What have I done?
Memoirs and anecdotes from a lifetime in teaching (and learning)
Before I forget, and am forgotten ….
Beginnings – being an assistant in France
Mistakes and learning from them
Fun can backfire
Disillusion and the possibility of an exchange
Rennes – experiences as an exchange teacher
The 90s – film, family, focus and France
Concerts, plays and charity events
School trips abroad
Trips to see “Les Misérables”
Colleagues and pupils
Last years and retirement
Countless reports have been written offering advice on content and evaluation of lessons, and strategies to drive them. I once attended a meeting chaired by members of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education (HMIe) in the course of which some ten elements were proposed as representing excellence in the classroom - presentation of learning intentions, differentiation of content and evaluation, use of ICT, evidence of progression, summary of key elements at the end of a lesson etc. – all very admirable and worthwhile, and all rather “mechanical”
We were then asked if there was anything we thought had been omitted and would be worthy of inclusion, and it struck me that something that underpins all elements of good teaching and learning is relationships between teacher and pupils, so I put forward that point. The Inspector chairing the meeting looked at me, somewhat bemused, and asked if I meant discipline or good order. I agreed, but suggested there was more to it than that, involving why pupils were willing to work with a teacher, the atmosphere in the room and the rapport between teacher and pupils.
The Inspector continued to look bemused and it was clear that this element had not been factored in to the official perception of excellence in the classroom at that point. However, it is precisely this element that made the job viable and worthwhile for me. If I hadn’t been able to get on with my pupils, have a bit of banter with them and just plain have some fun at the same time as teaching and fostering learning, my time in the classroom would have been unbearable.
I feel I was never very good at making the work itself fun, but I often found myself injecting touches of humour in order to engage the attention of my pupils and enable them to enjoy the process of learning, at least to some extent.
Of course, this is a two-way process and I am eternally indebted to my pupils who were willing to “play the game”, i.e. produce the work of the class while indulging my desire to amuse and engage.
Beginnings – being an assistant in France
When I was at school and university and I was asked what career path I wanted to pursue, I always said I was unsure but the one thing I didn’t want to do was teach. This response reflected a lack of guidance and direction combined with a considerable lack of self-confidence on my part. It may also have been based in good part on my perception of the experience of some of my teachers. Several did not have a pleasant time with some of my classes at school and I was none too sure of how I would cope with some of the challenging and at times downright awful behaviour I witnessed from certain classmates.
How, then, did I become involved in teaching?
As M.A.(Hons) students of French at Edinburgh University in the seventies, we were expected to spend our third year in France and we were encouraged to apply for an English assistantship in a French school (assistants are usually native speakers who provide linguistic and cultural support in modern languages classes). I can’t say I was very keen as I was very unsure of myself and how I would cope, but my application was successful and, at the age of twenty, I spent the academic year of 1978 – 1979 in Le Havre at the Lycée Porte Océane and I have to say that although I was initially apprehensive and anxious, it was one of the best formative experiences I could have hoped for.
Le Havre is hardly a beautiful city. Strategically important in the Second World War, it was virtually razed to the ground by the Allies and was rebuilt after the war. It is very “practical” in feel with everything carefully placed and planned and there is a great feeling of space and openness while the roads are nearly all straight, long and at right-angles to one another. It doesn’t feel like it has evolved and grown because it hasn’t – it was carefully and deliberately rebuilt after its devastating destruction. It is France’s second port and has an enormous industrial complex on its outskirts. Having said all that, I found the people warm, caring, friendly and welcoming, and in the end, it is the people who make a place.
Porte Océane was a fairly large upper secondary school (for pupils aged fifteen to eighteen) with approximately 1,200 students and about 80 staff. As an assistant I was contracted to give 12 classes per week, though my timetable varied from week to week to ensure I saw as many students as possible within the English department.
The greatest (and first) lesson I learned was the necessity to “throw yourself in”. I had to cast aside inhibitions and “perform”. I had to lead classes, plan activities, deal with any problems (in terms of linguistic questions and/or behaviour), and I had to try to engage the interest of the pupils.
Of course, I wasn’t a teacher as such and so that allowed me the freedom of developing a more informal approach and style within the classroom.
I quickly realised that my youth (I was only three or four years older than most of the pupils) and the fact that I wasn’t a “real” teacher worked in my favour when dealing with pupils. Since I didn’t share their language or their culture I needed some way to break down barriers and engage with them, so I set out to be friendly, share experiences with them, “make a spectacle of myself” as one member of staff put it, and ensure I didn’t adopt a tone of superiority. Several assistants I knew tried to act as teachers, insisting on certain standards of discipline and formality, but I discovered pupils reacted well to humour and self-mockery and as a result there were few problems concerning good order or engagement.
I tried to incorporate less formal strategies of language-learning in my lessons such as songs which could be translated and discussed (usually played on cassettes!), extracts from books (one of which was a series of comic observations by Ronnie Corbett), discussion of topics of interest to them, and I chatted about my experiences in their town. I also invited and offered correction of language, emphasising humorous interpretations or misinterpretations of words and phrases which allowed and encouraged pupils to relax and contribute where otherwise they may have remained silent.
I should say that the teaching staff were all warm, approachable and encouraging. Each (there were five of them) had his/her own style with varying degrees of discipline and different ways of engaging with pupils. They were all supportive, helpful and happy to invite me to social events which helped build my sense of belonging and self-confidence.
Of course, I wasn’t the only assistant at the school. There were three of us – me, a German called Joseph and a Spaniard called Julian. Both were older than me - Joseph was in his late twenties while Julian was thirty-seven, married and had three children. We each had a poorly insulated and soundproofed room (with hardboard walls separating us) on the top floor of a block of flats attached to the school, built specifically to house school staff (a common practice in France), with my room in the middle, Joseph to my left and Julian to my right.
Joseph was quite a gregarious character. He wore NHS-style glasses, had long dark hair, was confident and direct to the point of being abrupt and in a loud, almost booming, voice, he was not slow to express his thoughts and opinions. He was fond of playing music loudly into the wee small hours of the morning and would accuse me of behaving like an old man if I dared complain about the noise. We may not have been great friends, but we got along and even attended a few social events together, and it is for one of these events that I particularly remember Joseph ….
As I already indicated, the staff at the school were exceptionally welcoming and sociable and one evening they were due to meet a former colleague who had fallen ill, and whom they had not seen for a considerable time, in a restaurant not far from the school, and the three of us were cordially invited.
We arrived at the very ornate and fairly busy restaurant where we met our colleagues and were introduced to several guests who were unknown to us. Introductions involved shaking hands with all the male guests and kissing (once on each cheek) all the female guests, a process which took several minutes and which was repeated as each further guest arrived.
We took our places at the large table set aside for our group, to friendly and understanding looks from other patrons, and set about drinking aperitifs while the other guests arrived.
About twenty minutes later, the guests of honour arrived (their former colleague and his wife) and they proceeded to meet and greet each and every guest with a handshake or embrace, but this time with not just one but two pecks on each cheek, thereby at least doubling the length of time already spent on simply saying hello and significantly delaying the start of our meal.
This all got a bit much for Joseph who by this time was rather hungry and had downed a reasonable quantity of wine, and who couldn’t believe the sheer amount of meeting, greeting, embracing and especially kissing that was going on. He stood and in his usual direct, bold and very loud manner, he asked everyone in the restaurant in his vaguely Germanic but perfectly clear French, “Mais, combien de fois est-ce qu’on baise en France?”, which translates roughly as “But how many times do you screw in France?” !
(This is an easy mistake to make as the verb “baiser” originally meant “to kiss” in the dim and distant past, but has gone on to have a MUCH stronger meaning in present-day French, a fact of which Joseph apparently remained blissfully unaware).
Reaction was rapid, widespread and amused. Several mouthfuls of wine narrowly avoided being spat on the floor and there was much gasping followed by polite and understanding laughter, while it was left to Julian and me to explain to Joseph what he had in fact said rather than inquire about the number of kisses the guests had shared, as he thought he had done.
Julian was something of a rarity – a ginger-haired and ginger-bearded Spaniard. He was very kind, human and a lot of fun. We became very good friends to the extent that six years later he drove all the way from Seville in the south of Spain to Tain in the north of Scotland to be the Best Man at my wedding.
We helped one another and shared many trips and adventures. We toured the local area in his car, went further afield to Lille, Brussels and Bruges, and were even invited together to colleagues’ homes for dinner, forming a sort of double act as our hosts apparently found us entertaining.
One evening we had been invited to the home of a friend of a friend and, perhaps because he was missing his wife and three children and was upset at the thought of spending another five months or so in Le Havre without them, he got particularly drunk before we even sat down at our host’s table.
We made a start on our entrée, French Onion soup which contained Mozzarella, a type of cheese that goes very stringy when heated and which appeared to stretch almost infinitely as we dipped our spoons into our soup and raised them to our mouths. Unbroken thin cords of cheese clung to the spoons and refused to break free from the motherload of molten cheese hidden under the surface of our soup. The bigger problem was that as we put the spoons in our mouths these cords of cheese simply transferred their grip to our lips, thereby creating the effect of a virtual rope bridge consisting of strands of cheese between our mouths and their apparently never-ending source in our soup-bowls.
The other guests were unhindered by this problem – clearly there was some technique whereby it was possible to eat the damned soup without establishing visible and unbreakable connections to it, but no-one informed us of what it was.
Somewhat embarrassed by our predicament, we began to giggle at our inadequacy, but Julian had an even bigger problem than I had. The cheese strings attached themselves to his beard and appeared to be multiplying at an alarming rate as he tried to disentangle the cords, succeeding only in spreading them ever further.
We shared knowing looks and giggles, made worse by the fact our hosts and the other guests steadfastly and politely tried to ignore our situation.
I don’t know if he simply wanted to break the grip of the cheese strings or if he acted out of devilment to see how far they would stretch before snapping, but Julian started to swing on his chair, going ever farther back, giggling increasingly and in disbelief as he was ever more impressed by just how far the cheese cords would stretch before giving way.
Well, Julian’s ability to maintain his balance gave way before the cheese cords as all of a sudden, he hurtled backward toward the wall, his head ending up at a 45° angle between his shoulders and the skirting board, the cheese strings intact and Julian giggling uncontrollably but managing to utter the odd “Merde!”
We were not invited back.
Spending a year on foreign soil brings with it many advantages in terms of language, personal development and professional experience, but also in terms of development of cultural knowledge and awareness. You tend to accumulate such knowledge without really realising it – you simply adapt to your circumstances and environment, and assimilate. I do, however, clearly remember my introduction to “Le Trou Normand” (The Norman Hole) and Calvados, a strong brandy made with apples.
During my stay in Le Havre I opened a Lloyd’s bank account and became friends with Michael, one of the young ex-pat managers. One Saturday evening, he and his wife Hilary kindly invited me to a gathering in their home.
Everything went well and a good time was had by all. About 1 a.m. it was time to leave, but as I was about to set off someone in the group mentioned “Le Trou Normand” and asked if I had heard of it. It was explained to me that this is a tradition in the north of France whereby if you have enjoyed a hearty meal and would like to indulge in a little more, but feel you have insufficient space for an extra course, you drink some Calvados.
Calvados is an exceptionally strong brandy produced from apples and is offered after a large meal (in a thimble-sized container and in a single shot) to burn its way through the food already consumed, consequently leaving room for more – The Norman Hole.
So, at the end of the evening with Michael, Hilary and their guests, I was offered a Calvados largely, I think, because they wanted to see what effect this strong brandy would have on the young fresh-faced Scot before them.
I accepted their kind offer and consumed my thimble of Calvados in one go. Maybe it was because I had eaten well or maybe it was because I was already merry, but the emphatically strong Calvados had no effect on me.
Visibly disappointed, Michael, Hilary and their guests insisted I should have another before setting off on my mile-long journey across the city to my flat.
I downed the second Calvados and this time I did feel some effect, a slightly increased wooziness and merriment, but hardly the effect my hosts clearly hoped to see. Still, they were satisfied their “digestif” had produced some effect, so they let me go.
I made my way down the stairs from their flat to the street below, and as I opened the door onto the street the cold air hit me, and so did the Calvados!
Suddenly I was energised! I felt dynamic and vibrant! No wooziness, no lack of clarity – just a desire to run!
I was off – the first part of the journey was downhill in a quiet (it was 1.30 a.m.) suburban area, and I negotiated the twists and turns of the streets with no problem and with no shortage of breath – I was a running machine!
I then came into the city centre and so had to negotiate zebra crossings, wide roads, and a not inconsiderable amount of traffic (city traffic never stops). I was thoroughly enjoying my return journey and felt like my upper body was sitting astride some kind of automated travel machine which my legs were driving like pistons and my feet were the wheels. I was particularly taken with the fact that I was overtaking motor vehicles which had to slow down and stop for traffic lights while I simply waved at the drivers and was able to weave my way across junctions and crossings, and between stopped cars, all at a steady speed!
I arrived at my flat with no breathlessness, no fatigue or light-headedness, and with absolutely no desire to go to sleep!
I can’t say it was all fun and frolics in Le Havre – there were some difficult and lonely periods as well, but it was my first lengthy experience of independence and I learned a lot about myself, others and how to get on with people. It also had the effect of making me tire of academia. I had had a taste of freedom, responsibility and participation in the world of work, and that made my return to student life (with its instruction, deadlines and imposed structure) all the more difficult to bear. I did what I had to do in my final year at university, but I certainly felt the need to move on. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any clear idea of what I wanted to do with my life, so I started applying for anything that vaguely took my fancy. I no longer remember the detail but I do recall that I put in some 27 applications, including one for teacher training at Moray House in Edinburgh.
My application was somewhat half-hearted. I only had to think back to some of the experiences of my own teachers to understand why this was the case, though I did enjoy my time as an assistant in France (even if I realised I wasn’t a “real” teacher), and that was why I applied.
Apparently, that year (1980) was the first time candidates were called to interview and I duly presented myself for interview in March.
It didn’t go particularly well. I did not shine. I was acutely aware of potential discipline problems and although I had got on well in Le Havre, I was only too well aware that the style of teaching I adopted in France was not what would be expected of an “official” teacher in a Scottish secondary school.
My two interviewers did not introduce themselves, appeared to simply go through the motions and did little to put me at my ease. I can recall little detail, but their questions were dull and uninspired while my responses were equally mundane and revealed little flair or enthusiasm. The low point came toward the end when I was asked how I would deal with a difficult second year class last period on a Friday. Rather predictably, I came out with some advantages of learning a language which they instantly and rather dismissively rejected as “far too philosophical”. I snapped back, asking what they would do, and they suggested giving the class comics to read or games to play – something simple and undemanding that wouldn’t cause ripples.
I would later recognise the wisdom of that strategy (or more substantial variations of it – it’s never that simple), but at the time it seemed to me they were expecting an insight I couldn’t possibly have, or if this was something I should have known then I was not what they were looking for and I didn’t have what it took to become a “proper” teacher.
In any case I gave up on the idea of a career in teaching, a decision confirmed by the letter of rejection I received a few weeks later.
Shortly afterwards I obtained my degree and wanted to find a summer job, since a more permanent position wasn’t in the offing, to keep me going. I replied to an advert seeking teachers of English for foreign students at a summer school in Edinburgh (thinking my experience and informal approach as an assistant might suit their requirements), and I got the job!
I was able to apply the same strategies as I used in France – I was friendly, open, willing to share thoughts and experiences and I used music, books and personal input to try to engage students’ interest. We also went on trips to St Andrews, local tourist sites (Edinburgh Castle, Tantallon Castle), the cinema, and I even acted as a barman at a leaving party.
It was altogether a successful time which was eventually extended to include the following Easter and summer periods.
However, I still didn’t have a permanent job and my time with the Edinburgh language school was due to come to an end in September.
Just as I was becoming anxious and started to wonder just what I was going to do, I received a phone call at the beginning of October from Moray House offering me a place on the PGCE course (Postgraduate Certificate in Education, leading to a teaching qualification for secondary education)! One of their students had dropped out and I was next on their list! Naturally I was delighted to accept, especially after my successful time with the language school. I was aware I was a second choice, but at least I had something to aim at and I could give it my best shot.
My recollections of classes at Moray House are fairly vague. There were classes on legal aspects of the profession, and social aspects involving raising awareness of various potential problems and situations, and awareness also of your own response to these problems and situations. Of course, there were also classes on teaching your subject, but these seemed to consist largely of recollections from our tutor rather than structured lessons on how to go about teaching a class, dealing with form, content and behaviour. There were broad suggestions, but little in the way of concrete ideas or advice. On the other hand, so much depends on the particular composition of a class – age, ability range, interest, conduct, background knowledge and, of course, the relationship with the teacher, I suppose it was difficult to generalise and cover all eventualities.
Half the time was spent on placement in local schools, and I much preferred that element. I attended three very different schools and gained something from each.
My first placement school was very near where I lived. It was a fairly large secondary school and the pupils were very mixed. The school as a whole, and the department where I was placed, were highly organised but fairly cold. There was little rapport between pupils and teachers. It was efficient and productive but rather stolid. The distinct distance between pupil and teacher made me fairly uncomfortable as I was used to trying to build a bond with students in order to engage and involve them, but it seemed to me that this establishment was too regimented for that. Indeed, I was told I was being “too nice” to pupils, including some who actually turned to me for help with homework rather than go to their “proper” teacher, presumably because they felt I was more approachable, yet I was being told this was not the way forward.
I left that school with serious misgivings about my place in such a rigid and disciplined environment – I felt it just wasn’t for me.
My second placement was a little farther away but was still within easy travelling distance from home. After my previous experience, I was more than a little anxious about what awaited me.
The first lesson I learned from my second placement is that each school has its own atmosphere and “feel”.
Here the staff were firm but friendly and fair. They entered into conversation with pupils and there was a warmth in their relationships, though there was a clear line not to be crossed. I was delighted and felt much more at home in this environment. My attempts at engagement with pupils met with approval and I even received praise for my teaching of a difficult grammar point. This was something of a breakthrough for me in that I felt I was making progress as a teacher, and it led to the development of a strategy I’ve used time and time again ever since – break down the point you’re covering into its component parts, revise what may be familiar and ensure understanding of these parts, then build up understanding of each new element until knowledge is complete and pupils are able to apply what they have understood.
All told, a much happier experience and one which gave me hope for the future!
My third placement was in a much more modern and avant-garde establishment. Here, pupils were encouraged to be responsible for their own learning – a modern and laudable policy, but in this school it was interpreted by pupils as meaning they had a choice in terms of attendance, focus and concentration. There was considerable variation in teaching methodologies and levels of discipline, but at its worst, there was informality taken to the point of disrespect and lack of responsibility which appeared to do no-one any good.
