A London Comprehensive 1973
“Ah Mr. Sillers!”
He jumped, spilling some of his coffee, as the Deputy Headmaster bustled up, looking keen as always through his polished spectacles.
“Mr Harrington’s got a cold. He’s phoned in sick and I need you to cover for him.” He looked as apologetic as his briskness would allow. “We don’t usually ask students to cover classes but there’s literally no-one else. It’s 5B, I’m afraid, History – I think they’ve got work set: revise for a test – that would be the best thing.”
Nick nodded, hiding his panic. He had to show willing, so he could salvage a half way decent report. But he’d lost his free period, the one he was going to use to prepare his lessons – and of all classes, it had to be 5B a class whom he knew only by reputation.
“Well, that’s arranged then,” the eyes blinked eagerly at him. “Good!” and the Deputy Headmaster darted away to spoil another teacher’s afternoon.
Before Nick had time to gulp down the rest of his coffee, the bell rang and the teachers began to shuffle out of the staff room.
“Fuck!” he thought, “Help!” he whispered. Hew picked up his books in the forlorn hope that he might still be able to prepare his afternoon’s lessons. 5B might be in a co-operative mood.
He heard them before turning the corner, a hum of conversation, cackles of laughter and the rhythmic thump of a boot against the wall. They watched him with a momentary interest as he approached, key in hand.
The pupil strutted forward to meet him. His whole demeanour suggested concern. Nick stopped and looked up at the big youth who stood before him.
“You teaching us?” he asked.
Nick smiled: “Mr Harrington’s away.” The murmur from the group suggested that this was a frequent occurrence. “I believe,” Nick’s voice rose to a near squeak, “You’ve got work to be getting on with, a test to revise for.”
The pupil smiled sympathetically. “You won’t get that lot to do any work, sir. They don’t do much work at the best of times – do you lads?” He turned round for loud confirmation, then back to Nick, squarely, strong arms akimbo.
Nick ducked the stare, murmured that he would see about that, and made his way to the door. There was an uncomfortable silence as he found the right key, then a roar and a rush as the door opened, followed by banging of chairs and screeching of desks within.
“Now simmer down!” Nick had waited several minutes of rising hubbub before shouting this standard preliminary command.
The noise decreased only slightly, to rise again as two large boys at the back began to battle for possession of a chair to rest their feet on.
“Stop that right now!” Nick shouted.
The pupil, who had occupied two of front desks, got up and moved towards him, jaw jutting and retracting in practised rhythm. He still wore a helpful expression. “Do you want me to sort them out, sir?”
“No thank you,” Nick said crisply. “Just go back to your seat. I’m in charge of this class.”
“God help you,” murmured the pupil as he turned back towards his seat.
“What was that?”
One thing Nick had learnt was to avoid confrontations he could not win and so he awaited a lull. It came once the issue of the chair had been settled.
Seizing the moment he spoke very quickly. “Now I know I’m not your regular teacher, but I’ve been put in charge of this class and I do expect the same respect and good behaviour that you would show Mr Harrington, had he been taking this class…”
He was interrupted by a roar of laughter. “Hear that lads?” asked the pupil unnecessarily.
Nick waited until the laughter and desk banging had died down. “And be warned that from now on, I’ll take down the name of any boy who creates further disturbance.”
“How can you, if you don’t know our names?” shouted the pupil and rubbed his hands.
“That’s enough from you. Now be quiet, the rest of you.” The volume of noise had risen. Nick looked fearfully through the window out on to the corridor. “Now I’m sure you’ve got lots of revision to do for this test. If you can’t think of anything else, read your history text book. So, I’ll just leave you to get on with it and I don’t need to say any more. You’ve got your work and I’ve got mine.”
He sat down to a spattering of applause led by the pupil.
“Can we play cards?”
“Of course not!”
“Why can’t we have a discussion?”
“What about?” he’d fallen into the trap.
“Sex,” cried an unidentifiable voice from the back.
“All right,” he said, calling the bluff. “What do you want to know?”
There were shouts of whey hey and a thumping of desks.
The pupil turned on his companions. “Shut up, you lot!” There was instant silence. He turned back to Nick.
“What do you think of this place?”
“Don’t you think it’s a load of shit?”
The pupil leant forward. “They made us stay on the extra year and for what? They know we’re not going to pass any exams. That’s why they give us the crap teachers. It’s shit isn’t it?”
“Be honest now. You must think it’s shit.”
The whole room was silent.
Nick blushed. “Of course I don’t,” he muttered. “I believe in education!” He felt like a Christian missionary in Mecca. But he found he had forgotten his clinching arguments from his dissertation in praise of raising the school leaving age.
The pupil turned back to the class, “He’s had his chance; get the cards out lads!”
Nick slammed his book on the desk. There was a moment’s pause. “Now don’t make me cross! Get your history books out.”
They ignored him. Desks moved round.
“Right!” he shouted at a bespectacled boy, the only boy who seemed to be listening to him. “I’m going to fetch the Deputy Headmaster.”
The pupil heard him, rose to open the door and gave a salute.
Outside the door, Nick felt at a loss. He didn’t know where the Deputy Headmaster was. The noise from his classroom echoed down the corridor. He hurried away.
On the stairs, he thought again. The Deputy Head was probably teaching. He didn’t want to burst into a classroom and admit failure. He went down a flight of stairs – the bottom corridor was empty. He would have to go back.
“Where is he?”
“I saw him,” Nick lied. “He’s busy now, but he’ll be up before the end of the lesson, and I’m to point out the boys who have misbehaved. “So now,” he concluded triumphantly: “Put the cards away and take out your history books.”
There was a general move to do so, but the bespectacled boy felt a sudden urge to tell the truth.
“It’s funny; I didn’t see you talking to him.”
“What do you mean?”
“I can see him from where I’m sitting. He’s teaching 3A across the yard. There was a rush to the windows to confirm this statement. “I didn’t see you go in there.” With that he returned to his history book; the others put theirs away.
The pupil let out a dramatic sigh. “That was quite a mistake, sir.”
Nick pretended to ignore him. He looked at his watch. Twenty five minutes still to go. He hoped no teachers were walking past to hear the volume of noise, and then peer through the window as desks were shifted to facilitate an ersatz curriculum.
Nick started with the activity closest to him. “Put those cards away!”
The pupil turned his broad back. “Whist lads?” he began to deal.
Nick stepped forward and brushed the first cards off the desk.
There was silence. He had caught the attention of the whole class. The pupil pushed back his chair and rose to his feet. He stared at Nick and then spoke slowly, laying emphasis on every word.
“I am trying very hard to be patient and reasonable.” He nodded round the room and there was a murmur of support from everyone except the bespectacled pupil who seemed engrossed in his history book. “We gave you your chance. Now we are going to play cards. My advice to you is to just go back to your desk and sit down.” He jabbed Nick in the chest. “Don’t try to do that again, unless of course you want a riot on your hands,” He smiled and looked round his audience again. “You wouldn’t want that.”
Nick was trembling.
“Go on. Take it easy. I’ll make sure nothing gets out of hand. Sit back down.”
And Nick turned back to his seat.