like a baked apple hitting the kitchen floor.
‘What the fuck?,’ I said internally, then looked upward to find out the source of the missile.
As I did, another book took flight and came down and landed not far from the first.
Then as my eyes and ears focussed in on the window that two books had most likely come, I heard a riot going on and realised that Ms Agbiaka was taking my year eights.
“Poor Yethoudi”, I thought, then collected the two books and went into the building, up the stairs and into her room.
I didn’t need to knock as she wouldn’t have heard.
Yethoudi Agbiaka, was, I think, Nigerian, she was certainly African, and heavily pregnant.
She taught French and is a lovely woman, yet fate had played her a rotten hand and sent her to Eastlea.
It speaks volumes for the chaotic nature of that school that Yethoudi came from Nigeria with all it’s internal political, religious and terrorist strife, and yet Eastlea was too tough for her.
She was a good teacher of the subject, but had no classroom control.
I’m not being patronising in saying that, as I had none either, and therefore was already an expert in gauging levels of discipline.
I went up to Yethoudi and noticed that she was in tears, “Graham, stop that!”, she was yelling at a student as I walked in, “ROSS, SIT DOWN”, she yelled at another.
I came and stood next to her and she gratefully took the opportunity to talk to an adult, “Yes, Lachlan, can I help you?”, she said over the roar as of an approaching Tsunami.
“Hey Yethoudi”, I responded in a matching constrained yell, “I found these books in the playground. So I thought I would bring them back.”
“Thank you”, she said, taking the books from me.
She then looked as if she wanted to continue the conversation with me, but already events were moving and she had to return to getting her class into a vague semblance of control.
I felt for her, I really did.
English was her second language, I might add, and so trying to control an Eastlea year eight class while grappling for the right words is definitely in the ‘most difficult endeavour’ realm.
So I left her to her tears and yelling and went back to my lab to prepare for my own next onslaught.
Soon after Yethoudi was to give birth and she took the opportunity to leave Eastlea forever.
I am sure you would all join me in saying that this was the right decision.
I understand that heavy stress during pregnancy can have terrible effects on an unborn child and even cause an abortion, and I was kind of surprised she didn’t leave much earlier.
Imagine coping with morning sickness while having to teach at Eastlea, it doesn’t bear thinking about.
Another incident I recall vividly would have had any race relation board struggling to decide who was in the wrong.
Apart from teaching your own classes there are many other calls on a teacher’s time.
Playground duty, staff meetings, lunch room duty and so forth are all part of your duties.
At Eastlea, one of these tasks, which was not actually that unpleasant, was supervising the detention room.
This was an unused classroom near the deputy principal’s office.
If you were the duty teacher you sat in there at the desk, usually going on with some of your own work, and any child behaving badly in their class would be sent down to the detention room with a note explaining why they were there.
You would log them in, then keep them there till the end of the lesson, then report their presence to their head of year, then at the end of the lesson, they would rejoin their class.
Additionally, any student late to school, had to first go to the detention room and report their arrival to the teacher there.
You, as duty teacher, would note their name and arrival time in your report, and likewise report that to the head of year and relevant deputy at the end of the hour.
So one morning I was doing duty in that room when a female student walked in and came up to my desk.
“Toni Bennett”, she said.
Then went to turn away and sit down.
I nodded, then was writing her name on the late roll when a bell tinkled in my memory.
I didn’t teach her myself, but my friend Samantha did.
Sam taught P.E/Health and Science, and this girl, Toni, was in her year ten science class.
She was a real hard case and had brought Sam to tears one at least one occasion.
However, this was the first time I had met her, and I began to smell a rat about a false name.
You see, as Toni was a contender for the worst student that Sam taught, one student vying for the title in my class was her younger sister, Treeza (sic) Bennett.
But here’s the thing, Treeza was afro-carribean, whilst this student, Toni, was Caucasian.
It speaks volumes for my middle class white breadedness, that I had never encountered a mixed race family before, but my first thought was that this girl reporting her name as “Toni Bennett” was giving a false name.
So then began an argument twixt me and her over her real name.
