The Detainee and his ‘Mum’

Broadly speaking, there are two types of kid who are likely to give you a problem in the classroom: those that have an awful home life, and are therefore suffering some form of neglect or – worse – abuse; and those that have been overindulged by their parents.  While, I think we can all agree that it’s important to be as sympathetic, and as understanding as possible, with regard to the former, accommodating the latter can be a problem. A problem, as in ‘why should I?’  If that sounds more than a little flippant then just for good measure I’ll add that I’ve never once found myself in a position whereby I’ve had a colleague suggest to me: ‘You need to go easy on him/her… their parent(s) have spoilt them rotten.  I feel ever so sorry for them’.

All of which brings to mind, a classic instance from my own teaching career where I came up against the behaviour of a particularly spoilt individual – a frequent occurrence in his case – and in so doing, finally got the opportunity to deal with his doting mummy, bless her little cotton apron strings.

The individual in question was not only talkative, unfocused and prone to interrupting during class, he was also inclined to answer back when such matters were brought to his attention; all of which was apt to slow the proceedings down, and throw the lesson off kilter. Implementing the behaviour policy invariably had little effect, and many’s the time, having gone through the entire process, I would offer a detention, only to find it left on his desk at the end of his lesson; or worse, stuffed in the tubing that constituted the framework of the desks that we were using at the time.

A neat little countermove on his part, and one that rankled less in terms of the actual manoeuvre, and more from the point of view of finding myself temporarily outsmarted.  Although it’s equally fair to say that from the inanimate desks’ point-of-view, already overburdened with all of the chewing gum stuck there, as well as the other notes also concealed within the tubing (detailing assignations the likes of which don’t bear repeating)… didn’t need detention slips adding to the fray.  And that’s before we factor in the business of whose responsibility it is to remove the various offending articles from the desks. ‘Not I’ said the cleaner. ‘It’s on my list’ said the premises officer – that’s the caretaker to you and me –meaning of course, at the bottom of his list.

And so it was that the aforementioned caretaker who, in the process of contemplating the awful chore, decided that removing the various desk-related items might make a highly suitable punishment for those detained, on the grounds of poor behaviour; a short-lived venture that was brought to a sudden halt when a parent protested on the grounds that it was demeaning.  Rightly so, if we bear in mind that the caretaker gets paid to do as much, but – arguably – a little delusional from the parent’s perspective, in relation to their cherished offspring’s potential in the job market. No disrespect to the caretaker intended.

The upshot of all of this was that I spent an unnecessary amount of time chasing the tube-stuffing detainee, his head of year, and his not-so ‘understanding’ mother, in an attempt to get the child to commit to his – by now – regular half-hour after school.  A pattern of behaviour that became so frequent that I, in line with a great number of other school-related activities, had begun to suspect I was living a life akin to that of the antihero in one of my favourite films: Groundhog Day.

Eventually however, things took a turn for the more promising.  Having once again, played our respective parts in our ongoing little ritual, culminating in the usual business of the spoilt kiddie in question, leaving the detention slip on the table, there came a point where I was able to pick up the offending article, with more than a little wry smile on my increasingly malevolent features.  To wit, had he bothered to listen to, and also, check the suggested date of the detention, he would have realised that the date was a little further ahead than usual: Thursday the following week.  He would have also realised that, having just entered Year 9, the timetable had changed, and that according to his new schedule, he was due to attend my lesson on the last lesson of the day, once a fortnight on a Thursday.  Back of the net, it would seem.

The school policy at the time, dictated that there was only a requirement to give 24 hours’ notice in relation to a detention. The onus was on the student to notify their parent(s) of the impending event, and for one or other of the parent(s) to sign an accompanying slip acknowledging the fact that they were ‘in the picture’, so to speak. If the student chose, or forgot, to notify their respective parent or parents, it made no difference whatsoever in relation to the prospect of the detention taking place.  It’s possible that things are much more electronically-orientated nowadays, and the likelihood of a parent not being made aware of a forthcoming detention much less so, of course.

Finally, the appointed Thursday came around. If anything, the lesson proceeded along relatively civilised lines, with all on board, and work taking place at a reasonable pace i.e. without interruption.  It was almost as if someone had realised their presence might be required after the lesson had elapsed and was trying to make said presence as low-key as possible, in the hope that the teacher might either get distracted, or – preferably – forget altogether.  Clearly I had underestimated the offending party’s willingness to note the date on the detention slip; or perhaps more realistically, it had dawned on him that he had a detention outstanding, and the likelihood was that this was the day when he would be required fulfil his obligation.