So, I had seen three distinct variations on the theme of education. I was fairly unhappy with the restrictive practices of the first, encouraged by the less formal but effective policies of the second, and left perplexed and anxious by the apparent lack of structure and effectiveness of the third.
Although I preferred a less formal and cordial approach, I recognised the need for limits. I hoped that being reasonable with people would produce reasonable behaviour, but I had to accept that not everyone was open to reason and a certain level of discipline had to be imposed – for everyone’s benefit.
Of course, all of this was academic and of no importance unless I managed to find a job. Toward the end of the year we all embarked on the process of finding employment, which was going to be particularly difficult for me (my tutors kindly pointed out) as I had only one language to offer while all my fellow teaching students had two. It appears it was principally on that basis that I was initially rejected – nothing to do with my weak responses to my interviewers’ questions!
Thus, it was with something of a heavy heart that I took part in what was called “The Milk Round” toward the end of the session. This consisted of a set of preliminary interviews (not job offers) at Moray House with representatives of all the local authorities or regions in Scotland. Their purpose was to establish the chances of gaining employment in each authority and therefore whether it was worth applying to them.
I attended interviews/conversations with representatives of several authorities (which existed at the time), including Central, Lothians and Strathclyde. In each conversation, I was told politely (yet indifferently) there were few posts coming up for Modern Languages teachers, and what few there were would go to those with more than one language.
A sense of hopelessness fell over me. It was clear that every authority was going to say the same thing. What was I going to do?
As I was walking along a corridor, I came across a door with a sign saying “Highland” above it. I actually walked past it, asking myself what was the point. However, emboldened by a feeling of pointlessness and thinking I had nothing to lose, I turned around, put my head in the open doorway and, vaguely aware of four gentlemen, one in each corner of the room, I called out quite cheerily but hiding a sense of desperation, “Don’t suppose you have any jobs for French teachers, do you?”.
Three of them shook their heads sorrowfully and said no, but the fourth in the corner diagonally opposite the door called back, “Come over and we’ll have a chat.”
After a millisecond of raised hope, I realised the chap was simply going through the motions, probably because he was bored and would rather chat to someone for a few minutes at least than just leaf through some papers for the umpteenth time.
And so, he asked the usual questions about what subjects I did, where I had studied and for how long. Then, however, he asked what Moray House thought of me. I answered honestly as I was sure I wouldn’t be seeing him again – that I was OK, but nothing special. He then asked me what I thought of Moray House, so I told him about the strengths and about the weaknesses I perceived in their course. Finally, he asked how I felt about working in schools, and I was able to tell him I vastly preferred that aspect of the course to any other, and that I particularly enjoyed being with young people.
Mr Alan Forsyth, Education Manager for Easter Ross, smiled benevolently, looked me straight in the eye and said, “I think I can offer you a post at Invergordon Academy.”
Stunned does not cover it. “A job? You’re offering me a job?”, I asked in a somewhat high-pitched and disbelieving tone. He confirmed it. I couldn’t believe my ears. This was not supposed to happen – these were not job interviews as such and in any case, I was the last person they would want! Of course, it was true, and I discovered the following day that I (the most unlikely candidate) was the only one of our class to be offered a job.
I rather arrogantly asked to visit the school before finally accepting (I’ll put that down to shock), but there was never any doubt about my acceptance.
All I had to do now was find out just where Invergordon was! It transpires it was some 200 miles north of my home, but that was of no importance – I was just relieved to have found a job.
My first visit to Invergordon Academy went well, on the whole. I managed to find the school eventually after speaking to a shop owner on the High Street – bear in mind this was in August of 1981, in the days prior to the internet, Google Maps or indeed Google anything!
I was introduced to various members of staff, including Evelyn Wilkie, the head of department who wasted no time before letting me know she hadn’t really wanted her “rotten” job, but had been asked to take it on in view of the fact there had been no applicants. Approaching retirement age (probably a little younger than I am now), she was a nice, caring lady who felt a little out of place as things were changing rapidly in the world of Modern Languages teaching in Scotland. She explained that we were about to embark on the strategy of communicative competence which demanded far greater focus on spoken communication and less on written work, and less insistence on accuracy across all disciplines, instead recognising successful communication at varying levels. This approach ran contrary to virtually her whole experience in teaching and she was naturally apprehensive and doubtful.
I was also introduced to Andy Murray, a young teacher of German who shocked me when he told me he had been in post for four years. At that time, that seemed like a lifetime as I intended doing my two-year probationary period there, and then moving on. He was a spirited and friendly young man, and I was sure we would get on well.
There was a meeting with the Headmaster, Tom Bownes, a gentle and polite man, and Depute Ian Goldsack, who was also pleasant and friendly, to confirm my acceptance of the position.
However, the most memorable (and embarrassing) introduction came toward the end of my visit as I stood at the doorway to the staffroom, about to say farewell. Russell Preston, Assistant Head and person responsible for probationers approached in the corridor. He was about my height, slim, slightly balding and had a moustache. He wore a checked suit and had a purposeful gait.
Nothing I saw, however, prepared me for his voice. It was deep, guttural and virtually unintelligible.
We shook hands, and as we did so, he spoke:
“Ha fa u tavd dae?”
Unable to detect or identify any key words that might unlock the phrase for me, I was unclear as to whether this was a statement or a question. I didn’t want to ask him to repeat himself so, after what felt like a very lengthy pause, I offered a cautious and unsure “Yes”, whereupon he gave a slight shake of the head, muttered “Huh” (I was to discover this was an expression he used frequently), turned on his heels and walked away.
I was somewhat shaken and embarrassed by this experience – I was going to be a languages teacher, after all, yet I couldn’t cope with the man who was going to guide me through my probationary period!
I said my farewells and took note of start dates and times, but that conversation with Mr Preston (such as it was) kept replaying in my mind. I don’t really know how it came to me, but suddenly, as I was driving out of the car park, I realised what the man said to me!
“How far have you travelled today?” I was astounded, embarrassed and worried. Russell had asked me a simple and friendly question and I responded with a nonsensical and unsure “Yes”. Hardly the best first impression to make.
I did feel better a few weeks later, however, when I realised I was not alone in having difficulty understanding our dear Assistant Head. A pupil actually came up to me and asked if it was true Mr Preston had been shot in the throat during the war, such were the attempts to fathom the origin of that voice.
At the time of my retirement from the school, every classroom was well equipped technology-wise. Each room had a computer through which we delivered our lessons, accessed the internet and registered each class, a SMART (or equivalent) board which allowed interactivity, a sound system and a telephone.
I was thus able to use a variety of DVDs, video clips from YouTube, songs, cartoons, word documents, PowerPoint presentations and the occasional game to enliven some of my lessons. I amassed several hundred sets of documents into which I could dip within seconds to reinforce a point or provide structure to a lesson, and I was able to print sheets at will as I had access to numerous printers around the school.
This contrasts fairly sharply with the situation at the school when I arrived there. There was just one phone in the entire school. It was located in the school office next to the Rector’s room, and you had to have a very good reason if you wanted to make use of it. Calls were timed and made in public.
There was no photocopier for general use. Sheets for use with a class were prepared on a sort of carbon-copy affair and then reproduced on a Banda machine which managed about 30 copies for each original document you hand-wrote.
There were no computers. At that time they were hugely expensive, would occupy an entire room (seriously), and were distinctly limited in what they could produce. The production of a worksheet on computer was virtually unthinkable.
Class work was written on a blackboard using chalk, and was immediately rubbed out after use in order to make way for work for the following class. The introduction of the overhead projector, allowing teachers to hand prepare work on acetate sheets (sometimes on a roll measuring several metres) using felt-tip pens, was a huge advance as it meant materials could be stored and re-used. Colour could be added, as could overlays and covers which could be withdrawn to reveal answers. Professionally produced acetate sheets could also, eventually, be bought in.
Just as I started teaching French, the new approach explained to me by Mrs Wilkie, communicative competence, was introduced. In brief, this was a strategy based on immersion and lots of repetition with emphasis laid on spoken work rather than written work, and a deliberate turning away from insistence on accuracy. Indeed, during our inspection in October of 1981, Mrs Wilkie was instructed by the inspectors to remove grammar posters from her walls as they were considered counterproductive.
A new course in keeping with this new ideology was introduced across Scotland, “Tour de France”, which was divided into numerous chapters, each one presenting a fresh context with new vocabulary and structures. Introducing a new chapter usually involved the playing of a reel-to-reel sound tape containing sentences in French which were accompanied by still cartoon pictures to match the sentences which were shown through a projector onto a collapsible screen.
The horizontal film strip (consisting of some 15 or so pictures) was advanced image by image by means of a bracket device with a knob on each side which was placed immediately in front of the projector bulb, and then focused onto the screen by adjusting a lens.
The teacher (or responsible pupil) knew to advance the film strip when he/she heard a “beep” on the tape.
And they say technology is a recent development?
“Tour de France” was bright, breezy, fun (though not always intentionally – an introductory film containing removal men pointing at a table and asking one another what it was usually caused mirth rather than learning), and was virtually devoid of grammatical content – pupils were expected to assimilate vocabulary and structures as they would their mother tongue.
It seemed to me that the writers had failed to take in to account that learning our mother tongue by immersion means being surrounded by it day and night, and usually involves some kind of explanation or correction when mistakes are made, while school immersion meant three periods/hours per week in which little or no correction was encouraged, apparently for fear of traumatising the poor wee pupils.
I’m afraid I introduced elements of grammar fairly early on (and was made to feel uneasy or even guilty at doing so), but I was delighted to see the positive reaction of pupils who finally found a “hook” or a means of understanding rather than simply depending on memory.
With the publication of each successive book (I think there were four), we desperately sought official grammatical input but it came in only a minor way with the last book. The course was abandoned some eight years later, though it left a positive legacy of increased emphasis on spoken work.
It was with some anger and bitterness that I heard one of the co-authors of the course say, at a meeting to mark the demise of “Tour de France” and to look ahead to what was to come next, that “good teachers have always incorporated elements of grammar in the delivery of “Tour de France”.” I was left speechless.
When you start out in teaching, it is essential to establish good order and a level of discipline which allows learning to take place. I realised from my experiences on placement at Moray House that discipline was, indeed, essential, though the imposition of authority wasn’t something that came naturally to me.
I did my best and on the whole my classes were biddable and pleasant. Pupils appeared a bit unsure of me, as I was of them, but generally we got on reasonably well. I felt that my position was now entirely different and I couldn’t deal with pupils as I had done in France and in Edinburgh. I was painfully aware of the possible consequences of indiscipline so I tried to impose order by more traditional and authoritarian means.
As luck would have it, I had a potentially difficult S2 class last period on a Friday, including a large number of kids who had decided half-way through S1 that they were going to drop French at the earliest possible opportunity, which was not until the end of S2! Although they were not without their charm, they were often inattentive, frequently noisy, and nearly always uninterested. I tried hard to persuade them of the value of what I was attempting to teach them, and which they were not making an excessive effort to learn, but questions about the correct "er" verb ending to go with "tu" were generally met with bemused stares at their jotters or the board, or worse still, some cutting remark about my failure to wear properly colour-coordinated clothes.
Something had to be done. Having failed to appeal to the better side of their natures, I decided I had to stamp my authority on this class. They had to know that this inexperienced young geek was, in fact, in charge!
I prepared even more thoroughly than usual for my final class of the week. Texts were previewed to the last word, explanations were written up in meticulous detail, and differentiated exercises to suit the spectrum of ability levels were produced. On top of this, I tried to project confidence and determination in my dealings with the class.
All was going reasonably well, with my extra preparation apparently paying dividends as the little darlings were generally more focused and remained "on task"! Until, that is, they were asked to work independently and complete or produce their own sentences. Clearly this level of expectation proved a little too much for them as their attention began to deteriorate and the noise level began to rise. Determined to build on my earlier success, for the first time I raised my voice!
I shouted, and it actually worked!
They went quiet and they listened to me!
Of course, it didn’t last long and what seemed like just a few moments later a ripple of inattention ran through the class. Bolstered by my earlier (albeit minor) success, I was not going to let the disruptive element gain the upper hand again, so I raised my voice a second time, and once more the noise of inattention subsided!
It was then that I made my mistake.
In my determination to reinforce this positive and quiet working atmosphere and my newfound authority, I went over to the board to raise it so that the class could see the continuation of their exercise. Wishing to maintain and emphasise my authority, I seized the metal bar which allowed movement of the board, and angrily hauled at it, intending to raise the board sharply, thus emphasising both my displeasure at their lack of attention, and my control over my pupils. Unfortunately, in grandstanding for the benefit of the class, I failed to grip the bar properly and while raising it (with considerable force), my fingers slipped from the bar, catapulting my hand into my face and launching my glasses halfway across the room in the process!
Naturally there were shrieks of laughter as I scrambled around trying to recover my glasses. My attempts at discipline lay in tatters, but I recognised that this was, in fact, a pivotal moment in my relationship with this class (and indeed in my whole approach to teaching). Should I regain my composure and try to reassert my authority, or should I laugh at my own folly and misfortune?
Most fortunately I chose the latter.
Why? Because the kids were right to laugh. It was funny. Posturing to regain a false and artificial "dignity" was only going to alienate the class.
The effect on the class? I can’t say they worked on in attentive silence, but they did get on with the exercise more positively than before "the event".
I can’t say that all my problems disappeared overnight, but I would say that my slip and my reaction to it helped to "break the ice". I was able to develop a greater rapport with even some of my least interested pupils, and it taught me an invaluable lesson – the importance of being human with a class. Authority and discipline are undoubtedly essential, but achieving them through mutual respect and trust (where this is possible) is more effective than simply trying to impose one’s authority.
And so, I developed a more natural (to me) and open approach with classes. I got more involved with discussion and banter, and generally felt I got to know pupils better, developed a better understanding of their background, attitudes and comprehension, and began to develop more of a rapport with them. That said, each teacher must find his/her own way forward and what works for one will not necessarily work for another.
Of course, there will always be those who seek to test teachers, their patience and their character …….
While working with a fourth-year class one November (bear in mind S4 classes sit national exams at the end of their fourth year), I was asked about the upcoming prelim exams (mock or preparatory exams usually sat late November or early December to give pupils and teachers an idea of progress being made), and I assured the class everything was in hand and their exam was awaiting them in the cupboard (in the corner of the room by the entrance), though actually it was in my locked desk drawer.
This piece of news had quite an effect on one pupil whom we’ll call Peter (a likeable rogue who enjoyed trying to entertain the class, which led to some lively and amusing exchanges) who decided it would be funny to try to sneak across the classroom floor to the cupboard (a distance of about six metres), enter the cupboard without me noticing, and secure the prelim exam papers (which would, of course, merely have had the effect of rendering them invalid).
Clearly possessed of a desire to entertain rather than actually achieve anything by this adventure, Peter embarked on his plan to cross the room.
Quite how he thought I was going to remain unaware of his movements I am unsure, but he slid sneakily from his chair onto the floor and proceeded to take refuge behind various fellow pupils in short bursts of movement vaguely reminiscent of a hedgehog scuttling for cover.
I was just as amused as Peter’s classmates and wanted to see where this would lead so I played along, turning to speak to a pupil or going over to another to correct their work, allowing Peter to take advantage of my diverted attention and get ever closer to the prize cupboard.
Finally, he made it, and as I rather stupidly attended to some minor mistakes made by a classmate, Peter managed to open the cupboard door silently and slip inside.
It was at that moment that the bell rang, announcing the end of the period and the start of morning interval. I dismissed the class, inviting them to complete their exercise for the next time I saw them. The pupils tidied away very hesitantly and gave me perplexed looks. I reminded them it was break time and suggested they leave sharply, adding that since the prelim papers were in the cupboard I should ensure their security by locking the door, whereupon I turned the key in the lock and left the room rather abruptly, accompanied by several giggling, chatty and thoroughly entertained pupils.
A few seconds later I returned to my room, accompanied by a couple of pupils, to find a rather red-faced and upset Peter sitting on one of the shelves.
Feigning surprise, my mouth open and looking around the cupboard in disbelief, I asked Peter how on Earth he had got into the cupboard and suggested he leave immediately as he would miss his break.
The look on his face of indignant and enraged defeat, yet with a slight smile indicating he recognised the funny side of his situation, was something to behold and remains a treasured memory!
April Fool’s Day is a day to be avoided in a school. Fortunately, the Easter holiday period frequently falls at that time, but one year, early in my career, this was not the case and I fell victim to a prank I still recall with considerable amusement but which I found most perplexing at the time.
I had a third-year class of about twelve pupils who were not very taken with French. By and large we got on fine and they didn’t give me too hard a time, but I was warned by colleagues and superiors to be on my toes as there was the potential for disruption if pupils were not interested.
So, on April Fool’s Day I was especially vigilant and well-prepared – everything was thought through and organised, and I stepped outside my room into the corridor to meet and greet them as they arrived. As usual, they didn’t arrive as a group but rather in dribs and drabs, all displaying their normal level of enthusiasm but politely acknowledging my presence as they entered my room.
I waited a few seconds to ensure there were no stragglers before re-entering my room myself.
As soon as I got inside, I got something of a shock. The room was empty. There was no-one present. No pupils.
I was thrown completely. I had just seen my charges enter the room, but now – no-one.
From the vantage point of the teacher’s table you can see clearly under all the pupils’ desks and there was nothing to be seen, yet I still went forward and bent down to check under the desks, confirming once again (obviously) there was no-one there.
In desperation, I even checked under my own table where there might have been space for a couple of people – nothing.
I found myself walking around the empty room, knowing perfectly well there was no-one present, but looking for them anyway!
I then realised they had to be in the small cupboard in the back left corner of the room, but as I looked through the shoulder-height window in the door from the middle of the rear of the room, I knew I would certainly have a clear view of twelve people standing, crushed together, if they were in such an enclosed space.
I was confused, dismayed, and I was starting to panic – I had lost an entire class, in my own room!
I stepped outside to look for them, knowing how ridiculous this was, but not knowing what else to do.
I re-entered the room and once again looked under all the desks and my table and I was just thinking of how on Earth to word my report to the office to the effect that I’d lost my class when I heard a sound. It was a muffled giggle, and it came from the cupboard.
I still remember the sheer sense of relief at hearing evidence of the continued existence of my class, yet mixed with total confusion concerning their presence in a small cupboard whose window I had already checked.
I approached the window and heard more giggles and whispers. This time I opened the door to find my class – all twelve of them lying horizontal, one on top of the other in three rows of four! Stretched out as they were, they only reached a height of a little over a metre, well below the level of the window in the door, and I had failed to spot them with my cursory glance through the window at a distance!
There was much laughter and I have to say a lot of bonhomie was created as a result of their very successful prank.
