Sunday, 15 February 2015
Crying when you’re not upset takes planning.
You can’t expect to just turn up at a funeral and switch on the tears. You need a memory to tap into. On the way to the Wakefield Church, I thought about my dog that had been hit by a bus when I was six. He was an untidy Labrador called Adam. He slept on the end of my bed and left strands of saliva and charcoal coloured hairs on the linen sheets. One morning, he’d been hit by the number 17 bus, after scrabbling under the trellis in pursuit of a cat, before trying unsuccessfully to chase it across Howston Street. It was the last time I could remember crying, so I thought about Adam with his sad eyes, lying dead beside the kerb, and it was enough to bring the first tears.
When I stepped out of the car into the morning sunlight, my cheeks were already wet. I stayed close to my mother, following her along the crooked path to the church entrance, where other mourners gathered in awkward silence. I avoided eye contact, kept my head bowed, cried softly, and waited until people began to make their way into the church, and we shuffled into the gloomy interior.
While the priest droned in his finest funereal tone and gesticulated skywards, I stood to the rear of the church, holding my mum’s arm, wiping salted tears on the back of my hand. She comforted me by stroking my hair and rubbing my neck. It was a convincing scene, and I knew that my cover was safe – people would see the distraught fifteen year old mourning the loss of a friend and never suspect a vengeful boy who had murdered him in cold blood.
I lowered my head in feigned mourning, watching ants file past my feet in a ragged line. Fierce sunlight filtered blue and green through stained glass windows, warming my arms, lighting slow moving streams of dust. Despite the heat outside, the stone floors and pillars inside the church were cool to the touch. Two great fans whirred and hummed as they rotated slowly, blowing warm air over the bowed heads of the congregation. The priest was talking about the next life and how Anthony was happier now. I kept wondering if he would spend eternity with a caved in skull – just walking around in Heaven with blood on his face and matted hair and a triangular looking head. For some reason, the Heaven in my imagination was filled with ivory white clouds, and even when I tried to replace them with a seemingly more realistic rainforest, intersected by crystal streams and lit by patches of pure sunlight, the clouds kept returning, so I gave up trying to stop them, and watched a bloodied Anthony stroll around on a cloud beneath a perfect sky.
The priest invited Anthony’s uncle to the lectern, who stood hunched, red-eyed and gaunt, and eulogised about the lovely boy Anthony had been: helpful, kind, inquisitive and intelligent. It was all drivel, as Anthony had been a spiteful thing, full of bad temper and cruel jokes. He was the nastiest fifteen year old in school and plenty of people would take years to rebuild their self-esteem after he had flattened it – honed in on their weakest points, darkest fears and then prodded and probed with endless taunts and jibes. One girl, I forget her name, had drunk a pineapple juice laced with paracetamol after six months of him mocking her weight. Her mother had found her vomiting blood and she had survived, if a bit damaged.
I stopped crying for a while as my eyes were sore. A projector screen clicked and hummed as it unrolled from its mounting; first blue, then unfocused, then finally a photograph of Anthony blowing candles out on his eighth birthday cake. This was followed by pictures of him looking smug or unpleasant in various locations around his home: eating heavily buttered toast at the breakfast table, slumped on the sofa, gripping his sister in a headlock. The pictures were accompanied by Elgar, which drowned the sobs of the congregation, but seemed oddly discordant in the context.
As the slideshow finished, my mother gave me a comforting hug, and whispered words of encouragement, telling me how brave and strong I was, so I cried a little more, to keep my cover secure. She was a good Christian woman and attended church every Sunday, sometimes accompanied by me when I could find no reasonable excuse, and sometimes by my father when he wasn’t abroad, like he was that day. She was petite and pretty, tanned from gardening in the May sun. She wore black, as we all did (I was dressed in my only suit, a shade too big, the trousers hanging low at my waist). She was a kind mother, and I remember her being softly spoken and shy in public. When I was younger, she made up stories filled with anthropomorphic animals, dramatic weather and improbably cheerful endings. I remember one about a hedgehog who was lost in the snow, was rescued by a squirrel and spent Christmas eating acorns by the fire. At the time I was worried that hedgehogs didn’t like acorns, but I never mentioned it.