As a consequence, the lead up to the bell had all of the drama of a shoot-out in a spaghetti western; you could split the tension with an Ennio Morricone sountrack. I had no idea there was such professional delight to be had, putting such a plan into action, and watching the events slowly unfold. I had to give the fellow his due for maintaining a level of composure for – in truth – that was the only way he was going to hoodwink his way out of this one. Unfortunately for him, his adversary was also maintaining a similar level of composure, despite an overwhelming desire to let go of a theatrical cackle. Eventually, after what seemed an agonising last few minutes, the bell rang.

‘Ok everybody, let’s go… all except for you, young man. In case you’ve forgotten, you’ve got a detention with me’.

He let out a gasp of genuine annoyance, ‘But sir, my mum will be waiting. Can I go and tell her?’

‘I’m afraid not. I gave you the detention slip a week and a half ago and you should have told her then’

‘But sir… ‘

‘Save your protests. Your mum will eventually realise that you haven’t come out. She will approach the office, and they in turn will contact me. Don’t worry, your mum will soon be in picture. Now let’s find something for you to do’

Sure enough, it wasn’t too long before a member of the admin staff appeared at the door, inquiring about his presence, the gravity on their face suggesting they’d already taken something of an ear bashing from ‘Mum’.

‘Mum’ – or ‘Dad’– in this context is an all-purpose term that teachers and school staff use to objectively convey a parent’s sentiment or state-of-being, whilst seemingly remaining detached with regard to the aforementioned sentiment or ‘state-of-being’; the same way that TV coppers talk about the mothers of suspects and victims, on Monday night dramas.   As in ‘Mum is being very helpful’, ‘Mum is not being very helpful’ or in this case, ‘Mum is very concerned’. Meaning ‘Mum’ is throwing an utter wobbly in the reception area.

Admittedly, it would have been highly unprofessional to gloat in these circumstances, but no one ever said you couldn’t do so inwardly, and so I acknowledged the situation, and continued to point my face in the direction of the work I had set about, so as not to convey any such facial registrations. And thus it remained, a silent tone set for the rest of the designated time, except for the occasional excursion over to the detainee to make sure that his work was proceeding in the way that had been requested.

The next day, I thought it might be a good idea to have a word with the individual’s Head of Year in relation to the possibility of further interaction on the part of ‘Mum’ and promptly ascertained that there was a very real likelihood.

‘I’d expect a phone call’, he said, eyes rolling.

Sure enough, the phone call dutifully arrived. It arrived right at the beginning of the break via the staff room telephone. Clearly, we were dealing with a player.

‘I want to know why you detained my son without informing me’, she asked, getting straight to the point.

‘The onus is on him to inform you; hence the fact the detention notice contains a slip to that effect’ (I’m pretty certain you know that already but let’s play along)

‘He forgot, so you should have let him go’

‘School policy states that we’re only required to give 24 hours’ notice’

‘But I’m telling you he forgot’

‘As I say, school policy states that we’re only required to give 24 hours’ notice’ (He didn’t forget, he’s playing us off against each other.  Or if he did forget it’s because he didn’t anticipate that he would be seeing me on the last lesson of that particular day. You’re repeating yourself, I’m repeating myself, and this is getting tedious)

‘I was waiting in the car-park.  Don’t you think he should have been allowed to come and tell me that he had been kept in?’

(Do you think I was born yesterday?) ‘I’m not required to do so, especially as that involves a risk that the student might not return.’

‘Are you saying he can’t be trusted?’

‘No, I’m not saying that.’ (That’s precisely what I’m saying).

‘So you don’t care that I was kept waiting for an hour?’

(Not really, no.  The truth is that despite my professional façade, I was struggling not to revel in the sensation). ‘That is unfortunate…’

‘What if there had been an emergency?’

‘Depending upon the circumstances, I would have let him go.  But there wasn’t an emergency, and so based upon the aforementioned school policy, he can be detained in such a way, having been provided with sufficient notice.’ (How long is this going to take? I am on my break after all).

‘I don’t like your attitude.’

‘Then you are free to take the matter up with his Head of Year, or the Headmaster himself, should you wish.  They will tell you the same thing with regard to procedure.’ (I know this to be true because I’ve already checked with one of them, I’m pretty certain the other will concur and I really wouldn’t be relating any of this had I not covered my backside).

‘You really fancy yourself, don’t you?’

(More than I fancy you) ‘I’ve no desire to get involved in name calling.  If you wish to take the matter further, feel free to do so.’ (Please do, I look forward to a satisfactory outcome in which I am completely exonerated).

‘Don’t worry, I will.’

And with that the phone went down. I don’t really think there’s any moral to this tale other something about ‘just desserts’ or some such, but I can say that the rest of the day went with an absolute swing; my enthusiasm for the job renewed by the fulfilment of a long standing desire to have something with which to proffer in relation to any undesirable behaviour on the part of the detainee.

