Let slip the dogs of war

They say that when pinecones close, it's going to rain.

If cows sit down, there's about to be a storm.

When rats desert the city, expect an earthquake.

And so on.

A lot of our boys have taken to wearing military dog-tags with their school uniform. Is it time for me to start digging a bomb shelter?


Level playing field

FAO Mr Shorts - Head of Physical Education
Big Field
The Great Outdoors
Our School
United Kingdom

Dear Mr Shorts,

This isn't Hogwarts so just what is the magic spell you are casting over the kids in Physical Education lessons?

No, no, don’t worry – I’m not implying anything underhand. We know you're not like the last Head of PE.

But you obviously have a few clever teacher-tricks up your tracksuited sleeve and we tweed-jacket types can’t fathom how you do it.

It's the general attitude of children around you that's been turning scholarly heads your way. I've heard some of our slightly murderous pupils using positive expressions like ‘Yeah, alright’ in your company and referring to you as ‘Sir’, but in your absence they revert to apprentice-gangsters.

When I told a class you’d be covering a lesson next week some of the little creeps hissed ‘Yessssss!’

And when was the last time you actually had to walk from the playing field to the staffroom? Or walk anywhere, for that matter? You are so popular that an adoring crowd of children actually gathers to carry you upon their rugby-player's shoulders wherever you go.

Why are they sucking up like this, the sycophants?

You must admit that, of all the school-subjects, PE is the most akin to actual torture. Yes, PE ticks all the boxes: humiliation for those who can’t perform, physical punishment for those who can, lashings of psychological and verbal abuse for all. And, having eaten mud pie on the field, they have it washed down by a high-pressure, ice-cold shower.

If that list doesn’t bring Amnesty International protesting at our gates I don’t know what will.

And yet they treat you like a sports celebrity. What is this? Stockholm Syndrome? And how do you achieve it?

Is it the torture? No, it can't be that simple... Is it because PE is the only lesson where the girls and boys are herded separately, allowing unhindered bonding between the gender-tribes and their respective PE teachers?

Why do they do things for you they won’t do for the tweed-jackets? And they do things to us they wouldn’t dare with you?

Heaven knows I've tried emulating your success in motivating the gangsters.

‘Your mobile phone and make-up goes away and that’s two laps of the playing field, Chloe . No, I don’t care that your leg’s in plaster – I’m sure Mr Shorts wouldn’t accept such a lame excuse. You know the rules!’

Total failure.

The truth is that the only way I can make kids run is by telling them something like 'stay where you are, I’d like a word, please - nothing to worry about, just your future and the rest of your sorry life.'

I didn't give up.

‘Wakey-wakey! Shane! What are you, Sleeping Beauty? That’ll be ten press-ups!’

And did Shane do the press-ups? No, he did the telling me to fuck off and go fuck myself.

Have you encountered similar barriers to learning in your field? If so, how did you tackle these problems?


Mr Socks


Copper-bottomed plot sinks without trace

Hollywood-lore has definitely got this right: When something dramatic happens, the real world does go in slow motion.

Like me paying for a coffee and cake in the mall cafe this afternoon.

INT. DAY. (filmspeak for 'interior, daytime'.. oh, you'll get the hang of it).

Mr Socks is choosing a cake in the self-service cafe. Happy music. He places the slice of Battenberg on his tray and slides the tray along towards the cash register.

Close-up of Socks' back trouser pocket. Brooding, sinister music.

Socks approaches the cash register with friendly nonchalance. Happy music. The cashier-lady smiles.
Cashier: That will be one pound fifty-seven, please.

Interior shot of inside Socks’ back pocket. Darkness. Sinister music. Sound of unseen creature breathing. We hear Socks and the cashier talking in the distance.

Socks (distant voice): I might have the right money... hold on a sec...

Cashier (distant voice): Alright, dear.

Music becomes scarier.

Socks reaches down to his back pocket

EXT. DAY. 1912

Flashback to Socks as a child in Edwardian clothes, complete with cute little boots. Patriotic Edwardian music.

Mother Socks: Now you be careful young William when you’re helping Mr Perkins in the china shop! I know how clumsy you are, there's always a disaster when you're around!

Socks: Yes, mother.

Later: young Socks comes running out from 'Perkins Chinaware' store. The building explodes behind him as he throws himself to the ground.

As the smoke clears the wind blows the tattered remains of this newspaper into Socks' face. He slaps a dirty hand on his forehead as though to say 'but I didn't do nothin' !'

We return to the Present Day.
Socks: Think I’ve got a fiver somewhere.
Socks’ hand enters back pocket.

Close-up of Socks’ surprised face.

All in slow-motion

Socks: Whaaahh!

The cashier throws her arms up to shield her face.

Cashier: Aaaargh!

Socks: Ooooops! Coins!

Freeze-frame shot of coins suspended in air between Socks and the cashier. The camera does a Matrix-style 360° rotation around the scene.

Socks: I’m soooorry!

Close-up of coins striking the cashier’s apron like shotgun pellets bouncing off body armour.

