Friday, 25 April 2008

Happy Days but not for Everyone

The newspaper headlines are dominated by the NUT's one day strike action yesterday. I am reminded of nearly twenty years as a teacher including a spell as a union leader, though not the NUT. Happy days in the main. But I am reminded that it is not a profession loved by all. And where else would you see a grown man in tears in his workplace, a sobering experience. The talk was all too often of early retirement. My boast if it not too strong a word was that I could get one and one only teacher out of their misery on grounds that no authority could refuse. Meant as a joke but containing the seeds of an idea that resulted in a short story entitled Early Retirement. I hope you enjoy it. As almost all of the characters are based on real people; if you recognise yourself, I won't tell anyone if you don't!

“Does the road wind up hill all the way?”
“Yes, to the very end.”
Christina Georgina Rossetti,
English poetess, 1830-1894

Early Retirement

The alarm rang incessantly. Charles pulled the sheets over his head and the blanket ends into his ears, attempting to drown out the sound.
“Charles, get up, it’s gone seven, and you’ll be late for school.”
“Mum, I don’t feel well, I don’t want to go.”
“Now, now, get up Charles, you’ll be all right.”
“Mum, mum, I don’t want to go, I hate school!”
“Now Charles, pull yourself together. Everyone has to go to school.”
“I’m not going. The kids don’t like me and the teachers don’t like me.”
“Charles darling, you have to go, you’re a senior teacher.”
The recurring nightmare ended abruptly as Charles Montegue was startled into life by the shrill sound of a genuine alarm, urging him into reluctant action yet again.
It hadn’t always been like this. All those years ago. Straight from teacher training, keen, optimistic, proud to be a teacher. The children polite, eager, receptive. Clever kids, funny kids, not so clever kids, but always, or nearly always enthusiastic.
Enthusiastic children . Enthusiastic Charles, employing all the little personal tricks to encourage and amuse.
“Remember, children, punctuation is important, if your work is to make sense. For instance, in the examination, ‘Henry, where John had had ‘had’, had had ‘had had’, ‘had had’ had the examiners approval.’ See how important punctuation is, children?”
“Ooh, isn’t sir clever!”
The joys of grammar, for Charles was a teacher of English. Comprehensions; punctuation, dictation, verbs and adverbs; adjectives, nouns and pronouns, conjunctions and prepositions; similes and metaphors, suffixes and prefixes.
Essays by the cartload. Today’s homework, children, is an essay entitled, “What I did in my holidays.” Thirty essays set, thirty essays to mark.
Vocabulary tests and spelling tests. Little Susan in 5G thinks that a pessimist is something her mother buys at the chemist. Big Wayne writes that an enigma is something you stick up your bottom.
Shakespeare and John Donne; Of Mice and Men and The Go Between; Cider With Rosie and Lord of the Flies; Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Three Men in a Boat. Dancing Daffodils and Ancient Mariners.
Essays that on occasion described in uninhibited detail sexual romps in step-mum’s caravan in Mablethorpe; or detailed critiques of the latest blue movie, evidently acquired by step-dad, but seemingly available to all offspring over five!
Fellow teachers whose antics amused, alarmed, horrified; colleagues, some admired, others pitied.
Old Mr Henshaw, a relic of the past, both hard of hearing and short sighted. Best remembered when he eulogised on a foggy November day, period one, on ‘The rising sun o’er this autumn morn.’ The object of his attention being in fact the lighted globe in the chip shop window opposite the school! Not too long afterwards Mr Henshaw was pensioned off. As was Mr Arkwright, who, in a moment of sheer frustration, held a year one boy by his legs out of a third floor window, years before Michael Jackson thought of such a possibility!
Miss Bailey, who frequently took ill or went missing when she was due to teach 4B, 4G or 5C; or 5S, 4X and 5L; or 4U and 5G; in fact any class with a pupil aged over thirteen or with an IQ less than 100.
Mr Jenson and Mrs Williams, conducting a non-too subtle romance. Whose assignations included being found in disarray in the Geography cupboard, behind the PE store and under the stage in the Drama workshop.
