“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”
“Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”
“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”
“We don’t have stars in this game, Mrs Weaver, that’s soccer.”
“What do you have? “
“People like me.”
Frank Machin to Mrs Weaver, This Sporting Life.
Learning’s important and, while I value it and am trained and employed in that field, sometimes I wonder if I have any idea about anything at all. I agree with all of the above quotations equally. As far as Confucius goes, I’m not convinced I even learn by experience, let alone the other two although I’m doing my best to reflect. James’ quote is spot on, but I too often do I fail to live by his creed. Socrates’ though, I can get on board with, but that might just be because I have a tendency towards laziness. And cruelty.
This post is about learning and education and tells the story of how I got into teaching and how my apparently persistent inability to learn very much at all has often negatively affected both those around me and myself.
Having butchered the title of the 1963 Richard Harris film for the title of this post, it dawned on that there’s more than one parallel with what I’m going to write about today: Harris’s character (Fred Machin) begins and ends the film, “Just a great ape on a (rugby) football field,” He learns nothing throughout the course of the film and, while there was optimism relating to his potential at the start of it, by the end what were seen as attributes were clearly going to end up being shortcomings. All of which combine to make something that I too can relate to all too well.
I have the worst reason in the world for going into teaching, unless we’re going to start taking paedophiles into consideration, but I’ll come to one of those later. I signed up to my PGCE during Clare’s and my month’s ‘trial separation’ because she said that I had to do something constructive with my brain. Naturally it didn’t make any difference and I still got the push. As the main reason that I’d signed up for it in the first place was because the government were, like they always are, looking for teachers to replace the hundreds that can’t stand it anymore and it was a quick, easy fix even though it didn’t stop me getting dumped. Again.
Even when I signed up for it, I was pretty far from enthusiastic about it. I had contemplated, even as my pen pressed against the paper confirming my registration to the course, not actually going through with it if Clare decided that I’d been a good lad who’d done what he was told. I thought it might be enough to just say I was going to do it and, once I’d defibrillated our (technically) dead relationship, I could pretty much just go back to bumming about.
As our flatlining relationship wasn’t resuscitated by anything I’d done during the trial separation, I suppose I could have just not turned up and said bollocks to the whole thing without even needing to worry about whether I’d get my ear filled for it but I didn’t. As anybody who’s read any of these posts might have worked out for themselves though, I didn’t do anything radical and just went along with it.
I’d signed up to the Open University’s PGCE for a couple of reasons: first, it was part-time and I thought that I could probably drag it out for a bit longer without having to do anything especially drastic, like getting an actual job. Second, on the Open University course, you got a free Apple Mac. I’d had a Spectrum 48K computer when I was a kid and had enjoyed playing Manic Miner and games like that on it, so I thought I’d get into video games with it. I didn’t. I never even took the bastard out of its box. Third, and finally, I’d quite enjoyed Open University programmes on BBC2 as a kid and thought that I could watch some more of them, but this time with a valid reason for doing so instead of just enjoying the shirts, hair and rudimentary graphics. Naturally, there was a series that I was supposed to watch but couldn’t be arsed.
The other difference was that you got to pick a school and, at the end of it, they got your Apple Mac as a bit of incentive for taking you on. I applied to David Lister school which was probably a fairly ordinary idea. It also turned out that, while we had to go somewhere on the outskirts of Leeds once a month, it wasn’t to teach us anything, it was more of a support group for what turned out to be an exclusively middle-aged cohort of trainee teachers who were already well into an enduring love affair with the sound of their own voices. So I stopped turning up to those too.