Cashier: Arghhh!

End slow motion.

Socks: Sorry, I don’t know how I did that.

Cashier: Not to worry.

Happy music again. Camera zooms in on Socks’ back pocket as he carries tray of coffee and cake to table. We hear the unseen creature growling from within pocket. Scary music.


Breaking the spell (-checker) at The Last Supper

Got unwanted elderly relatives? Or maybe you’re a pitiful OAP* yourself?

So painfully ancient, perhaps, that you’ve been wondering if, when all your affairs are put in order, there’s something to be said for this euthanasia thing?

Or maybe you are just depressed and have no wish to go through all the bother of another Merry sodding Christmas and a Happy bloody New Year?

Keep your heads out of that gas oven! Save those pills for someone who needs them for a headache!

Because there is a legion of children in blazers and stripey ties ready to help you out.

Maybe you’ve already seen the notices our angels have been pinning up outside the school... and along the street... and all over the town.

Maybe soon you'll be seeing angels?

When the idea first came up at the student council meeting I thought they said it was an ‘OAP Party’ they were organising. But my memory must be failing me in my autumn years.

Now, proudly presenting our school’s first and your last -

(That's the school name I've censored - I doubt the R.I.P Committee is planning for suicidals travelling in from outside the area).

I dare not imagine what goes in a 'minced' pie at an R.I.P Party, or what this choir is going to be singing as you drink your last sherry - the important thing is that some teacher gets this malarkey under control before the school has a misunderstanding with the local community.

*Speakers of non-UK English (in case you don’t know), OAP = Old Age Pensioner.


Talking the talk in Room 101

I was listening to a wireless broadcast about the US election the other day and there was an English journalist introducing an interview like this:

‘.. I’m here with a spokes...person from the NAACP, that’s the National Association for the Advancement of Co...’

Cough! Splutter! Mumble, mumble ...

‘ ...ored People ...’ and so on. But I was lost.

What people?’ I spluttered back at the radio. ‘Whhhoooo?’ I strained, reaching for my hearing trumpet.

Scratching of head. Rummaging through badly eroded brain cells.

‘Oh!’ I had the revelation. ‘Coloured people! Well, why couldn’t you just say.... I don’t want people coughing and mumbling on the wireless because they don’t want to say a word...’

A harp strummed and my admonishment of the journalist faded into a distant echo, my vision became fuzzy, and when the world came back into focus I found myself in my classroom.

A recent memory.

I was sat in my swivelling chair, clutching a bunch of stapled A4 sheets, staring though the dirty windows at the clouds and traffic whizzing past like a speeded-up film in contrast to the silent stillness of the post-schoolday classroom.

One could almost hear the dust collecting on my head, the world around me rushing into the future. I reclined in the battered old chair. I had discovered myself to be anachronistic, lost and abandoned in this modern age, simply waiting to be found by the cleaners and wheeled out to be thrown on the skip.

The photocopied papers scrunched up in my fist are a school policy document listing words and expressions I have been told I must erase from the minds of the children and banish from use, lest 21st century western civilisation crumbles like a Babylonian tower should they ever be uttered again.

A careless word. An insensitive cartoon.

We have seen how easily unguarded thoughts or a few innocent strokes of pencil on paper can lead to embassies being turned into infernos, to streets being given over to the mob, baying for the blood of those who dared offend their precious beliefs.
I sit there in the empty room long into the evening, oblivious to the caretaker - ‘Locking up in ten minutes, mate’ - rising from my chair only to light a candle to see me through my night-long vigil and into the next day.

For hours I try forcing myself to read beyond the first word of the banned-expressions list. I am like a student on exam results day, holding the slip of paper but not daring to look because they know their grades will be as useful as an amputation to an athlete. I cannot persuade my eyes to look any further than the first word on the list.


It is gone forever.

‘Staff the lifeboats!’

‘The British army lost 57,000 staff on the first day of the Somme’.

I fear to contemplate what other terms could be deleted from our collective vocabulary.

Some time after sunrise children start wandering into the classroom. The ringing of bells. Soon all the seats are filled with children, the familiar mixture of the keen, the lost and confused, the criminal, the good, the bad, and the smelly.

The average form-group has 7 or so nationalities, children of all races (or visible minority ethnic groups, to use the jargon) , 10% are gay or bisexual (I am told), there are Christians, Muslims, Hindus - in fact my classroom is a Noah's Ark of religions.

This is an average form-group sitting before me. How did I ever manage to stop race wars breaking out before getting this list of words we mustn’t use? How did we previously manage to avoid Jihads and Crusades being launched across the room? Why did the girls not slaughter the boys, yet?

An Asian lad keen on his education floats around my desk and looks curious about the crumpled papers in my sweaty paws.

‘Good morning, Sir! Urgh, Sir, have you washed today?’

I break out of my trance for the first time in 10 hours.

‘Good morning and sit down. Right, listen up, little people.’ They don’t mind me calling them little people - I don't know how I survive with my patronising attitude - maybe someone should tell them to be offended.

