"Now don't forget, if there's anybody you find you can't manage, don't hesitate to come and see me. D-d- don't hesitate." The headmaster of the school where I had elected to do my teaching practice was trying very hard to console me on my first morning at the school. I'd chosen a secondary modern just outside Manchester in the hope that if things didn't go all that well for me, nobody I knew would find out about it. At least I'd be a couple of hundred miles from home.
I was introduced to my class of fourteen year old boys by their form master: "Right boys, I don't want to hear of any trouble from you while our new teacher is taking your class." The thirty faces assumed a shocked expression at this nasty suggestion but already I could sense from some of the too innocent looking eyes that they'd quite definitely made up their minds to put me through my paces.
The class teacher whispered an aside to me before he left me to it: "Watch out for Straker. Back row, red hair." I glanced at Straker as the door closed behind me and bedlam broke out. I managed the odd interjection like "I say" but soon the class settled into what I can only describe as just below the legally accepted decibel limit. It was an English literature lesson in theory and I soon brought the house down with my rendering of Byron's immortal lines: "He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan, without a grave, unknelled, uncoffined and unknown." Although I was not exactly in the mood to appreciate the humour of it at the time, the class comic managed to squeak out: "Please sir, we are undone!" To my surprise the only boy who did not join in this high spirited play was Straker. As the bell rang for break he sidled up to me: "Break lasts for fifteen minutes, sir." "Yes, I know" I said in a newly acquired loud voice and like a real bully pushed aside the only lad who had behaved properly. In the staff room the form teacher hurried up to me and in the same whispered tone asked me how I'd got on with Straker. "Oh, yes he was quite all right. It was the – "but I didn't finish my next sentence. A score of tea-stained cups had halted on the way to their masters' lips. Something like panic incredulity had invaded the staff room. "Did you say 'all right'?" "Are you feeling okay lad?" "Straker – you did say Straker?" I now began to see the need for whispered care when talking of Straker and started to share the universal apprehension lest Straker had singled me out for some evil and sadistic purpose.
The rest of that first morning I fought hard against the class and like fondly to think that I won, if only by a short head. At the end of my first day I think I would have gladly packed my bags and gone home if it hadn't been for Straker. Maybe I was blessed with some unknown gift to enable me to pacify the most untractable boy in the class. I only wished I had the gift to quell the other twenty-nine.
Soon, however, throughout those weeks I learnt the skill necessary for a teacher. I became expert at aiming chalk at recalcitrant boys. I learnt the art of talking with my face turned towards the class while my right hand scribbled furiously away on the blackboard. I did achieve a certain amount of control over the class – I suppose you might even call it a presence. Mind you, I'd practised hard in my digs by trying to shout over my gramophone as it played the latest pop tunes full blast. On one historic occasion I even obtained silence. It was rather frightening really. I thought for one awful moment that the excessive decibels had momentarily struck me deaf. Straker looked delighted. Then to my disappointment I saw the headmaster standing outside and realised that it was his presence and not mine that had silenced these exuberant children.
Meantime I was battling on in my quest to become a qualified teacher. I had acquired a certain fame among the staff who had seen me talking unarmed to Straker – they themselves watching from a safe distance. Even the head nodded in wonder as he passed me in the corridor. My tutor visited me to see a few of my lessons and seemed satisfied and it wasn't long after that when I had to say my goodbyes. The class cheered me at the end of my last lesson with them as if to utilise their last chance of vocal freedom and I thankfully packed up to leave on my way back to London. When I reached the entrance hall, I paused to cast one last look at the classroom where it had all happened and I noticed Straker rushing up to me. "Oh, I just wanted to say good bye sir." I no doubt broke the academic code by thanking him for making life with the rest of his class bearable. "Oh, think nothing of it sir. I'm not from these parts originally, I come from Sheffield, you see sir." I didn't quite see the connection. "Well, what difference does that make?" I asked. "Well, you know what they say sir?" "No", I said quietly realising that I was now about to learn all. "You see, sir, it's like my dad's never tired of telling me. Us foreigners, we must always stick together."
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