After the slideshow the priest talked about death some more and how it was just another part of life and how the people we had known were still looking down on us and how they never really moved on but watched and waited for us to join them. I looked up and wondered if Anthony was looking down how he would be feeling. Pretty angry, I thought, having his life cut short by a collapsed stone wall. Except, I guessed, that in the afterlife he might get told the truth, or maybe watch it back in some Heavenly replay, and see that the wall had not fallen by itself - I had pushed it on him. It was not exactly a premeditated attack. I fully intended to kill Anthony at some point, but seeing him lying there, his evil frame snoozing in the shade, taking a break from tormenting the other kids, I had made a pretty quick decision. I saw the loose stones in the upper layer, manoeuvred myself into position then pushed with all my strength, sending a hefty stone directly onto his head. As he lay there gasping and twitching, I lifted the stone as high as I could then dropped it onto his head for a second time, just to make sure the damage was terminal.
He would be angry, that was for sure.
Anthony’s mother screamed and sobbed and seemed close to hysteria as the ceremony finished and the pall bearers lifted the coffin onto their shoulders. The slow walk out seemed the most emotional bit so I cried some more and hugged my mother just so everyone could be sure I was upset, even though I was thinking more about an iced drink from the café opposite the church.
Outside, the procession made its slow way to the graveyard, but we hung back with some of the other schoolchildren and their parents, leaving the final moments to the close family. For a boy who had caused so much hatred there was a good turnout from our school, although most had been dragged along by their parents, and were probably grateful their tormentor was dead. We stood silent by the flint walls of the church, bathed in warm sunlight, surrounded by the smell of hyacinth and roses, listening to the wailing mother and the hum of distant traffic.
If Anthony had been there, other than as a corpse, he would have been causing trouble; pushing someone, sneering, making whispered comments, making lewd gestures at the girls until they cried and ran away. School would be a better place without him. In a way, my actions had made me a hero, although no-one would ever know, and I might not exactly fit the definition. There was a fine line between a hero and a villain, and I had given a lot of thought to where I stood on that front. In Greek mythology, heroes can be arrogant and selfish, craving power and adulation. They are nothing like the self-sacrificing heroes of the modern age. I had sacrificed my conscience to take Anthony’s life, and the fear of capture had weighed heavily over the previous week.
Anthony had tried to bully me just as he had the other students. We were left alone in the school changing rooms after sport. We had played football in the dry heat and our clothes and bodies were layered in fine dust. I was one of the last to finish changing, and I had been pulling my jacket on when I realised too late he was behind me with a can of heat spray, catching me in the eyes as I spun around then kicking me in the ribs as I hunched on the floor in agony. I tensed, waiting for the next blow, which took several seconds, as Anthony was obviously enjoying watching me suffer. When it finally arrived, the tip of his shoe slammed into my sternum, leaving me briefly unable to breathe.
‘I’ll kill you for this,’ I whispered, during the next lull
‘Whatever,’ he said, giving me a final kick before he left.
But unlike most people and their empty threats, I really meant it.
Monday, 17 February 2014
For most of my life I had felt rather insignificant - sidelined by my own mediocrity. I had watched many of my friends and family follow successful careers while I had languished in the teaching profession – noticed more for my inadequacy than any great skill or merit. However, the events of the previous Christmas term, when I had somehow produced a watchable school play and survived an Ofsted inspection, had landed me in the favour of the Headmaster, who believed that I was the man to reverse Radley Hill’s declining fortunes. After a brief and uncontested interview process, I had been awarded the position of deputy head, which had not made me too popular with the rest of the staff, but did mean that I had a bigger office and far fewer lessons to teach.
Consequently, on a warm May morning, while the rest of the staff were busy trying to teach, I sat in my office and felt smug. My pay had almost doubled, I had a new found authority, and my office had a splendid view of the woodland behind the school. I was looking forward to spending many mornings in a similar fashion. The great benefit of joining the leadership team was that there was always something I could pretend to be doing. I could wander into the staffroom shaking my head sadly saying ‘these data reports are jolly tricky.’ I could carry a clipboard and every now and again stand in corridors making notes about nothing in particular. I could keep emailing the Headmaster with stock phrases about the ‘learning journey’ and ‘metacognition’, or any other teacher speak that turned up on the TES. If there was anyone who could make themselves appear busy while doing nothing, it was me.
After a few enjoyable minutes watching clouds roll across the sky, I dusted my shelves and put my books into alphabetical order. I positioned an array of pens and pencils next to my diary, which was open on the first week of May, and noticeably blank. I opened my laptop so that if anyone came in I could be concentrating hard on the screen, muttering about progress and levels. I also used my espresso machine for the first time. It was my gift to myself after my promotion – a De’Longhi, black, with metallic trim. It made an excellent espresso, and I savoured the drink with my eyes closed.