I do not have strong teeth and as a result I had lots of work done on them when I was young, which left me with not so much a fear of dentists, but a desire never to see one again if I could possibly avoid it, and when I left home for university I got just that opportunity.
During my five years in tertiary education (four at Edinburgh University and one at Moray House), I did not visit a dentist. To be fair, I didn’t have any problems, but I have to admit my principal objective was simply to avoid potentially painful visits to the dentist.
The moral of the following story is very simple – go to see your dentist regularly in order to avoid the build-up of what could develop into major problems.
During the Easter break of my first year in teaching I became aware of a nagging toothache in the upper left side of my jaw, toward the rear. The pain developed somewhat alarmingly, but I followed my well-established pattern of behaviour toward my teeth and ignored it, hoping it would somehow go away. It didn’t. It developed to such an extent that I couldn’t sleep and eventually could barely function at all as the pain progressively pervaded every aspect of my life. Yet I still would not go to a dentist.
Fortunately, my wife (sensible person that she is) made the call (without me knowing) and arranged an emergency appointment for the following day. I was instantly relieved – I knew it was necessary and recognised how foolish I had been to let things reach this stage, and I resolutely decided I would never let this happen again.
While hardly looking forward to my treatment, I was actually reasonably happy to sit down in the dentist’s chair with the prospect of the now constant and throbbing pain coming to an end.
The dentist was plainly unhappy with what he saw in my mouth and said he was sorry, but the tooth would have to come out. I clung to some hope and asked if he couldn’t just fill it. Definitely not – it had to come out, and immediately.
I explained I was a coward and asked for gas, but he suggested that wasn’t a good idea in case something went wrong, so I requested a strong dose of anaesthetic as I had experienced considerable discomfort during previous extractions.
The dentist was most accommodating and reassuring. He injected me at numerous points around the offending tooth and within a few minutes the pain started to subside for the first time in days. The wave of relief was such that I felt foolish for having put off this visit for so long and I was entirely confident I would feel no pain during the treatment.
The dentist put in place a framework which would hold open my mouth (remember the offending tooth was at the rear of my upper jaw), and he started the procedure.
He went about his work with great care and consideration and I was delighted both that there was no pain and that the whole incident would soon be over. He pulled hard on the tooth, but it didn’t come away. He tried two or three times more, but still without success. He placed his left hand on my forehead and pulled hard with his right hand – still no give. “It doesn’t want to come”, he said.
When I saw him put his right foot on the end of the arm of the chair to gain some purchase, I suspected things were not going as smoothly as they might, but that did it – all of a sudden I felt the tooth give, but entirely painlessly. I was actually happy!
However, when I heard the dentist utter “Oh God” as he pulled the tooth, I knew everything was not as it should be ……
I shall spare you the grisly details of the procedure, but suffice it to say the poor man was traumatised because the roots of my tooth had wrapped themselves around my jawbone (unknown, of course, to the dentist), thus explaining the substantial resistance to the tooth’s extraction. As he forced the tooth out, a broken piece of my jawbone came with it and he was obliged to cut it free from the gum, tearing muscle in the process and having to stitch me up afterward.
By the end of the process the poor dentist was quite done in, while I was entirely happy that the tooth was now gone and I had experienced no pain.
He gave me a prescription for painkillers and penicillin. I suggested I wouldn’t need the painkillers as the tooth was now gone, but he replied “You’re going to need them”, and he was right.
Two hours later I was in bed because of the pain, yet happy in the knowledge that this condition was only temporary.
However, I soon discovered a couple of complications. Blood had seeped into the torn muscle and clamped shut the left side of my mouth. This was somewhat unpleasant and disconcerting, but was aggravated by a more pressing discovery – I have a strong reaction to penicillin and it makes me vomit.
Anyone who has tried to express water through a relatively small aperture will understand the effect …….
The connection to teaching of this story?
Well, I am happy to report that the swelling did eventually subside (and I ceased taking the penicillin immediately), but it took some three weeks to do so and in the meantime, I had once again taken up my duties at the school.
This was an absolute gift from Heaven for some pupils who delighted in the fact that I could only speak through the right side of my mouth. I was subjected to a fair amount of light-hearted mockery as various pupils gently teased me and mimicked my inability to fully open my mouth and say words with any great clarity.
The small third-year class mentioned previously thoroughly enjoyed my temporary handicap and took great pleasure in repeating words and phrases just as I pronounced them, but about three weeks later they got their comeuppance ……...
By this time the swelling was all but gone and I was more or less back to normal. I was sitting on a desk in front of the class, reading a text and translating it with them when I sneezed. Nothing to write home about, you might think, but I was suddenly aware of something “foreign” in my mouth, so I couldn’t continue reading.
Now, whatever I think or feel tends to show on my face and it was clear to the class that something was amiss, both because of my silence and the expression on my face.
I realised the stitches had come loose and were floating about in my mouth, but I really didn’t want to share this with my unsuspecting class.
“What’s wrong?” they asked, genuinely concerned.
I tried to say “nothing”, but without opening my mouth, thereby only increasing their suspicion and anxiety.
I removed myself from the desk and wandered nonchalantly over to the sink in a corner of my room, bent over and spat the offending object into the sink, then washing it away while trying not to draw attention to it.
“What’s that?” they asked in some alarm and with considerable trepidation.
“Just my stitches” I said, thinking I had avoided a scene and had spared the finer sensibilities of my class.
Well, I suspect you could have heard the screams at the far end of the corridor outside my room. The boys just looked disgusted, but the girls? They couldn’t control their revulsion and let it all out with cries and facial expressions last used when they tasted something vile.
Although taken aback by their reaction, I have to confess to a degree of satisfaction and a sense of retribution for the mirth they had enjoyed at my expense for the previous few weeks ……
I did, of course, use this story frequently to promote regular visits to the dentist.
Mistakes and learning from them
Everyone makes mistakes, so they say, and they are right. The important thing is to recognise them and to try to learn from them, and that applies equally to teachers and pupils. I would like to think that I did learn from my mistakes, but it should be borne in mind that this appears to be a continuous and perpetual process.
A few examples of mistakes I made and lessons I learned early on:
It is best to prepare thoroughly in advance and not to leave a class to collect some photocopying you’ve forgotten, giving the class time to set up a waste-paper bin filled with water above the classroom door which has been left ajar. This is particularly true if the depute rector decides to pop in to your room just ahead of you.
It’s probably best not to physically remove a pen from a pupil’s mouth – even if he has arrived late, is under the influence of magic mushrooms and refuses to remove his pen when speaking to you. Physically removing the pen is particularly ill-advised if you consequently discover it is ridged and causes a distinct rattle of teeth while being removed.
It’s probably best not to suddenly roar out of the blue at pupils who are inattentive and chattering, even if it has the desired effect of correcting their behaviour. At least, not if you have a pupil with a heart condition right in front of you who has such a fright when you bellow that he struggles to catch his breath and goes a very worrying shade of red. (He did survive.)
It’s best not to assume that parents will be able (or willing) to exercise control over their offspring. At one parents’ evening, a pupil and his father sat in front of me and the pupil held a polystyrene cup filled with tea. While I was speaking to this pupil, he bit a chunk out of the lip of the cup and proceeded to eat it. A little taken aback, I pointed out to the pupil slowly and clearly, “You’re eating the cup”, whereupon he took another bite. I looked at the father and said equally slowly and clearly, “He’s eating the cup”, at which he looked at me, smiled, and made a bizarre sound which indicated agreement, amusement and a complete inability to influence events.
It is probably best not to engage in potentially dangerous automotive activities at lunchtime ……
My colleague Andy was particularly keen on cars and motorbikes, and announced one Friday that the following day he was going to London to take possession of a new 600cc motorbike. I had to confess I had never even been a passenger on a motorbike, far less ridden one, so he suggested that I accompany him as a pillion passenger the following Monday at lunchtime.
I did my best to find excuses such as not having a helmet or suitable clothing, and I had a class immediately after lunch, but whatever excuse I produced, Andy furnished a solution. Nothing was going to prevent this man from providing my initiation to motorbiking.
Monday arrived and so did Andy on his rather large and impressive 600cc motorbike. Lunchtime came and I wore my leather coat and the helmet so thoughtfully provided by Andy. I sat in the pillion position and I have to say the sheer width of the seat took me by surprise. For a moment, I doubted if my feet would make contact with the footrests! When Andy got on, I realised I would have to find something to grip in order to steady myself and I didn’t want to grip Andy, so I felt around for some other means of delivering some sense of security and I discovered a form of handle (undoubtedly a bar allowing the secure transport of luggage) about level with my backside. I held on with both hands, safe in the knowledge my hands and arms effectively formed a backrest, preventing me from sliding backwards.
After warning me that I would have to lean into corners to help with balance, Andy started the engine and I suddenly became aware of the sheer, raw power available immediately beneath me, and before I could express any doubts about continuing, we were off.
We drove through the town and I handled the curves and corners of the streets well, leaning in to them as necessary. Once out of town and moving in a relatively straight line, Andy accelerated to about 60 mph (I could see the speedo over his shoulder) and I actually enjoyed the experience! I started to relax, though I continued to grip the handle behind me as we headed north, doing a steady 60 along the not very busy A9 above Invergordon. It appeared my fears had been ill-founded and I actually started to find the experience, well, a little mundane – almost disappointing, at least compared to how I had built it up in my mind before setting off.
We arrived at a couple of bends which preceded another long straight and Andy had to slow to a crawl as we came up behind a tractor.
“Are you alright?” Andy turned and asked, shouting through his helmet.
“Yes” said I, quite matter-of-fact. Then a doubt struck me. “Why?” I asked. “Because we’re going to overtake the tractor in a second.” “OK” I said, thinking nothing of overtaking a vehicle moving at 15 mph.
As we rounded the corner Andy could see there was no traffic ahead, so he made the manoeuvre to overtake.
The sheer force of the acceleration pushed me physically back along the seat so that the only things stopping me joining the A9 were my hands and fingers which were now gripping the bar behind me so tightly that they would have cracked nuts! At exactly the same time, my head dipped down behind Andy’s shoulders and my thighs clamped down hard on the seat, the throbbing power of the engine passing through me like an electric current. I was not in control of my limbs – instinct took over and I seized on anything and everything to survive!
I did manage to raise my head, albeit wobbling like jelly, far enough to see the speedo which read around the 100 level, and we had reached that speed in some three or four seconds.
Once out of the straight we slowed again to what now appeared like walking pace – about 60, and we headed back to the school without communicating.
When we stopped in the school car park, Andy got off, removed his helmet and asked if I was OK. He also had a wry look of satisfaction on his face, and wore an inkling of a smile.
I had some difficulty removing myself from the bike. My fingers had to be unwrapped from the bar to which they were now virtually fused, and my thighs felt like I’d run a marathon in record time. Worse, I had pulled a muscle in my right thigh and I couldn’t walk without limping. It took three days to recover.
I managed to muster a somewhat bemused “Thanks” for Andy, and I headed up to my room where my class was waiting for me. I have to admit that not a lot of French was taught that period – it was more of a debriefing, and destressing!
Most teachers will set out to build a rapport with their pupils in order to make their lessons more palatable or even amusing. However, not all would go as far as transforming into a superhero ….
Before becoming embroiled in the world of teaching, a colleague and very good friend of mine completed his education by gaining a PhD in chemistry and naturally became known by the title, Doctor.
Early on in his career, and aware that chemistry did not lend itself to verbal banter enjoyed in various other disciplines, the Doc decided to inject a bit of much needed fun in his own particular way.
And so, especially when he had younger classes, the Doc would wander up and down his lab (furnished with traditional science benches), explaining reactions and reciting notes to his hard-working, if somewhat gloomy pupils. Suddenly, however, he would duck down behind the bench at the rear of his room, pick up a black cape he had previously placed there, tie it around his neck, and with a single bound he would jump onto the bench, declaring “I am Superdoc!”
The Doc then proceeded to leap from one bench to the next, much to the amazement and admiration of his (captive) audience!
Now, you may be wondering why this educational superhero has not become a household name. Well, I have to tell you that Superdoc’s career was fairly short-lived.
On one occasion (his last appearance), he got a little carried away with his own success and, while leaping with balletic grace from one bench to the next, he failed to notice a protruding gas tap which brought his performance (and his career) to a somewhat abrupt and decidedly earthbound end!
I have been known to tell some “tall tales” to classes in an attempt to build a rapport with my pupils. The following tale (from the early eighties) started as a result of me falling for some excuse and allowing a Higher pupil to leave class without good reason. Fortunately for me the pupil returned almost immediately, but with a smug smile of victory on her lips. She had lied and I had fallen for it, much to the delight of the entire class. Revenge would be sweet ….
I should emphasise that what happened was not planned in any way, indeed I could never have thought it up in advance!
One day, my colleague Arthur (who taught in the room next to mine) displayed staggering athletic ability by jumping from a school desk to the floor (we had been putting up posters in my room) just as my Higher class arrived. After his departure, various comments were made expressing surprise at his ability to make such a leap at his age (he had reached the prodigious age of 38 at the time!).
Incensed by this slur on the capacity of members of the teaching profession’s ability to achieve anything even remotely physically challenging, I snapped.
“But he hasn’t always been a teacher, you know.” said I, “Before joining the profession in an attempt to share his knowledge and help future generations to evolve in to well-rounded human beings, he was a stuntman.”
I received stunned looks of disbelief, yet they were tinged with a desire to believe this outlandish claim – they required more detail.
“You’ve all seen "Superman" with Christopher Reeve, well, Mr Scott (Arthur) helped to train Mr Reeve for the flying scenes – helped him to master the wires and landing techniques because he had had experience of these in pantomime.”
I think it was the detail and the sheer outlandishness that did it – it was so fantastic that it had to be true. I also knew that if I pushed it any further, they would suspect something, so I left it.
In the days that followed they vaguely broached the subject, but never really to challenge, just to check on the details. I even told them that Arthur preferred not to talk about it as he was slightly embarrassed – he didn’t want to be known as “The Flying French Teacher”.
And so it was that I forgot all about it, until about ten years later when a group of primary age pupils came to the school, accompanied by their well respected teacher of some six years, who had been one of my pupils.
During my time with these pupils I made some ridiculous claim at which point my ex pupil (and their teacher) simply shook her head and informed me that they were not gullible enough to fall for that one! It was at that point that I vaguely remembered telling a class about Arthur being a stuntman and helping to train Christopher Reeve in "Superman", and I recounted this tale to my ex pupil, who had studied French to Higher level with me. About ten years previously.
I was left totally speechless when, after I had finished my story, she gasped, “You mean he didn’t?”
A word of advice - if you are going to lie, make an effort to remember to whom you lie!
On another occasion, a group of young ladies in S4 who had just sat their Standard Grade exam in French came up the stairs rather excitedly to tell me how they felt they had done.
As they left the stairway and turned right towards my room, they were struck by the rather loud music emanating from Doctor Ferrier’s lab as the man himself sat at his desk without a class, preparing lessons. What really fascinated them was the fact he was listening to a track by the Bee Gees, hardly a style of music this group normally associated with Doctor Ferrier.
All thoughts of their exam and how they fared disappeared from their minds – Doctor Ferrier’s choice of music was a far more interesting subject, and one which enthralled them.
They entered my room babbling about the Doc’s poor choice of music – it was the Bees Gees, for goodness’ sake! How old-fashioned. What poor taste. Imagine listening to that for any length of time!
I felt this group’s mockery of Doctor Ferrier’s choice of music merited something of a retribution, especially as I knew full well that the poor man had merely been listening to the radio and had no influence whatsoever over what music came from the speaker.
“You have to understand,” said I, “that sometimes the Doc likes to think back to the good old days before he became a teacher. He was the road manager for the Bee Gees, you know. He helped organise travel arrangements, accommodation and the setting up of the stage for the group. He enjoyed it, but he got a bit fed up with the constant travelling and felt he wanted to do something he considered more worthwhile with his degree, so he decided to become a teacher.”
Again, I think it was the detail and possibly the appeal to humanity that clinched it. Of course, they had a few doubts initially, but I persuaded them of the Doc’s desire to do his bit for the education of the youth of today.
They were very impressed and their dismissal of his choice of music transformed into genuine admiration and a desire to hear more. After all, this was a man who had associated with celebrities!
Off they scuttled to seek further detail from the Doc himself about his previous existence as an assistant to the famous ….
I’m not too sure exactly how the Doc put it, but he wasted little time in disabusing the girls of their conviction he had worked with a famous pop group, and they came back to have it out with me in an absolute fury tinged, curiously, with disappointment ….
As a young man, I loved the James Bond films. To me, the early films were the epitome of sophisticated, self-mocking yet effective action/adventure films. Many years later, as a Christmas present, my wife sent away for a mock newspaper front page with the headline (and accompanying story) to the effect that I had been chosen as the next James Bond. Needless to say, I loved it and I still have the original on a wall in my home. However, I thought it too good a joke to restrict it to my house and family, so I made a photocopy, laminated it and put it on a wall in my classroom.
Most classes thoroughly enjoyed the joke, pointing it out and impertinently suggesting I’d make a very “different” James Bond.
However, one small group of pupils saw it and started whispering among themselves, seemingly discussing the potential veracity of the headline and story.
It is an interesting phenomenon that a small group of people can influence the thinking and common sense of the majority, and so this small group of pupils prevailed upon the intelligence of the majority of the class and by the end of the period I was asked by the class if the headline was true.
I’m afraid I just couldn’t resist. It was too good an opportunity to miss.
“Yes,” I said, “but it’s a long and complicated story. Daniel Craig was originally contracted to do two films, with the option of doing more. After “Quantum of Solace” it appeared he lost interest so the producers got in touch with me. Of course, Daniel Craig decided to stay on and “Skyfall” was such a big hit they thought they’d stick with him, and in any case, I’m too old now.”
Maybe I should have been an actor. To my astonishment, there was no laughter, no scoffing, no derisory remarks. Nothing. Just a sort of dubious acceptance of what I said, and this took me somewhat by surprise. I didn’t know what to say – I didn’t want to compound the lie by trying to further convince them, but equally I was going to feel awful if I announced I had duped them all. The result is that I said nothing, and as I write this I realise there may still be a few ex-pupils who actually believed I was in the running to be James Bond! My apologies!
Fun can backfire
As a general rule, I wanted classes to enjoy their lessons with me. That said, I was never particularly good at making the work itself much fun (there is even an argument that work may not be taken seriously if presented too frequently as entertainment), but I did often try to make the lesson fun in terms of explanations, interplay and general banter as the lesson progressed.
There were times, however, when this approach backfired and not just on the occasions when pupils outwitted me in class, but also on a few occasions when I was caused physical pain.