Mr Graham, who thought school collections from pupils were part and parcel of his salary, collected dutifully and spent on alcohol, cigarettes and the horses. No pension for Mr Graham.
Mr Slavinski, whose amorous intent went far beyond his middle aged wife, directed instead towards pubescent pupils initially unaware of his lecherous intentions. No pension either for Mr Slavinski.
Registration twice a day; registers to fill in. Assemblies for bored, half awake pupils, content loosely moralistic or vaguely, ever so vaguely Christian biased. In an era where teachers received financial reward for duties perceived to be beyond the normal call of duty, Charles’ speciality was assemblies, often humorous, sometimes obscure, but always different.
Yard duties and dinner duties. In November dodging fireworks, in January snowballs. After school detentions liable to be interrupted by irate parents striding in, uttering profanities as they removed their offspring from the room.
Lunch clubs spent throwing boomerangs and flying kites. Both hilarious and dangerous! Hilarious when boomerangs didn’t come back, damaging egos; dangerous when they did, damaging heads, arms and legs. Dangerous too when kites missed electricity cables by inches, causing palpitations in teacher and mirth in pupils.
School-phobics collected from home, locked in teacher’s car and delivered to school, only to abscond within five minutes of arrival.
Ice cream vans parked by the school gate, serving ice cream openly and cannabis surreptitiously to eager customers.
Parents Evenings enlivened by fathers sporting tattoos of ‘Love’ and ‘Hate’ across their fingers, venomously arguing that no son of theirs was going to pursue a ‘puffy’ career as a ladies’ hairdresser.
Bomb scares rang in from local phone boxes. Usually timed when examinations for 5X or 5S were due to start, subject matter diverse and unconnected. The police or fire service expecting teachers to help with the searches, teachers inevitably reluctant, suggesting good sense tinged with cowardice.
Trips to Alton Towers and Drayton Manor, on one occasion 503 out, 500 return. Skegness, York, Bologne, all repel the teenage hordes, pornography confiscated on arrival home from Skegness, flick-knives from Bologne.
One year became five years, became ten years, became twenty years. Half way in a forty-year career. Forty years, thirty-nine weeks a year average, twenty-five periods a week; thirty-eight thousand teaching periods. Six classes to teach, say thirty in a class, two home works a week. Thirty-nine weeks, twelve home works a week, that’s over fourteen thousand home works a year and over half a million in a forty-year career!
And so, twenty years on, ‘sir’ is still trying to instil an empathy with punctuation to now less than enthusiastic pupils.
“Now children, remember, punctuation is important if our writing is to make sense. For instance, in the pub sign ‘The Dog and Duck’, the gap between Dog and ‘and’, and ‘and’ and Duck is six inches. See, children!”
“F*** O** you silly old sod!”
Help, stop the world, I want to get off!
Charles knew he had to get out, but how? It had to be legal. It had to be different. A copycat of someone else’s escape was doomed to failure. Remember, he also reminded himself, it had to be grounds for retirement, not dismissal. Walk away? Fine, but no pension to draw until at least sixty years of age. Sick leave meant a doctors note. A one week note becomes one month. One month becomes three, three becomes six. A six months sick note equals full pay, followed by six months half pay. Food for thought!
The spring term arrived. Mock examinations in preparation for the real thing in June. Wet breaks, dark days, darker moods. ‘Burnhem Tests’ for non-examination pupils at the bottom of the pile. Pupils do the tests, teachers collect them in and ‘burnem’. An unpopular term, summer holidays too far ahead to even contemplate.
The term brightened by Charles’ regular homily.
“Did you know, children, there was an awful accident at the Blue Peter Island this morning.” A flicker of interest amongst the captive, assembled audience. Accidents, the gorier the better, high on the list of juvenile interests.
“A brewery lorry overturned and dozens of barrels fell off. And where did they land? Right on top of a three wheeler car that happened to be alongside.” Juvenile interest increased further.
“It looked bad for the occupants of the three wheeler as bystanders ran to help. The car was uncovered and do you know what? No one was hurt. And do you know why? Because, children, the barrels were full of Light Ale!”