My relaxation was ruined when there was a knock on my door.
‘Come in,’ I said.
Mr Dale’s burly frame filled the doorway. He was the school’s rugby playing geography teacher. He had a recently blackened eye and a chilli sauce stain on his tie. He was unusually agitated.
I stared at my laptop screen and drummed my fingers on the desk.
‘This data looks worrying,’ I said. I’m sure we can squeeze more progress than this.’
‘There’s a bit of an emergency,’ he said, which was disappointing, because he seemed to be ignoring my excellent portrayal of a busy deputy head.
‘Just a bit of an emergency?’ I said.
For some reason his arrival had reminded me of my hidden supply of food. I searched in my biscuit drawer for a lemon cream - one of the five superior types of biscuit I had bought in abundance.
‘Well, maybe a lot of an emergency. Mr Winters has been taken hostage.’
The lemon creams were as excellent as I had expected. I offered one to Mr Dale who shook his head.
‘Taken hostage by terrorists?’
‘By a student. Some boy in year 10 who claims Mr Winters was ignoring his rights.’
‘Does this boy have a gun?’
‘A staple gun. I presume it’s loaded.’
I drank some espresso. I had not expected my first week as deputy head to include a hostage situation. Mentally, I was more prepared to follow relaxing with a quick sleep.
‘You should alert the Headmaster,’ I said, making an excellent decision.
‘He’s away at a conference.’
‘What if they take too long?’
‘Do you think I have to deal with this?’ I said, which was a genuine question. I was still coming to terms with what my new role actually meant, other than less marking.
‘I think so. You are in charge.’
I smiled, despite my internal anguish.
‘Lead the way,’ I said, and put two lemon creams into my pocket in case the situation turned into a lengthy affair.
I followed Mr Dale through the long corridor that led to the art rooms. We passed the toilets that smelt of smoke and hastily applied deodorant. Two year nine boys were leaning on the wall looking suspicious.
‘No smoking in school,’ I said.
‘Soz,’ said one boy.
Paintings of varying quality lined the walls of the art corridor. Several members of staff were gathered by an oil painting of a blue horse standing on a purple cloud. Its legs were disproportionate, but it was infinitely preferable to the hellish portrait of student’s cat that looked as though it had been reanimated some months after its death.
‘Thank goodness you are here,’ said Miss Waters, who looked overwhelmed by the situation.
‘Indeed,’ I said.
The staff looked hopefully at me as I observed the closed door that led to Mr Winter’s classroom. Their silent expectation was awkward to say the least, and I waited unsuccessfully for one of them to suggest something useful.
‘We need a plan of action,’ I said, considering at what point any act of heroism would result in personal danger. There was the potential to appear a dedicated professional by diffusing the situation brilliantly with some well-chosen phrases and tactful humour. There was also the potential to take a staple through the eye which was far less appealing.
‘Maybe you should all move back,’ I said, deciding to take the professional approach. ‘I will deal with this.’
I approached the door and listened carefully.
There was silence within.
‘Hello,’ I said.
‘Alright,’ said a boy, whose voice seemed familiar.
‘Is that Harry?’
‘Is everything ok in there?’
‘Not really. Mr Winters said my painting was poor.’
‘I guess. I tried to paint my house but I forgot what it looked like.’
‘The house you live in now?’
‘Yeah. I only saw it this morning but it’s hard to remember stuff when you get to school. I got stressed and it ended up all wonky and the wrong colour.’
‘He still should be praising me though. It’s good for my esteem.’
This was a fair point.
‘Well I’m sure we can find a solution,’ I said. ‘Mr Winters?’
‘Yes,’ he said, somewhat muffled.
‘Are you prepared to give this boy some positive feedback so we can resolve this crisis?’
‘Absolutely,’ he said, sounding more cheerful than expected given the circumstances.
‘Harry,’ I said. ‘I propose we make a truce.’
‘A what?’ said Harry.
‘A truce. We all agree to be friends and everyone gets to go about their business as usual. Mr Winters will say something nice to you, you will say sorry then I will go back to my office and carry on analysing some very tricky and important spreadsheets.’
I looked at the staff during my final comment, making sure they had heard how busy and important I was.
‘Fine,’ said Harry.
Mr Winters cleared his throat.
‘Well done for trying to draw your house. It can be very hard to remember what your own house looks like, but you did a great job.’