One such event, which left a scar I still carry today, occurred with a small, bright, chirpy S3 class. I was explaining something and undoubtedly starting recounting some tale in an effort to bring the explanation to life, when I became aware of one particularly bright and chirpy lad tapping his teeth with his pencil while I was spouting forth. To be fair, this appeared to be a by-product of concentration rather than some attempt to distract or amuse his classmates. Nonetheless, the persistent tapping did prove distracting – to me. I therefore politely invited the pupil to stop the offending action as it was annoying me. He apologised and immediately stopped.
I continued, and about thirty seconds later I became aware that the pupil, still focused on my tale, had restarted the tapping.
Again, I asked him politely to desist, explaining his action was very off-putting, and again he apologised sincerely and stopped.
A couple of minutes further into my tale I once again heard the regular Tap ….. Tap ….. Tap ……
This time I was fairly abrupt and simply told him it was annoying. Embarrassed at my repeated warnings, he placed his pencil on the desk in front of him, went quite red and said sorry nervously.
The next time (and quite unbelievably, there was a next time), I knew I had to do something to finally get the message across that this was to stop. The problem was he was a nice lad who innocently indulged in a very low level disturbance and I certainly didn’t want to react disproportionately, so I thought I would over-react in a funny way to defuse the situation and at the same time remove the pencil from his hand.
In my mind, the plan was thus:
I pull an exaggeratedly annoyed face (intended to amuse and get the message across), while swiping the pencil out of the boy’s hand with my right hand.
However, I failed to take into account the fact the lad was anxious because of my previous attempts to chastise him and so he didn’t recognise any humour whatsoever in the face I was pulling, and in an attempt to make matters right, he actually made to hand his very sharp pencil over, stretching out his arm so that the sharp point of the pencil met my swinging right hand and embedded itself about half-way along my life-line!
With no small measure of disbelief at how my plan for lightening the situation led to squeals of shock and horror from the rest of the class, never mind the utterly distraught reaction of my “aggressor”, I pulled the pencil (which stood independently at an angle of 90° to my palm) from the wound.
I quickly reassured the class that all was well and that everything was my fault, and did my best to continue as though nothing had happened.
I didn’t seek treatment - it was just a minor flesh wound, but curiously that incident seemed to bring me closer to the class who regularly enjoyed reminding me of my folly, but also showed a willingness to make more of an effort in class, perhaps out of some sense of sympathy.
Within my subject, we did not have the advantage of being compulsory and if class numbers dropped (which was often the consequence of levels of staffing and resultant option choices), we were invited to consider our course content and strategies for delivery.
In part because of this, I had a preference for a light and productive atmosphere in my room as I was aware that several pupils struggled or didn’t enjoy the subject so I set out to do what I could to make the class reasonably pleasant, and I preferred to reserve more serious chastisement for more serious offences.
Thus, often if a pupil was distracted or failed to keep on task, I would direct a light-hearted remark at them, or occasionally try to embarrass them by sneaking up behind them and bark sharply, causing them a fright. Usually they got the message and settled down to the task in hand.
However, on one occasion I was a little more effective in causing a fright than I anticipated. One S3 girl tended to be easily distracted but always returned to task when reminded of her educational duties, though she responded more readily to a light-hearted reminder than a serious ticking off, so I thought I would embarrass her by sneaking up behind her as she was chatting, and barking “Work!” at the back of her head.
This I did, but to fairly disastrous effect for me as my dear pupil got such a shock she bucked her head backwards and collided with my forehead and glasses.
The pain subsided very quickly and my glasses were easily twisted back into shape. I did think to myself that maybe it was time to stop doing these idiotic things, but on the other hand the pupil did then get on with her work, and she even wrote a note of apology on a card given to me by her class on my retirement. Maybe it worked after all …..
So, you’d think I would learn my lesson after that incident, but no …..
I continued to use this ploy as an amusing (in my mind) means of shocking pupils back into work mode, and it proved quite effective – several pupils whose attention had wandered got the not very subtle message that it was time to get back to work, until the day I used my trick on a particularly chatty and ebullient lad in S4.
The scenario was the same as usual – chatty pupil needing to be gently goaded into getting on with some work, but the pupil was not quite the same as usual. He was sharp, savvy and confident, and when he bucked his head back I couldn’t be sure whether it was a reflex action or something more calculated. Either way, the result was the same (and was entirely my own fault) – the back of his head connected firmly with my nose, and given the pain I felt and the crack I heard, I was fairly sure my nose was broken.
It is at this point I have to indulge in a Victor Hugo-like digression.
For as long as I could remember, my nose had been slightly off-centre, veering a little to the left. It wasn’t something to which I gave any particular thought until I needed my first pair of glasses (at age 19) and I went to be “fitted” by a local optician. He kindly informed me that I had one ear further up than the other, but added that I shouldn’t worry about it as one eye was also further up than the other to compensate. A little taken aback, I muttered something about resembling Quasimodo, whereupon this highly sensitive professional announced that my most interesting feature was, in fact, my nose which “went off at an angle of about 15°”. I entered his offices needing glasses and left feeling the need of a plastic surgeon!
I can’t be sure, but I think I may have broken my nose originally at the age of four when I fell and gashed my lip which required stitches, so any damage done to my nose was overlooked due to the more obvious and dramatic wound on my upper lip.
Anyway, to return to the headbutting of my nose. The pain was now considerable but what I noticed above all else was that it felt different somehow. I ran my fingers over it and realised that this pupil had actually done me a huge favour – my nose was virtually straightened!
The pupil in question showed little remorse (and it was, after all, my own fault), but I think he was a tad disappointed to learn his action had had a positive effect.
Of course, having fun with a class did not necessarily imply physical pain. Fun could be produced through teasing, banter, singing or trying to catch one another out.
Homework (consisting of the completion of a short piece of writing) had been set for an S2 class and it was to be collected at the end of the period.
One charming pupil approached before the end of the class to say how sorry he was, but that he had left his homework at home – he would bring it in the following day.
Having made something of a fuss about handing in the homework on time, I asked him a few questions just to make sure he had, indeed, done the work.
I asked if he was sure he’d done it all and wasn’t just making an excuse. He appeared almost hurt at the implication he might be fibbing. “It’s all done. I was working on it in bed last night and when it was finished I put my jotter under my bed and then forgot to put it in my bag in the morning.”
I looked at him a little doubtfully. “Are you sure? You wouldn’t fib to me, would you?” By now the attention of the rest of the class had been drawn to our conversation as they sensed a potential drama unfolding.
“No, I swear – I got it done, felt sleepy and put the jotter on the floor. I’ll bring it tomorrow and you’ll see.” He was becoming quite indignant at my continued questioning and even started to grandstand a little for the benefit of his classmates.
“I’ll bring it tomorrow at registration. You can’t say fairer than that”, he said, almost triumphantly, sensing I was either convinced by his display of honesty or was caving to his persistent offers to bring the work in at the earliest possible opportunity.
“No need”, said I, and promptly produced his jotter from behind my back and plonked it on the table between us.
“You left this behind yesterday so I kept it in my desk for safekeeping”, I added.
The class loved it and laughed appreciatively while the lad himself had the decency to go deep red and gave me a smile which indicated he accepted defeat and he had been well played.
“Tomorrow at registration”, I said, handing him his jotter which he took while nodding compliance.
The use of songs and singing can be of great benefit in a Modern Languages classroom. Apart from playing, translating and singing songs from French musicals (about which, more later), I was fond of inviting classes to chant grammar points to well-known tunes. The various versions of “some” in French (du, de la, de l’, des) go very well when repeated and sung to the tune of “The William Tell Overture”!
We even developed this to incorporate simple dance moves (all led by yours truly), and we had entire classes bouncing and chanting “du, de la, de l’, des”. At one point, we even had a dance-off between two classes which we filmed and replayed to the classes for maximum “fun”.
Another way of incorporating song in the classroom while helping to build a rapport with pupils was to sing “Happy Birthday” (or “Joyeux Anniversaire”) to those whose special day it was. This became something of a performance, sometimes climbing on the table in front of the pupil to cause the maximum impact and embarrassment, sometimes singing as a duo with the Doc (both of us trying to make the moment memorable rather than focusing on the niceties and finer points of actually singing well), and even occasionally as a trio with Arthur joining the duo, though I think Arthur found this somewhat awkward as he has a very good voice and couldn’t bring himself to do anything other than sing well.
Some of these “performances” were captured on video by numerous pupils who, despite being told that such recordings were officially illegal in school, would surreptitiously (they thought) return their phones to their bags upon completion of the celebration. Fortunately, I have never been privy to a viewing.
I should point out that I do not have a good voice. I have a powerful voice and this occasionally served to dupe some individuals into thinking I can sing, but I readily recognise the limits of my “vocal instrument”.
This was brought home to me particularly on the occasion I was invited (very early in my time at Invergordon) to join the choir for a rehearsal.
It did not go well.
My failed attempts to hold the notes merely attracted the attention of the other choir members and had the effect of distracting them from their own performance. This led to a choir-wide ticking off from choirmaster and music teacher extraordinaire, Ewan Stewart, who said nothing directly to me but neglected to invite me to further rehearsals. Ever.
Ewan retired many years ago, but if ever we bump in to one another he never fails to inquire about the continued quality of my singing voice. Clearly, an impression was made ……
Disillusion and the possibility of an exchange
As I have already mentioned, “Tour de France” (the course we used from S1 to S4) had its weaknesses which led to frustration and dissatisfaction, and toward the end of the eighties a replacement was being sought. In March 1988, I suggested an approach based on contexts familiar to pupils but which was dependent (with substantial input) on class input. Our adviser at the time seemed very taken with this idea and offered to fund a cover teacher for me for two weeks to allow me to type up an outline of contexts, vocabulary and exercises which he would then have written up professionally and distributed.
I have to confess I was flattered and pleased to go down this route of possible career development as the traditional promotion route really didn’t appeal to me.
So, I spent two weeks beavering away and produced what amounted to a two-year course with a variety of contexts, vocabulary and suggestions for speaking, listening, reading and writing extensions. It was duly collected and the Headmaster received a very nice letter commending my professionalism.
And that was it. My “course” simply disappeared into the abyss of educational ideas.
Some time later I approached the subject with the adviser and he pointed out that my whole approach required substantial input from both teacher and pupil (though I had provided copious amounts of guidance, detail and vocabulary) which was seen, on reflection, as a major problem. In all fairness, although disappointing, this was something of a stumbling block as staff had enough to do delivering lessons without having to create them as well.
Of course, some twenty years later this might have been viewed more favourably under Curriculum for Excellence in which teachers were encouraged to depart from “normal” book-based work, but at the time it was, understandably, rejected.
I was quite demoralised. Although I understood why my work had not been picked up, it pained me to think my efforts served no purpose. More importantly, I had thoroughly enjoyed producing the materials and would have liked to pursue such endeavours, and an alternative means of moving forward which seemed to have been proffered was now withdrawn. I had been at the school for some seven years, having intended to see out my probationary period of two years there, and I had itchy feet. I was reasonably happy, but I felt there may be other possibilities elsewhere. This feeling was compounded by the fact my father died a couple of years previous to these events and, as is often the case, loss of that kind invites reflection on values, purpose and the future, and I was no longer sure of what I was doing and why I was doing it.
I needed a change and Arthur helped me on that route by organising an interview for me with the bureau for international educational visits and exchanges.
To my astonishment, one of the members of the panel had been my own teacher of French in S2 and S3, Mr Joe Wake! He was responsible for ensuring the standard of French of candidates, and after pointing out to him that this was the first time in some sixteen years that we had spoken to one another in French, he seemed happy that I could communicate adequately and announced that he was entirely satisfied with the level of my language skills.
The rest of the interview went smoothly and thus I took my first steps toward spending the following academic year in Rennes, Brittany.
While the school was happy to support my candidacy, there were a few misgivings about who exactly would replace me for the year. A colleague had undertaken the same process three years previously and while we appreciated having a native speaker and permanent source of cultural information in our midst, there were one or two areas where things didn’t go entirely smoothly.
Dominique (the exchange teacher) was a relatively small, balding, bespectacled, age-obsessed (he always gave his age as forty, though it transpired he was still thirty-nine) Corsican with a magnificently sculpted physique of which he was (rightly) very proud.
He was a fairly tense man not renowned for his sense of humour, and found it quite difficult to adapt to teaching his own language (rather than English), the course and methodologies we used to teach French, and of course his pupils and the relationship they expected to have with their teacher. He was also accustomed to doing everything at a steady pace and never seemed to be in a hurry to do anything.
At the start of his year with us (and, come to that, throughout his stay), he had a few discipline/relationship problems as French teachers tend to be a little more distant than their Scottish counterparts and have expectations of pupil-teacher relationships which differ from those that frequently apply in Scotland. He didn’t cope well with questioning and challenge, and was of the opinion that pupils should simply accept his authority. When I gently suggested that he could perhaps make some effort to get on with his pupils and thus win their esteem, it appeared he just couldn’t (or wouldn’t) understand that concept.
“I have to gain their respect?”
It was really all a matter of culture and adaptation, but therein lay the problem.
Dominique insisted on a relatively dry and traditional approach whereby he would present the work and it was up to the pupils to meet the standard or not, whereas our course book was built on strategies and methodologies which aimed to engage and develop personal communication. As he was clearly struggling with this aspect, I wrote out some forty lesson plans (all very simple and straightforward), but he abandoned these after about three classes.
While most of the staff made some effort in terms of clothing (shirt, tie, reasonably smart outfits), Dominique persisted in wearing casual clothing (as per expectations in the French education system) and often wore rather large and heavy walking or climbing boots which tended to attract attention.
I once was conducting a speaking test in the base adjacent to my first-floor room, with the pupil facing the open door which looked out on to the corridor. As my pupil gallantly tried to answer my questions in French he was suddenly distracted by the sight of Dominique passing by the open door, slowly but steadily measuring his pace in his sizeable climbing boots, clutching a bottle of water and looking as though it had required quite an effort to get this far up the stairs and along the corridor.
“I know we’re quite high up on the first floor, but that’s ridiculous!” he said, remarkably astutely, as I stifled my desire to laugh and repeated my question in French.
Dominique was given the use of a new Citroen 2CV during his stay by his exchange partner, and toward the end of the year he very kindly invited Arthur and me to lunch at a local restaurant and insisted on transporting us all in his car.
It is common for foreign drivers who are unused to driving on the left to occasionally wander into the right-hand lane, causing considerable anxiety to oncoming drivers, or to keep so far to the left they almost mount the pavement and virtually invite fellow road users to overtake them. Dominique found a novel solution to both these potential problems. While both going to the restaurant and returning to the school, he opted to drive down the middle of the road thus avoiding the two traditional problematic approaches, but doing very little to avoid all other traffic. This was compounded by the fact that he undertook both journeys at his usual pace and proceeded at no more than 20 mph.
On our return, and with magnificent understatement, Arthur whispered to me, “That was a bit hairy, wasn’t it?”
The result of all this was that the Headmaster expressed a desire to meet my exchange partner before giving final approval to my year-long exchange.
I met up with Claire (my proposed exchange partner) at a train station in Paris during the Easter break of 1989. (I thought it best to spend a week or so in France to re-acclimatise myself to French culture and life before spending an entire year teaching English in a Collège (a secondary school for S1 to S4 pupils) in Rennes.) All went well and we spent a pleasant hour or so chatting about ourselves, our schools and our hopes for our exchange. Claire had been an assistante in Scotland some twenty years before and she clearly wanted to recapture some of the pleasure and benefit she had gained from that experience. She struck me as a very competent and confident individual who was keen to make our exchange work. We organised a visit to Invergordon in May so she could see the school and meet the Headmaster.
Everything went well during that visit. The Head was suitably impressed and concurred with my thoughts on my partner, and Claire seemed very happy with what she saw of Invergordon Academy.
Everything was in place for our exchange to start in August 1989 and all augured well, or so it seemed ….
Rennes – experiences as an exchange teacher
The Collège des Hautes Ourmes was a fairly large lower secondary school (compared to what I was used to) of about a thousand pupils in the South-East quadrant of the bustling city of Rennes, the capital of Brittany. I taught English classes in each of the four year groups, amounting to some 150 pupils who came not only from France, but also Turkey, Vietnam, Cambodia and a few other French-speaking nations. Several struggled to some extent with formal French (I spent some of my time correcting their French in homework exercises), and it was only at the end of my year I discovered that for several months Senior Management had sought (and failed to find) a teacher of French as a foreign language which was, of course, my speciality.
Names have always posed a problem for me, but I made a huge effort for the year in France to master the pupils’ names, from relatively common French names to (for me, at least) exotic Cambodian and Vietnamese names. I was delighted with myself as within two or three weeks I was able to address each pupil by his or her name. In the long term, however, the result of this monumental effort was less good. It appears that I largely burned out whatever section of the brain deals with retention of names and since that time I have struggled to recall names. I can describe a pupil’s character, progress, attitude, and even (at times) provide some family information and history, but it is highly unlikely I will remember (at least immediately) their name.
Having been a little disappointed by Dominique’s apparent lack of adaptability, the shoe was now well and truly on the other foot. I was used to working as a department with regular meetings to discuss course progress, pupil progress, methodologies and any problems we might have encountered. I quickly discovered that in Rennes there was no department as such – each teacher was responsible for his/her classes’ progress, using his/her own methods and even producing his/her own tests to evaluate pupil progress. This created an inordinate amount of work for me as I was using four books I didn’t know and had to invent a series of tests for each one as resources were not shared. I was rather envious of Claire’s position as all the resources she needed were filed away and could be accessed easily. On the other hand, I was paid overtime for any classes I did beyond 19 hours a week while poor Claire had to do 23 or 24 hours as standard, a situation she found somewhat unfair.
I found also that teaching your own language is no easy option. After a few weeks of muddling through, I was confronted by a small group of pupils who demanded more formal grammatical explanation. It then struck me that this was a major difference in educational culture – the French (at that time) still learned their own language grammatically (a process whose abandonment in Britain began during my own schooling at home), and so they were able to find common ground (in terms of grammatical structure) or “hooks” as they learned a foreign language. This may go some way to explaining the general willingness of French students to “have a go” compared to the rather reserved and at times fearful attitude of British students. Naturally, I had to rise to the challenge and I invested in a good book of English grammar so I could pass on its words of wisdom as my own. I also learned a lot about the structure of my own language.
My style of teaching also caused a few problems. As I said previously, French teachers (and it is wrong of me to generalise so broadly) tend to be more distant than their Scottish counterparts and pursue more traditional and at times more authoritarian means of teaching. My more informal style (involving discussion, banter and the occasional attempt to entertain) was viewed as weakness by some, accepted with some difficulty by others and appreciated by a few. With time, however, I seemed to win round the majority and by the end of the year several were kind enough to say they found me “cool” and would miss me.