While at university, I’d occasionally had to go into schools and get kids to do drawings of people or see how they responded to moral dilemmas. I’d already been into David Lister to do that and thought it was alright. My own Alma Mater hadn’t even bothered to reply to my letter requesting permission to conduct research with their students, so cheers once again to them. David Lister was in east Hull and it was more or less opposite yet another secondary school: Malet Lambert. Malet Lambert was one of the better schools in Hull at that time and the reason for that was David Lister. What I mean is that David Lister took most of the east Hull maniacs which left Mally Lambert to get on with the business of educating those kids who actually wanted educating. It was a bit hairy, David Lister. You’d struggle to find many schools with a more challenging intake, as they tend to refer to kids who aren’t used to sitting down and listening to older people telling them what to do. And that was why, in the end, I went for Lister: I figured if I can do it there, I can do it anywhere.
Even when I signed up, I knew I’d much prefer secondary education to primary. I had no intention of working in a primary school. For one thing, I thought it might be nice to have a reasonable conversation with the kids, which I thought you’d not really get with littler kids. For another thing, I was aware that there was a big difference between four year old kids and those who were ten or eleven and I really didn’t fancy getting assigned a reception class whenever the headteacher felt like it. It was a shame though, because I did have to spend some time in a primary school and I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I’ll get to that later. Also, I didn’t want to be the only male in a school. Not that I have any issue with women – they tend to have them with me, a-ho-ho – but I knew that quite a lot of primary schools had no male teachers at all and I didn’t much fancy that. Having said that, I work as an English teacher at the moment and English departments also tend to be dominated by females. I’ve been there long enough to watch most of the staff – who were all women – leave by now and be replaced by more women and my experience is that it’s not that women in general are a pain to work with, it’s that some women are a pain to work with, same as some men are.
I’d gotten rid of my old banger by that point – another prerequisite of Clare’s conditions – so I dug my old bike out of my old man’s shed and proceeded to schlep across town every morning at about seven o’clock when I was due in. It wasn’t too super. I don’t like biking and not just because of cars, although I did get thrown off it once when a lorry overtook me too fast and I was caught up in its wake and flung into the grass verge. I never fancied a motorbike either, but that was because I realised that smoking on one of those would have been impractical and that was fairly high on my list of priorities then. Smoking while on a push bike is more doable, but it’s still not easy. Anyway, biking is cold and wet and I got out of being a plumber because of those reasons and here I was, years later, back to fucking square one again because I was generally sodden by the time I arrived at work. Also I was a bit knackered, what with the fags and all.
Diversion – Exercise.
I was quite a sporty kid at school – not because I particularly liked any of them but because my parents were sportsing people and I suppose I viewed myself equivalently to Indian people who are in castes – you know, what you’re born into, you’re lumbered with. Even after I’d pretty much knocked mosts sports on the head, I still played cricket for British Rail (North) in the summer. Even when I was at university, I used to make a point of keeping fit by attending circuit training twice a week. That was very tiring, but I still went. I mean, I smoked at that point which isn’t great if fitness is what you’re looking for, but I think I thought that running around like a lunatic for a couple of hours a week in the gym on various knackerising activities would sort of balance the scales. I expect it just made it more difficult. It does sound like me.
At some point during the summer holidays of my second year at university, Clare had pointed out to me that I was one scrawny streak of piss and had laughed about it. I laughed about it too, but I was also a bit worried. I’d met a couple of her exes in passing and they were, without exception, built like World War II submarine pens so I thought I might be well advised to beef myself up a little bit in my third year so that she wouldn’t dump me for someone who might then pile on my suffering by kicking sand in my face.
My fantastic idea was based on the old adage of sink or swim. You know, chuck ’em in at the deep end. So I joined the university rugby league team which my old mate Chris was captain of.
Diversion Diversion – Chris from St Helens.
I met Chris in my first year at Fairfax House. He and I gravitated towards one another I think because we were both northern scumbags and York – at least at that time – had an awful lot of public school kids there; a higher proportion than Oxford or Cambridge the year I started apparently. It might be another one of those myths that do the rounds at university but we were definitely in quite a small minority, those of us on full council grants. We hung around together for approximately a month before we met other people who we got on better with.
