It’s first lesson after morning break. I’ve been to the main common room hoping to spot Miss Dazzle, only to end up munching mournfully on bourbons as she and Chisel Face retreat to a corner in close conflab.
It’s an English lesson, teaching a class the apostrophe. ‘So, if that’s what one elephant’s ears looks like, what about the ears belonging to two elephants?’ I understand it’s a difficult concept; had found it a trial myself at school, so I’m trying my best to make it upbeat, though it means I’m backwards and forwards to the blackboard.
‘Where shall I put the apostrophe? If there is one.’
I use chalk. It’s a painful, messy affair that takes ages. Too small writing and there are hands up. ‘What does that say, sir? Third line down, six words in?’
Too large and I reach the bottom of the board, stooping, straining to fit in whatever I have left to write. My wrist aches, and my elbow complains. But more crucially, any writing means I have my back to the class.
A golden chance for buggering about.
In this particular class there’s a character, not unlike several shits I met on Teaching Practice. Just thirteen, I’ve already discovered that this Rich Shit is capable of low-level disruption, is easily distracted, and likes diverting others from the task in hand. I’ve already caught him burrowing under the desk, furtively trying to eat, or up to some prank. ‘What’s going on?’ Pretty sure he likes to use his ruler to poke whoever’s sat close by. ‘Nothing. Sir.’
A short, dark haired boy, with eyes that narrow, shift, and avoid mine, Rich Shit has a sneering expression that seems to say Fuck off. Sir. He sniggers to his nearest crony in class, even hiding his mouth behind his hand, as if I won’t notice. A direct challenge to me.
His written work is shoddy. ‘Do it again and actually make an effort. Why don’t you listen?’ I’ve kept him behind after one lesson; stern face easily switched on. ‘Don’t you understand that English is the most important qualification you can get, and that if you don’t concentrate, you’ll not do to yourself justice in the exams?’ You Rich Shit.
This get-together is met with a surly grin and a shrug of the shoulders; a narrowing of the eyes that flick away as he mutters something about being “not bothered.” I’ve heard too from Adonis who takes Rich Shit for rugby. The “also rans.” ‘The boy just took no active part in the session. Point blank refused, so I sent him to Spicy.’ Adonis shakes his head. ‘I was close to losing it.’
This morning, just as I’m writing on the board, a ball of wet paper, the sort that children roll round in their mouths, lands with a splat close by, catapulted.
What’s going on?!
I spin round. There are some suppressed sniggers and I can feel blood pump in my head, and heart slam. Like when the dart hit the board on Teaching Practice. No way am I having that. My eyes are immediately on Rich Shit who’s gazing into space. Badly acted innocence.
Cold silence from the rest. Heads going down. Them and us.
Do I say something? Or let it go? Or...
Return to the board, straining to breathe normally; show restraint while fuming. Bide my time.
I write more words, before turning sharply round. I catch Rich Shit with his ruler out, mouth going ten to the dozen.
‘Are you eating?’ You Rich Shit.
‘No.’ Sullen silence. ‘Sir.’ Sneered.
‘Then why are you chewing?’ You little Rich Shit.
‘Just my tongue. Sir.’ And he sticks it out, like someone might to be rude. Some of the class snigger again.
Boiling, I turn back to the board only to hear a voice give a strangled scream. I can’t stop myself from hurtling round. I can see one of the girls, sat right behind Rich Shit. She’s red in the face. His ruler’s in hand; head down over book. I can feel the eyes of the class on me.
I’m aware I’m breathing hard now; a pounding head; close to combustion. ‘What’s going on?’
Someone’s taking the piss; that’s what. And I know who it is.
The girl’s eyes lower, embarrassed. ‘It was nothing, sir. I...just caught my finger in the desk.’ Her eyes flicker. Them and Us. Covering for Rich Shit.
A dilemma. I’m volcanic now. Blistering, boiling blood searching for a fissure. I turn back to the board and count three very slowly, then shoot round.
Rich Shit has his ruler in hand, back to me, aiming it like a catapult across the back of the classroom.
Got you. Red handed. You fucking little Rich Shit!
And I erupt, from the core, grabbing the blackboard rubber that’s close to hand and hurling it across the desks. ‘Ow!’ The rubber catches him smack on the back of the head, a thud, and there’s a sharp intake of breath from others as he rushes his hands to his crown, howling. ‘Ow!’ The class has frightened eyes turned towards me.
What have I done? In that instant any anger disappears. Have I injured him? What if I’ve inflicted brain damage?
What HAVE I done?