One pupil I certainly did not win over was a young lady in an S4 class called Elvire. She had no time for me and let me know it in no uncertain terms. Something of an attention-seeker and a drama queen, she challenged me frequently, claiming I had no authority (though everyone else in the class worked steadily and willingly). I tried to point out that she appeared to be the only one to have problems and that her grades suggested that she was actually doing rather well in my class (she was a very bright girl), but to no avail. It worried me that I didn’t have the cultural and linguistic knowledge to deal with her and that other pupils might follow her example, though the others remained perfectly reasonable, if wary of her as well.
Things came to a head one day when, the class having been set some work and largely focused on the task in hand, Elvire decided she needed some attention and made a paper aeroplane which she then threw in my direction. I don’t know what Elvire eventually did as a living, but if she ever needs alternative employment she could do worse than become a professional maker of paper planes. Her creation flew beautifully the length of the room, with a trajectory so wonderfully judged that it hit me perfectly on the nose. Even she was taken aback by the total success of her effort as she snorted with delight and slight embarrassment, though no apology was forthcoming.
As the others looked up and realised what had happened, I started to prepare myself for what I was sure was to come. I was certain that I had “lost” the class and pandemonium was about to ensue. I drew a deep breath, unsure of what, exactly, I was going to say, especially in French, but I knew I had to say something assertive.
I don’t know if I’ve ever been so surprised and delighted by the reaction of a class. Far from the expected rebellion, a number of pupils actually turned on Elvire, telling her very clearly she had gone too far and what they thought of her behaviour, while others simply showed disapproval, shook their heads and got on with their work. Elvire, of course, was entirely unrepentant and snapped at her classmates, but there was a distinct change in her behaviour thereafter – still unwilling to respect me, but less obvious in the display of her feelings.
Maybe there was something to be said for building a rapport with pupils after all.
The only other time Elvire’s conduct came to prominence was on a school trip to Jersey organised by my French colleague, André. This was a trip he had done several times before – 120 pupils accompanied by 6 members of staff on a day-trip to Jersey, the linguistic interest being that our pupils could practise their English in an essentially English environment. To catch the early ferry from St Malo, we left Rennes at around 4.30 a.m.. Our pupils were merry, chatty and excited as they happily got on the coaches in a remarkably orderly fashion and set off for foreign shores.
The two-hour journey to St Malo went smoothly enough and at the ferry port I quickly got off the coach to guide pupils and answer any questions. Spirits were even higher than when we left and it was almost touching to see how much they were looking forward to their trip. Then I heard a familiar voice call out to me in English. “Good morning Mr Fernie.” It was Elvire, but she was giggling slightly manically and closer inspection revealed her light curly hair now dark and almost matted to her head as she sweated profusely. She was also having great difficulty walking in a straight line, or even just remaining upright. She was propped up by some friends who insisted there was no problem, but it was quite clear the girl was drunk and was in no fit state to participate in our excursion, a real shame as she was one of the most able of our pupils and would certainly have gained a lot from even a brief visit to Jersey.
The curious thing is that despite her obvious state of intoxication, she insisted on chatting to me in English and she actually spoke with remarkable clarity and grammatical accuracy. I thought it best not to draw attention to any correlation between her alcohol consumption and her linguistic performance – not the most reliable method of ensuring communication!
Further investigation indicated that she had smuggled a half-bottle of pastis on to the coach, hidden up her sleeve, and had consumed at least half the contents by 6.30 a.m.. Her mother was contacted and she was taken home while the others continued and had a memorable trip. A three-day suspension from school followed. Naturally, she showed no remorse but I have to say I was quite relieved to discover that her antics were not restricted to me and my classroom.
The system of evaluation (at that time) consisted of very regular tests from which average grades were derived. Formal tests (known as “interrogations”) contributed to the overall average (marked out of twenty) of a pupil’s performance throughout the year, and progression to the next level was dependent on sufficient progress across all subjects (a score of ten or more). However, some pupils calculated that strengths in certain subjects would compensate for weakness in others and so they could afford to focus on some at the expense of others and still maintain a reasonable average.
This was compounded by a practice I came across whereby some teachers (and by no means all) allowed certain less interested pupils to remain unfocused on condition that they did not distract others who were willing to work. The reasoning was that if these unfocused pupils were not successful, it was their responsibility (as they had effectively opted out) and they would pay the price by potentially having to repeat a year if their grades fell below the required standard in a number of subjects.
All of this was explained to me by a pupil in S3 named Ronan with whom I had something of an altercation as I found this practice unacceptable, but he thought it was perfectly reasonable.
As I was explaining something to his class, and setting some work, I noticed that Ronan was whispering to and distracting a classmate (who was perfectly happy to be distracted). I interrupted my own flow to ask Ronan to be quiet. “Oui, Oui”, he said, and set to listening to my explanation. This lasted about two minutes, when he again turned to his friend and was keen to share some amusing tale. Once again, I stopped and asked him to be quiet, though this time a little more insistently. “Oui ……”, he said, but with a tone of impatience. I gave him my best “disapproving teacher” look, hoping to communicate my displeasure at his tone without wishing to resort to another verbal ticking off. He shifted in his seat, grimaced a little, but once again paid attention to my discourse.
Of course, it didn’t last long. He couldn’t resist temptation and quietly but determinedly picked up his story again.
I had to confront him, not just because of his inattention, but because of his potential influence on the rest of the class, so I spoke more forcefully this time and made my displeasure clear. I knew he would respond (probably with indignation) and I was ready to take him on if necessary, but I was unprepared for what he said:
“What’s it got to do with you if I pay attention or not? If I don’t listen and I do badly, I’m the one who re-sits the year!”
His tone was clearly defiant, but I realised he actually thought that I was being unreasonable and that he had every right to switch off if he chose to.
The whole class waited for my response.
I pointed out to him (and the rest of the listening class) that I was responsible for his learning and the learning of each individual in the class. I couldn’t let him opt out and I certainly couldn’t let him prevent the learning of others by chatting while I talked to the class. I told him he had no right to interfere with the learning of others and that he was letting himself down by not making an effort.
It was all obvious stuff and I tried to be as reasonable as I could. The truth is I didn’t know what else to say – I didn’t have the vocabulary or the cultural background to handle it in any other way.
Although he was clearly unhappy with the situation, Ronan accepted my reasoning and assured me he would make more of a concerted effort.
We had an open and interesting chat at the end of the class during which he explained his position and why he had felt aggrieved. I can’t say he was the perfect pupil after that, but we achieved an understanding and he did try to remain attentive – most of the time.
Interestingly, a couple of months later I had a bout of flu and was absent for a few days. I lived in a flat in the school grounds (as in Le Havre, there was a residence for staff) and one day I heard a knock on the door – it was Ronan, accompanied by a couple of classmates. They wanted to know if I was alright. They wondered if their behaviour had been such that I had decided to leave and they had come to apologise!
I assured them that I was plain unwell and that their behaviour was really not that bad. They left reassured and happy I was ill, and I was heartened and very touched by their concern.
All my colleagues in Rennes were welcoming, open and friendly. They readily took on board my status as a stranger unaccustomed to their education system and were more than willing to help me whenever and however necessary, be it taking time to clarify what was required of me in meetings or more generally to just offer company and friendship.
Naturally, I was closest to those working in the English “department” and two in particular, André and Jeannette, became good friends.
Both were a number of years older than me and had families of their own, but they accepted me immediately as part of their social circle and invited me (and my wife, who was able to join me for the second part of the year in France) regularly to their homes and on excursions.
André was particularly willing to offer the hand of friendship and was kind enough to invite me regularly to one of his three homes (in the city, in the country and by the sea). This sounds very grand, but André and his wife Elisabeth bought the properties relatively cheaply with a view to gradually transforming the fairly small and basic buildings into more substantial and comfortable dwellings, and this they managed to do on a remarkably meagre budget.
Neither of his two secondary homes (in the country and by the sea) had running water or modern facilities, but he and his wife worked tirelessly to create warm, comfortable and remarkably welcoming homes.
Prior to investing in their home by the sea they had not one but two caravans at a park by a beach not far from St Malo. They were kind enough to ask me if I wanted to spend a weekend with them at the beach, an offer I gratefully accepted and then they brought my attention to the fact they were naturists, and the beach we’d be visiting was nudist.
What can I say? I couldn’t bring myself to remove all my clothing (I have never fully appreciated laughter at my expense), but I was the odd one out and I actually felt embarrassed at my own inability to divest myself of my clothes and my inhibitions.
There were some beautiful sights (which only served to confirm my preference to retain at least some of my clothes – I couldn’t compete!), although there were also some less attractive views on offer, and at closer range I impressed myself no end by maintaining eye contact at all times with interlocutors. Of course, the experience really only confirmed my own prudishness as everyone else relaxed and enjoyed the freedom of nature, though one chap I encountered was a little too keen to exercise his freedom for my liking ….
André and Elisabeth positioned themselves for a spot of sunbathing on the beach, as did I. I stretched out, facing upwards and had my eyes closed as the sun was high in the sky directly above me, and was quite blinding.
Somewhat inevitably, I fell asleep. Not for too long, but long enough to allow the sun to change position and shine from behind me when I awoke. As I came to, I looked ahead of me, toward the sea, to discover my view interrupted by a chap who had set himself up to take in the sun some 15 feet in front of me, and the sight that greeted me has left me scarred psychologically for life.
This man was clearly a sun worshipper. He was tanned, it seemed to me, all over, and was a deep brown colour. Except, apparently, for inside his thighs. And it was that area he had chosen to tan, within spitting distance of me.
In order to successfully tan the afore-mentioned area, he opted to crouch on his slightly parted knees, facing the sea and therefore looking away from me. He leaned on his elbows with his face virtually buried in the sand, therefore arching his back at an angle of about 45°, and with his naked backside propped up neatly in line with his knees, he spread his feet and lower legs thereby presenting his pale (by comparison) inner thighs for tanning.
It was hideous yet hypnotic. Disbelief took over as I tried to make sense of the man’s position.
I turned, inquiringly, to André and Elisabeth who said quite simply, “C’est ridicule.”
Finding this response strangely reassuring if inadequate, I shut my eyes once again and tried to find some inner peace. It was only afterward that Elisabeth explained to me just what the man was trying to achieve, not that it gave me much comfort.
André was keen on windsurfing (a pastime that seems particularly popular in France) and invested in a second-hand board which, naturally enough, he brought to the beach. He told me about his initial efforts to master the board ….
It was a pleasant day, sunny, reasonably warm, but a little breezy. André set up the board in the water with the sail flat against the sea, which he would pick up once he gained his balance on the board.
As he tells it, it took him some twenty or thirty attempts before he was able to keep his balance and pull the sail up, so he was delighted when he finally managed it and was determined not to lose the impetus as he set sail. He held on to the guide bar (whatever it’s called) as though his life depended on it and, contorting his body in often sudden, jerking movements so as not to lose his balance, he moved gently but relentlessly forward.
It should be borne in mind that this was a nudist beach and André was completely naked on his windsurf board.
He was, of course, delighted with his success as he advanced at a reasonable pace. However, he realised fairly quickly that he had not, as yet, learned how to steer the device with any degree of accuracy and was able to exercise very little directional control as he moved along parallel to the shoreline.
It is at this point that you, dear reader, should be informed that the beach was only half nudist. The half of the beach to the west was designated “textile” so clothing was required, and André was heading right for that section on his poorly controlled board, thrusting his naked body to and fro in a desperate attempt to stay on his board, and moving at a fair pace.
It was when several fathers on the water’s edge covered their children’s eyes, yelled at him to cover himself and started throwing lumps of wet sand in his general direction that André decided he should abandon his record-breaking first attempt at windsurfing, and allowed himself to fall into the protective depths of the foreshore. Easily able to stand in the chest-deep water, he towed his board back to the relative security and friendliness of the nudist area of the beach.
Over the years, I have enjoyed recounting personal anecdotes which illustrate aspects of French culture and provide background information to pupils while hopefully making lessons and their content more palatable and memorable.
One such aspect is meeting and greeting. While in Scotland we may exchange nods of recognition, say “Hi”, shake hands or even give a brief hug or kiss on the cheek to closer friends (although this seems to be evolving among the young), in France this is much more of an event, and it is one of which you should be aware. I once inadvertently caused minor offence by not kissing an assistante on the cheek despite the fact I had seen her just three hours previously.
You will be expected to shake hands with a male friend when you meet him, no matter how long you have known him or how close you are. This first struck me when I was an assistant in Le Havre. I would see classmates arrive outside a classroom (kids who had known one another for years and spent all day together), and each and every one would shake hands with all the others. This also applied to a large number of male staff I encountered every morning – there was the ritual shaking of hands accompanied by a brief inquiry as to how each was feeling, and they would actually wait for and listen to the response.
At that time, I associated a handshake with formality and a certain distance between participants, but I quickly realised that this was simply another difference in cultures, and indeed in France the lack of physical contact can be interpreted as coldness and disinterest.
When it comes to meeting and greeting ladies, I’m afraid this is slightly more complex and is dependent on personal judgment. However, here goes ….
You should kiss a lady you know on the cheek. This will be expected and failure to do so may cause offence. Offence, however, may also be caused by failure to deliver the correct number of kisses and here, dear reader, I can be of little help to you as I have never managed to master this aspect of French culture.
I have given a peck on the cheek and pulled back to see the other cheek proffered, and a vague look of offence visible in the eyes as I clearly had not intended to deliver a second peck.
I have given two pecks (one on each cheek) only to have caused confusion over which cheek with which to start, and then (on occasions) realised the lady in question was expecting a further two pecks and was vaguely insulted I had stopped at just two.
Yes, you may be required to give four pecks, two on each cheek, but I can offer no solid advice on where to start or exactly how many pecks to offer, except to suggest that if you are meeting a number of ladies you should treat each one in the same manner as differentiation in the number of pecks might also cause offence!
In the early 1990s my colleague Colin and I accompanied a group of six S4 girl pupils on an exchange trip to Rennes, and André kindly organised a welcome party at his country home. Apart from the eight members of our group, he also invited our pupils’ exchange partners, some of their parents and some staff, amounting to some thirty guests. Everything went very well and a very pleasant time was had by all, but before we could get down to discussing the detail of the plans for our trip, it took about twenty minutes just to say hello as each of us met and embraced each other guest.
The, of course, this whole process was revisited at the end of the social event when everyone said goodbye!
Much to pupils’ astonishment I have discussed this important aspect of French culture with many classes, and in an attempt to introduce an interactive element to my lesson, and to prepare them for this onslaught of handshaking and cheek-kissing, I have frequently told a class that they will have to say farewell to me in the traditional French manner before being allowed out of the room. The boys were usually fairly amused at the prospect of shaking my hand, but the girls! The very thought of having to go anywhere near my cheek came close to provoking illness in some and a plain refusal in others. Eventually, of course, I relented and accepted a shake of the hand from all as they scurried out of my room.
Another overwhelming (and immensely pleasant) aspect of French culture is their hospitality. The French are astonishingly hospitable, sociable, welcoming and congenial hosts. Very keen to invite guests to their homes for a meal, they take huge pride in offering high quality traditional fare, especially to foreign guests who will be informed in considerable detail of the background of each dish and just how each is prepared.
They will go to great lengths to make you welcome – I knew one teacher in Le Havre who kept close to 40 different types of whisky (as well as a large stock of different wines) in her cellar, and had cigars, cigarettes and a lighter to hand despite not smoking herself.
An English-teaching colleague in Rennes, Jeannette, was kind enough to invite me to her home on a number of occasions and to celebrate a special event (the exact reason for which now escapes me), she and her husband Jean-Yves invited ten guests, including me and my wife Alison, and André and Elisabeth.
Nothing could have prepared me for that evening and I still think of it as a French meal “par excellence”. We started with nibbles and aperitifs at 7.30 and sat down at the table at 8 o’clock. There followed a veritable onslaught on the senses. The table was beautifully decorated with vividly coloured flowers and there were nine courses (all a sensible size), each accompanied by a different wine to suit the dish, while the sound of joyous chatter and recounting of anecdotes and news was virtually deafening.
Quite apart from the merriment and sociability of the group, what really came across to me was the fact this all appeared normal to the French guests – they were clearly in the habit of doing this sort of thing and were full of questions and comments not just about events and shared experiences, but about the food, how it was prepared, where it came from, cooking times etc.. Similarly with the wine – they discussed the region of origin, the year, and how the weather and locality had affected the flavour. It really was an eye-opener to a different culture.
I, however, had a slight problem. I have no idea why but for some months my left knee had ached if I didn’t move my leg fairly regularly, and if I couldn’t alleviate it, the pain went from a dull ache to something akin to sharp toothache which seemed to worsen with every heartbeat.
As I said, we sat at the table at 8 o’clock. By about 9 o’clock the pain in my knee was making itself felt. I tried to relieve it by moving my leg within the limited space available under the table, but I really needed to stand and stretch my legs which was, of course, impossible as we had only reached the third course.
By 10.30 and the sixth course the pain was quite excruciating. It started to dominate everything – I couldn’t think of what to say to my fellow guests and I was having some trouble following what was going on as my main focus was the pain in my knee.
Then, about 11 o’clock and on the seventh course, a miracle happened. The pain started to dissipate. Through sheer relief and joy I began to readily participate again in conversation and take greater pleasure in the general proceedings.
Within half an hour the pain had gone completely and I was absolutely delighted. Why hadn’t I done this before, I thought. Clearly the solution was just to get through the pain and eventually it would go. Quite apart from the happy atmosphere engendered by the evening, I was now elated at the thought of having rid myself of the wretched pain in my knee, presumably permanently.
When we finally rose from the table at 1 a.m., after nine courses, a coffee and then a pousse-café (yet more alcohol), my pain was gone and I felt on form! Of course, the alcohol might have had some effect on my mood, but I was just delighted with myself and my pain-free state.
It had been a long and very pleasant evening. Five hours was the longest I had ever spent at a table, but clearly it was all worth it.
The next morning, after a fitful sleep (I never sleep well if I eat late or “make merry”) I got up, and as I was dressing I realised I had a strange feeling from my left knee down my shin to my ankle. It was numb. No feeling in that area whatsoever. I even resorted to giving myself karate chops the length of my shin, all to no avail. I reasoned that if I had to lose feeling somewhere in my body, that was probably the best place to lose it, but I can’t say I was very happy about it.
My “relief” from my knee pain hadn’t been relief at all, indeed the situation had worsened considerably! In the end, it took three days of gradual recovery of feeling and persistent pins and needles to get back to normal, and I have managed to avoid five-hour meals ever since.
A feature of French life and society I never encountered or put to the test in Le Havre was medical care, though clearly I paid a price for that a few years later in terms of dental treatment.