Half the audience tittered, half groaned at the awfulness of the joke. “So you see children, you must never judge anything, or for that matter, anyone without knowing all the facts. Things are not necessarily what they seem.” Charles sat down. His assemblies might be less than Biblical, but at least they were different!
A long, tedious, trying term, but not for Mrs Roberts! Her lessons became noisier and noisier as her delivery became quieter and quieter; and quieter; and quieter; and quieter, a whisper ultimately indescribable and indecipherable. Initially pupils strained to hear instructions, but inevitably any semblance of interest gave way to bored, unruly indifference, and ultimately shambolic uproar.
Mrs Roberts went home and stayed home. Wiley education officers rang Mrs Roberts at all times of day and night, in a variety of pretend voices, hoping to catch out Mrs Roberts, but were always answered by a whispered, inaudible voice. Psychosomatic, maybe, but for Mrs Roberts, goodbye purgatory, hello life!
The ‘wags’ in the staff room might well label Mrs Roberts’ condition ‘Silence of the Shams’ but they had to face future Monday mornings in the classroom, she didn’t!
Pupils antics never ceasing to amuse, frustrate and occasionally horrify.
Harry Thomas, Year Five that was, whose sole contribution to his last year in education was to shoot out, after school, over forty of the gymnasium windows. Who would probably never have been found out, had he not taken to firing pot shots at the cross-country runners in PE lessons, many of whom broke their personal best times whilst Thomas was honing his skills as a marksman!
Billy Williams and Keith Johnson, who, sent to retrieve musical equipment after a concert in the local church, had not returned after two hours. An anonymous, as was the norm, phone call to the school meant teachers returning to the church to investigate. Discovering, in the graveyard, prone, ill and paralytic drunk, Billy and Keith.
Having found in the church vestry bottles of communion wine, they had sampled the contents, oblivious to the capabilities of such innocuous offerings. A trip to the local hospital and a session with a stomach pump a reminder that schooldays are not necessarily the happiest days of your life!
Harry Piper, caught stealing from fellow pupil’s satchels, but only stealing food, never other personal property.
“Why do you steal other pupil’s sandwiches, Harry, when you are on free dinners?” he was asked.
“Oh, it’s not for dinner, sir, it’s for tonight. I don’t get any tea, sir unless I nick it from somewhere.”
Joseph Riley of 4X, who slept in the clothes he wore for school, often for days at a time. Who changed into other clothes at school so that sympathetic school staff could put his own clothes through a school washing machine prior to going home time.
Derek Smith, whose timekeeping, attendance and behaviour were erratic in the extreme. Not surprising when it was discovered home circumstances not conducive to school.
Mother’s boyfriend, unsympathetic to Derek’s very existence, had given mum the ultimatum, “Either he goes or I go.” Derek went, presumably with little soul searching on mother’s part.
Living rough, not the ideal preparation for a day in the classroom.
All of which may or may not have contributed to the demise of Mr Adams.
Mr Adams, the art teacher, whose slow decline into madness started innocuously enough when he lined up the pencils on his desk. Eventually he counted them by the hour and sharpened them by the minute, measuring them lest one should be a millimetre longer than the other. At the end, prior to his committal, pupils were allowed to view the pencils but not to use them.
His later years were spent in residential care at the local mental hospital, his pencil collection prized and lovingly shown to visitors; each pencil individually named and awarded its own place on the hospital’s mantelpiece. All funded by his pension.
And Mrs Leeson of PE limped out of teaching. Arthritic English teachers, no problem. Or for teachers of Maths, Science, Humanities, indeed in any other subject a perfectly acceptable disability. But games teachers, a totally different ball game if you’ll pardon the pun. Physically challenged PE teachers were as useful as the proverbial chocolate teapot, more important, they were likely to sue if future mobility problems were even remotely possible.
Charles had once fleetingly pondered on maiming himself, ever so slightly, say taking an axe to a finger. The idea had been very easy to discard. Far too severe, far too traumatic, and totally unlikely to procure early retirement for an English teacher!
