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.