At first it was alright, I enjoyed his almost bumpkin-esque naïveté – and how I enjoy a poncey bit of punctuation now and then. Mainly because I’ve never really got my head around commas I suppose.
Once he’d paid his accommodation fees off at the start of term, he promptly blew his entire grant in about four days at the bookies. We’d walk into town and he couldn’t not call in on the bookies on the way in and out. He never won. Well, not enough anyway; they keep you interested, don’t they? He asked me why I never had a flutter on the horses and I told him it was a mug’s game. He told me I’d change my tune when he won big. Chris was a maths student.
In town, he’d huff and puff as I trawled around second hand record and, especially, book shops, gruffly and rhetorically asking why I was wasting my money on fucking books.
If it sounds like Chris and I hated each other well, I can see how you might draw that conclusion based on what I’ve told you but we didn’t. Well, I didn’t hate him. What we had in common was humour or, to be retrospectively more accurate, what I thought we had in common was humour.
One night out in one of the college bars, Chris and I had started what some would probably now call bantering, for fuck’s sake. I wouldn’t call it that, I’d call it a boozy night that started with gentle ribbing and ended with me getting punched in the chops. I probably deserved it; I can have a nasty tongue on me sometimes and what happened was that Chris escalated it mildly. I, being a clever twat, thought, you’ve got no fucking chance pal and decided to show him how it was done. I don’t think Chris had come across too many people who could articulate as horribly as I was prepared to and he fetched me one in my cakehole.
My turn to be surprised; I’d been hanging around with essentially non-violent peers at Spiders for that long that I might have just forgotten about the possibility of being filled in – even though Sarah’s boyfriend had done just that when he caught the pair of us in flagrante about six months earlier, so actually it can’t have been that. He did me a favour really, because he stopped after one punch and I knew I’d been a clever sod. I didn’t even attempt to hit him because it was my fault. That, and he was a good foot taller than me and considerably wider. The people we were with were a bit shocked too; had they previously harboured any regional and/or class stereotypes about northern plebs such as Chris and me, I had swiftly confirmed their veracity by immediately conforming to them.
He stayed mad at me though. The next day I found the kids we’d been out with talking on the landing, with Chris. The talk quickly died down as they looked to see what socially unacceptable behaviour the northern monkeys would stoop to next. I held my hand out to shake Chris’, but he didn’t go for it.
“Chris, it’s alright, I had it coming. I was being a nobhead. Fair dos, you weren’t much better, but it was my fault. Put it behind us, eh?”
He didn’t even want to look at me, let alone shake my hand. The rest of them encouraged the reconciliation and he wilted under peer pressure which just made me feel a bit worse because I’d gone to town on him, under the mistaken impression he was dead thick skinned when he wasn’t. He’d not gone to town on me when he hit me though, I had a split lip and he could have flattened me if he’d felt like it.
End of Diversion Diversion.
Chris was happy for me to join; it was his turf and I expect he felt a bit more confident there. I don’t know why he was worried, he was a lot bigger than I was, which was partly why I was doing it, remember.
As I headed out for training one evening, the girl from Morecambe and a couple of the other girls in G house asked me where I was heading. When I told them I was going to rugby training, they were a bit shocked. I was a skinny streak of piss with a mop top and too many namby-pamby books to play rugby with men who couldn’t hide behind telegraph poles. I told them that was the reason I was doing it. Not unreasonably, the girl from Morecambe suggested that there were better ways to go about building myself up a bit than getting already muscly blokes to beat the shit out of me. I knew better though…and she still thought I was clever, despite my concerted, if unwitting attempts to prove her wrong.
Thinking about it, I’ve remembered that, when I used to come back from circuit training or rugby, the girl from Morecambe could have just raised an eyebrow and mocked my stupidity but she didn’t, she looked after me and I enjoyed being looked after, even though I didn’t deserve it.