Ironically the personal maiming of Mr Johnson, Metalwork teacher, albeit accidentally, provided that teacher’s escape from the daily grind.
The Year One, now called Year Seven children had gathered round the milling machine. He demonstrated using the machine, as he had done so to two previous generations of school pupils. Perhaps blasé, careless from years of familiarity, he started the machine with one hand, moving the safety guard with the other, a costly mistake. In the blink of an eye the machine severed three fingers. Minus his digits Mr Johnson was eventually removed to hospital, in obvious shock, muttering over and over again, “There’s no fool like an old fool.” A sad end to an illustrious career, an early retirement exercise not to be recommended.
Easter beckoned. The Easter leavers, those aged sixteen before January 31st excited, bravado covering up anxiety.
Fights with another local school on the green, were frequent. Participants suitably tooled up with broom handles, dustbin lids, eggs, flour, sticks and stones. The general public horrified and not a little frightened. The participants on a high, adrenalin flowing, for many the highlights of their academic year, their fleeting moments of fame.
The school glad to see the back of yet another fraught term, it’s finish marked by Mr Montegue’s end of term discourse.
“A long time ago, children, when your mums and dads were young, or perhaps even your grandparents, there used to be a singer called Dickie Valentine. How many of you have heard of Dickie Valentine?”
No response whatsoever from rows of uncomprehending pupils. Mr Montegue soldiered on.
“He was very famous, just like Robbie Williams is today.” A mixed reaction from the audience, half of whom regarded Robbie Williams as Neanderthal!
“In 1954 he topped the charts with his group ‘The Stargazers’ singing, ‘The Finger of Suspicion.’

‘Someone broke into my heart and stole a beat or two,
The finger of suspicion points at you.
Someone took away my sleep and never left a clue.
The finger of suspicion points at you.’”

Mr Montegue sang the song, his singing hauntingly awful, his audience a mixture of astonishment, embarrassment and amusement. But however limited his musical prowess, his efforts once again gained the audience’s attention.
“How many times, children do we point a finger at someone? Sometimes because we think they have done something bad. Perhaps we’ve heard a bit of gossip and we can’t resist passing it on, never mind that it might not be true. We never point a finger in a kind way when you really think about it.”
Mr Montegue pointed his index finger in the general direction of his audience, making some of the pupils squirm in discomfort.
“But a strange thing is happening when you point a finger at someone. You are also pointing three fingers at yourself.”
Mr Montegue held up his hand, pointed his finger at an imaginary target, and, lo and behold, evident for all to see, his three fingers below his index finger pointed to himself. Most of the audience tried it for themselves, seeing pointed fingers in a new light.
“Next time you point a finger, remember Mr Valentine; but more important, remember, whatever the reason you point at someone, you’re also pointing at yourself.”
Mr Montegue sighed, smiled and sat down. For as well as Dickie Valentine, Mr Montegue remembered another old favourite, Andy Williams. What was it he sang, ‘Almost There’

‘We’re almost there
And soon to share
Paradise so rare
Close you’re eyes, for you’re almost there.”

How very apt thought Mr Montegue.
At long last the summer term arrived, favourite of all, though not without it’s problems.
An unfortunate term for Mr Bell the music teacher, inevitably referred to as ‘ding dong’ by the pupils, but known as ‘Jonas’ by his colleagues.
His wife left him in the autumn term for the school gardener, a virile handsome young man. Mortified, he adopted as his best friend ‘Johny Walker’. An influential companion who was all too present when a preoccupied Mr Bell, driving to school, ran into the car in front! Inevitably he failed a breath test, even at eight thirty in the morning. Banned from driving Mr Bell had to suffer the ignominy of public transport, journeys accompanied by screaming, abusive pupils who thoroughly enjoyed Mr Bell’s discomfort.
Pondering his misfortunes one morning before school, alone at his desk in an empty classroom, Mr Bell contemplated his future.
