VOLUME LOVES: MUSINGS OF A MISS


A Twenty-Something Teacher of the Creative Arts
Rather you than me. Glutton for punishment. Very brave. Are you mad? The reactions to the inevitable question posed during the getting to know you pleasantries of a Clapham watering hole are varied but generally amount to a similar expression of almost pity.  ‘So what do you do then?’ The outpouring of what seems tantamount to sympathy at my response, is strange, but has become overwhelmingly familiar. No, I am not a paratrooper on the frontline in Bazra. I am not an oil rigger, a mercenary or a bomb-dismantler. I am not even the universally despised, ubiquitous traffic warden or, in the spirit of political correctness, a civil enforcement officer. No, I am horror of horrors, a teacher. A secondary school teacher. In London, no less.
I am unsure as to when, admitting to being a member of the band of brothers, in this no longer noble profession according to David Cameron, inspired sympathy rather than admiration. It’s a fine line, but it seems to me, the faces, the sympathetic head tilt, the wide eyes, the high pitched ‘Really?’ betray a sense of condolence, usually reserved for the hideously brave or the horribly inept.  The conversation will usually go one of two ways, ‘Don’t they all carry knives?’ or ‘Exams were so much harder when I was at school - so why are exams getting easier?’
     Now, my instinctive response to the former, is to suggest that perhaps they should take a day out of the safe confines of their Old Street, open plan office, set down the Metro and the Machiatto and take a wander down to Stockwell, Brixton or god forbid, Croydon and step inside the gates of a bog-standard comp.  What you will find, more often than not, is a bunch of loud teenagers, gesticulating wildly, bedecked in hoodies and gold. Run! Run for your life! Women and children first. Sod that, it’s every man for himself when the minions of the antichrist are in hot pursuit.  Why? What have these kids (and let us never forget that they are kids) done? The rampant ravings of the media have terrified even the youngest of the middle and working classes alike, who were once in the same position as these kids, a mere ten years ago. They have become folk devils. Twenty-somethings look at these 14 year olds as Lucifer in a Nike hooded jumper.  In that decade, something has happened, and that allusive something has created a mammoth gulf.
    To the ever present debate as to whether exams are becoming 'easier' I pose the question, Could it not be that teaching and learning is improving and that is why results are on the up? Why must we assume that our youth couldn’t possibly be working harder in order to achieve these results? Or our professionals couldn’t possibly be reaping the rewards of sheer hard graft? I find it inordinately insulting and would challenge any spikey-haired, suit clad, Corona-sipping, olive-eating, fair weather rugby-supporting city upstart, to attempt completing an A-Level paper and then arrogantly inform me that examinations are ‘dumbed down.’
    Back to the point and less of the pontificating. The perception of teaching as a profession has become the modern day equivalent to working in a leper colony. Dangerous, self sacrificing, stupid? Maybe we are. Why else would one subject themselves to daily ridicule, dragging, kicking and screaming, thirty resistant 15 year olds painstakingly through the importance of Iambic pentametre? A sadistic combination of fights and figures. Brawling and beureaucracy. Targets and Tears.  Registers and redrafting.  Counselling and castigating. Ofsted and office politics.  I have had a plethora of unpleasant experiences, that much is true. Finding illustrations depicting my crucifixion, sparing no bloody detail or gory protruding organ, is one I remember well. Of course breaking up ‘rucks’ is a daily occurrence. I am bruised, physically and metaphorically, daily. Woe is me.
    But isn’t that what always happened at school, for teachers and students alike? Students are meant to hate teachers, surely? This is no modern phenomena. I put it to you that preceding the finale of ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’, the young men had actually drawn lewd images of Chips, mocked his suits and his hair, laughed when he accidently spat whilst teaching and so on and so forth. Robin Williams as John Keating in ‘Dead Poets Society’ was universally labelled a hobbit, virgin, smelly or perverse in some manner, before the saccharine standing on tables PDA. It’s very easy to like a teacher when you’re leaving. Nostalgia is a wonderful thing. With it, come the proverbial rose-tinted glasses. However whilst one is in the midst of the confines of the education system, the student is designed to oppose everything the teacher signifies. It is the way of the world. Like loathing traffic wardens; it’s natural. Part of our genetic composition.
    You have no concept, at the age of 14, that the person stood at the front of the class is actually human. Just an unsightly, embarrassing alien life form from the planet ‘past it’. That being, standing in front of you, is surely not capable of emotion and even if they are who gives a flying text book? They are ruining your opportunity to chat, flirt, bitch and have fun. This person forces you to hotseat Lady Macbeth instead of discussing whether one is morally obliged to boycott Chris Brown’s music subsequent to ‘Rihanna-gate’ or if it is bordering on paedophilia to fancy Justin Bieber. Essentially, I, as a teacher, am the Berlin Wall, on one side of me is the student, on the other is their hearts desire, fun. And, with the fortitude of Thatcher, I will uphold that barrier.  Of course you’d hate them. I did.
    I find it hilarious that no matter how ‘with it’ (that phrase itself is tragically archaic) I think of myself, my students find it deeply disturbing and laughable that I might have ever, attended a gig. That I may dare enjoy partaking in a bit of a rave. That I may deign to purchase a song by Dizzee Rascal or Jay-Z is simply unfathomable and would classify me as one of the ‘try-hards’ who desperately attempt to reclaim their youth. They have consigned me, completely, to the ranks of the aged at the ripe old age of 26. I find now, that I have no choice but to play up to it, to embrace my OAP status by referring to ‘that rapper... what’s his name dirty dirt rascal? Or snoopy snoop doggy dog? And that band ...Flora and the factory?’ I’m happy to mock my own age and hopefully retain a quiet dignity this way. If nothing else they will take pity on your naivity and respect your need not to seek their approval. Woe betide the poor unfortunate soul of an NQT who makes the irreparable, fatal mistake of actually discussing their true likes and dislikes in terms of popular culture. Whether you genuinely enjoy what you profess to is beside the point entirely. If it is something that is deemed ‘too young’ or ‘too cool’ for you, then heaven help you. Prepare to walk the Green Mile towards your classroom, everyday. Ritual humiliation is set to follow. Two years hard time at least, if you’re lucky.
After three years teaching them, my class are only just starting to become remotely comfortable with the fact, that sporadically, I may make a joke.  They are unsure whether they should laugh. Like when someone makes a politically incorrect joke at work - do you laugh? Do you smile? Do you look disgusted? Or pretend you didn’t hear?  It’s a minefield. I usually settle for a quiet laugh that I can disguise as a cough if necessary. The student searches desperately to see if anyone else will laugh - they don’t want to be the only one sharing a giggle with Miss. How embarrassing - what a neek.
    I once wore a plain, basic top from Topshop to school, only to find one of my tutees wearing the same one. I didn’t think twice about it. She did. As did the entire class. Shame enshrouded her as she registered that we were wearing identical blue v-neck tops ... a cold sweat consumed her, the colour drained from her face, rendering her a shadow of her former self. She pleaded permission to go the toilet (projectile vomiting appeared imminent) she returned wearing a vest and had removed the now offensive item of clothing - and burned it no doubt. To think I could ever be that influential in fashion - eat your heart out Mossy! The age old age divide is alive and well and growing, like Conservative voters in Surrey. Teenagers are becoming progressively more alien to us twenty-somethings. And, equally we to them. Has it always been the way? Probably. It’s just the first time I’m on the other side. And it’s rubbish.
 
Miss.