‘Sorry for ruining the lesson and threatening you with this stapler gun,’ said Harry.
A click and a scream followed.
‘So,’ said the Headmaster. ‘It seems that on your first day as deputy head a member of staff was admitted to casualty with a facial wound.’
Although it was difficult to be certain, he did not look happy. The situation had not worked out as I would have hoped. Mr Winters had received a staple through the lip after Harry had lost concentration during his apology and somehow managed to pull the trigger. He had been rather roughly escorted to our detainment room by Mr Dale where he had claimed that his behaviour had been caused by an eighteen hour gaming session fuelled by energy drinks the previous night and been booked in for some regular counselling.
‘Would you like a lemon biscuit?’ I said, reaching into my pocket. This would have definitely worked on Mr Stevens, our absent deputy head, who was easily swayed by anything containing sugar.
The Headmaster was made of sterner stuff. He was dressed immaculately in a pale grey suit with a white shirt and burgundy tie. His office was a reflection of himself – everything was beautifully arranged and symmetrical. There was a scent of coffee infused faintly with lavender room freshener. The only hint of a weakness in his façade came from the tiredness around his eyes; no doubt a product of trying to raise our failing school out of the depths of incompetency before Ofsted returned and closed us forever. The previous Ofsted report had given notice to improve. This was unlikely given high levels of incompetency displayed by the teaching staff and students alike.
‘No,’ he said.
I put the biscuit back in my pocket and studied the carpet.
‘You and I are the ones who are going to change this school. We are on a journey together, a journey to a better place, where our students can attain grades that are nearly national average. We are on a journey to a place where our students can leave this school with their heads held high as esteemed members of the community. We may have been through stormy seas, battered by strong winds, lashed by fierce rains, but we are unflinching in our duty to this school and its students.’
I dared to look up at the Headmaster. His face was flushed with the passion of his speech. I wondered if technically he was insane. It seemed possibly. His speeches were terrifyingly dictatorial. It seemed appropriate for me to respond in some way.
‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘I will fix everything.’
‘You will,’ said the Headmaster.
Sitting alone in my office several minutes later even an espresso and opening a second packet of biscuits (triple chocolate) could not raise me from my gloom. I had expected being deputy head to bring some responsibility, but I had not thought it would include being instructed to fix the entire school. I wasted some time checking my emails. I found the usual nonsense: complaints from parents, adverts for pointless teaching conferences and some more data and tracking sheets that I would not be reading.
After a few more minutes of procrastination I took a notebook (black, leather-bound and bought with my new deputy head budget) from my drawer and stepped out into the corridors of the school to start designing my plan that was somehow going to change the lives of the seven hundred people who attended Radley Hill every day.
‘Whattup, sir?’ said a small boy with floppy hair who lounged against the wall outside of my office.
‘Is that a real word?’ I said.
‘Never mind. Should you be in some kind of lesson?’ I checked my watch. It was 12 o’clock, midway through the second session of the day.
‘Which lesson should you be in?’
‘Does that generally take place in a classroom?’
‘So should you be in that classroom during your maths lesson? Doing maths?’
‘Yeh. It’s long though.’
‘Long. Like boring.’
‘Right. Follow me,’ I said. ‘There should be no standing in corridors during lessons. Back to maths.’
I made a note in my book:
1. Prevent students from standing in corridors during lessons.
It took us several minutes to make the long walk to the maths department. I tried to ignore the shouting and general anarchy that was taking place in many of the classrooms we passed. My approach to improving the school was going to be organised and systematic. My first priority was to return the boy, who told me his name was Mike, to his lesson.
‘Mrs Mutton,’ I said, opening the door to her classroom, ‘I have found a student who is missing your lesson.’
Unfortunately it transpired Mrs Mutton was also missing.
The collection of year ten students in the room paused their card game and looked up. There was a distinct smell of cigarettes in the room. Most of them had loosened their ties and removed their blazers. Someone had written ‘Mrs Mutton is a well good teacher’ on the whiteboard.
‘Where’s your teacher?’ I said.
‘She left, sir,’ said a girl who was eating her lunch on her maths book. She had sandwiches, crisps and chocolate biscuits spread across both pages.
‘Did she say where she was going?’
‘Hard to say, sir,’ said a boy with his tie wrapped around his head.
‘She was crying a lot when she went, sir. She said something about a zoo. Then she sobbed and went.’
‘She’s not the first teacher to leave in the middle of the lesson but it’s normally because we’ve thrown stuff at them or tied tying them up. Must’ve been upset about something else, I guess.’