At the training ground, it was alright. To an extent. We tackled padded sausage shaped things and ran around a lot. I was deemed ‘nippy’ and was put on the wing for the first game on Saturday, with the proviso that I would go to the gym on the days I didn’t go to circuit training. On the grounds that somebody who weighed less than ten stone soaking wet might not have added all that much to a group of rugby playing young men whose thigh circumference was generally greater than my waist.
I went to the gym, but only once; early in the morning to avoid embarrassing myself in front of meaty blokes. I could barely move the pins out of the weights at the back, let alone lift anything up, so I gave up.
On the Saturday, I was just crap. Embarrassingly so. Nobody said anything, it wasn’t as if I lost us the game particularly, although I wouldn’t have helped. It wasn’t even because I was so puny in comparison. I wasn’t fit enough, to be blunt. Circuit training for about an hour is hard work, but you never stop when you’re playing rugby – league at any rate, which I was. Ten minutes into the first half, I realised that even in the unlikely scenario that the ball was ever going to get passed right down the line to me, I doubted I had the stamina to even run the length of the pitch at anything approaching speed, and I was quite quick. When I wasn’t knackered after ten minutes at any rate.
So I knocked rugby on the head as well. I made up some bollocks to tell the girls in G house about me being valiantly injured and wronged in some way so I could retire with – at least in my own fairly empty head – some semblance of dignity.
The gym was a dead loss too, so I bought some dumbbells from Argos and took them home on the bus. I was, yet again, too embarrassed to walk through a possibly busy kitchen, buckling under the weight of a set of relatively light, plastic weights so I went ’round the back and left them outside my window and retrieved them after walking around the front again. I know.
From then on, I’d do dumbbell things in my room three nights a week and go to circuit training on the other days. I took weekends off, although I did go and kick a football around with Ian most afternoons. I had a cheap Suede (the band, not the fabric) t shirt that hung off one shoulder after a washing incident, that I played football in. One of the girls in D house would wolf-whistle at me as I walked past, but it turned out she was taking the piss. I found that out turning on the ‘charm’ when I saw her at Vanbrugh bop, which was the cherry on top of the year, really. That and having Noirin’s boyfriend threaten to kneecap me with his shotgun because he had good reason to believe he thought we’d been up to no good. He used to give me doobs, too; that’s how much of a grateful twat I was. I had it coming, all of it.
The upshot was that I didn’t turn into a beefcake. Probably because I didn’t eat properly – at university or by the time I started my PGCE when I was at Desmond Ave. Apart from making spaghetti bolognese to impress the girl from Morecambe and taking her to McDonald’s when we went to see The Wedding Present, I can’t remember eating anything in my third year, although I must have. Not eating anything, it turns out, isn’t all that compatible with growing dirty great muscles. You learn something new every day, eh?
I’m not much better these days, really. Still a streak of piss, still not eating much. I don’t do any sport at all anymore. I was playing badminton and cricket until I broke my ankle playing cricket and was off work for three months, which sounded like it was going to be a lot more fun than it turned out to be. I couldn’t be doing with all that again, so I knocked those on the head and just started walking instead. When I started and I told my friends, they asked me where I went walking. “Just ’round the streets,” I told them and they looked at me like I was simple.
Arsed. I’m into it.
End of Diversion.
Anyway, once I left university, I wasn’t going to any circuit training, although I did keep up the weights. The closest I get to being muscular is when I tense my bicep, the sinews on the inside of my forearm form a sort of canoe shape that you can put your finger in. I call it my mus-hole and have only so far managed to get the current Mrs Middlerabbit to put her finger in it the once and even then she ran off, cringing. That’s how manly I am. So cheers, yeah.
My mentor was a chap called Charles Heywood. The kids called him The Terminator – it was the 90s – because he had a pretty good death stare, like the cop chasing Arnie did. Charles was enormously, drawlingly posh. His father had been a surgeon who, by my mother’s account at least, lacked something in his bedside manner, so to speak. I mean he was a bit brusque in general, not that my mother was his patient or worse. Charles was pretty similar. He smoked too but it took him a long time before he offered me a lift to work which was a bit tight of him because I lived two minutes away from his house.