It was completely ridiculous and I was in the wrong, and what’s more I couldn’t come out and say what was causing my suspicion, which would have been, “How can you be Toni Bennett, your younger sister is black and you’re white.”
Thankfully I didn’t say that, or the word would have got out that I was a racist and been sacked on the spot.
And just to clarify, if needed.
Among the socio-economic problems of that school, the Bennett family was an iconic case.
There were four Bennett girls at Eastlea, all half sisters.
The mother had four children with three different fathers, one Afro-carribbean, two caucasian.
The mother apparently spent most of her time in the pub, or drinking at home, and so the eldest, Toni, found herself in loco-parentis for the other girls.
Since, as I have written above, Toni herself was a hard case, and difficult to deal with, it boded badly for the future of the other three, younger girls.
Treeza would be expelled while I was teaching there.
She was never even approximately in control and directed at me, and I’m sure other teachers, expletive laden cursing that was hard to believe could come from a thirteen year old.
It was also well spoken of at Eastlea, and it was the most perfect irony you could imagine, that the most famous Bennett sisters of all were in Jane Austen’s book Pride and Prejudice.
Those Bennetts, were of course the ultimate in gentility, whilst the ones at Eastlea were at the other end of the evolutionary scale I can tell you.
It would have made for the ultimate, but very school specific, exam question of all, ‘Compare and contrast the life aspirations of the Bennett sisters in Pride and Prejudice with those at Eastlea School’.
Looking back from this remove, twenty years after I left Eastlea, I now see that society failed the Bennett family very badly, an adequately funded health service would have been able to assist the mother to achieve a less alcoholic life-style, and be of some help to her daughters in school.
But I was teaching in Britain under the John Major Tory government, which in itself was essentially the last echo of the Thatcher government, and help for the unfortunate was the least thing on either government’s agenda.
The upshot of the Bennett sister’s appalling home life was that inexperienced teachers like myself and Samantha suffered the verbal, and sometimes physical, blows in the classroom, with the effect of Sam and Yethoudi winding up in tears, while myself and the other male teachers began drinking heavily.
So enough of the sociology lesson, was there anything good about Eastlea?
Not really, certainly nothing in the classroom.
The thing I most enjoyed was playing soccer with the other male teachers on Friday afternoon.
Each week the PE teacher would organise a match and we would play in the fading light of the autumn dusk.
Our strip was full West Ham United of claret and blue, and once again it was great to be playing the round ball code in a country where it was the main game.
I was learning about the darkness of the English winter, and this was best exemplified by a match we played one afternoon toward the end of the Autumn term.
Very late in the game, with the full time whistle due any second and the score tied at two-all, I happened across the ball near the half way line, a quick glance told me the ‘keeper was off his line, and so I laid into the ball with my left foot.
The ball sailed away and disappeared into the gloom over the ‘keepers head.
We had no nets, only the steel goal posts and no one could see what had happened.
I felt from the trajectory that it had gone in and we had won, but the ‘ref called to the ‘keeper asking if it had gone in the goal, he, sensibly enough, replied that “he couldn’t tell, but he didn’t think so.”
So then we all conferred on the half way line and realised that if we were now in the position of people shooting at goal and no one knowing of a goal had been scored, then it was too bloody dark and it was time to go to the pub.
Elsewhere, I was learning another fact of teaching life, which was, the worse the school, the better the friendship among teachers.
At a much lower level, these bonds were very like those of soldiers who went into combat together, and very similar to those formed by police on the beat.
Although I first encountered it at Eastlea, the lesson would coalesce into solid form after a term at my next school, so I’ll go into it more then.
How did I move on?
Well like going to counselling, it was a happy accident.
I began at Eastlea in the autumn term and taught through the, both literal and metaphoric, enveloping darkness through to the end of the winter term in December.
Then Timeplan held an Xmas party at their offices in north London, which Sam and I, and all the other supply teachers attended.
Whilst at the party I was talking to a consultant who was dealing with my area of east London.
I hadn’t set out to complain, although those of you who have read my witterings in various places, will probably find that hard to believe, but in our conversation, I mentioned that I was now going to counselling.
Like all recent converts I was full of zeal about how great counselling was, and how much I was benefiting from the process.