And if all of this seems a little petty, and a little weak-minded, I dare say it probably is, but I know at the very least, if anyone did wish to take issue with the attitude on display here, there is one person who would back me up, pretty much without question, and that’s my own dear old ‘Mum’. After all, what greater insight is there to be had – in some situations – than that of one’s own similar experience?

 

 

 

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By way of introduction: cue the music

Somewhere back in the recent mists of time, I wrote an entire stand-up comedy show devoted to the business of teaching, entitled ‘Not Appropriate’; so-called, because the term had become something of a cliché when it came to admonishing kids with regard to certain aspects of their language and/or behaviour. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to grasp the sort of language – predominantly – and behaviour we’re talking about here. Not that the show reflected that specifically. It was more of an attempt to take an honest and unabashed look at the day-to-day business of the profession.

So, in the interests of creating an immediate impact on the audience, I – like many a performer before me – was keen to get a great tune by way of an introduction, in the hope of grabbing them straight away, and presumably, not letting go thereafter.  The obvious thing to do would be to choose a teacher or school-themed tune, in the hope of reflecting that which is contained within the show.  Easier said than done.  Not only were many of the tunes on offer lacking anything like the requisite sentiment… many of them were also – ahem – ‘not appropriate’.  Here’s some that came in for consideration:

 

The Anti-Authoritarian Anthem

Schools Out – Alice Cooper (1972)

An absolute stone cold classic; and quite feasibly, the most compelling anti-school anthem in the entire historical existence of rock and pop music. I remember seeing Alice perform this on Top of the Pops when I was a child, and subsequently feeling quite disturbed by the whole experience. A bloke called Alice? Black eye-liner all over the place? What’s he doing with that rapier? (ok, to be fair, I would have said ‘sword’ at the time, given the naivety of my years)

Then you’ve got the sheer overwhelming quality of the song. Containing four different sections of theatrical overload, combined with a garage-rock sensibility, it’s so confident in its execution, at one point Alice declares he can’t even be bothered to write a suitable rhyme, as far as the second verse is concerned. Make no mistake, having four sections in any song – particular of this length – is a feat very few can pull off with this level of panache; Abba, believe it or not, are the only immediate contender when it comes to considering the competition.

So it’s an amazing piece of pop history, but it’s too obvious when it comes to an intro to the show isn’t it? It’s like sticking ‘Streets of London’ on a documentary about homelessness, or – alternatively – a newly single female, singing ‘I Will Survive’ with tearful gin-soaked abandonment, on a karaoke night out. The last thing one wants to do is create an immediate eye-rolling cynicism from the collective, before things even get going.

Still, it did give producer Bob Ezrin an idea with regard to the choice of backing singers on the track; an idea, he was happy to repeat seven years later in relation to another UK number one record about the business of school.

 

Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2) – Pink Floyd (1979)

Let’s face it, this is a dirge; a well-meaning dirge, but a dirge nonetheless. And I’m speaking as a Floyd fan. When I say I’m a Floyd fan, I’m not just talking about the Syd period that the tragically hip seem so keen to identify with… for the sake of some notion of their own desperate more-knowing-than-thou status. It’s just that when it comes to Pink Floyd MKII, there is a pretty inexhaustible list of much better material on offer than this, their most successful individual song.

Not only is it a dirge, Roger Waters didn’t even bother to write a whole second verse (unlike Alice Cooper who was struggling with the odd rhyme). Instead – encouraged by Bob Ezrin, as suggested – he gets a bunch of kids from the school round the corner from the studio, to repeat the first one in the hope that no one will notice.  And that’s before we get to the pseudo-Orwellian guff about ‘thought control’, and the like; a sentiment with which I might ordinarily concur, were it contained within this clumsily expressed ode to insurrection. When it comes down to it, if the best bit of any song is the guitar solo, you’re in a spot of bother, number one record or not.

Whichever way you look at it, it’s not the kick start to any evening of upbeat stand-up comedy, school-themed or otherwise. It’s a funereal kick start to the end of most enduring part of the whole Pink Floyd story.

 

 

The Paean to the Pervy Teacher

Don’t Stand So Close To Me – The Police (1980)

Oh dear, this is just a wrong ‘un all around isn’t it? Having achieved a slew of massive hits already – repeating the same formula of quiet verse with a reggae-styled backbeat building towards the big rock chorus – the question in mind, as far as the more discerning punter was concerned was ‘do Sting and the boys have anything else they’d care to offer in the musical department?’. And that of course, is before we even get to the subject matter.