He was a physics teacher and I wasn’t anything. I’d signed up for a science PGCE and they didn’t specify any of the sub-disciplines. My degree’s in psychology and I signed up to do science because I thought there’d be more work for a science teacher than, say, an English teacher. Also, we were just asked whether we wanted a BSc or a BA, so I picked the BSc because it had more letters. And that probably says more about what was going on in my brain than any of the rest of the thousand of words I’ve vomited out about anything else. Pfff. Eh?
Anyway, I figured I’d more or less be alright teaching Biology but I couldn’t just do Biology, so I had to go through all that Physics and Chemistry stuff I’d done at O level a few years earlier again. It was a drag, man.
Charles was a good teacher: he could hold a class’s attention alright and he knew his stuff. Paperwork, he wasn’t so hot on but who cares, eh? I wasn’t a good teacher. It took a while because, I think like I had with Chris, I again mistook bravado and front for the genuine article. A bit sharped tongued and it goes down badly.
In one of the first lessons I took, a kid asked me, “Is that an Oasis haircut?” He had fanny flaps and I snidely snapped back at him, “Is that a PJ and Duncan haircut?” He was taken aback, not unreasonably really. Pam, whose class it was, told me that kids don’t like sarcasm. I was a bit worried by that because it appeared that Pam was telling me that something totally intrinsic about school teaching had changed in the seven years since I’d left because my teachers only rarely slipped out of their apparently default, sarcastically inclined demeanour.
I took it on the chin and resolved to curb my naturally northern, sarcastic tongue and things started to improve. In the classroom at least. I had a huge file of coursework to complete which sat with the unopened Apple Mac like a pair of cardboard brothers in the corner of my room at Desmond Ave.
I went to Stepney Primary school on Beverley Road for my primary placement and wondered if I’d not made a bad move, going into secondary. I don’t know, it’s a nice age, about nine to eleven, maybe even a little bit younger. Most of them retain a level of enthusiasm that can quickly dissipate, sometimes by Christmas in the first year at secondary school. Especially in money poor places.
Once, the class I was in had a local authority advisor – as they used to have before they gave all the schools away to academy chains – come in and talk to them about healthy and unhealthy ways of cooking. He was telling them about grilling food and how much better it was. “You can grill anything,” he told the kids for about an hour.
The regular teacher, who was sitting with me, gave me a look and spoke up.
“Who can tell me what grilling is?” he asked.
One kid put his hand up.
“Sir, it’s when you make them tell you something,”
The teacher gave me another sideways glance and smiled benevolently at the advisor.
A few days later, another advisor was telling the same teacher how he should be taking advantage of everything that was going on around the school and to make it into a learning opportunity and he was going to show him how it was done. He led the kids out to the yard, which was being tarmacked by a couple of blokes who looked rough as arseholes, covered in splashes of tarmac from head to foot.
“Ah, excuse me?” the advisor piped up to a man who was pouring tarmac unsteadily into a metallic bucket who glanced with irritation at the interrupting besuited advisor. He finished filling it, slammed the larger barrel back onto its base, spilling a couple of steaming litres down his leg, which he appeared not to notice. He briefly raised his blackened head back, a silent and surly way of saying, “What now?”
“Sorry to bother you, but I wondered if you could tell me, precisely, how hot does the tar have to be before you apply it to the existing surface of the playground?”
“You what?” he asked, like he’d been asked if he wanted to work harder and longer for less money.
“I wondered if you would be so good as to tell me what temperature the tarmac has to be before you can, er, put it on the playground?”
The tarmac man twitched his eyes in disbelief at that and answered, “Fucking hot,” before picking up his bucket and walking back to the other workmen. The kids’ laughter, like it sometimes does, went on a bit too long to have been that genuine for that long, but it was pretty funny.