I looked at the absolute apathy and negativity that slumped before me. I had seen many classes like this before, and I knew that Mrs Mutton, who was one of our more dedicated members of staff, had broken under the pressure of trying to motivate through the indifference.
‘Perhaps we should all do some maths?’ I said.
Mrs Mutton had written ‘Algebra’ at the top of the whiteboard in large, green letters. I assumed that was the topic of the day. Most of the students looked at me with at least a vague interest.
‘Algebra,’ I said, ‘is like maths but with letters not numbers. It’s a kind of pretend maths.’
‘Then why are we doing it?’ said a girl, who might have been called Emily, and looked like she had fallen into a bucket of orange food dye.
‘Because it’s the kind of maths that really clever people use – like astronauts and physicists.’
‘Astronauts aren’t real,’ said Emily. ‘My mum said the Americans made them up to win World War II.’
The lunch bell rang, and algebra was forgotten as the students abandoned their books and headed out of the room in a shambolic fashion.
That evening I sat in the lounge and read back through my notebook. I had collected several ideas for improving the school. After my initial observation that students should be made to stay in their lessons, I had added the following:
2. Teachers should stay in their classrooms during lesson time.
3. Students should avoid gambling and smoking, especially during lesson time.
4. English teachers should not attempt to teach maths.
5. Teachers should avoid throwing things at students, even if they have been exceptionally annoying all day.
I had added the last point after an afternoon incident during which Mrs White, a history teacher, had thrown a board rubber at a student who had loudly explained that he thought the Nazis sounded cool and he would have definitely joined them. Luckily it had been a sponger board rubber, not one of the old style wooden ones, and it had harmlessly bounced off the student’s forehead. Also, it had not taken long for me to convince him that if he went home and told his mother about the incident I would inform the government about his Nazism and he would be trialled as a war criminal.
‘I think school might be in an even more hopeless state than I thought,’ I said to Malcolm. ‘I am not sure I have the skills or resources to fix it.’
Malcolm was my housemate. We lived together in a small village in an untidy cottage. It had taken me some time to forgive him after he had told the police we had been accidentally responsible for the death of an old woman. After a few frosty evenings, and the police dropping all charges, we had returned to our usual habits of watching bad television or drinking in the local pub, where Malcolm still worked as the barman.
At that moment he was watching Jaws and eating jam with a spoon.
‘Fix what?’ he said.
‘The school. Remember what I’ve been saying? The school is failing horribly and the headmaster wants me to turn everything around. He said so this afternoon.’
‘Get better teachers.’
‘It’s not that simple.’
‘Or students. Switch them for ones that do work.’
‘I don’t think you’re helping.’
And that was the end of the conversation. Malcolm clearly found the shark more engaging than me.
I sat with my own thoughts and my notebook. Outside it was still light. I could hear the distant shouts and cheers of the village cricket team practising. It was possible that spring was in the air, but the smell would never have competed with the stale odour of Indian food and damp that hung around our cottage.
I ran back through my notes from the day. There was nothing particularly inspiring. Radley Hill had dipped for so many reasons. Many of the teachers, myself included, were ineffectual and tired. The students had low expectations of themselves. The parents were indifferent. Funding for new facilities was non-existent. The outlook was bleak.
‘Pub?’ said Malcolm, as onscreen the shark exploded.
‘I guess,’ I said, and left my thinking for the following day.
‘And what solutions have you created?’ said the Headmaster, as I sat in his office the next morning. He looked tired and pale. I noticed his top button was undone. This was a bad sign from a man so terrifyingly fastidious.
‘Well,’ I said, and opened my notebook. At that point I wished that I had declined Malcolm’s offer of a trip to the pub and done some more work. I spent a few seconds trying to read my own writing.
‘What we need is to improve the school.’
‘I know that. How?’
‘We need to create a learning environment where our students actually make some progress.’
The Headmaster was not looking impressed with my analysis of the situation so far. His face seemed to be changing from a pale grey to pink and I assumed possibly to red if I did not manage to come up with some kind of solution. The high-esteem he had held me in after my triumphant Shakespearian production the previous Christmas seemed to have been forgotten after my promotion to deputy head and the problems the school had found itself in.
‘I think,’ I said, ‘that we need an expert. We need to hire ourselves a behaviour expert who can turn these kids around and get them learning.’
‘Well don’t just sit there. Get one.’
‘Yes, sir,’ I said, and left before he asked any difficult questions.