Monday, 27 September 2010

A Dangerous Mind

For some teaching is a vocation, for others a reluctant fallback, for more, like me, an absolute mistake. Fresh from university, after four years of sleeping in, living off Angel Delight and watching “Sunset Beach” I fancied the idea of being a grown up for a while. Regular money, soup for lunch, step aerobics two times a week and drinks on Friday, I would be normal, completely normal. I would wear fake tan, shop at French Connection and buy a proper handbag; after twenty two years of being the weird one, I would no longer be the freak, I would be the smug dull one, stand back, stand back: nothing to see here...

I knew straight away that I was going to be an awesome teacher, I was the English one after all and they were always the best. I’d inspire, change lives and just when all the students had fallen in love with me, go off to better things. Yes, I had no “qualifications” but I had seen “Dead Poets Society” loads of times.

I was also completely in charge of the entire English curriculum. Completely unmonitored, I just picked anything I’d studied at school and still had the notes for. I later found out that at least one play I had made the class study wasn’t actually on the syllabus. I was also at that time slightly obsessed with WW1 so any opportunity I got to shoehorn a bit of Wilfred Owen in was not missed. We studied the poetry, the novels, every now and then the students wandered in to find a WW1 fact of the day on the blackboard and as a treat at the end of term, we watched “Blackadder Goes Fourth, final episode. It was when a student genuinely asked me, if in comparison, Word War II was “not that much of a big deal” that I began to worry if I had gone too far.

I quickly learned that when setting essays for teenagers it is imperative that you make the titles as bland and boring as possible. Any opportunity a teenager gets to write about parents that don’t understand, depression, self harm; they will. If in doubt, all stories will end with someone killing themselves. After having to carefully correct the spelling and grammar of a student’s true account of her traumatic teenage pregnancy, my essay titles quickly changed from the ambitious “What people don’t know about me” to “The summer holiday where everything went really well”.

I really tried. I organised theatre visits, lit incense sticks, burnt candles, played classical music. I did everything, save lesson plans and organise a coherent course structure that a teacher could but instead of looking up to grateful faces, impressed by the winsome hippy that was fighting the man on their behalf, all my charges wanted to talk about was Max Power magazines, Eninem or The Fast and the Furious. A student once tore up a page from their book and ate it in front of me. It was almost as if they didn’t get how cool I was. I let them cheat in exams for god’s sake?!”

Pretty soon my classes were beginning to get a bit Lord of the Fly-ey. Little did I know that those months screaming at people to be quiet, trying desperately to be listened to, liked, respected even were the best training for stand up I could wish for, but much like those brave boys at the Somme I was fighting a futile battle. By the second term I was beginning to wonder if I would be allowed a drinks cabinet in my classroom. Then I started fancying my sixth year students.

Oh Declan, mumbling, shy Declan. I didn’t mark your girlfriend’s homework down out of unacknowledged jealousy but I’m sorry for thinking about it. I’m sorry for the time I confiscated your mobile and was so tempted to root through the messages I had to give it back to you. Did I let you get away with not doing your homework? Yes. Did I imagine meeting you again years later when our five year age gap wouldn’t matter, and if anything me being your former teacher would be a great conversation starter- maybe. Living in the same small town as your students is hard for the most balanced of people, for me- I was a ticking Take a Break Time bomb.

Which was more skin crawlingly embarrassing? The Saturday night I lurched into Declan pissed at the town’s only nightclub and spent the entire night hugging and telling him how great he was? Or his Englsih class I had to teach the Monday afternoon class afterwards, still hungover, where the kind hearted wink he gave me signaled that not only was I not going to be the but of every jokes for the rest of the year, I wasn’t going to be the lead story in any tabloid papers either.I was twenty two but I suddenly felt like a predatory, sleazy old woman. In a weekend I’d gone from being Robin Williams to Sherrie Hewson.

By the end of the final term, my year of not living dangerously was coming to an end.

“One year back at university and with your qualification you’d have a job for life”, my parents urged, “Think of the summer holidays?

I stared into the mirror, at the half a stone I’d put on, the sensible haircut I’d acquired, my orange face glowing back on me and I felt true panic. Teachers, good ones, were supposed to put all their energy into their students, inspire them to fulfill their ambitions, to live their dreams. But I jealously guarded all that for myself-what about my potential, my dreams? How could I have a fall back career when I hadn’t even tried, let alone failed yet?

It became obvious I wasn’t up to it, the afternoon I had to leave an exam I was supervising because I got “a fit of the giggles”. Gasping outside the hall, I told the deputy head, I had to leave as I couldn’t stop laughing. I was really saying, I don’t want to be a grown up yet, I still want to be one of the kids, please don’t ask me back next year. There’s a divide you step over walking into that staff room. A sensible world where homework has a point, discipline a reason and teachers just want to help. It’s a small step for man, but a leap too far for Gráinne Maguire.

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