332 – The Teacher

Oh boy. Let me tell you what I think about teachers.

But first, a little recap on what I think about schools. Schools are every bit jails as actual, named prisons. They might not have the word above the school gates–there is no St. Trinian’s Juvenile Correctional Facility–but it’s there in spirit. Those chain link gates marking the school circumference might as well have barbed wire circling the top. Teachers might as well be armed with batons.

And they were, once upon a time. It’s a horror story today, something to be told to disbelieving children luxuriating in a modern school system where kids hold all the power. I should know: I was one of those kids. Fifteen–okay, twenty–years ago I was watching sixth formers being bellowed at by old-school teachers who longed for the days of canes and retribution. The tables had turned, the tides had changed. Suddenly teachers weren’t fearsome, only old and getting older. We were young, virile; we had strong arms and were streaked with disobedience. You can’t coral a couple hundred eighteen-year-olds with brute strength, and the only thing keeping the sixth form in check was a respect that was ebbing fast. Not five years from then a teacher would leave my school after his nerves were shaken during a physical altercation with a pupil taller, stranger and more ferocious than he’d ever be.

I should know. I was that child.

But let’s go back a bit. Let us return to an era of trays, tens and units: primary school–the infants, to be precise.

Now, I’m sure what the US equivalent of the infants is. There’s some crossover between kindergarten and elementary school, and primary school that I haven’t yet worked out. I’d always believed kindergarten to be the US equivalent to playschool but apparently this isn’t the case.

Anyway, my nephew and youngest niece attend some preschool thing on a well-wooded road through town. It’s a whimsical place: a small red shack in woods surrounded by stone seraphim and colourful standees, that could be easily ignored as the home of a ranting mad man–in fact there’s another place nearby that, though rundown. tops it for the number of stone angels and wooden silhouettes frolicking in the trees around it. Sometimes I want Lindsay to stop the car so I might talk to the lunatic who dwells there. Others–at night, when shadows and car lights lend the statues an uneasy semblance of motion–I want her to speed right on past.

My own experience with playschool was a horrible one, fogged and distorted by barely remembered memories of abuse and bullying. My unhappy time at school inflects my behaviour today–as readers have pointed out before. Visiting the elementary school, seeing the childish scribbles on the wall, the miniature chairs, the gymnasium, all uncomfortable echoes and pissy smell–it’s all unsettling, if not genuinely upsetting.

For all the nightmares and blog posts that time of my life provoked, once I was home I was in sanctuary, far from wicked playgroup leaders and the crimes they commit. Playschool didn’t follow me home; I was undisturbed, left to be a kid in a loving environment.

While I’m sure these kids are much happier going to ‘red school’ (even though they occasionally require bribing with doughnuts to leave the car) they both bring homework back with them.

I don’t know what goes on behind those cheery red walls. I have horrible images of playgroups, provoked both by my own experience and by Stephen King’s novella The Library Policeman, in which a mutant monster posing as a pretty child librarian sucks the life force from her charges through their eyes, leaving them hollowed shells. Whatever happens there can’t be good, as they come home from school bringing homework.

Now I ask you: what kind of homework could a three-year-old do? Because my youngest niece–Maddie–is three and she has homework. She has numbers, she has letters. She cuts them out and leaves little papery trails all over the house, then glues them into the allocated boxes, sticking her homework, her clothes and occasionally her hair to the kitchen table in the process.

It’s asking a bit much of a kid who still has issues with going to the toilet. She copes to the best of her abilities–and she’s a smart kid with a decent memory, which helps. She can rattle off entire books start to finish, not by reading them but because she’s heard them in class and heard them at home and memorised every word. But that doesn’t help when she’s sucking on the sticky end of the glue-stick because she wonders what it tastes like.

Michael, my nephew, also has homework, though as he’s an ADHD video game freak I don’t think I’ve ever seen him at work with his sisters. He’s just started going to the big school up the road which is the usual morass of concrete and shattered childhoods rather than a ruby cabin in the woods. He’s not enjoying elementary school–and who can blame him?