Heart beating alarmingly, blood still rushing to my face, I stride towards Rich Shit who’s crying, still holding his hands up to his head. At least there’s no blood. ‘Let me see.’ I take his hands away from his scalp despite his remonstrations. ‘Leave me!’
There’s already a lump from where the wooden board has struck him. At least it’s not his eyes, those same eyes that now stare malevolently up at me, red with tears, fiery with hatred.
My heart’s a tub thump. The eyes of the class are on me; horrified. Now what? ‘That’s what happens when you do something stupid and I lose my cool. We’re both as bad as each other.’
I find a handkerchief and send someone for cold water, then set the class back to work until the bell rings for end of lesson.
While the rest of the class file out, in a sombre mood I sense, I keep Rich Shit back. ‘How’s the head?’
He just mutters. Head down. ‘Telling my parents.’
What else can I do or say? ‘Perhaps in future it’ll teach you to stop playing the fool.’ Silence. ‘Right. Off you go.’
I spend the rest of the morning feeling unutterably gloomy, sick to the pit of my stomach. A clawing iciness. ‘You all right, sir?’ asks Fizz during our lesson.
But it can only be a matter of time before I’m summoned to Spicy’s office to be faced with the outraged Rich Shit parents. And I haven’t got a leg to stand on, am completely in the wrong. Have behaved in the most unprofessional manner. Let my childish emotions outrun my adult restraint. All very well acting tough; but not when it gets out of hand. Fool. Walking the corridors I’m convinced all the pupils are whispering about me. Should I tell Spicy?
‘What’s up, Robby Boy?’ Getting ready for the afternoon’s rugby, hoping against futile hope that nothing will come of the affair, I tell Rugger Bugger about the incident. He nods several times. ‘That boy, he’s a pain in the arse. I’ve felt like giving him a smack myself. Caught him playing with a Bunsen burner trying to set fire to one of the girls’ clothes. Told Spicy.’ He gives a wry smile. ‘But do you know how I really got him back? I made sure I had him for rugby later that day. I bided my time until he had to hold the ball then tackled him.’ He chuckles and taps his plaster cast. ‘Fair but hard. He went down like a bag of shit. Nothing he could complain about.’
‘Too late for that for me, I’m afraid. I’m expecting a call from Spicy any time soon.’ I sigh. Feel once again that stab of misery. ‘I wouldn’t mind, but I’m going to lose my job for that little shit.’
‘Spicy’ll smooth things over. It must happen all the time.’
‘Not throwing a board rubber.’ I blow out my cheeks. ‘If only I’d missed. Do you think I should tell Spicy?’
‘I wouldn’t. You never know, maybe the boy’ll think twice about it.’
That afternoon after school, trying to calm down by listening to some music in the Prep common room, Spicy’s secretary rings through. ‘Robert, can you come to the Head’s study? There’s some parents asking to speak to you.’
My entrails gurgle. This is it. I’m going to be sacked. Just weeks in and my career’s in tatters. My throat’s parched; heart at it hammer and tongs.
Spicy is stern faced; introduces the Rich Shits to me. ‘Take a seat.’
Mr. Rich Shit has a hard-set face; eyes narrowed. His wife takes out a paper tissue and wipes her nose.
‘My son tells me you threw a board rubber at him this morning,’ says Mr Rich Shit.
I can feel myself squirming under his scrutiny. I’ve no one else to blame but myself.
‘Is this true, Robert?’ asks Spicy.
I nod. Fight back some annoying watering of my eyes. ‘You heard about the incident then?’
Mr. Rich Shit purses his lips. I catch his wife throw him a glance. He continues sternly. ‘What exactly did he do?’
I do my best to try and explain. Mr. Rich Shit’s face is rock. When I’ve finished he speaks again. ‘Of course his story doesn’t quite fit with yours. Said he was doing nothing wrong.’
What else can I say? ‘Either way I know it’s unforgivable of me.’ I peep at Spicy, then at the wife, who averts her eyes. ‘Indefensible.’
There’s a palpable silence. Now what?
Mr. Rich Shit’s eyes bore into me, before glancing sideways.
Spicy now speaks. ‘Are you happy for me to take it take it from here? As we discussed?’
My heart thumps and what’s left of the blood in me chills. This is it. I am going to be sacked.
Mr. Rich Shit nods. Stands to leave with his wife. ‘I’m a teacher too. I do know how awkward teenage boys can be. And what it’s like to be new to the profession.’
‘But the thing is, Mister Hopebourne, I don’t condone his behaviour, and I hear it’s not the first time, so I’ll be having a stern word with him, but I don’t think physical stuff is ever the answer.’