The consultant took this to mean that I wanted out of Eastlea, which was true, not just of me, but anyone who taught there, supply or permanent, but I hadn’t really mean that at that time.
So we partied on that evening and January came around and it was time to get back to work.
I did one more term at Eastlea, but then just had to pull the pin, my exhaustion, both mental and physical was complete, and I had had enough.
So I told Timeplan and thanks to my conversation on the night of the Christmas party, got some great news.
“I’m glad you called”, said the consultant, “I’ve been searching around and I’ve found a ‘nice’ school for you, it’s just up the road from Eastlea, but it’s a school full of well-behaved girls”.
I was more thankful than I could say.
Just the fact that there were no boys was enough for me.
I recall reading some education research done at the time, which showed that boys do better in a co-ed environment and girls do better in an all female environment.
That certainly fitted with my memory of Eastlea, though some of the girls were dead set bitches spawned in the foundries of hell, by far and away the biggest problems for me were the boys.
The boys spent their time screaming and fighting, throwing books, bunking off, and misbehaving in ways that rewrote the form book, and all, I now see to impress the girls.
I might add, since I mentioned it, teachers at Eastlea were in an invidious position as regarding bunking off (leaving the school grounds without permission), we were supposed to stop it if we saw it, but I, as far as certain students were concerned, actively encouraged it.
A year eight class without either Billy Moore or Billy Williams was a consummation devoutly to be wished.
Anyway, I got the address and phone number of my new school, spoke with the deputy in charge of supply teachers and timetabling, then headed out to start on the Monday of the next week.
The school was called Sarah Bonnell Girls School, and was situated in Deanery Road, Stratford, east London.
I mention its suburb because it was to become eternally confusing when I told people where I taught, most thinking I was in the town of Shakespeare, though nothing could be further from the truth.
The great bard was from Stratford-upon-Avon a beautiful rural seat on the Avon river near Birmingham in the midlands.
What’s more, another confusion about this school was that I would often say that I taught in a Muslim girl’s school, with some surprise on the part of the listener that a young, single male teacher would be employed, so I’ll just clarify.
Sarah Bonnell was not a Muslim girl’s school, but Stratford, at the time, was a largely Muslim suburb.
Most ethnic groups in a new land tend to enclave, and Stratford had become home to large number of emigrants from Gujerat.
Gujerat is a region of India in the north-west of that vast country and borders Muslim Pakistan, thus a large number of the girls that came to the school were from there, and thus, I would estimate, 80% of the students of Sarah Bonnell school were Muslim.
They came to school wearing the full outfit, with the exception of the face covering, certainly their hair was covered.
To say they looked alike is accurate, and so marking the roll was a problematic exercise.
What’s more the name Patel predominated and some classes had multiples of the same name.
Poonam Patel was one name I remember, I had one class with four of them in it.
However, this was a minor thing, and Sarah Bonnell proved a heavenly place for me after beastly Eastlea.
There were issues though, the first being that my standards, set at Eastlea, had to undergo some major readjustment for my new well behaved school.
This was first brought to my attention when I was teaching a year nine class in the first week.
I had forgotten something and seeing the girls were getting on with my work, decided to nip back to the staffroom and get the extra materials I needed.
I dashed in and began ferreting through a file cabinet, when another, permanent teacher, noticed me and said, “Aren’t you teaching 9.2E?”, she said.
I turned from the cabinet and nodded and the teacher said, “I wouldn’t leave them alone if I were you, there was fight in that class last week.”
I was a little surprised, but nodded and returned to the class room as quickly as I could.
Upon my return I looked at the class full of girls all writing in their books and conversing with each other and shook my head at the warning I had received.
To see the thirty blue-clad girls all going on with their work was a sight for my sore eyes, and I wondered if the teacher who had warned me about the fight was losing it.
The issue was of course that at Eastlea, even one student doing some work was a major victory, but here thirty students doing their work was the norm and so, smaller infractions received greater attention.
I couldn’t help wondering if the ‘fight’ had been one girl dropping her ruler on the floor and tripping over another student’s feet when she went to pick it up.
