Item no. 3 in the every other day offerings from the Harris collection, and this one is a teacher’s story, originally published in
www.runningoutofink.com Issue 8
The Scheme of Things
It was a fairly routine morning, really. Sophie Holdsworth was in a panic from ten thirty onwards because she’d lost her lunch box; this is a lilac and orange affair which would normally just about be visible from outer space. Of course, Jason Michaels was under suspicion immediately; almost any outrage inflicted on the girls usually involves him somewhere along the line. Josie in Reception thinks she’s never before seen quite such a diehard misogynist at the age of six, but my personal feeling is that Jason has some sort of dumb caveman notions about courtship, possibly derived from his father, who is a postman and widely rumoured to habitually deliver more than letters.
A few of the girls were all for flinging Jason’s own lunch box, a decayed plastic ex-Clover holder, on to the roof where they all thought Sophie’s had finished up, but there was something about the quality of Jason’s denials which unsettled me; Jason is neither subtle nor a gifted thespian, and such hot-faced indignation was more, I felt, than he was capable of simulating. ‘Honest, Mrs. Jephson, honest’, he kept saying, flushing to scarlet like they can sometimes do quite startlingly. Kids are naturals at getting into the spirit of it.
Then, after break, Sophie came in and found she’d tucked her lunch box on the floor under her locker rather than in it. Sophie is a bit like that these days; a routine which has been established since goodness knows when will suddenly and entirely temporarily be flung out of the window. A fortnight ago she took her locker key off her neat little key ring and put it next to the radiator; ‘it’s freezing’, she said. It seems to have been this way ever since her mother took up pottery; I can’t think why the two would correlate, but no doubt a psychologist would think of something and be richly paid for it.
Between break and lunchtime, Arnie Simms’ raincoat had dripped on to Mary Faversham’s papier mache farm animals, which she’d been hiding under the cloakroom hooks to surprise us all with when we did Afternoon Farm. Daisy the Cow, Mary’s pride and joy, was little more than a saturated brown heap, though it didn’t really resemble what Arnie pronounced it did, and even if it had, he didn’t really have to say it in so many words, and especially those words.
Several boys reliably reported that John Askew had thrown up in the boys’ toilets again, raising suspicions that yet another batch of sandwiches had been traded off for a can of cider. His mother will not have it that he is anything else but a paragon of dietary rectitude who ‘just gets a little thirsty sometimes’. Our recently elevated Deputy Head Rachel, who since her elevation is only ever seen in the staffroom or her office, much as she will go on about the ‘front line’, thinks we might be dealing with a case of ‘a genetic and tragic disposition towards alcohol; understanding and treatment would be a more constructive response than condemnation and accusation’, at which the cleaner Karon, once again inexplicably in the staffroom, commented, ‘well, you can clear the bloody mess up next time then’, followed by referring to a certain part of her anatomy after repeating the phrase ‘constructive response’ scornfully.
In short, I was happy to leave the premises for a breath of fresh air. Lunch supervision is a thing of the past thanks to our ‘lovely ladies’, as Rachel calls them, though Josie believes them to be ‘subversive, letting the kids tittle tattle on to them when we’re not there’. Josie was working in her storeroom some days ago, safely out of kiddie hearing, or so she thought, when she put a staple through her finger and muttered ‘bollocks’, since which time she has had no less than three separate children telling her that ‘that word’ shouldn’t be said in front of them, ‘so Mrs. Harper says’, or ‘so Mrs. Routledge says’.
All the same, I’d decided that I really could not again take the staffroom spectacle of Susan Haworth making two Ryvitas and one triangle of Extra Light Laughing Cow last ten minutes and then sitting looking like a lost fawn fading away from hunger. I headed for the King’s Head, which has become a foodie pub now to the extent that ordering a pot of tea and a doorstop sandwich does not have a group of male pensioners snorting with despair over their big glasses of Carson’s Old Bizarre or something.
Megan Davies decided she’d join me on this occasion, and, mercifully, it was Megan only. She is better company on her own; in the company of Rachel or Josie, or almost anyone else, for that matter, she comes over as the Welsh Philosopher Queen, musing on ‘the societal imperatives of education’, ‘ensuring the future by safeguarding the present’ or whatever else she’s picked up on these Open University courses she seems to have been doing for about the last two centuries. On her own, it’s more likely to be a Bill bulletin, i.e. the current state of her husband’s various mid-life crises, which can be uncomfortably intimate but is much more fun than the Philosopher Queen.
‘It’s build your own kit car, he’s on to now’, she said, after she’d pulled a face at my doorstop sandwich and ordered herself a Tuna Melt Club – ‘let’s go berserk for once’, she said, though if a Tuna Melt Club is her idea of going berserk, it’s not all that surprising that carnal relations with Bill can get a bit samey. She also ordered a half of lager, which I am reluctant about, generally, not wishing to sit there burping in Afternoon Farm and find Mrs. Harper and Mrs. Routledge on the case the very next dinner hour.