For all the macaroni art and finger painting a child’s first steps into formal education are bewildering. Mum’s gone, dad’s gone, your siblings are gone and so has your entire day. No more roly-polying around the lounge in front of Fingerbobs for you, young lad; no digestives when you’re hungry, no juice when you’re thirsty.

Worse, there’s a massive disparity between the skills of infant class kids. I was lucky, being at the older end of the age curve and being prepared for school by parents who didn’t read themselves but were determined their children would be voracious in their appetite for literature. Already fed up of books with titles like Big and Small and Thick and Thin, I was taught alongside children who weren’t sure of their own names, who wet themselves regularly and grinned while they did it. I expect the same’s true of Michael’s classmates. In later years school flattens the playing field slightly: though there will always be smart kids and kids who smell like piss, there’s never such disparity between schoolchildren as there is in the first year, when half can talk while the rest simply gurgle.

Maybe pre-school homework’s meant to eliminate this gap; if it is, it hasn’t worked for my oldest niece Makayla, who’s struggling with the wealth of homework heaped upon her on a nightly basis. As her college-going mother said, “When she has more homework than me, there’s got to be something wrong.”

It’s not that it’s difficult–obviously not for the likes of  you or me, though give her another ten years and I’m sure we’ll be bamboozled by homework concerning the grain storage methods of 12th century Mesopotamia–but is it necessary? What are they teaching this girl at school when she’s coming home with a rainforest’s worth of exercise books and text papers? What makes this worse is that Makayla might be dyslexic, but at her young age her school refuses to test for it. My wife–who’s far more versed on childcare matters–has mentioned she displays many of the classic signs of a dyslexic child, but the school refuses to act on them; all the while, Makayla’s education is suffering.

What hurts for me–and to be fair, this could be true of any child–is that she views reading as a chore. Reading! The great thought transfer process! D-O-G spells dog–and now you have a dog in your head, tail wagging, tongue lolling, ready for mischief. It’s difficult seeing her dispirited when forced to complete a reading assignment, especially when her reading list includes Dr. Seuss, whose poetry and prose are a delight to read. But then, for her, ‘d’s become ‘b’s, ‘where’s become ‘there’s and ever sentence seems an insurmountable jumble. If she makes a mistake when reading aloud her confidence plummets, she makes further mistakes and the whole thing frustrates her. It would be so simple to sort this out, but the school doesn’t care.

And that’s the problem, right there: with schools and yes, no matter how much you disagree, with teachers as well. Maybe you did have good teachers when you were at school–hell, maybe you’re one now, one of the few who believes in education, who wants to help their troubled pupils, who wants to straighten lives, who wants to broaden youngsters’ horizons, who wants to teach.

If that’s you, I’m not sure you exist. As ephemeral and diaphanous as pixie dust, good teachers only exist in adverts for careers in teaching, in which they’re universally looked up to, universally liked, and pal around with their pupils in the charming manner of a batty uncle.

I should know: I’m a batty uncle.

My collage of teachers is more like a rogue’s gallery: villains who screwed me over or wasted my time, from five to fifteen–a more useless bunch of ‘those who can’t’ I’ve never met.

There are exceptions, who are few and far between, and who soon petered out in a school system where grades were everything–and if yours dipped you were nothing.

I brought home far too much homework courtesy of Mr. Clarke, who wrung any interest in physics out of, well, come to think of it, out of his entire class. Not a one of us understood transverse waves and nucleonic thingummibobs. Nobby Clarke was a po–faced bastard, joint head of the upper years, without any zeal for his subject. Like a cross between an SS commandant and a businessman he droned from the front of the class in lectures so boring Arnold Schwarzenegger once used one to drill through Benny the turncoat mutant.

He doled out indigestible chunks of homework that kept the dwindling number of pupils willing to do them up until the wee small hours. Often, the final problems of that Wednesday’s physics homework vied for my attention with BPM, ITV’s late night dance music show.

