ANTHONY BLOND is a publisher who is starting a series of text-books for the lower streams of secondary modern schools. His account of his attempt to teach in one is not meant to be taken frivolously.
"YOU'RE SURE YOU WOULDN'T LIKE ME TO STAY at the back of the class?" asked their form master. 6F had a reputation. The classification meant that the children were near the end of their Secondary Modern careers which had been spent in the lower academic streams. Of course no degree of paper analysis could indicate the spirit of the form until encountered in the flesh. 6F might be somnolent or rowdy, quick-witted or dumb, goaty or sheepy.
There was nothing stolid about the geist of 6F as personified by Jackson, Peter and Mason, Chris. Like all efficient partnerships from Scylla and Charybdis to the Messina brothers, each complemented the other. Jackson, Peter was the wit, a small, fair boy and blazerless, expert in the loaded question and in repartee. While he interrupted verbally, Mason continued with the routine demolition work of eating the window cord, overturning chairs and kicking ankles. This was a big-boned lumbering dark lad with eyes of dried insolence, dull and hard like the currants in a rock cake. There was nothing malicious about the boy, as time was to show; if he kicked an ankle it was simply the nearest to him. Any distraction was better than school, which was a legal device to prevent his earning.
The two boys sat together as partners should, and my first action was to separate them. This might have been tactically sound but it was a wrong move strategically and psychologically. In breaking up a known local disturbance I became vulnerable to fire from each side of the classroom and by singling them out I had recognised, and in a funny way, approved, their status.
The first two minutes of the lesson marked 'Geog' in the time table were calm. Thirty pairs of eyes looked up at me with mild curiosity — I had not yet bored them — and the other two pairs of eyes watched for a false move.
'Greece,' I had begun, 'is a small country divided into little farms of about 2½ acres each. Not very much if you think of England where 50 acres is about average. They grow raisins, tobacco, wine …
'Sir, sir, sir, sir.'
I looked at the clock. Thirty-six minutes to go.
'Sir, sir, sir.'
It was Jackson, Peter.
'Sir, 'ave you ever bin drunk?'
The observed rule at the school was that a questioning boy or girl should extend his or her right arm and wait until nominated by the teacher to utter. More usually the teacher would ask a question of the class — preferably an easy one to secure maximum audience participation — and then select one of the less academically endowed children (euphemisms only please) to answer it. The correct course would have been to have reminded Peter Jackson of the rule, which he knew perfectly well, and which he-should-not-think I-did-not-know-he-knew. But I didn't. I answered the question. And what a clever one! To have answered 'no' would have been untrue and priggish. 'Yes' would
provoke a gale of matey laughter, and speculation on the relative merits of beer and whiskey.
I said 'Yes'.
Applause. I was on the run.
At what moment Mason, Chris lobbed a heavy object across the room to Jackson, Peter, whose cronies congratulated him on so neat a catch, does not matter. It was one of a series of breaches of the peace for which I threatened Mason, and when I did so his little black eyes shone for a moment, with triumph.
(Incidentally, a wise and not particularly old headmaster of a Secondary Modern School in the West Country once told me: 'If you have to hit a child, do it like this.' And he gave me a tremendous clout on the back. 'You see, it gives you quite a shock, doesn't it? It makes a loud noise and leaves no mark'.)
I was not alone in regarding Mason as a menace, for at one moment, one of three girls in the front row, a nymphet Madonna of infinite compassions, who seemed quite moved by Thermopylae, turned round savagely and said, 'For --'s sake let 'im 'ave a chance.'
Later, I was talking about the main export of Greece being Greeks. Surely they had heard of Onassis? Suddenly there was a yelp of pain from the pupil immediately to the front of Mason, Chris who had stuck a pencil too deep into the nape of his/her neck. Oh ye progressive educationalists, weep for the frightened temporary teacher who lost his temper and banged that boy on the back till his right arm ached.
Break-down. I had struck a child — albeit one weighing nine stone and standing six feet high in his stockings. There would be repercussions, starting with looks in the staff-room, a quiet word from the Deputy Head, a parent perhaps with fists of concrete and justice on his side, and, heaven knows, the Press … During the minute which followed that unforgivable outburst there was a calm during which several sentences were finished intact, and were it not for the keen generalship of Peter Jackson, chaos might have yielded to order and the partnership would have lost the day.
'Sir', he said, in a voice mild with meekness.
'Sir', he said again.
'Sir' said Peter Jackson, pausing as if his words had to be carefully chosen, 'Sir, may I be excused?'
Jackson's need was clearly psycho- not physiological. Surrender would have rid me of a turbulence but might have been the signal for a mass exodus on identical grounds. So ran my panicky thoughts.
'No, you can pee in your pants.'
This gained a cheap laugh.
The class was restless. The matador growing bored of his bull. We all wished the ordeal would end. Eventually it did. The custom was that when the bell rang, the class, at a signal from the teacher, should stand and file out of the room, row by row. The bell rang, and 6F stampeded out to break. Except for the Madonna who stood there with a shopping basket and was holding out a sixpence.
'Thank you very much all the same sir, but I can't take this.'
And with a smile she handed back my sixpence. I had forgotten that, distraught for distractions, I had offered a prize for a correct answer to: 'Which is further West, Athens or Alexandria?' So, loss of control, loss of temper, and now bribery!
A temporary colleague from the next door class room came in and offered me a cigarette. 'How d'you get on with 6F?'
'Well … '
'Whatever you were doing they were making a dreadful row.'
'I was talking to them … trying to talk to them … about Greece.'
'You talked to 6F?'
'I tried … doesn't anybody … also I hit one of them … hard.'
'A big boney dark one with little black eyes.'
'Ah, Mason. Mason and Jackson. You should have sent them away to the gym.'
'To blow up footballs.'
* * * *
The news of my thumping Chris Mason cannot have taken more than two minutes to communicate to 400 children and thirty-two teachers, for when the two of us entered the staff room for a cup of tea I was greeted warmly, really for the first time, as if I had been bloodied, and was now one of them. To have attacked any of the little angels in 2D, or the solid citizens of 4E would have been eccentric and unnecessary. But 6F had a reputation …
That afternoon 6F were due for another Geography lesson from their regular teacher, and I sat in the back row while, in almost discreet silence, pieces of paper were handed out, then pencils, then instructions that each was to put his or her name on the right hand side of the sheet of paper, the date on the left hand side, and their form in the middle — 6F. This took five minutes: I was beginning to see the point.
Then 6F settled down for ten minutes to record what they had learnt about Greece. Although this little test had been my idea I sat nervously wondering what any of them could possibly have learnt.
Chris Mason was not sitting in his usual place by the window, near the sash cord, next to Peter Jackson. Instead he was right at the back of the room in the same row as me, so that when he turned sideways, caught my eye, and beckoned to me silently with his forefinger, I was able to tiptoe to his side without anybody noticing.
'How d'you spell Onassis?'
With his huge gormless paw he had constructed something which looked like Enos. I corrected this with my pen and to show I knew he had forgiven me, made Athens and not Alexandria the capital of Greece.
Three days later I asked the master charged with educating 6F what their answers had been like. 'Oh, quite good. They learnt something.'
I had learnt more.