Time went on and I passed my final observation, albeit second time around because my first final observation went quite badly. A kid whose name I’d stopped bothering to call out when I took the register because he never turned up, was marched into my lesson for the first time.
“Who’s this silly cunt?” he announced as he nodded in my direction as I paused from explaining how slide projectors worked – like a lot of teachers, I’d prepared differentiated worksheets, I’d marked the books to within an inch of their lives, there were multitudinous activities, the lot, including a selection of mildly entertaining slides featuring me sitting naked in a bucket in our back yard at Compass Road for encouragement. Like it makes any sodding difference. Ever. Anyway, he continued and walked up to a kid on the first row, picked up his bag which he proceeded to throw through the window, which was closed at the time.
“What do you think you’re playing at?” I asked him,imperiously.
“Go fuck yourself, dickhead,” he blandly dismissed me as he opened the window and dropped the bag out of it. We were on the third floor.
After that it was pandemonium, really and I couldn’t get them back. I failed that observation because I’d failed to control the class. I thought that was a bit tight, frankly. Mind you, the person doing the observation was – and I’m not joking – a nun in full habit, scapular and cowl (the old teacher training college used to have nuns taking the classes, she must’ve been a remnant of that) who was about ninety and was having none of it, so she had to come back a week later and watch me teach some people who were a bit more biddable. She said I’d improved, which was bollocks. She seemed to genuinely believe it. At least she did a good impression of it. I thought she was a twat, but I’d also been quite rude about Mother Theresa on several occasions in the past, so maybe it was Catholic Karma or something.
Halfway there. I still had to hand my portfolio, or whatever it was called, in order to pass, which was going to be tricky because I’d not even bothered looking at it yet and it was due in, in a fortnight.
Burning the candle at both ends, and in the middle for luck, I set about going through it. I don’t know if you’ve ever left revision for an exam so late that you just about learn enough to realise that you’re fucked the night before you actually sit the exam, but it was bordering on that. I was supposed to have been gathering evidence for the last seventeen and a half months: letters, recommendations, classroom resources and materials and I had the square root of the circumference of naff all.
So, I had to go back to the various schools I’d been in and get all this paperwork, and write quite a lot of it from scratch. But I did it. It was close, but I got there. Once I’d finished it, I had to give it to Charles, who’d send it off to the Open University. I also had to hand over my Apple Mac on the same day, which Geoff – my favourite member of staff at Lister – turned his nose up at.
“What the fuck am I going to do with a Mac?” he asked me, “It’s all PCs here,”
“Use it as a footstool, Geoff,” I suggested, “That’s what I’ve been doing with it,”
Geoff laughed and said, “I’m going to miss you, you pointy nosed twat,” and thumped me hard on my arm.
I called in on the toilets on the way out to see if I really was a pointy nosed twat. I knew I was a twat, but being pointy nosed had never occurred to me before. Looking at it, I realised that Geoff was right: I was a pointy nosed twat.
Geoff was right about quite a lot of things, as far as I was concerned. I once asked him what he thought the answer was to the inevitable behaviour problems that plagued the school and he told me that he thought the school leaving age should be reduced to thirteen, but everyone should be given vouchers entitling them to an extra five years of education whenever they decided they wanted to make a decent go of it, instead of pissing about.
“Let ’em have a shit job for a couple of years, they’ll come back interested in learning summat then, Middlerabbit,” he said. And I think he’s probably got a point. To an extent.
I called in on Charles on the day it had to be there and he told me he’d posted it a couple of days before and it’d probably be there by now.
But it wasn’t because it was in the boot of Charles’ fancy old American classic car, where it remained, untouched for duration of the summer holidays. When the day came that I was due to get my results – a foregone conclusion – the postman had nothing for me. I rang the Open University, and asked if there’d been a delay. After much faffing about, I was informed that no letter had been sent to me because they’d not received my portfolio. At all.