In France, you pay for visits to the doctor or dentist and pay for treatment, claiming costs back from insurance companies and a small percentage from the State only afterwards. Fortunately, I’ve always enjoyed quite robust health so I wasn’t too concerned about having to visit a doctor, but I did learn a lesson regarding dental care and I saw my dentist in Scotland shortly before leaving for Rennes, and he reckoned I could go another year without treatment.
Needless to say, within three months I became aware of a nagging pain and I realised I was going to have to see a French dentist – I wanted to avoid a repeat of my previous (self-inflicted) experience at all costs.
André was as helpful as ever and even accompanied me to meet his dentist in Rennes. He was a slightly balding, grey-haired and bearded man of average height in his late forties. Attentive and dynamic, he quickly took a look at the problem and took some temporary measures that alleviated the pain, but then announced that he was less than impressed with the standard of Scottish dentistry if my mouth was anything to go by. He immediately picked up his appointments schedule and started to pencil me in for no fewer than a further eight sessions!
Somewhat taken aback, but in no position to offer any arguments, I inquired as to the cost (bearing in mind my NHS contributions counted for nothing in France), and he advised me it would cost in the region of the equivalent of £400.
I really wasn’t sure what to do. I was limiting myself to £300 a month in France as the mortgage and other monthly bills still applied at home. Could I ask him just to treat the tooth that caused me pain?
Obviously, there was a look of pained anxiety on my face (remember my inner feelings are always revealed by my expression) and, after a moment or two, the dentist told me not to worry because he had a proposition for me.
That was the first time I ever saw a dentist as anything more than “just” a dentist. Here was a savvy, intelligent businessman offering a deal that would benefit both of us.
He explained that he had three children, all secondary school age, including his eldest daughter who was due to sit her Baccalauréat (equivalent of Highers/A Levels), and all were studying English and would benefit from private lessons. If I was interested, we could trade his dental treatment for a series of English lessons for his kids.
I could hardly believe my luck. Once again, I seemed to be in the right place at the right time and I accepted his offer immediately.
While I can’t say I enjoyed the dental work, I did enjoy my visits to his home and giving lessons to his children. They were attentive and keen to do well, and I was something of an exotic guest/teacher. We all got on well and eventually I was invited to stay for dinner after the lessons.
Clearly it would be wrong to generalise from this outcome. Might I suggest that you carry with you a means of paying for emergency treatment if you travel to France? Not everyone will be lucky enough to meet a dentist whose children need English lessons.
As I mentioned previously, my father died in 1984. My mother was 64 at the time and proceeded to withdraw into herself and away from society in general. She saw family and neighbours but made little effort to engage in anything approaching a social life until, at a cousin’s insistence, she attended a church fund-raising event and was introduced to a chap called Fred late in 1987.
Although my mother was not keen on pursuing a romantic involvement at first, Fred persisted and eventually my mother agreed to go out with him on a date (after which she phoned me to say she had “got herself into trouble with a man”, at which I laughed and suggested this was unlikely at the age of 67).
One thing led to another and in February 1990, just two weeks short of her 70th birthday, my mother married for the second time.
I was delighted for them both as it gave each of them a new lease of life (Fred was 74) and a desire to travel and share new experiences, and they visited me in Rennes at Easter in 1990.
Fred was a likeable and affable Londoner, a retired optician and a man of considerable knowledge and confidence, though sometimes he knew less than he thought he knew.
During their visit to Rennes, my mum and Fred were keen to taste the ambiance of the city and try out the famed French café society. On one outing we went into a typical traditional café – dark wood everywhere, contrasting with the silver and black modern coffee machines which noisily produced black, tarry coffee. There were too many tables for the cramped space and too many customers chatting animatedly over their small cups of espresso as they smoked and put the world to rights.
Mum and Fred were quite captivated by the whole atmosphere and just wanted to join in.
They said they wanted coffees so I hurriedly explained that the nearest equivalent to what we had at home was “un grand café-crème”, a large coffee with cream and sugar if they so wanted. They accepted my advice and ordered the coffees.
When the coffees arrived the cream/milk was served in a separate small jug so the mug-size cup was full of very black and very strong coffee. While waiting for the arrival of the coffees, Fred had been observing the other customers, their manner, their attitudes, their lively participation in discussion, and their coffee.
When I pointed out the cream and sugar, Fred said very decisively that he was going to have his coffee the way the locals had theirs – black, no milk and no sugar.
After a quick recce to establish what he was referring to, I tried to point out to Fred that the other customers were having espressos – strong black coffee in cups that were about a third of the size of ours, and that given the size and strength of our coffees, he needed milk and probably sugar. However, I only managed to get out “But they’re not …” before Fred interrupted me, insisting he was going to have his coffee French style.
“But Fred …” was all I was able to say before he quoted some Spanish phrase (he knew Spain and spoke Spanish quite well) about the qualities of pure black coffee, and started to down his large pure coffee without cream and without sugar.
It didn’t take long. We spent about twenty minutes in the café and as we left Fred muttered something about his stomach not feeling quite right. We continued into town for about five minutes when my mum stopped me and said Fred really wasn’t feeling too good. I looked in his direction and he was, indeed, looking distressed. He was very embarrassed but felt he couldn’t go on and suggested returning to my flat.
Once in the car, he removed his flat cap (which he always wore when out) to reveal several streams of sweat emanating from the top of his head and rolling down his forehead, ears and neck.
I drove as quickly as I could and got him installed in the bathroom as soon as we got in. The poor man spent the next five hours shuttling between the bedroom and the bathroom.
Fred died eight years later (not as the result of this experience!) and in that time not a single drop of coffee passed his lips. Indeed, if he was so much as asked if he wanted a coffee, his head would lower and his lips turned down as a certain queasiness seemed to invade his stomach.
Best start with an espresso and build up to a “grand crème”.
A couple of anecdotes I have recounted to pupils to build awareness of and bring to life some of the dangers involved in using the roads in foreign lands (or indeed at home).
Traffic in cities is never easy, but there are certain rules you expect to be international, conventions you expect every driver to respect and precautions you expect every driver to take.
Something happens to drivers in cities. Maybe it’s stress, maybe it’s pressure or maybe it’s simply because they’re in a hurry, but frequently drivers in cities fail to consider other road-users, pedestrians and safety in general, and I ‘ve seen examples of this in most places I’ve visited, including Glasgow, Edinburgh, London, Paris, Brescia (Italy), Athens and Heraklion in Crete.
In the centre of Rennes flows the river La Vilaine, and one-way roads have been built on each side of the river. At one point, just east of the city centre and on the southern bank of the river there are traffic lights at a junction, with a zebra crossing some thirty metres beyond them.
One day, as I was walking along the river bank, moving eastward, in the same direction as the traffic, I saw a considerable queue of cars backed up over two lanes of traffic at these lights. In itself, that was nothing – once the lights changed, the drivers would rapidly make their way through the city streets. What caught my attention was the pedestrian on the far side of the zebra crossing who had pressed the crossing button to allow him to cross the road and join me on the river bank, just as the traffic lights were about to change. It struck me that this was a rather silly place to set up a zebra crossing as waiting for pedestrians to cross after already waiting at traffic lights was only going to cause frustration.
The “green man” at the crossing lit up just as the traffic lights changed to green and the pedestrian stepped on to the crossing, giving him right of way.
For a moment, I actually felt sorry for the drivers as they accelerated toward the crossing and the pedestrian who was now about a third of the way across the road, knowing they would immediately have to brake and allow the pedestrian to pass.
I needn’t have wasted my sympathy – it became clear that the cars were not going to stop. They continued accelerating toward the crossing as if no-one was there, and the pedestrian displayed exactly the same attitude – he carried on as well!
I braced myself for the impact in disbelief as the two seemed to be on a collision course, but instead I witnessed bodily dexterity and coolness under pressure such as I had never seen before.
The pedestrian casually looked in the direction of the cars and continued on his path, stopping in the middle of the crossing and, without a single sign of anxiety, he dodged the cars and their door mirrors as they shot past him, in front and behind, and he nonchalantly moved his hips forward to avoid mirrors attacking his rear, then backward to avoid mirrors that would have collided with his front. He waited until all the cars had passed and then continued to cross at the same leisurely pace.
Everything about the pedestrian’s manner suggested he was used to this – he just dealt with it.
Perhaps a little training with a hoola-hoop would not go amiss before tackling French road crossings in cities.
I saw a markedly different reaction to road crossings and traffic when, after driving out of the school where I was teaching, I negotiated the one-way system and series of mini roundabouts, and approached a very narrow zebra crossing. The road is reduced to a single lane at that point and a very elderly lady was waiting to cross. She had not set foot on the crossing and was clearly waiting until she felt it was entirely safe before embarking on the ten-foot journey to the other side.
Feeling a considerable degree of sympathy for this old lady, I pulled up and waited for her to cross.
She didn’t move. Indeed, she didn’t even look in my direction, but as the car remained immobile on the edge of the crossing she must have felt under pressure, and a few seconds later she glanced toward me.
I waved to her to cross.
She stared back, unmoving.
I waved again, this time a little more insistent.
She looked me in the eye and shook her head slowly and deliberately.
I pointed at the road and gently and slowly traced my way across the road with my finger.
This time she shook her head almost frantically, insisting she was going nowhere.
I gave in and crept forward, especially because a number of cars had by now gathered behind me, but I couldn’t help but feel guilty for the fear I had obviously caused to this old lady. Surely she didn’t think I was going to wait until she reached the middle of the crossing and then maniacally leap forward to increase my body count of innocent pedestrians?
Perhaps it was simpler than that – maybe she had also witnessed the incident with the pedestrian in the city centre ….
While in Rennes, Alison and I received a few guests, including our friend Fiona. Wanting to show her some of the local scenery, we headed off to the coast for the day and after a long and leisurely lunch we set off on a walk along the coastal path.
As we walked along the path, chatting and admiring the landscape and catching up on all the news from home, we saw a medium-height, dark-haired woman about our age approaching. I paid no real attention as we were well away from our local haunts and I was more preoccupied with thoughts of where we would go next than with this stranger whose path we were about to cross.
However, as we were about to pass her she stopped, smiled, and said “Well …. Bonjour!” with a distinctly Scottish accent. I looked at her properly and realised in utter astonishment that she was a teacher of Home Economics at Invergordon, a woman I’d worked alongside for several years, who had invited us to dinner in her home, whose husband taught locally and whom I also knew well! The only thing I couldn’t remember about her was her name! Undoubtedly it was due to the change of context, the length of time I hadn’t seen her, the effort I had put in to making a place for myself in France and had therefore forgotten (apparently) the detail of my life in Invergordon. All of that was certainly true, but it didn’t help me one iota – I still couldn’t remember her name!
I managed to steer the conversation so names didn’t have to be mentioned, frantically thinking of topics to discuss and avoid, inquiries to make and tales to tell – all in an attempt to avoid not so much the elephant in the room as the friend and visitor standing beside me who every now and then looked like she was going to ask the obvious question, and that was the one area I was trying to circumvent.
Finally it came, and I knew in my heart it had to. “Aren’t you going to introduce us?”, as though it was a simple thing to do ….
In one final attempt to get around the problem, I introduced Fiona in the hope that my nameless colleague and friend would then introduce herself, but that subterfuge failed miserably, indeed it only made matters worse as, having named Fiona, both parties looked expectantly and then somewhat incredulously at me, and I had nothing.
I just wanted to disappear from this Earth as their stares bored into me and I could think of absolutely nothing to say.
Within seconds (which felt like a lifetime to me), Susan tutted, shook her head and introduced herself, and I was left feeling guilty and totally inadequate. I never discussed it with Fiona or Susan, knowing that whatever justification I offered would only add insult to injury, but to this day I squirm when I think of that totally random meeting somewhere on the French coast.
Fiona is a spirited, adventurous girl who likes to live life to the full and one evening she noticed a bottle of Calvados in our drinks cabinet in Rennes, and was most intrigued by it.
After establishing it was apple brandy (and explaining about “le Trou Normand”, its strength and how to consume it), I was surprised when Fiona sought out a brandy glass and proceeded to pour herself a very large one. I hurriedly reiterated that it should be consumed in very small quantities, actually in a thimble-sized receptacle. She chose to ignore that element of French tradition, though I noted she had a good stab at fulfilling the other element of the “Trou Normand” tradition by attempting to down the whole in one go. Thankfully, she didn’t quite make it, but she did manage to drink what was effectively at least a quadruple Calvados in about twenty minutes.
To my utter astonishment there were no obvious signs of inebriation – she was perfectly lucid, balanced and sensible having consumed at least twice as much as I had drunk as an assistant, and that quantity caused me to outrun cars and wave hysterically to their occupants in a city centre at one in the morning.
We decided it was time for bed as I had to work the next morning, but I was quite disconcerted by Fiona’s apparent capacity to hold her drink, to the point where I felt I might have been a bit of a “wuss” in my younger days.
When I got up at seven the following morning and made my way into the kitchen, I have to confess that the sight that met my eyes gave me considerable satisfaction.
Here, seated on a kitchen chair and slumped over the small table, was a leaden-eyed and totally dishevelled Fiona with a glass by her left hand and a large bottle of still water on her right.
She looked toward me as I entered, struggling to find the strength to raise her head and focus her eyes. She explained in a feeble voice that she had monumental heartburn through the night, had managed to sleep for about one hour and was still in great discomfort. She had gone into the kitchen looking for some means to calm the heartburn, found several bottles of nice cool water in the fridge and had consumed something in the region of three litres to quench the fire within, consequently having to make numerous visits to the loo and disturbing her sleep even further.
I did show compassion, but I headed off to work reassured that Calvados had, eventually, had its effect.
I have been told by more than one French man that every (French) man is not just entitled to his opinion, but every (French) man feels his opinion is right, and this is treated as a matter of principle. Apparently, this means that they are willing to defend their position to the bitter end.
This trait, according to my sources, is greatly admired and is clearly the basis of the great French play “Cyrano de Bergerac” by Edmond Rostand, in which the hero Cyrano refuses to surrender to pressure to compromise and insists on pursuing his own path, come what may, even if this leads to conflict and romantic tragedy.
In 1990 a sumptuous and much-lauded film version of Rostand’s tale starring Gérard Depardieu was produced, and I was informed of a special showing for pupils who were studying the play for their upcoming exams. Colleague and friend Jean-Claude (a teacher of French) asked if I would accompany him and his group of pupils. Being keen on cinema in general and keen also to see what all the fuss was about, I willingly accepted his invitation.
The day came and we set off for an early showing (at 10 a.m. in order to avoid the general public). Our group of about twenty headed off for the city centre cinema I had visited often during my stay, a little bleary-eyed but reasonably enthusiastic.
It was a spacious and comfortable cinema with high quality projection and sound. It was situated in the heart of the city, looking on to the river that runs through the centre, and was on one of the main bus routes so getting there was no problem at all. The only real problem was that it was also closed. We arrived with about ten minutes to spare and we felt it was not unreasonable to expect the building to be open at that time, but there was not a soul around to whom we could direct inquiries. It is not good if things don’t go according to plan when you are in charge of a number of pupils – they lose interest, their attention starts to wander and eventually they start to wander. Teachers feel under great pressure when events occur beyond their control, so we were delighted to see someone arrive bang on 10 o’clock – a bit late, we thought, but at least things were now in hand.
The middle-aged lady who had just arrived looked at us with a mild air of incomprehension, muttered “Bonjour”, turned a key in the door and went inside, promptly closing the door behind her, leaving our group stranded and bewildered.
Jean-Claude and I shared a look of bemusement. The lady could at least have welcomed us and told us how long we’d have to wait. Even if she had acknowledged the purpose of our being there, we’d have felt better.
Jean-Claude was not the most patient of men, but he had good reason to be annoyed – we were responsible for a party of kids who were left standing in the cold morning air and we had just been largely ignored by the only representative of the cinema we had seen. He told me to stay with the pupils and brusquely opened the door and went in.
None of us could see what went on behind the entrance to the cinema, but we could hear. The manager’s office was apparently on the first floor, overlooking the street, or at least that’s where two very loud and very unhappy voices came from. I couldn’t make out exactly what was being said and neither could the kids, but the tone was clear and neither man was happy with the position in which he found himself, but neither man going to give way to the other. The arguing and the bad-tempered exchange continued for over five minutes, which is a long time when you don’t know what you’re going to end up doing with twenty pupils!
Eventually silence descended and we were left in limbo, but the whole event had hardly been positive so far, so we expected the worst.
Jean-Claude barged through the door and instructed the pupils to enter in an orderly fashion. The film would begin in ten minutes.
I looked at him in disbelief, my expression inviting an explanation.
“He claims nobody told him about it and he can’t understand because it isn’t commercially viable to show the film to such a small group, turn on the heating, and with no staff so he will have to operate the projector. I pointed out he or his bosses had made a commitment so they had to keep to it – money or not. Pupils and staff made the effort to be here at the arranged time so he had to honour his commitment”, said Jean-Claude. Apparently, the manager kept repeating it all made no sense and that he knew nothing about it, but in the face of Jean-Claude’s incessant badgering and demands that he fulfil his organisation’s promises, he caved in and agreed to show the film himself.
At the end, we just left the cinema – no thanks were passed on to the manager and no effort was made to show our appreciation. There was no visit from the manager either, so we just went on our way.
The following day at school, Jean-Claude came up to me quite excitedly and with a fairly large grin on his face. In the lead-up to our trip, he had failed to mention to me that our group was just one of five or six from various schools throughout the city who had been due to see the film. Somewhat confused, I asked where they had been the day before.
“It turns out we went to the wrong cinema. The others saw it in the cinema next to the shopping centre. I just assumed it was at the cinema in the city centre”, said Jean-Claude.
When I pointed out the manager had been right all along, Jean-Claude simply smiled broadly, shook his fist and said, “That’s French determination!”
He gave me a copy of the play as a souvenir and wrote a dedication to me on the inside leaf, just so I would remember.
As if I was going to forget!
By the end of my year in Rennes, I had gained hugely. As a teacher, I learned the importance of analysis – breaking lessons into manageable chunks, bearing in mind what pupils had done previously and where they were going, and offering clear explanations while linking everything together. I also learned the importance of trying to stimulate pupils’ interest while maintaining discipline, and of course the most obvious thing – the importance of thorough preparation and testing.
On a more personal level, I learned to appreciate family and friends, relationships with colleagues, and the importance of listening to and getting on with others.
Before I left Invergordon for Rennes, a colleague told me she thought it would be a worthwhile experience if only to learn to appreciate what I already had, and I think there’s a lot of truth in that statement. It’s worth going through potentially painful experiences in order to grow, develop and become surer of what is important to you, and I came home more settled and more appreciative of my surroundings.