The school had three separate buildings not counting gymnasiums, containing at least two hundred classrooms; each classroom contained at least three light fittings. On the morning Mr Bell pondered his future a single light fitting crashed from the ceiling of a single classroom. Underneath sat Mr Bell, deep in thought. A prone Mr Bell was discovered when the bell rang for morning registration.
The head injury he received was not terminal. And Mr Bell could never recall a single moment of the accident. Unfortunately neither could he ever recall any incident of his life prior to the accident itself. Not a single memory of his life up to the accident remained. Including any recollection of how to earn a living as a teacher.
Mr Bell never taught again. From that day on he spent many a happy hour in local hostelries, with newfound friends happy to help him spend his teacher’s pension.
GCE examinations, long hours spent in invigilation, tediously supervising long rows of bored, clueless examinees. Daydreamers supervising daydreamers!
Reports to write, teachers striving to impress parents with their erudition. Thus little Mary, wandering round the classroom with little or no interest in the subject taught became ‘Mary at times is an apathetic peripatetic.’
Only such attempts to impress were doomed to failure. Mum’s grasp of the language included absence notes for Mary that stated ‘Mary is off school ‘cause she is under the doctor.’ On another occasion, ‘I think Mary has the flu, even her dad was hot last night.’
The last day of the academic year. The pupils excited, the staff relaxed on the verge of six weeks holiday. Thoughts of Corfu, or even Skegness. Of caravans or tents; thoughts of freedom and peace.
The final assembly of a long, taxing year. The gymnasium, the only building in the entire school capable of housing all pupils and staff simultaneously was full to overflowing.
Rows and rows of children, over two thousand in all seated on druggets. Over one hundred staff, slightly more comfortably seated, on metal and plastic chairs both sides of the gigantic gymnasium. To the side of the stage, even more comfortably seated, senior staff, including Mr Barton, headmaster. And waiting in the wings Charles Montegue, wearing an immaculate blazer, pristine silk tie, shining brogues and an enigmatic smile.
The heat from over two thousand bodies, on a hot summer’s day in an airless, windowless gymnasium jolted Mr Barton from his alcoholic haze brought about by a secret liquid lunch.
“Children, staff, welcome to this end of term celebration. I don’t want to keep any of you longer than necessary. So I would like you to give your attention to Mr Montegue’s final address this academic year.”
Mr Barton sat down and Mr Montegue emerged from off stage. Though never ever untidy, his sartorial elegance attracted quizzical looks from staff and pupils alike.
Mr Montegue smiled a mysterious smile.
“Good afternoon, children, like the famous Max Bygraves, let me tell you a story.
Many, many years ago, before you children were born there was a massive slump throughout the world. Many families were starving and fathers everywhere were desperate for money for food. Mr Pringle, a little man with a wife and four children to support in Bristol was no exception.”
Mr Montegue, perspiring in the heat created by the two thousand bodies, removed his tie as he talked.
“Finally, in his daily search for work, Mr Pringle arrived at the gates of Bristol Zoo. He approached the gateman. ‘Any jobs, mister?’ he pleaded.
‘No chance,’ said the gateman, ‘we’ve no money to feed the animals properly, never mind the staff!’
‘I’ll do anything,’ pleaded little Mr Pringle, ‘anything. Clean out the giraffes, shovel up the elephant dung, anything.’”
The audience began to show interest, dung in particular had a special interest in many adolescent minds! Mr Montegue removed his blazer.
“Just then the manager of the zoo walked past and took pity on the dejected, unhappy figure of Mr Pringle.
‘I tell you what,’ he suggested. ‘We’ve just lost one of our main attractions, the gorilla and we can’t afford another. We’ve still got the skin. You dress up in the skin and entertain what’s left of our customers and we’ll see you right. Five bob a day and all the bananas you can eat.’
Fifteen minutes later the gorilla pen had a new occupant. Guy the gorilla, alias Mr Pringle, made his debut.”
Audience interest increased, particularly as Mr Montegue had now unbuttoned his shirt.
“Guy the Gorilla warmed to his task. Back bent, arms dangling, he hopped, skipped and growled his way round the enclosure.”