I rang the school, who said they didn’t know anything about it and didn’t give a shit. The deputy head lived near and walked his dog past my parents’ house, so I called in on them for a cup of tea and collared him and his – very nice, as usual – beagle and asked him if he could look into it for me, seeing as Charles’ car hadn’t been on his drive since I’d spoken to the OU. I was planning on being arsey about it, but I can’t get that mardy when there’s a beagle around. He rang me later and told me Charles had gone to America on holiday for a month and had probably left his car at the airport. It turned out that Charles’ uselessness when it came to paperwork that I’d been so blasé about, bit me right on the arse. Clap, clap Middlerabbit. Again, yes. Cheers.
Consequently, I had to re-do yet another sodding placement, this time at an all boys’ school, which was different again. That too has closed down. It was alright. The lads didn’t play up to show off in front of girls that weren’t there, but then those same non-existent girls didn’t calm the lads down either, so take your pick. I prefer mixed, myself. I think single sex education is a bit odd because school’s not just about academia, is it? There’s plenty to learn outside the classrooms too.
Anyway, that placement was short and it all went well – it was a lot easier than at Lister, that was for sure. My portfolio didn’t even need re-doing, except to update it. Even so, I was pissed off with Charles who hadn’t even apologised. I bumped into his wife at the local shops and she told me Charles had been unwell and that was why he’d forgotten to post my portfolio off. I told her to pull the other one because I’d turned up at their doorstep to check he’d posted it and there was nothing wrong with him when he lied about posting it a few days earlier. She said, “Ah,” and that was it.
My first teaching job was part-time A level psychology at a school in East Yorkshire. My interview was in the carpark, leaning against the boot of the other psychology teacher’s car, smoking fags. She asked me, “How would you teach memory?”
Ironically, I couldn’t remember anything about memory at that point and just said that I’d start at the very basics and move on through that which she seemed happy with. I think she just liked it that she had someone to go for a fag with at breaktime.
My only class was an upper sixth, consisting of eight girls, all of whom were really bright, keen and interested. They were also only eight years younger than I was. Balf and Ploggy were beside themselves when I told them about it.
“Are any of them good looking?” Balf asked, as he tended to. They were all pretty good looking, like it mattered. A couple of them exceptionally so, but I wasn’t going to go down that road. The closest to anything untoward that happened was when one girl – Fernanda, who calls their kid Fernanda? – shoved her boobs in my face when she was telling me she’d not done her homework. I wasn’t impressed and told her to get them out of my chops and go and find some self-respect, which might have been on the harsh side, but you can’t have that, can you?
I got more hours as the years went on, teaching biology in the lower school until I was there four days a week. I practised with bands on Friday then, so I was fairly happy.
Then a physics job came up and the head of science handed the application forms around, asking if any of us knew any of the candidates they were interviewing and one of them was Charles. There was another biology teacher there called Simon, but he made everyone call him Sam. Sam was a nice lad. A bit Billy Bunter, but a decent sort. Not that the head of science would have agreed with me because she thought he was an idiot. Bearing that in mind and, having a reasonable working knowledge of both Machiavelli’s The Prince and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, I suggested to Sam that he put a good word in for Charles, which I knew would have the opposite effect to what he intended. I also told the head the truth: he was good in the classroom but shit with paperwork and he’d fucked my PGCE up, meaning I’d had to do an additional placement to pass.
I didn’t stop there, however. We were informed that the candidates would be taken on a tour of the buildings that culminated in the assembly hall, where there was some sort of fair going on.
I had a sixth form tutor group then and I really enjoyed that. I had some truly lovely kids. In General Studies lessons, we’d empty the bin on my desk and glue whatever crap we found and spent the afternoon coming up with preposterous titles for the resultant sculpture. That and having genuinely interesting conversations about what was going on in the news, culture and all the rest of it. One of the kids in my form was called Rory – I know, it was quite posh, I fitted right in as you can imagine – and he was, even among a lovely group like that, a notable delight. I told Rory the situation and that I was going to wind Charles up before his interview so he’d be flustered and fuck it up and asked him to help, by giving me precisely one and a half minutes to talk to Charles and then Rory was to come and drag me off somewhere under the pretence that he needed me to look at some of his coursework.