However, this warning did presage a problem that I was going to have as the weeks went on, not with the students I might add, but with the teachers in rooms nearby.
Most lessons I would put the work on the board, then assist the girls when and where needed.
The girls would then quite happily get on with their work, and take the opportunity to carry on intense conversations as they did so.
These conversations revolved around, as far as I could tell, make up, musicians, TV shows and boys.
At first I thought that meant they were not doing any work, but as is famously known, girls, unlike boys, can walk and chew gum, and as I checked each students work I found that they were all doing what was required, whilst still devoting half of their mind to what Mumtaz said to Darren at the train station on Saturday.
Coming as I did from Eastlea where the classroom not burning down was considered a successful lesson, this work and talk I found perfectly acceptable and so let the girls get on with it.
The first friction point came later that week.
I was teaching maths, the class were doing their work and gabbing on as usual, and I was seated at the bench at the front of the class helping a student with a calculus problem.
Then a shadow fell across us and I looked up to discover that another teacher was standing over us, she said, “Is everything Ok, Mr Barker?” (Teachers of course use surnames when students are present).
I looked up in surprise and said, “Yes, far as I know. Is something wrong?”
To which she said, “Well, I could hear your class down at the end of the hall, and I thought there was no teacher in the room.”
I looked across the room taking in the students.
They were doing their work while talking with each other.
The volume was loud, but still nothing like an Eastlea class, but I understood what the other teacher meant.
So I said, “Oh, Ok, I’ll get them to quiet down.”
So I said to the girls, “could everyone please talk a bit quieter, please?”
The girls glanced at me, nodded briefly then went back to discussing who should be kicked off the reality TV show next, more quietly.
But this did highlight graphically to me the differences between the two schools.
Here at Sarah Bonnell my class had been labelled out-of-control noisy, at Eastlea I would have been awarded an MBE for getting thirty students to do some work.
So my time at Sarah Bonnell passed, I tried to keep the volume down, but so thankful was I for any students to be doing some work, that I mostly let it ride, and copped the occasional walk-in from another teacher asking me if I could keep the volume of the girls down.
In one class, the head of Science walked in and with a simple, “Sorry, Lachlan”, shut the door of my room so she could concentrate in the staffroom.
But in general life at Sarah Bonnell was one sweet song, I taught maths and science and the girls had not only heard of calculus and photosynthesis, but even expressed some interest in these topics.
So I was a little unprepared when I sat down at my desk during my free period one day and saw there was a letter for me.
It didn’t have a stamp, and simply said, “Mr Barker”, on the front.
‘That’s odd’, I thought to myself, ‘who would be writing to me here?’
So I opened the envelope and discovered it was a love note from one of the girls.
It was not overtly sexual, more flowery than anything else, but it neatly opened the Pandora’s box of being a young male teacher in an all girl’s school.
There were seven of us as I recall, Myself, Craig, Bryan, John, Viv, Robyn and Gregor.
John, Viv, Robyn and Gregor were married or in a relationship, and so Bryan, from New Zealand, and Craig and I from Australia copped the brunt.
Most of these girls were Muslim and many had quite a repressed life, and so for many of them the only single men they met were teachers at school and thus Bryan, Craig and I, copped the brunt of this attention, and this lead to all sorts of weird and wild thoughts going on in the girls’ heads, and found expression in these love notes.
Thankfully the head of science was in the staffroom when I opened the envelope, and so was able to ask her advice, “June”, I said, turning toward her, “could you have a look at this for me?”
She turned toward me and I got up and took the letter over to her.
She scanned it and said, “Looks like it has started, Lachlan. What you best do is every time you get one of these, show it to me or another senior staff member.”
“Why’s that?”, I asked her.
“It’s for your own protection, it’s best of you disclose all these notes as you don’t want it to look like you have been keeping any secret, with the obvious implication that you were in any way involved with a girl here at school.”
I nodded, this was good advice, I was glad that she had been present when I opened the letter, otherwise I think I would have just thrown it in the bin, or tossed it in my in tray.
Either course could have had bad consequences for me if there was any friction with the girl’s family, if they had discovered their daughter was writing love notes to a teacher at school.
