Wednesday, 30 May 2012

A Very Satisfactory Lesson

Here is a short story set in the cheery atmosphere of an inner-city London comprehensive. Back in  the mists of time it was accepted to be published by The London Magazine but never actually was because I irritated the editor by asking for money. Ooops! Paul, a student teacher, is facing his daunting final assessment...

A Very Satisfactory Lesson
Dominic Barker

The bell rang and Paul began to feel queasy. He turned around and gave Derek what was intended to be a smile of complete confidence.
          "Don't worry," muttered Derek.
          The smile obviously hadn't worked.
          "I'm fine,insisted Paul.
          Derek was unconvinced. He was right not to be. Fine was the last thing Paul felt. He felt tired, unloved, resigned and terrified. His mind strayed to the previous night. How could Kirsty have been seeing another man all that time? How could she do that to him? Why hadn't he noticed?
          Forget Kirsty. He told himself. Focus. Be strong. Say something to Derek. Something positive. Paul thought for a moment realised he couldn't think of anything  positive so decided to go with something factual.
          "Today, we're going to carry on with Animal Farm, Derek. It'll mostly be reading round the class, perhaps some discussion, and if there's time they can make a start on some written work."
          "How are they liking, Animal Farm?"
          Paul considered an honest answer. He decided against it. This man was going to pass or fail him. There were things it was best he didn't know.
          "I think they're beginning to get into it."
          The conversation lapsed. Paul thought back to Derek's seminars in the college. Sitting round on the big cushions in his office - "cushions because we have to feel comfortable to talk and share." -Derek would talk of the "kids" and the joys of teaching. Derek felt the "kids" were great, that it was a privilege to teach them and that if the "kids" weren't learning or were misbehaving it was because the teacher was failing them. Paul had nodded along with Derek when he said these things six months ago. He didn't nod anymore.
          But he had to pass this course. Forty-five minutes. One good lesson was all he needed. He looked at his watch. Five minutes gone already. No sign of his class and no sign of the other class finishing. Come on, come on, come on.
          "Can you please keep the noise down in this corridor. I am trying to teach in here."
          The harsh, Ulster scream of Sinead pierced Paul's ears making him wince. He checked the corridor. None of his class were here yet. He wasn't to blame. In an attempt to be comradely he offered Sinead a weak smile. She responded with a look of snarling contempt and slammed her classroom door.
          This was quite normal. During his first week at the school Paul had observed a few of Sinead's lessons. They were brutal affairs. The children cowed by this fierce young woman dressed all in black, sporting a vicious spiky blonde haircut. Paul remembered watching her tell a child off. The victim, head bowed, stood before her, devoid of  hope whilst Sinead paraded his various failures in front of him with a tone so filled with acid that her breath would surely have bleached litmus paper.
          "Criticise the behaviour, not the child," was what they said at the college.
          Sinead not only criticised the child, she criticised its friends, parents and family pets for good measure. At the time Paul had been outraged. Now, he just wished that he could do it himself. But he couldn't. He'd tried shouting and staring and they just laughed. Teaching was not a nice job. Teaching was all out war and you were Poland and they were Germany. Teaching was...
          "Hello, sir."
          Paul looked down.
          "Hello Janice."
          " bought you something, sir, 'cause I was a bit bad last lesson."
          Janice's hand contained a chocolate bar which she proffered humbly. Guilt briefly swept over Paul to be almost instantly replaced with intense suspicion. He had heard dark tales from other student teachers in the college bar - of chalk covered seats which ruined your trousers, of whole sets of exercise books destroyed when an unattended bag was filled with water and of Jonathon, who taught Business Studies and who was still in hospital after swigging down a cup of coffee to which had been added a handful of pins. This chocolate bar could well contain shards of glass. Eternal vigilance was what kept you safe in this job. He took the bar and placed it carefully in his pocket.
          "Thank you very much, Janice. I'll enjoy it at break."
          Janice smiled inscrutably and walked to the classroom door.
          Paul turned and stared down the corridor. Advancing towards him in a straggling line of mutinous boredom came 10 Mandela. Yet again, Paul questioned the school's policy of naming all their forms after positive political role models in order to foster such admirable behaviour amongst the pupils. 9 Gandhi had had two boys expelled for extremely violent behaviour, there was three girls pregnant in 11 Theresa and 7 Suu Kyi had stolen all the money from their sponsored silence.
          10 Mandela approached the classroom and formed a shapeless mob around the classroom door.
          "Why can't we go in, sir?"
          "Because Ms Engels is teaching. I'm sure she'll be finished soon."
          Paul was not as confident as he sounded. Anna Engels, the head of the English department, seemed to regard the bell as a suggestion rather than a command. She had kept him waiting fifteen minutes on one occasion and 10 Mandela had become frighteningly restless.
          "Make sure your class form an orderly line outside the classroom before allowing them to enter it," they said at the college.

          Paul knew the futility of attempting this but Derek was looking at him and he decided he had to attempt it.
          "10 Mandela can we make a straight line outside the classroom."
          Nobody moved.
          "10 Mandela, how will Ms Engels class be able to leave their classroom if you are all blocking their exit."
          The mob showed no signs of becoming a line.
          Paul decided to shout.
          "10 Mandela, will you please....."
          The door opened and Ms Engels class began to leave. Paul's last chance of forming 10 Mandela into a successful straight line disappeared. A familiar pattern manifested itself. 10 Mandela refused to give way to the leaving class who in turn refused to give up their inalienable right to leave first. The irresistible force met the immovable object. The resulting melee was characterised by the strength of both its abuse and violence.
          Paul decided it was prudent to become strangely obsessed with a loose thread on his jacket. Derek found this a useful time to rummage in his battered briefcase for something or other.
          Supremely oblivious to the row which had just taken place, Anna sailed out of the classroom. Her eyes fell on Derek.
          "Derek, I didn't know you were coming in today."
          Derek looked frightened. Paul didn't blame him. Anna a huge woman in her mid-fifties with badly dyed purple hair, wearing a bright orange jogging suit, was not a woman to be taken lightly.
          "Didn't you?" ventured Derek.
          "No, I didn't."
          "Didn' mention it?"
          Bastard, thought Paul.
          " He should tell you when...."
          "Paul, Derek? Don't you mean Chris?"
          Derek looked at Paul in confusion. Paul maintained a stolid silence. On his first day in the school Anna had decided he was called Chris and his two attempts at a correction had not succeeded in changing her mind. Anna  was a woman who had a great deal of confidence in her own opinions. Meanwhile, Derek was struggling.
          "Do I mean Chris?" he asked pathetically.
          "I'm sure you do, Derek," Anna informed him. "Try and remember the names of your students. I have always found it invaluable in establishing a rapport with them."
          With a dismissive wave she turned around and strode off down the corridor.
          Paul watched her go thinking if only Kirsty looked like that it would be so much easier to forget her. Could he persuade her to cut her hair and dye it purple? Was this reasonable? Paul thought it was. But how could he convince her to cut her hair if he was never going to speak to her again?  Perhaps he could go and see her just once in order to tell her to cut her hair. He'd go tonight. But wouldn't that look weak after telling her at three o' clock this morning that all contact between them was at an end? What if he started crying? Oh Christ.
          Derek coughed. Paul looked at his watch. Fifteen minutes gone already.
          He tried to contort his face into an expression which suggested a dutiful teacher speculating on a particularly effective learning strategy.
          "Let's do this," he said.

Want to know what happens next. Of course you do. Then click here... A Very Satisfactory Lesson

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