The difference between Mr Montegue and Guy the Gorilla distinctly blurred. Mr Montegue, by now perspiring freely, removed his shirt, revealing his immaculate white vest.
The juvenile audience were fascinated, only Mr Barton, his deputy Miss Cook and one or two other senior members of staff showed feelings of disquiet.
“Mr Pringle was really enjoying himself. He ran to the bars at the front of the enclosure and back again.
Cries of excitement mixed with not a little fear came from the mothers, while little children clung protectively to their father’s hands.
Guy the Gorilla’s act became more audacious by the second. Up and down, up and down the enclosure he went, whooping with joy, his audience wide eyed with mounting excitement.
Running to the tree at the side of the pen, he leapt up and grasped the lowest branches. Tightening his grip, he swung higher and higher with heartfelt abandon.
Suddenly his grip loosened and Guy hurtled over the high metal fence dividing the gorilla and his neighbours, the lions. Guy, heavily winded, landed in a heap on the grassy bank in the lion’s enclosure.”
Mr Montegue, mimicking Guy, sat down on stage, smiled his enigmatic smile and removed his trousers. His bright striped red boxer shorts with their Yogi Bear motif matched perfectly his dazzling luminous red socks held up by gleaming chrome and leather suspenders.
Mr Barton stood up, sat down, stood up and sat down again.
Mr Montegue’s audience sat transfixed, mesmerised like a rabbit to a weasel.
“Guy the Gorilla ran to the bars at the front of the enclosure. A lone lion viewed his predicament.”
Mr Montegue, perspiring heavily, removed his vest, His scrawny, hairless torso added to the comic picture already presented to the entranced audience.
Mr Barton’s mouth opened and closed like a beached whale. The feeling that an event was taking place of unique importance filled the air.
“The lion viewed with interest the gorilla that had invaded his private space in his enclosure. Guy the Gorilla continued to hollow loudly to his audience the other side of the bars.
‘Let me out, get me out of here.’
The lion loped casually over to his new pen mate.
‘Help, help,’ Guy the Gorilla’s cries faded away as the lion slowly brought his mouth up to the gorilla’s ear. Mr Pringle shut his eyes and awaited his end.
And the lion whispered into the gorilla’s ear the simple message, ‘Shut up, you fool, do you want to get us all the sack!’”
The older pupils rolled their eyes at Mr Montegue’s little joke, whilst the younger members of the audience, less inhibited, giggled. Mr Barton contemplated hauling Mr Montegue off stage, but refrained from any action other than shuffling in his seat. Mr Montegue’s performance might be bizarre, tasteless even, but criminal, surely not?
Mr Montegue, enjoying his Andy Wharhol like fifteen minutes of fame, continued.
“So you see, children,” he stated, somewhat obviously, “neither Guy the Gorilla or the lion were real. And what does this story tell us?”
The audience waited expectantly for Mr Montegue’s answer to this conundrum. The little figure in boxer shorts and matching socks and suspenders cut a comic figure yet seemed to fill the stage.
Mr Montegue continued. “We are all impressed by show nowadays. Designer clothes, fancy trainers, body piercing. Very nice, I’m sure you agree, but they’re not important. Like our gorilla and our lion it’s what’s inside that counts. Try to look beyond what you see up front in people; remember, clothes and decorations are merely covering the real you.
Even if you don’t remember the many, many little talks I’ve been privileged to offer to you over the years, I’m sure you’ll remember, just for me, my message today.”
The audience clapped appreciatively, tops marks, Mr Montegue, for content and delivery. Mr Montegue bowed, smiled a last smile, turned and deftly removed his boxer trunks. To great applause from the juvenile audience Mr Montegue, using his notes to prevent the possible charge of indecent exposure walked off the back of the stage.
The message, ‘Goodbye Children’ written in black marker pen across his shiny white bottom was there for all to see.
A school bell rang in the distance. September the sixth, first day of the new term. Charles sat in the sunshine on the lawn, contentedly enjoying a cool glass of lemonade his mother had so thoughtfully brought out to him.
Life was good in retirement, mused Charles.

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