It was the summer, the one in which I finished my PGCE. A good friend of mine, Mike Elam – Elam is a rare name, and the only other one I’ve come across, as it were, was the wonky-eyed cowboy, Jack Elam, always a bad guy, and he was some sort of relative of Mike’s – had been offered three weeks cover in a local boys’ comprehensive – then called Hele’s. It had recently stopped being a grammar school, had lost its sixth form to the local college – the college where I had just been offered a job, starting in September. So: I wasn’t too popular when I was also given three weeks work in the same school as Mike. An elderly gentleman passed some dismissive remarks my way in the run-down urinals.
A Geography teacher had fallen ill. That was my opening. The school, still getting used to having secondary modern boys on its premises after the shutting of other local schools, had consigned these boys to ‘The Annexe’, a place which (so the head cheerily told me) had been condemned as unfit to live in as long ago as 1955. It was a series of nissen huts, each with two classrooms. The group to which I had been allocated, and vice versa, was considered beyond the pale, and was relegated to the furthest and most run-down nissen hut of all – rooms X and Y. Their lowly alphabetical status said it all.
The man in charge of the annexe had a wall chart of Europe behind him, and he himself had the air of the TV brigadier, Brian Horrocks. He wasn’t expecting much in the way of Geography from me. ‘Just keep them quiet,’ he said, adding helpfully, ‘They like quizzes.’ To be perfectly honest, I had no idea, none at all, what I was going to do with these stir-crazy fourteen-year-olds. The place had the air of a budget Colditz – and in fact, one of the members of staff had actually been in Colditz, too, which earned him a lot of respect: because there was a TV series of that name high in the ratings at the time. After years of anonymity, he had acquired a reputation as someone interesting, and was known to all as ‘Mr. Colditz’, too.
The lessons were two hours long. Going into a lesson which is two hours long means you ought to have a plan. I did not have the ghost of a plan (I ought to say that I had no notice when I went for my ‘interview’ that I would actually be taken to a classroom and asked to teach some fifteen minutes later). I fell back on the one thing I thought I was good at: talking. If I talked (oh the innocence, I was still just 21), I reasoned, they would have to listen, and, who knows, start up a discussion.
Children are ready for stand-ins, students, and other peripatetics who are thrust in front of them, and they can spot a clueless one within five minutes. They had my number in about 45 seconds. I began perilously to empty the contents of my head. I can remember only that my ‘chat’ ranged dangerously from Napoleon’s tactics at Waterloo through almost anything that I had ever come across in Ripley’s ‘Believe It Or Not’. It was random, and not in the current sense of ‘surprisingly interesting’.
At one point, to my surprise, a really foul manure-like odour filled the room. A stink-bomb! I had no idea the things still existed. The whole class rose as one and headed for the door, pushing aside my vague protests. One of the last on the way out explained: ‘Sewage farm next door. Overflows now and then.’ Rooms X and Y were definitely the worst rooms I would ever work.
After clearing their nostrils (foul though it was, I was also grateful for the breather), they trooped back in, and I resumed my impression of a walking encyclopedia. ‘Do you know,’ I said, straying perilously into the area of human reproduction, ‘so great is the birthrate of the Chinese nation, that, if you stood at a fixed point and set them walking round the Equator, the line would never cease. They would keep walking past you.’
A lad with a beady eye fixed me, casually, and he spoke.
‘Make them run.’