I steel myself for the unsavoury task ahead of me, as I finally summon the courage to look at the list of forbidden words which I have to warn the children about.

‘Listen, I’ve got some new vocabulary for you to learn. Now let’s go through this list together... ’

PS. A reader wondered recently whether the surreal nature of my experiences recounted in these annals might be linked to teachers drinking something other than ordinary tea in the staffroom. Well, thank-you for that comment - and I think I've got to the bottom of the mystery.


Rat habitat endangered

During a shopping trip I stopped at the mall's central cafe, a favourite vantage point to observe humans going about their affairs.

Sitting in the oasis, plopping sugar cubes into my coffee, watching the ripples moving out across the surface of the life-restoring liquid, I was astonished to look up and see a human carried across the shopping centre concourse in the ripples of the global economic money shortage, like a drowning rat swept downstream in a November flood.

I’ll try to explain.

The mall is an eco-system, with 'eco' standing for either ecological or economy – the terms are interchangeable in this context. In addition to the permanent shops, this eco-system also supports a thriving colony of predators whose job is to catch unsuspecting shoppers - their prey - and savage them until they agree to buy products such as insurance, windows, remote control toy helicopters, and so on.

Usually these predators are very relaxed and manage to catch prey with very little effort. The harshest tactics I had previously seen were the waving of a brochure at the victim, and a predator playfully flying a remote control helicopter around the prey's head.

What I beheld, while stirring my coffee and eating a biscuit, was one of these helicopter-sellers - a Socks-Scholar of yesteryear - actually chasing a mother and child through the mall, roaring ‘You’ll have hours of fun, and I’ll include the batteries for free!’, his helicopter repeatedly ramming the poor victims’ backs as they sought refuge in a shop.

This is the first evidence I have observed of desperation among the predators as the mall eco-system collapses in the world-wide economic storm.

I fear it will not be long until the flood waters reach the school gates.

Waves of economic-migrants from eastern Europe – with their attendant children - have seen our school prosper and expand in recent years. But will these guest-workers remain in the UK in the event of financial cock-up and employment melt-down?

With the loss of clients, what future will there be for those eking out a living from the dark art of teaching?

I do not believe we teachers are recession-proof. Kids = Cash, and my observations in the mall make it only too easy for me to imagine the desperate measures we may take to keep the education business afloat.

Maybe teachers will have to bribe children to stay in school?

Could we be required to compromise disciplinary standards so they won't want to leave?

If we run out of children to teach, will we have to keep them in school when they have reached an age when some of them would be more usefully employed selling toy helicopters? (Make them serve life, I say!)

Or will teachers simply ensnare escapees in barbed wire traps? Actually, we do that already, too.

If none of the above works and I do find myself hanging up my tweed jacket for ever, at least I know I can always get a job as a translator.


Thought crime - if only...

My working life revolves around misunderstandings of various kinds. I make no complaint about that – on the contrary, as a teacher I see it as my raison d’être to embrace misunderstanding and the perpetrators of misunderstanding with the ardour of a seasoned preacher taking a miserable convict by the hand, inspiring him to join the flock and leave his life of sin behind.

I have an appointment with one of our school’s greatest sinners. He crashes through the door into my study.

‘Hello, Aaron, good of you to come. Take a seat.’

Aaron - a criminal by instinct, a thief by specialism - thinks I am trying to trick him with this sneaky ‘take a seat’ business. I can read the boy’s face – one beady eye is scanning an imaginary horizon to see if anyone is watching him. (He does this scanning thing instinctively - we are obviously alone in the office). Aaron’s other eye is on the chair, sizing up its weight (Can I run with it?) and market value (Who will buy it? How much will I get for it?)

I am not perturbed! I am not downhearted!

‘Sit down, Aaron’.

By this stage I have also started my own beady-eyed scanning of the room – what’s going to be missing if I turn my back? The stapler? A few pens? My computer?

Aaron lands his bum in the chair – he nods to himself, probably thinking something like ‘Nice chair that idiot Socks has got here. Fifty quid for it down the market, maybe?’

‘Aaron,’ – you have to keep repeating his name or his attention will be in outer-space before you’ve drawn your next breath – ‘Aaron, this is the second time you’ve been brought back to the school in handcuffs. Think about it. Do you want to end up in prison? What do you want to do with your life?’

Aaron looks back at me, his face, as always, more expressive than his words could ever be. His face says, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about and I don’t care! It means absolutely jack all to me! Stop wasting my time, I’ve got some stealing to do! Fool!’

‘You know…’ I try to illuminate the issue for him ‘…when you leave school. What you want to do with your life? Have you ever thought about that?’

Aaron speaks for the first time since profaning my inner sanctum with his presence.

‘What I want to do in… in… the after life?’

Let us all embrace Aaron - I think we are making progress, albeit in a direction outside my remit.

(Note to readers: I've tried to moderate the tone of the words Aaron would be thinking... this isn't intended to be an x-rated blog, and I don't want to offend readers in more sophisticated parts of the world).
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