June then went on, “Just the other week, Barb (a deputy principal at the school) got a note from a girl saying the Viv had raped a girl in the toilets.”
I reared back, shocked, flowery love notes were one thing, but this opened up a whole new line of consternation.
“Really?” I said, with some vehemence, “What on Earth was that about?”
June replied, “It’s an old trick, whenever a girl wants to get back at a male teacher, they do something like that.”
I might add, June asked me about that first note and who it was from, but the name meant nothing to me, I checked my rolls and discovered that the name, Shamrana, didn’t appear on any of my class lists, so I had apparently attracted the attention of some girl outside my sphere of influence.
I nodded again, “Thanks June, I had no idea. Do you mind keeping any of my letters?”
She said “no”, and so as the weeks went by, I would hand over my weekly, or thereabouts, missives from some girl or other.
She said “no”, and so as the weeks went by, I would hand over my weekly, or thereabouts, missives from some girl or other.
However if I was in for one letter a week, Craig nearly had to get an internal post office branch in his staffroom to cope with the load.
I taught science and maths, and so was not overly popular with the girls due to the eternal unpopularity of these nerdly subjects.
However, Craig taught music, and this much more desired topic, in combination with Craig’s fresh-faced good looks, opened the doors of postal love note hell.
I don’t know the actual number, but ten a day, a DAY!, is the figure that springs to mind.
I do remember that one day he returned to his staffroom after a longer than usual absence to find twenty or so of these things piled haphazardly around his desk.
However, with June’s assistance I dealt with my notes by simply giving them to her, which she would peruse briefly then toss in the bin for me, and in retrospect when you consider that my biggest problems were the girls talking while they worked and writing notes expressing their attraction for me, then it shows I had no real problems at Sarah Bonnell.
So that is probably why the inter-staff friction therefore stood out a bit more clearly for me.
As stated briefly above, the worse a school is, the stronger the bonds that seem to form between the teachers.
This had been true at Bourke, and also, definitely, true at Eastlea.
But at Sarah Bonnell, with no real discipline issues from the girls, the permanent staff would take the opportunity to get at each other.
And this was highlighted in most ludicrous fashion by the printing of Daphne’s schedule in the school’s daily info sheet.
The daily info sheet was a single sheet of double sided paper that was printed each day and handed out to the staff.
Any students who were away for any reason were noted on there, school events, like concerts, or excursions were put on it, plus other extraneous messages required for the running of the school.
Most teachers grabbed for this sheet like an actor did the newspapers the morning after a show they were in began, mostly in the hope of finding that the students they detested were away today.
This practise was much more evident at Eastlea where the absence of Billy Moore, for instance, for a day was like an early Christmas present.
Anyway, toward the end of the term, Daphne, who was the head of a year, nine, I think, was having trouble with teachers just coming to see her whenever they had a problem with one of her charges.
She had put out a request for teachers to make an appointment, but this hadn’t been overly successful, and so she had prevailed on the principal to allow her to print her schedule for the remaining weeks of term in a daily sheet, so that the rest of us knew when they could go and see her.
I thought this was a perfectly reasonable way to handle things, but I was in the minority.
The other heads of year hit the roof, you would think world war three had been declared.
“Why is Daphne’s schedule more important than mine?”, screamed one at a staff meeting.
“Would you like your schedule printed as well?”, replied the principal.
“Yes I bloody would”, said that teacher.
“Well then mine should go in as well”, remonstrated a third.
“Well why don’t we print everybody’s then?”, said the principal, desperately seeking to diffuse the situation.
“You can’t do that, there won’t be room on the sheet for anything else”, pointed out Shirley, the tremendously efficient Senior Admin staffer.
And so the argument raged, over, as another female supply teacher pointed out with much sense, a single piece of paper.
I’m sure you get the point, this ridiculous argument would never have occurred at Eastlea, as everyone over there was simply happy to escape the school each day with their person intact and no limbs broken.
However, all good things come to an end, and after a couple of terms at Sarah Bonnell, the teacher I had been filling in for was due to return, so I had to leave this little haven of good behaviour and once more make my way back and forth across London, finding, then teaching in schools that rewrote the definition of out of control.