Standing in the assembly hall, Rory and I kept an eye on one another. When Steve Guilliatt (later convicted of possession of child pornography and visited by the former head of biology – he was always calling me a weirdo because I read books and watched poncey four hour shaggy dog French films, the dick) brought them in, Charles made a beeline for me and asked about a Maths textbook he’d lent me when he was my mentor. I don’t even know why he lent me it, I wasn’t teaching maths. It was an expensive American book.
“That?” I said, laughing, “I sold it,”
“You sold it?” he gawked, incredulously. “That book was very expensive. And American”
Guilliat the then undiscovered pervert looked admonishingly at me.
“Yeah, well I was a bit hard up after you ballsed up my PGCE when you didn’t post my portfolio when you told me you had. I had to do another placement because of you, how much do you think that cost me in lost earnings? I think you’ve got off lightly, considering,”
Charles had opened his mouth to speak, but Rory, with perfect timing, interrupted and asked me to look at his coursework.
“Oh, of course, Rory,” I said, “I’ve been procrastinating for weeks, haven’t I? Come on,”
And off we went to the dining hall where I bought Rory his dinner and we had our usual conversation about cricket.
He didn’t get the job. The head of science told me that, the instant Sam told her that Charles was wonderful, she knew she wouldn’t be giving the job to him, so I went a bit overboard, really. Again. Henry James wouldn’t have been impressed…
At the start of this post I pasted four quotations: from Confucius, Henry James, Socrates and one from This Sporting Life, and told you that this post is all about learning or, more precisely, not learning.
Embarrassing myself on a rugby pitch so that Clare wouldn’t dump me, signing up to a PGCE so that Clare wouldn’t dump me, pissing about trying to cycle and smoke simultaneously in rush hour traffic on a pushbike because Clare had dumped me and I didn’t know what else to do: what does that tell you about my ability to learn anything? It tells me that, fundamentally, I don’t. I keep making the same mistakes over and over again. I don’t even reach Confucius’s worst level of learning, let alone the nobler and the easier ways.
Verbally dismantling a secretly sensitive kid like Chris, stunning the kid with the PJ & Duncan haircut and going to town on Charles Heywood are hardly the actions of a particularly kind man, are they? I wonder about Henry James though. I really enjoyed The Turn Of The Screw, but it’s a nasty book. Not that makes James a nasty man necessarily, but I do appreciate that he must have at least entertained ideas about sickening cruelty. We shouldn’t be judged on what arrives unbidden into our minds because we can’t control that. All we can control is what we say and do, otherwise it’s thoughtcrime, isn’t it? And that’s not fair. I can’t claim to have considered and rejected unkind thoughts though, can I? Well, I have rejected some of them, but not enough.
And so, to Socrates’ quotation, which is known as a Socratic paradox because once you realise you know nothing, you actually do know something: you don’t know anything, so it stops being true. Having said that, the lack of learning that’s taken place in my mind despite reflection, imitation and bitter experience is disappointing.
Like Fred Machin in This Sporting Life who found out too late to do anything about it, not learning anything leads to becoming “A great ape on the football field,” Poor Frank, he couldn’t articulate himself except through physicality. I, on the other hand, couldn’t express myself with any degree of physicality if my life depended on it. My problem was the opposite of Franks: the ability to articulate terribly and precisely some horrible things that pop unbidden into my brain.
Naturally, the result is pretty similar.
I don’t go near any football fields anymore, but that makes no difference. I sometimes think that the real-life, actual great apes of the rainforests might well have a bit more about them than I have. At least in terms of learning something .