Ruminate on this, Brethren and Sistren!
Although my comic school-based novel ‘Long-Leggety Beasties‘ is predominantly outrageous, exaggerated and funny, I did, I now realise, write an honest, realistic and easy-to-relate-to portrait of my own early struggles to control classes – and, taking the broader view, that experienced by thousands upon thousands of young (and not-so-young) teachers.
The teething problems I am experiencing as a supply teacher have reminded me, at times forcibly, of the anxiety, fear and sense of failure which was such a strong part of that first five years in the job. I am very glad, in retrospect, that I wrote about that part of the whole because it was a sharp reminder that my, at the time, very good discipline had been hard won and that I could never take it for granted. Prescient! Very! Humbling too: A great reminder that behind every moderately good teacher (which, by the end, I was) lies an ocean of tears and hundreds, if not thousands, of unruly, rude, even threatening adolescents.
Back to ‘LLB’, as I have come to call it: My protagonist, Geraldine, arrives at St Thelma’s, in the fictional Cornish town of Port Tossack, as a very new, very green, very idealistic twenty-three year old. So did I, in a very different setting!
There she is given, as I was, two very challenging groups, in amongst other easier ones: A bottom set year nine and a bottom set year eleven. She has no classroom of her own – and spends too much of her timetable, as did I, attempting to teach these horrors in dining rooms, often with a full Greek Chorus of menopausal dinner ladies discussing their latest symptoms in pitiless detail and at full volume. I still shudder at my memory of this particular misery. These lovely ladies were nothing if not frank and the kids found it hilarious, understandably, and much more entertaining than their blushing, stammering, inexperienced teacher.
But these dining room lessons did, undoubtedly, have a raucously funny side – and, the older I got, the more I came to appreciate the bawdy comments and scatalogical wit of the Goddesses of the Kitchen!
I created, therefore, a lively quintet of dinner ladies, led by Bristolian Rital, a drama queen par excellence with a talent for cooking and a murder of malapropisms ready to annihilate the unwary and amuse the old guard!
I had huge fun with the dinner ladies en masse – and their behaviour gets ever-more peculiar and over-the-top as the novel progresses!
The other main group of characters, the Archers, were inspired by some of the best teachers, best laughs and most original thinkers I ever experienced as a teacher: The Craft department (now Technology), all men, all bearded, all anarchic in their own way and several great, and enduring, friends of mine.
There really was a Craft Orchestra (and I took part in it), though inside the school as opposed to out by the moat of a castle on a snowy day!
The Archers are nothing like their actual counterparts – and yet they are as well. I think in Jasper, Bilbo et al I have recreated something of the maverick spirit, the fun, the laughter and the dislike of pointless authority which abounded, not just in my own Craft Department but in most of the very best teachers I have met over the past four decades. The characterisation of these men is a loving tribute. I doubt we’ll see their like again – at least not in the short term.
The two Art teachers are based, in looks though not in personality, on the duet of art educators at my own grammar school. They were both eccentric. You were allowed to be until fairly recently. They both appeared to be off with the fairies much of the time. I always felt, with both of them, that we were inhabiting parallel universes and that they graciously stopped at mine (that of a child useless at Art, basically) and alighted for a brief moment of baffled and bemused agitation before gliding off once again!
Peter Dixon, Geraldine’s nemesis in that first year, really existed – but in several forms and both genders. We all meet them, I am afraid: Kids who know their rights and who possess the spoilt child’s sense of absolute entitlement; kids whose parents back them up rather than the school; parents who, on occasions, use their own influence on Governing Boards and similar to belittle, threaten and punish the teacher who has dared to criticise their beloved offspring for poor behaviour or lack of work!
Kevin and Nivek Pendoggett were also based on real people, though not ones I ever met. A friend and fellow teacher told me of two brothers. The parents had liked the name ‘Derek’ so much that they’d named his brother ‘Kered’. Thus were Kevin and Nivek born. I also met many Mrs Pendoggetts as a teacher. Loved them for the most part too: Totally unpretentious, salt-of-the-earth types, ready to, ‘…ground the little sod…’ if their child stepped out of line.
Headteachers! Ah! They are worth a whole novel by themselves – and, in my time as a teacher, I have experienced the full gamut of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Having said that, I think it is true that power can both corrupt and distance – and some heads are too busy hiding in their own Ivory Towers, and, in my view, concentrating on trivia, to actually take a firm stand and be an authoritative presence at the sharp end.
The Head at St Thelma’s is, therefore, an amalgam of the worst traits of the breed.
There is a great deal of truth, and common sense, and real-life experience hidden behind the humour. This is not a novel about a successful, fast-track teacher. It is one which deals with the reality of a newbie who struggles, at times mightily, who loses control of classes regularly, who is laughed at, tested, even treated with aggression – and who does not prevail with ease – or at all!
It is the true story of a woman who was able, twenty-five years later, to laugh, to see the funny side, to appreciate the colourful diversity of colleagues she met and children she taught.
It is me. It is Geraldine. It is every colleague, whether known or unknown, who has ever found control difficult and adolescents confronting!
So, if you think you are alone going through the early horrors of being ignored, cheeked, reviled and laughed at, be assured that you are not! I have been there. I am still there!