One can only assume that Sting was patently aware of what a good looking bloke he was, and although there’s – arguably – an ironic detachment to the whole thing, there’s little doubt that the idea of teenagers fancying him either as a poptastic heart throb or as a jobbing teacher was by this stage in the proceedings, pretty much a given.  To be fair to Sting, we are talking about a time when the whole business of the sexy school girl was a cultural touchstone in terms of both film and TV, as well as the glamour business; to which end, we give him the benefit of the doubt… in terms of ironic contemplation rather that of any active engagement. But what dark times those days of such casual jailbait frippery turned out to be in retrospect? With that in mind, this comes off as something of a tacit endorsement, if nothing else.  And from the point of view of the show, we don’t want that.

That said, by far the bigger crime with regard to this particular offering is Sting’s desperate need to let all and sundry know that, despite his working class roots, he was quite the literate fellow.  In so doing, he created quite possibly one of the worst rhyming couplets in the whole entirety of pop and rock history, crowbarring in a reference to the old man in the book by Nabakov, in the process. Unforgiveable.

 

School Mam – The Stranglers (1977)

You’d think having just critiqued Sting and his anguish when it came to batting the teens away with a shitty stick, I’d have stayed well clear of this dark little ditty: a dark little ditty, which goes even further lyrically than Sting, by graphically illustrating all of the stuff that the onetime spiky haired Geordie only hints at, in passing.  But I did use it once, and once only.  I used it, in the spirit that you might when referring nostalgically to a band who occupied a significant part of one’s youth. I used it the very first time I performed the show and having realised immediately thereafter, that the music alone had completely wrong footed the audience, didn’t do so again.

Bless the Stranglers. They did devote an awful of time to winding up people on the left, despite seemingly espousing left-wing ideas themselves. The fact that a lot of what they had to say came wrapped up in a sense of humour so nihilistic, so misanthropic… a lot of people of people clearly missed the joke at the time.

To be fair, looking back, there are Stranglers’ songs content-wise that don’t date well. Whether or not, this is one of them, does depends upon how receptive you are to the idea of a voyeuristic female head principal watching the whole business of an unfortunate affair via the seemingly futuristic medium of CCTV in the classroom; and deriving a certain amount of pleasure, in the process. Still, there’s no doubting the hilarity of the mathematically-inspired coda. The 1970s eh? So much to answer for.

 

 

The Song of Celebration

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School – The Ramones (1979)

Nonetheless, it is with the 1970s we stay, and a rousing refrain to indolence courtesy of the hugely dysfunctional ‘brothers’ from the Queens neighbourhood in New York; with Tommy’s replacement Marky occupying the drum seat, by this stage in the proceedings.

On any given day, anything by the Ramones is guaranteed to lift the spirits on the basis of the inherent musical vitality alone.  The fact that the bigger part of their earlier output also couches hilariously bleak subject matter wedded to a buzz saw bubble-gum backing track seemed to have eluded them on this occasion, and this seems positively life-affirming by comparison.

Unfortunately, as far as the show was concerned, I just couldn’t get past the idea of the ‘getting some kicks’, getting some chicks’ approach to the lyrics; not because there was anything inherently wrong with them, it’s just that it sounds so damned American, and my take on my own experience of both schooling and teaching was ultimately so terribly English. I tried it once but as a result, and once again, it felt like another classic case of audience misdirection.

 

Madness – Baggy Trousers (1980)

Although, The Ramones offering is arguably anti-authority as well, the tone rather like this Madness classic is more of a celebration of the extent of the mischief to be had at a time when the rules were – to some degree – a great deal more lax; contrasted with the punishments which a great deal more formidable. In much the same way that the likes of Dennis the Menace used to get up to much greater degree of off-colour behaviour and then end up getting slippered for his trouble.

I suppose the bit that really gets me is the business of the teachers going down the pub on lunchtime, and having a drink and a smoke with utter impunity.  That really did used to happen, and I know as much because I happened to find myself in the same environment on more than one occasion. Not without consequences of course but perhaps we’ll save that tale for another time.

In the end, I went with this. It is after all a classic take on British schooling from a certain period, with a music hall sensibility entirely in keeping with the notion of a stand-up comedy show; if not, a tad predictable, admittedly.

Having said all that, the Madness tune didn’t last that long either. As suggested, I wasn’t entirely happy with it, and I abandoned the whole idea of attempting to match a teacher-themed tune to a teacher-themed show. The fact is it’s equally possible to employ something seemingly abstract in relation to the subject matter, and create an excellent atmosphere regardless of the lack of comparable content contained therein.

 

And in a similar sort of way, it’s typical of the sort of experience one has as a teacher: creating hugely ornate lesson plans, agonising over every detail, only to find that despite the level of effort involved, nothing really works, and a much more spontaneous approach to the whole business produces a far greater interest and input from the students; providing there is at least some structure to the proceedings. Yet more ways to interpret the term ‘not appropriate’ then?

Of course, if anyone’s got any suggestions with regard to possible ‘Teacher Show’ themed intro tunes, feel free to comment below.

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