Having said that, I could not have wished for more supportive and welcoming colleagues in Rennes. Their willingness to understand my situation, discuss professional matters and share their homes helped me evolve both professionally and personally.
The 1990s, film, family, focus and France
Professionally speaking, the early 1990s was a bizarrely settled period – bizarrely because it was a time of great change (Revised Higher and Standard Grade were being introduced and developed), yet there was certainty and confidence about the direction we were taking as clear and concise documentation was produced, staff were consulted and changes in line with teachers’ reaction and recommendations were often implemented.
“Tour de France” was out and until we found an alternative that would fit our requirements (eventually “Métro” was published), we used the coursework I had produced before going to Rennes.
My own course and then “Métro” fitted the requirements of the new exams very well and we developed materials we were able to use (with updates) for a further ten years or so.
In line with the new Higher course, we were able to use French films toward fulfilment of requirements in writing and speaking, and that suited me very well. A long-time devotee of cinema in general, but particularly interested in French films and directors, I was delighted to be able to introduce film not just for background study and general interest, but for specific coursework purposes at Standard Grade, Higher and Advanced Higher (or Sixth Year Studies at the time).
I enjoyed and admired a number of films by Luc Besson and so I developed some ideas and notes for use with Advanced Higher students. I even suggested the pupil involved write to Luc Besson in the vague hope that the man himself might respond, and lo and behold, some four months later the pupil received a signed personal reply! It was a typed note thanking her for her interest and apologising for taking so long to respond (he had been preoccupied with preparations for his film “Leon”). The pupil kept the original and I had a photocopy on the wall behind my desk in my room for a couple of years.
Encouraged by this and subsequent success in exams, I used other films and made notes available to pupils on “Jean de Florette” and “Les Enfants du Paradis”, though these were restricted to Higher and Advanced Higher levels. I started using other films with lower year groups, and developing notes on them, though principally for fun, engagement and background information purposes.
At the same time my personal life changed irrevocably as my three children arrived – my oldest son in 1991 and my second son and daughter (twins) in 1993.
Allow me to state the obvious – children take over your life. Professionally speaking, things were going reasonably smoothly, but in a way having children only made everything go even more smoothly because I was so tired and so busy I had no time to be preoccupied with problems – I just dealt with them and moved on to the next one. They say that if you want something done you should approach someone who is busy. Well, I can vouch for that – apart from all the reforms and associated course developments at school, I also offered tuition (at its peak I saw people on four evenings in the week), and I taught an official evening class once a week.
Why? Because having children is not cheap and at one point all three of our children were in nappies and that alone was a considerable drain on our resources.
I think I also became more reasonable and accepting of people, largely because I walked around in a semi-permanent daze. My children did not sleep well through the night and I became accustomed to getting up two or three times every night, and that went on (though it tapered off in time) for close to seven years. I didn’t have the energy for arguments, so in general I reasoned with people and tried to remain calm, even under provocation.
There was, however, one occasion when I was bad-tempered and I snapped sarcastically at a poor pupil who only behaved as she normally did. When asked why I was being so nasty on that day, I realised the reason was rather unusual and ran contrary to expectation. I had had a good night’s sleep for the first time in months (maybe even years), and I couldn’t handle it! My mind and body felt out of sync, I felt excessively tired and ready to snap at the least provocation.
Naturally, I apologised to the girl, but when she heard me explain I was crotchety exactly because I had slept well, she clearly thought I had flipped and was in need of bed rest.
Sometime in the mid-eighties, I applied for a minor promotion (Assistant Principal Teacher) in a nearby school. I applied more or less because it was expected of me – I had reached the age and stage in my career where people seek advancement, but my heart really wasn’t in it. Promotion under the system in practice at the time seemed like a backward step to me, dealing with elements of administration and discipline that I have never found attractive, and effectively giving you less time to do the part of the job I did enjoy – class contact and teaching itself.
Rather predictably, the interview did not go particularly well. I was nervous to star with, but when the Head of the school directed a question at me and proceeded to stare unflinchingly at me – not a single blink of an eye or hint of a smile – I felt I was under intense scrutiny and the resultant sense of pressure caused my mouth to dry up and my brain to scramble. I managed to answer questions, but even I felt I was just going through the motions and my lack of enthusiasm and initiative must have been clear to all.
Needless to say, I did not get the job and I decided there and then not to apply for any further posts unless it was something I really wanted and believed in.
In the late eighties/early nineties a new grade of teacher was introduced – that of Senior Teacher. The original idea behind the post was to reward “good” teachers and encourage them to remain at the “chalk face” rather than apply for promoted posts which then took them away from the very thing they were good at. Of course, unions and education authorities fairly quickly stipulated there should be extra duties attached to the position in order to merit a wage increase, but nonetheless this appealed to me as it did not involve (in theory) having to spend extra time on administrative or discipline matters. Essentially, it meant developing teaching strategies and possibly sharing them with others, and I found that very attractive so I applied for the position (still in Invergordon).
The interviews were announced for February 1990 and I was in Rennes at the time. Fortunately, a mid-term holiday fell at exactly the right time and I was able to return home not only to attend the interview, but also to attend the wedding of my mother and Fred.
This time I was keen to do well and I prepared thoroughly for the interview. I believed in the job and in myself, and curiously I was not especially nervous, in part because I wanted the position and had things to say, but also because I was based in France at the time and that seemed to lend distance and a sense of proportion to events.
Questions were asked and I was able to give confident and detailed responses to them all, though the Head cunningly incorporated a question on the one area I had not discussed in my application because I had been unsure of the definition of a term used in the job description, but I had done research at home and put some thought into that aspect, so I was able to respond adequately. That is, until I had to make reference to the position of Depute Head (an essential point as he would be my line manager), and I could not think of the term “Depute Head”.
I was so accustomed to speaking French that French was the language that came into my head first. I had already experienced a few “blanks” when speaking English with friends and family, but at worst I recovered after a moment’s hesitation and I was able to laugh it off. Here, in this situation, it was different – formal and potentially far more embarrassing. I could only think of the French for “Depute” – sous-directeur. I was aware of this gap in my vocabulary as I formulated the sentence but I hoped that by the time I reached the end of the sentence it would come to me. It didn’t. My sentence was left hanging in mid-air, incomplete.
“I could speak to the ……”
The interview panel (the Head and one other member of the senior management team) looked up from the notes they were taking in expectation, waiting for the words that would not come.
I repeated (in the hope the words would come of their own accord) ….
“I could speak to the ….”, but still I just fizzled out.
Suddenly I felt hot and clammy, and the puzzled looks and expressions of wearing patience only increased my sense of growing panic (I was the fourth applicant and therefore this was the fourth time they had asked this question and heard the expected response).
I could think of no way round it. I had to confess I couldn’t think of the English for the term I wanted to use, only the French.
This was clearly new to them. An English speaker who couldn’t continue in English, but who could do so in French.
“What’s the expression in French?” asked the Head, bemused but at the same time fascinated.
“Sous-directeur”, I replied
“You mean the Depute?”, he asked, quite astonished that such a small and common piece of school vocabulary could have escaped me.
“That’s it!”, I exclaimed in sheer delight and relief at being able to complete my sentence.
I got the job, despite my minor display of linguistic incompetence.
Part of my remit was to establish a code for equal opportunities in the school, and then I was invited to develop a new region-wide initiative, Highland in Europe. Initially, I looked into ways in which knowledge and awareness of all things European could be advanced within various subjects and eventually this led to developing links in Rennes to enable an exchange of work-experience placements between Invergordon and Rennes. While the principle was much lauded, in practical terms the whole project had to be shelved due to a lack of available funding. However, as a school we did manage to send two pupils to Rennes and they successfully completed work placements with a newspaper publisher.
Various offshoot schemes came about as a result of the Highland in Europe initiatives, including one plan to encourage teachers and pupils in different schools (and countries!) to share resources and work on projects together. Within our school this was largely the responsibility of our geography teacher, John, and he invited me to participate in a trip to a secondary school (a lycée) in Troyes, not just to help linguistically, but to look into the possibilities of establishing links across the board between our two schools.
We received a very warm welcome and embarked on several excursions in and around the area, visiting the historic city itself (including a square in which, I was told, Victor Hugo witnessed the guillotining of a prisoner and acquaintance, Claude Gueux, a visit that would soon have particular significance for me), the gothic cathedral and a number of champagne vineyards.
I videotaped interviews with several pupils in English and in French with a view to producing comprehension exercises and encouraging pupils to do the same thing in Invergordon. I also filmed various places (especially in the school) and people to provide background information for pupils at home, and I hoped pupils might produce a similar documentary-style video about life in Invergordon that could be sent to Troyes. Despite initial enthusiasm and a genuine desire to communicate and develop correspondence, the whole project gradually lost momentum as pupils moved on and the pressures of time and schoolwork came to bear, forcing this linguistic luxury into the background.
When Arthur heard that we were going to France, he took me aside to ask if I could do him a favour. He was very fond of an exclusive eau de toilette for men called “Bien-être” (Well-being) which he just couldn’t find in this country. He asked if I would be kind enough to hunt some down for him while I was in France, and he offered to give me some money there and then as it was likely to be rather expensive. Of course, I agreed and told him we’d settle up on my return.
I don’t know anything about aftershave or eau de toilette as they tend to make me sneeze, (my wife once bought me some expensive Aramis which I duly put on just before going out to dinner whereupon my neck erupted in red blotches and I sneezed for twenty minutes before washing it off again), but I took careful note of what to look for and promised I would seek it out.
Sitting with John in a café in the centre of Troyes, I looked across the street and spotted a swanky-looking pharmacie (chemist’s) with upmarket products in the window and freshly painted bold lettering above it, which did a very good job of drawing my attention. It looked like just the sort of place that might carry the exclusive product Arthur was looking for.
A bit anxious about asking for something about which I knew absolutely nothing except the name, I pushed open the door and entered the plush premises. I had hoped to be able to look for “Bien-être” on the shelves without having to engage in conversation with an assistant, but as soon as I entered and realised I was the only customer in the entire place, I understood this was unlikely. A very bored-looking man sporting designer stubble and an air of superiority (I was in very casual clothes and must certainly have given the impression of being of limited means) saw me come in and, almost in relief at having something to do, he instantly asked if he could help.
I told him I was looking for an eau de toilette called “Bien-être”.
He hesitated and then gave me a look which combined disbelief and annoyance at having his time wasted.
“Monsieur, pour cela il faut aller chez Monoprix …. ”
Translation: Sir, to get that you’ll have to go to Monoprix (roughly an equivalent of Superdrug or Woolworths).
So, not quite as exclusive as Arthur thought …. I thanked the man and left his shop, then headed for the nearest Monoprix about 200 metres to the left.
I entered the fairly run-down and tremendously busy Monoprix and headed straight for the toiletries section. There, on the second shelf of a badly stocked display, lay two plastic bottles (one on its side) of the much desired “Bien-être”. I grabbed them and looked at the price on the shelf. I looked at it more closely and couldn’t believe my eyes. I found the price label on the bottles themselves and it confirmed what I had seen on the shelf – the decimal point was indeed in the right place. The bottles cost 20 francs (about £2) each.
Even as I handed them over to the assistant behind the cash desk, I expected her to tell me there had been a mistake, but no – it came to 40 francs (just under £4).
I spent the rest of the trip worrying I had bought the wrong product and Arthur would mock me for weeks afterwards. But no …. Arthur was delighted with my purchase and of course wanted to reimburse me.
I just couldn’t bring myself to tell him the price, so I asked him to accept it as a gift. The poor man clearly thought I was being very generous …. until now!
The summer of 1998 saw a significant change of influence and direction for me. Although I had been to the theatre and enjoyed various events, it had never grabbed my attention and appealed to me as much as the cinema, which remained my principal interest and hobby. However, in the summer of 1998 my wife and I thought we should get out more (our children were still very young) and broaden our fields of interest, and when a national tour of “Les Misérables” was announced, it seemed the perfect birthday treat for my wife who has always loved musicals and who was very keen to see Les Mis, though I was rather indifferent.
Before that, however, we were looking for a way to celebrate our wedding anniversary in July and, on looking up what was on at Eden Court (theatre in Inverness) two days before our anniversary, we saw that Michael Barrymore (of TV comedy and gameshow fame) was in concert on our anniversary. To our astonishment, Alison managed to procure us tickets – in the front row. I have to say this perturbed me a little due to what I’d heard about his shows and audience participation, but Alison pointed out there would be nearly 1000 members of the audience to pick on, so we had nothing to worry about.
We took our seats at the end of the front row and the first half went well (a Scottish singer who had risen to prominence through a TV talent show). Michael Barrymore opened the second half and was amusing and entertaining us in his usual fashion when he launched into some audience participation, picking out various members of the audience and engaging in brief conversation and repartee. He then made his way across the stage until he was standing directly in front of me, lowered his gaze to the front row and stared me straight in the eyes.
“What’s your name, Sir?” he asked politely and innocently.
I actually had to think. I was so taken aback that my own name did not spring immediately to mind.
“Stuart”, I said correctly, after a moment’s hesitation and not without some trepidation.
“Stuart, Stuart”, repeated Mr Barrymore in a fake Scottish accent. “I think we’ve got something for you ….”, and he marched across the stage away from me very purposefully.
I turned to Alison who was clearly highly amused at the fact I had been chosen for whatever fiendish plan Mr Barrymore had up his sleeve. Remembering it was our anniversary, I quickly put two and two together and accused Alison of setting this up – whatever “this” was. It crossed my mind he might produce an anniversary card or something similar, but whatever was going to happen, I told myself to roll with it and not offer any challenge as I would certainly come off worst! It would soon be over and at least Alison was enjoying it – tears of laughter were already rolling down her cheeks as she witnessed my predicament and my reaction to it.
Mr Barrymore came back on stage carrying a big red book with gold embossed letters on it, and announced “Stuart, this is your life” to howls of laughter from the audience.
He descended into the audience and proceeded to make his way along the length of the front row, displacing each and every audience member in the row, kicking belongings out of place and generally causing havoc which was much appreciated by every spectator. Except me.
I was terrified at the thought of what was coming, a condition aggravated by Mr Barrymore’s riotous and relentless approach and my dear wife’s fits of laughter and attempts to catch her breath as she anticipated my impending fate.
Finally, he reached me – the wait was ended and I told myself it would all be over in a few seconds.
“Tell you what”, said Mr Barrymore into the mic, “Why don’t you come up on stage with me?” to roars of approval and encouragement from the audience. I stood and turned, bewildered, to Alison who was now a giggling heap almost on the floor and offered me no moral support whatsoever.
Mr Barrymore climbed the short set of steps onto the stage ahead of me and as I followed I was blinded by the stage lights beyond which I could see nothing. Then, all of a sudden I felt a force hit me full on, knocking my head back and seemingly enveloping my whole body, and I was shrouded in darkness.
Mr Barrymore had turned on me as I approached from behind, embraced me and apparently wrapped his right leg around my lower body, all to ecstatic applause and hoots of approval.
I’m not complaining as such – I just hadn’t the faintest idea of what was going on!
He then directed me to a chair that had been set up centre stage and he launched into a “This is your life” routine during which he whispered instructions and kindly wiped away the tears that started to roll down my cheeks.
Upon completion of the routine I returned, bemused but happy, to my seat and found Alison with her make-up run halfway down her face and in some pain due to laughter.
At the end of the show, Mr Barrymore leaned over to the front row and gave me a hearty handshake. He provided a most entertaining and amusing evening, as well as a highly memorable one for me, and also provided a highly successful re-introduction to going out for a couple of tired and weary parents, and a reminder of how effective and enjoyable a trip to the theatre can be.
Alison’s birthday present that year was tickets to see “Les Misérables” at the Playhouse in Edinburgh in September. She has always enjoyed musicals (while I generally disliked them, finding most of them bloated, self-indulgent and of little interest) and eagerly bought the videotape of the 10th anniversary concert which she played regularly at home. While I found a few of the tunes quite catchy, I spent little time actually following the storyline, preferring to find something else to do while the tape was played.
When the national tour was announced, Alison bought tickets a good six months before the show was due to arrive in Edinburgh and her excitement was built to virtually fever-pitch by the time the date came around. Her expectations were so high I was afraid they couldn’t be met and she was going to be terribly disappointed, so I pointed out that she couldn’t, in all fairness, expect the same quality of production and performance as in the 10th anniversary concert, but her enthusiasm continued unabated.
It was a very warm evening and the theatre was packed. The buzz of excitement was virtually palpable as the three thousand-strong audience chatted animatedly while waiting for the performance to begin. Alison was in good company and it seemed that I alone harboured any doubts about what we were about to see. I remember checking my watch and thinking, “Never mind, it’ll all be over in three hours and at least Alison will have enjoyed it.” I have to admit I did enjoy observing the excitement and enthusiasm of the audience – there was even a cheer and applause as the lights went down, but I could not share their unconditional zeal.
Then the music started and the curtain went up, and the impact on me was immediate. I was hooked. The combination of music, movement, drama and emotion hit me like a train. The excerpts I had seen of the concert focused on static performances at microphones but here, on stage, the constant toing and froing of the characters, the telling of a compelling and rich story and the music that engulfed the huge theatre just swamped me.
At the end of Act one Alison turned to me, glowing with admiration and appreciation of what we’d seen, and asked “Well?” I could only nod and say it was fantastic, but in my heart I knew that was totally inadequate to express what I felt.
The second Act was, if anything, even stronger and had an even greater impact on me. I have always loved film music (music that helps reveal character and tell a story), but this superb musical which told a tale with themes that were close to my heart through a tragically heroic principal character affected me more than any film had managed to do.
When we arrived at the theatre Alison was the enthusiast, but when we left, I was the devoted fan.
It took me several days to “recover” as I thought constantly about the music, the performances and the production, but also (and more importantly) the themes, characters and spirit of the show.
Like most people who are smitten with something, I wanted to share the experience so I proposed a school trip to Edinburgh to see the show, I wondered if there would be enough interest to make the trip viable, but some forty pupils, especially senior students including all those doing Higher French, plus four staff set off for Edinburgh for the mid-week matinee performance in the third week of November.
On the way south I was asked numerous questions about the show and I’m afraid my excessive enthusiasm shone through, and I’m sure I bored my captive audience to the point of discouragement. I was asked if I had cried (they had done some research into the show) and I had to confess I came mighty close at some points, which of course caused some mockery and derision. I was also asked by a couple of young ladies if I had a favourite part, and I replied I particularly remembered the very beginning as the orchestra struck up and the convicts came on stage. I certainly didn’t do a good job of conveying the drama as their heads nodded with little conviction and their expressions indicated they were doubting their own judgement in joining the trip if that was what I considered a “good bit” ….