‘I’m dreading this outbreak, even more than when he pinched my Fifty Shades, to be honest. He’ll be gathering a group of them in the garage, Melvin from two doors down and that grotesque Stan he knows from the pub, and they’ll all be standing round in the garage, jingling keys in their pockets and getting covered in oil and God knows what else to trek in and distribute all over my cushions. A bloody mistress would be more hygienic’, she said, breathing fish and beer fumes at me.
I was coping fairly well until I realised that she had already wolfed down her lager and had decided we had time for another one, which of course, we did, if she carried on drinking them at that sort of pace. I thought, audience of one I may be, but the Philosopher Queen was about to have an outing, and so it proved.
‘It is, without a doubt, Joan, the once and for ever Scheme of Things. We weren’t fashioned out of a spare rib to make their lives a misery; that’s all male propaganda, starting with the Bible, all of which was written by men anyway’. A vicar at the bar turned round and stared with his lips pursed, as if practising a camp impression. ‘It’s exactly the other way round. We are set off on a sane and sensible track through life, dedicated to improving the human lot, and they’re presented to us as a kind of challenge, Hercules’ tasks, except the real Hercules was some Amazon trying to set up the first sensible civilisation. We give ground and give ground, from early days onwards – how much of the yard is dominated by boys? How much of our attention is taken up with their various daily outrages?’ I momentarily thought about Sophie and her lunch box, but I was with her general drift.
‘In days gone by, women knew how to deal with the Scheme of Things, at least as far as schools were concerned. As soon as males are something like sentient and continent, pack them off to schools of their own, to be looked after by their own, running and jumping and swearing and beating the living ooo-jahs out of each other, until they’ve grown old enough, controlled enough and cultured enough to be something like presentable’. At this point, the consequences of Tuna Melt and lager combined in a burp which caused the Vicar to give us his ‘oo, Matron’ yet again.
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard Megan’s Scheme of Things, and it always sounds to me like a kind of Declaration of War. I remember being on a course – it has to be done occasionally, willing has to be shown, or some OFSTED inspector will be giving you that ‘why is your CV a blank page?’ look and asking you about Commitment – with a unit on male teachers in primary schools, mostly the total disappearance of. A young man who’d spent most of the day sort of sitting and growling had a pint in the bar – it was residential, two day job – and held forth. ‘You feminists will be so totally in control of all the primaries shortly, if you aren’t already, that most kids aren’t even going to see a man in their classroom until they’re at least twelve, and all the boys will get to adulthood having more or less already lost the will to live and feeling morally committed to spending all their leisure hours making effing cushions and pressing effing flowers’. It also sounded like a Declaration of War, and not necessarily more sensible than Megan’s. Such is my problem with the Philosopher Queen’s Scheme of Things; it does so resemble the Philosopher King’s Scheme of Things.
I mentioned this, except the last bit, of course, to her as we strolled back, but by this time she had been overtaken by hiccups and treatises on the Future Direction of Education as Related to Gender Issues are less convincing with a hic emerging every seven or eight syllables.
And so, as Pepys would have it, to the afternoon, and my virtue enabled me to get through Afternoon Farm entirely without flatulence, though a sound emerging from Megan’s Quiet Library Reading suggested further titbits would be heading the way of Madames Routledge and Harper tomorrow. Joey Clarkson farted during Dance Time again, clearing the customary circle for him to operate more freely, though I suspect his outbursts have less to do with Discontented Masculinity than the hard little apples his mother insists on putting in his lunch box. Ruby and her friends had prepared another Girls Aloud thing to do, and had, of course, brought the music to do it; as they strutted, smiled and wiggled their bottoms in perfect formation as ever, I wondered how long it would be before someone would have them doing it in bare-legged glittering costumes, no doubt part of a standard theatrical training. Geoff Pearson, a one-off child if ever I’ve seen one, had brought in his little pair of tap dancing shoes – his parents do a lot of old-time stuff in the social clubs – and the boys were, for once, absolutely transfixed by Dance Time and not full of scorn and bile for any boy seen dancing voluntarily. I could see them mentally assimilating into their scheme of things the possibilities of dancing, showing off and making a lot of noise simultaneously; perhaps we might at last be able to move on from Fight Scenes in the Movies.
Home time, and various mini-crises had to be gone through before I could collapse into the usual heap of despair and exhaustion. Jason lost his coat, and alleged that Mary Faversham had used it to wipe up the remains of Daisy the Cow; this is not as fanciful as it sounds, as Jason and Arnie are buddies in crime and an attack on either of them can qualify as a Girls Strike Back. When Jason’s coat is subsequently discovered in the girls’ loo, with Daisy remains still clearly visible, boy indignation rises to such a pitch that telling Mums and Dads enters the equation; so much for schoolboy no-snitching code. However, the guy attempt to grab the moral high ground collapses into confusion when Wendy Roberts alleges that Jason has put wet chewing gum in her coat pocket and Jason’s low chortle is admission enough.
Suitably battered and bruised, I head for a restorative staffroom tea before braving the commuter traffic. It’s a good deal easier to be Solomon when you have several thousand soldiers at your back to enforce your every decision, I think, watching Megan snoring lightly away in Rachel’s favourite chair.
The Scheme of Things, as I see it, remains a little blurred around the edges.