Eventually a posse of parents put a stop to his homework antics, but he was hardly the only teacher who saw schooling as a marginally different alternative to doing bird. More than once my wife’s suggested that we home school our future children. This worries me. I’m no teacher, and I worry being educated separately from their erstwhile peers our children will never fit into society, especially as I’ve struggled so desperately with it myself.

But home, at least, they’ll have teachers eager to teach knowledge they need to know. Most classes are useless, providing general knowledge for daytime TV game shows and little else. If teachers ever wanted to pass their knowledge to kids, they soon fall back upon textbooks  and desiccate like mummies. Many of my teachers had a same jaundiced/grey pallor which marked them out as part of the old school, who fondly remembered the thwak of the cane and missed it–but our ineffectual young teachers were just as bad and just as uninterested in their charges.

And between them, festering in his mid-forties, was Mr. Morris, a stumpy brown-suited pillock without control of his classroom, who left it mid-lesson to return to the sight of one strapping young school kid bludgeoning another over the head with a hole punch.

It was my dad’s, you see. My father–the hero–had lent me his punch that morning for, I don’t know, some project or other. Some big bruiser of a kid took it from my table while I was away and refused to give it back when I tracked it down. When I tried to physically take it from him, he snapped the plastic measure on the side.

Mr. Morris was out of the class. What was a schoolboy to do?

I used to get angry. I still to from time to time, but in my teens, set about by stress after stress, bullying, bereavement, I saw red frequently. This time I might well have stoved in the kid’s head, except Mr. Morris returned, pulled me away from him . . . and yelled at me.

You probably think I deserved it. Fuck you. In prison a thief like that would have been shanked. In school, what happens next? The teacher asks him to give it back? Yeah, I’d been stolen from before: it doesn’t work like that. Some kids never develop the sense of respect that delineates other people’s property from stuff they can nick. I’d been mugged in a park by the school that same year. I’d had people push me off my chair for fun, play with knives by my head, threaten, kick, steal–I’d had enough.

I was suspended, of course. The other kid, nothing happened to him, poor fucking darling–but what did you expect? A happy ending? I quit out of school by attempting suicide–how’s that for a happy fucking ending for you?

But I never hit the teacher–the last modicum of respect I ever gave to one of them. He grabbed me by the arm–reaching up, trying to pinch the flesh between my neck and my shoulder, maybe trying to get my ear like Teacher from The Bash Street Kids–and I shrugged him off. At worst, I batted his hand away.

And he was scared, because you can’t frogmarch a kid to the headmaster when the kid’s much bigger, much stronger, and much, much scarier than you are.

Mr. Morris quit his job. It didn’t happen immediately and I don’t honestly know how much that incident had to do with it. Today, incidents like these are almost commonplace: not a month goes by without some violent act perpetrated by a pupil upon a teacher hitting the headlines. Broken Britain, we call it.

Rumours circulated that I’d beaten Morris up. I gained a new nickname–Psycho–which, though unimaginative, was much more preferable to any nickname I’d previously had. Things had already been going downhill; when all was said and done, I can’t say that fateful day made any real difference to my life. If those of you who felt I deserved everything I got that day still feel that way, be satisfied that though I never really learned my lesson, I did far more time than either headmaster or Mr. Morris would have stuck me in the clink for.

My education was not a happy one. This far, I don’t believe my nephew or nieces are doing any better. My wife has a healthy distrust of teachers thanks to her own experience of school life, as does my father, who was caned in his time for schoolboy offences he deems ‘completely worth it’.

It’s funny how a simple post on education can get so badly out of hand. My love of creative writing was discouraged all through secondary school, so consider this and the sale of my first professional piece as hearty ‘fuck you’ to the ghosts of my past.

I hope my sister-in-law’s kids, and my future kids, and all kids around the world encounter teachers more nurturing than those who taught the adults I love most. We turned out to be a decent bunch in spite of their meddling.

Perhaps that’s the greatest lesson to be learned from all of this: school teachers come and go; the greatest tutors we have are ourselves.

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