‘Imagine what might have happened if that board rubber had gone in his eye?’ says Mrs. Rich Shit.
What can I say? ‘I know. I was stupid.’
Mr. Rich Shit nods. ‘Yes, well, my advice is, find out what unlocks each kid. If you find the key you’ll find they’re much more responsive. And stick to words. Encourage. I’ve found that to be the best way over the years.’
Mrs. Rich Shit clears her throat before speaking. ‘You see, we’re scrimping and saving to send our two here, Mister Hopebourne. We’re not like some of the other parents who’ve got plenty of money.’
Mr. Not So Rich Shit turns to Spicy. ‘I’ll leave it in your capable hands.’ He holds out his hand to me, eyes fixed making me wriggle, before shaking Spicy’s. ‘Over to you.’ And they leave.
There’s a long silence as Spicy leans back in his chair. Now what?
‘I’m sorry to have let you down,’ I manage. ‘I did think of telling you, but…’
Spicy nods. ‘I did much the same as you myself when I was younger.’ He fiddles with his pen. ‘Gave a lad a clip round the side of the head, only it was a bit harder than I meant. Thought I’d lost my job.’
‘Have I?’ I croak.
Spicy furrows his brow, then shakes his head. ‘They’ll not be taking it any further, so you don’t need to worry about that, but, Robert, at the risk of sounding like a teacher…maybe let this be a lesson to you. I know you went to a different sort of school, where maybe things are tougher, but parents who send their children to Fitzrovia are paying for a professional and nurturing environment. They expect teachers with passion for their subject and a genuine interest in the individual. With integrity.’
He nods at me. ‘I can see a bit of me in you. I learned the hard way myself, got a black mark against my name that I found hard to shake off. I like to think I learned from it and became a better teacher as a result. This is your chance. Don’t muck it up.’
I go to the Flyer that evening, thankful I’ve avoided a terrible end to my career. I throw money at the jukebox, Spicy’s words ringing in my ears. ‘Carrot rather than stick.’ I’m determined never to throw anything across the class again. Or use any sort of force. And I’ll try to find the keys to unlock the kids I teach. And I’ll try to encourage more in future. Try praise.
‘Best thing I ever learned,’ says Spicy.
‘Another pint, please,’ I say to the landlord as The Average White Band crank out. “Work To Do.” ‘Love this song.’
What’s Going On? - Marvin Gaye
From the 1971 LP of the same name, it’s not widely known that it was in fact a “concept” album of the type normally associated with prog rockers. The story’s told from the point of view of a veteran from the Vietnam war returning to the country he’s been fighting for, and seeing only hatred, suffering and injustice. History has made this album one of the all-time greats; and who am I to disagree?
My early memory of Marvin Gaye is “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” – another seminal pop song- and then, much later in the 80’s, Robert Palmer’s rerecording of “Mercy Mercy Me.” A Motown legend.
It Shall Be - Spirit
Spirit was just one of the bands to emerge during the USA’s psychedelic period. Lead guitarist was Randy California – really! Is their biggest claim to fame, however, that they were involved in a law suit citing that Led Zep had nicked their chord progressions for “Stairway to Heaven”? Well, if you listen to their song, “Taurus” you can decide for yourself.
Heard “It Shall Be” quite recently actually; had no idea it was Spirit or that it was recorded way back in 1968. Love it.
Work To Do - Average White Band
I played a lot of AWB when I was at college. A Scottish funk/R and B/ soul band, their biggest hit was the instrumental “Pick Up The Pieces”, though they had others with “Queen Of My Soul” and “Cut The Cake” and and…
“Work To Do” is actually written by The Isley Brothers in 1972, then covered by AWB in ’74.
I associate it with happy times I guess, and that’s ultimately the great power of music; to reawaken emotions and feelings or places and people. Shouldn’t Music Therapy be taken more seriously? Discuss.
About the Author: Richard Parsons
I’ve been fascinated with writing since I was a youngster; creative writing in English lessons was my favourite part of school life along with swapping music with mates or playing sport.
When I decided to quit teaching after many happy years, I applied for and won a scholarship to do a Masters at Plymouth Uni in Creative Writing. Drama was really the main string to my bow, but I soon became hooked on the idea of crafting short stories, and, eventually, the longer form of narrative. After graduating with a distinction, I cut my teeth writing for women’s magazines, but this was never in my own “voice” and was always formulaic. “Given Circumstances” is the real me.
Hope you enjoy it!