Many other schools had organised similar trips and the theatre was once again packed to the gunnels and the atmosphere was awash with expectation and excitement. We were in the first two rows and our pupils were eagerly taking in the occasion, turning around and impressed by the sheer size of the auditorium and the hubbub generated by the largely school-age audience.
The lights went down and a cheer went up. The orchestra struck up the opening bars and the convicts entered as the curtain went up (made all the more visceral due to our proximity to the stage), and within 30 seconds I felt a tap on my arm from a pupil inviting me to look along the row. The two girls who had been quite unimpressed by my choice and description of a “good bit” had obviously had second thoughts. They were in tears – already.
I was a little anxious when organising the trip as I was aware that my own reaction and enjoyment were no guarantee that others would share my response. Everyone appeared to enjoy it, but at the interval I made sure I did the rounds to gauge their reaction and of course it was unanimously positive, some using words like “amazing” and “fantastic”, while others seemed a bit lost for words, rather like I had been.
I was most relieved and felt a sense of satisfaction at the chorus of approval, and I was able to settle back and enjoy the second Act.
I’m giving nothing away (the show has sold over 65 million tickets worldwide as I write) when I say that one of the characters, Gavroche (a boy revolutionary), is shot and killed at the barricades by government soldiers. This character is presented as a loveable little rogue and invariably appeals to the audience, and he appeared to bring out the maternal instincts of some of our girls who whispered “Aawwww” and “He’s cute” whenever Gavroche appeared.
In a tense scene at the barricades, the government forces gain the upper hand and the revolutionary students are running short of ammunition so Gavroche volunteers (despite vehement opposition from his student friends) to cross the barricade and collect ammunition from the bodies of the fallen in “no man’s land” between the two opposing groups.
As the audience focuses on a solitary Gavroche and he picks up bullets from the corpses littering the stage, singing a defiant little ditty as he goes, a single shot rings out from the back of the theatre, narrowly missing him.
Seconds later, another shot, and this time he is wounded, but continues his song though he is clearly in pain, drawing gasps of sympathy from the audience, and then …. BOOM …. another shot, much louder and more powerful than the others, and Gavroche is fatally wounded.
Due to the carefully crafted build-up of tension and atmosphere culminating in the ringing out of the fatal shot, two of our girls (in the second row, and directly in front of the young and cute Gavroche) got such a fright when they heard the BOOM that they actually screamed, breaking the tension and at the same time amusing the young actor playing Gavroche to such an extent that as he keeled over and “died”, he wore a rather large grin on his face!
The closing scenes are very emotionally charged and I was interested to see how the pupils would respond to them. In a way, this was the “litmus test” for the success of our trip, at least in my eyes, as an emotional response to these scenes suggests engagement with the storyline and its themes.
As the aged and dying Valjean sat immediately before us and prepared to say his goodbyes to his beloved Cosette, I again felt a slight nudge and my attention was brought to Josina, a senior pupil seated right in front of me. She had obviously been warned to take a packet of tissues with her and she was certainly making good use of them as tears ran freely down her cheeks, punctuated by frequent and involuntary sniffs as she tried to keep control. She held a tissue to her face, dabbing it regularly, and I noticed a sizeable pile of used tissues on her lap.
Is it awful to confess this touched me greatly, but also gave me huge satisfaction?
The cast received a well-deserved standing ovation and huge cheers of approval and appreciation from the entire audience, though our group was particularly vocal and also visible as we were immediately in front of the stage.
I didn’t need to ask – our pupils had clearly thoroughly enjoyed the performance and they were animatedly discussing what they had seen with one another. At this point a lively young lady named Tracy, who was in my Higher class, came bounding up to share her thoughts and her excitement.
“That was just fantastic, and …. the old guy …. he could be gentle sometimes and powerful at others …. he was great”, she said breathlessly, referring to Phil Cavill who played Valjean.
I wanted to continue our conversation, but I had to escort our group out of the auditorium. Because we were by the stage, we were among the last to leave and I went ahead to see where to go exactly and to count everyone as they passed through the exit. I had a quick word with a pupil and I somewhat inattentively approached the main door, and as I made to open the door I walked into a sturdy chap who had just come in and stood before me.
I looked up and as I was spluttering an apology I realised that the shaven-headed lightly bearded man in front of me was none other than Phil Cavill, Valjean himself! It was raining heavily outside and he had come in to buy a “Les Misérables” baseball cap. I expressed surprise he had to pay for such things, told him how much I had enjoyed the show and asked him to convey my congratulations to the rest of the cast, which he said he was happy to do, and then I remembered the forty pupils behind me. I raised my hand and said “Wait here!”
The pupils were delighted to meet him and the poor man was besieged with requests for his autograph which he gave very kindly and with great patience.
In the meantime, I went toward the rear of our group and found Tracy. I asked her if she recognised the chap speaking to her fellow pupils. She looked over, asked “The bald guy?” and shook her head, wondering why I was wasting her time. I suggested she imagine him in a grey wig and an open-necked white shirt (which Valjean wore in the finale), and the result was instant and dramatic.
“Oh, my God! It’s him …. the old guy …. Oh, my God! I can’t breathe!”, after which she went over and joined the queue to get his autograph.
Once on the coach I was moved almost to tears when a senior pupil who joined our group at the last minute sat next to me and proceeded to thank me profusely for bringing him as this had been one of the best experiences he’d ever had, and I couldn’t help but feel he had summed up what teaching was all about (for me).
The trip was a huge success (and would led to several others, of which more later), but on our return, there was another unexpected consequence. As part of the Higher course, pupils were now expected to write about a French book or film and my Higher class asked me if they could use “Les Misérables” as the basis for the written element of their course work. I was, of course, delighted but I pointed out the original text was huge (some 1400 pages), but they were undaunted and quite determined that this was what they wanted to study.
I quickly realised they would need some help and so I started planning a sort of study guide. Little did I know that this would lead to a passion, even an obsession for the subject, and the founding and development of a website.
After producing a fairly extensive analysis of “Les Misérables”, I created a website and uploaded my thoughts to make them available to students throughout the world. This encouraged me to share my thoughts on many other films, books, educational topics and even one or two other French musicals.
I went on to discuss some of these films (especially French films) and my approach to their analysis at regional and even national modern languages conferences, and I discovered there was something of a niche for my web pages as students all over the world referred to them. I am astonished, delighted and honoured to say these pages have now been viewed over a million times and have been used in the university of Texas, with a masterclass at Cambridge (by none other than a former “Javert”), and have been cited in numerous essays, dissertations and theses. As a result of the internet publication of these pages and an interest in their subjects I have made many contacts and friends throughout the world, from Steve McQueen’s photo-double and stand-in for “The Sand Pebbles” to a fellow teacher in Portland and a student in Islamabad, and my life has been greatly enriched by these interactions.
All this because my Higher class wanted to study “Les Mis” as part of their course, but also because my colleague and friend Arthur pushed me into using a computer, something I had resisted doggedly for years.
Arthur was keen to take the department into the 21st century and insisted on buying in and using computers to aid us in our attempts to spread knowledge and awareness of French language and culture. His prescient thinking was ahead of its time to the extent that internet access was not yet available throughout the school at that time – few departments had gone in that direction, though the Doc (in the room directly across the corridor from mine) knew a lot about computers and had organised the installation of an internet access point in his base.
Arthur got the go-ahead to share science’s internet connection, so all that remained to be done was to set up a cable connecting the computer in our base to the socket in the science base across the corridor. Running the cable along skirting boards, up door frames and across the corridor ceiling was the obvious solution, but visible wiring offended Arthur’s sense of aesthetics so he sought a solution that would be more pleasing to the eye.
At that time, quite a lot of work was being done to the school – a lift shaft was being built and the entire building was being rewired, but the new wiring was channelled into conduits fitted along the join between the top edge of the walls and the ceiling. Arthur decided he would run our cable in these conduits which ran along the top edges of our corridor walls, so it had to run the width of my room plus the width of the corridor, then back 20 feet or so to reach the window above the science base – a fair-sized job, but it did mean there would be no ugly wiring running up walls and door frames, and across the ceiling.
His first attempt was not a great success. In the lift shaft several workers were busy setting up the pulley system and the electrics within a dark and enclosed space, illuminated only by artificial light. After inserting a length of our cable into a section of conduit, Arthur slapped the cover into place and this was accompanied by a bright flash immediately followed by yells of panic and confusion from the gentlemen at work in the lift shaft as it was plunged into darkness and chaos.
The electrician took it very well and repaired it very quickly, shaking his head yet amused at the same time. We decided to wait until the next in-service day before persevering in our task.
Shortly afterwards, on a day when there were no pupils to disturb us and no construction workers for us to disturb, Arthur set about opening the conduit casing, inserting the cable and closing it again, while I was to take care of the connections themselves.
Clearly, I could not do my part until Arthur had completed his task. At morning interval, I stepped out of my room and into the corridor where Arthur was working. He was about halfway along the width of my room, perched on a large table which allowed him to stretch up and reach the conduit casings running along the top of the wall. I engaged the Doc in conversation at his doorway, so still in the corridor itself.
As the Doc and I casually conversed about what we had done that morning and the progress Arthur was making with the wiring, we were suddenly interrupted by a loud and persistent shriek, “AAAHHHH…”.
I spun around to see Arthur on his table, arms stretched up and hands seizing the conduits, his body shaking violently as he screamed incoherently. The man was being electrocuted!
Instinctively, I started running toward him to help but it struck me that I also would be electrocuted if I touched him, so with reason-defying logic I put my right shoulder first and prepared to launch myself at him, hoping to knock him off the table and break the flow of the electric current.
When I was about four feet away from the table, Arthur suddenly released the conduit, crouched, pointed at me, pulled a face and cried out “Na, na, na-na, na” in the manner of a child who has just fooled a friend. I don’t know if I have ever felt such a wave of mixed emotions – relief, anger, embarrassment and amusement.
I no longer remember exactly why, but for years after that our computer was connected to the science base internet socket by a cable that ran across the ceiling between our two rooms. I suspect my nerves couldn’t take the pressure of pretty wiring.
Despite such an inauspicious start, this was the beginning of what proved to be a life-changing development in my life and I owe a debt of gratitude to my Higher class, my colleague Arthur, and of course my wife for leading me to the water of Les Mis in the first place.
Because I spent a year in Le Havre as an assistant, and then a further year as an exchange teacher in Rennes, I’ve always had a lot of empathy with and compassion for the young people who are willing to uproot themselves and leave their family and friends behind for a year to become assistants, and help teach French in an education system and a culture which are unfamiliar to them.
It is quite a test of character as they arrive with no knowledge of the local area, no training in teaching, and usually with little experience of dealing with people, far less dealing with potentially bolshie teenagers whose favourite subject at school is not always French. Yet most assistants dig deep and rise to the occasion, discovering their strengths and weaknesses as they learn about aspects of life, teaching and getting on with others.
Of course, much depends on their personality and that (in keeping with all professions where contact with people is an essential element), is what made life interesting for both pupils and staff as they received a new teacher and colleague each year.
One or two arrived overconfident and dismissive of the culture and system in which they were to work, but most were successful by being adaptable and respectful of the people, structure and environment they encountered.
One of the first assistants I worked with was a young man called Patrick from Lyon. Lyon, as you undoubtedly know, is a sizeable city in the south east of France. It is a beautiful and historic city which is regularly bathed in bright sunshine and is known for its bright blue skies. Because of this, Patrick became fascinated, indeed almost obsessed, by clouds. He loved them. He couldn’t take his eyes off them and was very keen to learn all he could about their shape, density and formation. While I could vaguely understand his interest (though I’m afraid I tend to take them completely for granted), I was somewhat stunned to learn he had taken some 360 photos of clouds during his stay. It should be borne in mind that this was long before the digital age and so each one of these photos was developed, printed and then transported home to be appreciated even more in an apparently cloudless environment.
To fully appreciate another memory I have of Patrick, you have to be aware that for some reason, when speaking English, French students frequently put an “h” before an English word that starts with a vowel.
One evening Alison and I met Patrick and he told us how he had spent the day in Inverness but he was now very tired, so naturally I asked why.
He then got very frustrated because he couldn’t remember one particular verb in English, the verb “to row” (as in a boat), so in the best traditions of a good linguist, he found another way to express the idea: “I am tired because I have spent the whole afternoon in a boat with two hoars!”. Which did rather explain his tiredness, but more importantly provides a lovely example of the fun you can have with language.
One assistante’s father was a teacher of English who loved Scotland and insisted on spending every summer here, especially near Ayr and Troon. The result was that not only was our assistante that year completely fluent in English, but when she spoke it was with a distinctly Ayr-shire accent!
Another assistante was a strict vegetarian who was very anxious about putting “poison” in her body, though I didn’t know this when I invited her (and a few others) to our home for dinner one evening. When we found out about her dietary requirements, my poor wife was thrown into a panic and hurriedly concocted a suitably vegetarian alternative, though I doubt if the young lady actually cared that much about what was served to her that evening as, before dinner, she consumed the six cans of lager she brought with her as a gift.
Of course, assistants do not just help develop pupils’ linguistic skills, they are also a source of information and knowledge of customs, culture and daily life in France, and while I was in Rennes I was able to put some of that knowledge to the test when I visited an ex-assistante who lived with her parents in the Parisian suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt.
I made the 200-mile trip to Boulogne-Billancourt and after negotiating the heavy city traffic, I parked outside the block of flats where our ex-assistante lived with some relief. We met and had a coffee together, after which she suggested going into the city centre so she could show me around the Sorbonne (her university) and the surrounding area. I willingly agreed as I have always loved Paris and enjoy wandering around simply admiring the architecture, beauty and sheer scale of the buildings and streets. We left the café and I moved in the direction of the underground station just a couple of hundred yards away.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
I explained that I thought we were going into the city so naturally I headed for the underground.
“I thought we’d take your car. That way you’ll see more.”
There was no disputing her logic. I would see more, but I would also be seeing more traffic than I had even seen in my life, in an area I didn’t know and surrounded by city drivers who did not enjoy a reputation for patience.
She was adamant I would gain so much more this way.
I couldn’t back down and she was right, so we got into my car and set off on the main carriageway out of Boulogne-Billancourt and toward Paris itself.
At the first major junction, I pulled up at a red light and pointed out she would have to help me and guide me through the streets and traffic system.
There was a brief silence followed by her response which contained a tone of vague amusement.
“But I’ve never driven into Paris. I always take the Métro.”
The stunned look of realisation, anxiety and rising panic on my face was not intended to provoke hilarity and yet she was now laughing almost uncontrollably and with genuine mirth.
I repeated the gist of her statement: “You’ve NEVER driven into Paris.”
“No. Why would I, when I can take the Métro?”
The irony was dumbfounding but I now had to focus on negotiating the Parisian streets without causing damage to my own or anyone else’s property, and without killing and brave pedestrians who might opt to cross a road in front of me.
We made it to the Sorbonne and back unscathed, though on a few occasions I stopped at lights in an awkward position and couldn’t see the lights as they changed, but the kind and eternally helpful Parisian drivers quickly found a way to gently point out to me that I could move forward!
I learned that I can cope with heavy traffic and considerable stress, and I also learned not to make assumptions about assistants’ knowledge of their own country and environment!
I have always tried to engage with pupils and I think engagement underpins and reinforces all other teaching strategies and techniques.
I used many films and many types of video entertainment to try to connect with, educate and inspire pupils. Musicals turned out to be among the most captivating and successful forms of video stimulation. “Les Misérables” proved immensely popular across the board, as did “Notre Dame de Paris” (the French-Canadian adaptation of Victor Hugo’s tale of Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame). While senior classes wrote essays and reviews, younger classes translated songs and even sang along as we watched each musical unfold. All classes seemed to enjoy discussion of themes and character development and this would lead to discussions of broader or perhaps more personal interest.
One of the most popular songs was “Le Temps des Cathédrales” at the start of “Notre Dame”, both because it was catchy and repetitive and because it is sung so powerfully by Bruno Pelletier. For many pupils, this was an introduction to vaguely operatic singing and storytelling, and it worked very well. I greatly admired Bruno Pelletier’s performance and voice (as did the pupils), and I wrote to a contact address on his website to ask if he would be kind enough to provide a signed photo for my pupils while explaining that we used “Notre Dame” to help in the teaching of French. Fairly soon afterward, and to my utter astonishment, I received such a photo with the message “To Mr Fernie’s pupils, Sincerely, Bruno Pelletier” which I pinned on my classroom wall where it remained for several years. Inspired by this, a handful of S4 girls also wrote and requested signed photos which he was kind enough to supply. That personal connection made a real difference not only to that year, but also to later year groups to whom I told the story and showed the photo.
A film that proved hugely popular with every class that saw it was “Les Choristes”, the story of a group of pupils in a school for boys in difficulty run by a disciplinarian Headmaster set in post-war France, and the boys’ lives are changed significantly by the arrival of a kindly supervisor who introduces the boys to a more human approach to teaching and learning while using music.
The film appealed to pupils because of its school setting, but the story itself evoked empathy, sympathy and even outrage. I discovered that classes were happy to produce work on the film, but also worked on other exercises while listening to the soundtrack of the film in the background. Indeed, one S4 class was so taken with the songs in the film (the supervisor formed a choir) that they organised a mini concert based on the songs from the film and invited along one or two members of staff. One of the main instigators of the concert was a young lady called Lauren who could hardly have been accused of being crazy about French, but she was inspired by the film and its songs, organised our mini production with her friends and sang beautifully. Tragically, just a couple of years after leaving the school, she was killed in a road traffic accident just outside Invergordon.
It was not just in using film and songs that I tried to engage my pupils – there were more personal efforts too, most notably by making courageous if ill-conceived attempts to sing myself.
I cannot sing, but I do have a powerful voice and I discovered that if I belted out a few words of a song I managed to dupe people into thinking I had a talent. And so, I started singing with Bruno Pelletier for a few bars, or accompanied Valjean as he sang “What have I done?” (always an appropriate choice, I thought), and I actually received praise from a number of pupils! As I have already indicated, I also sang “Happy birthday” to pupils, often in a duo with the Doc, and often standing on a table in front of the pupil concerned in order to cause maximum embarrassment. I wish I could say we made a deliberate effort to sing off-key and as badly as possible in order to amuse, but the truth is that by and large we were doing our best.
Apart from telling anecdotes from the past to illustrate a cultural or thematic point, I came to realise that storytelling in itself was a useful endeavour (exercise in comprehension and also in focus). However, I did realise that often pupils would not completely comprehend the tale I told them and so I felt the stories needed a dramatic finish and delivery (to maintain interest and concentration), indeed I came to realise that the finish and the way I built up to that finish were probably more important (in terms of comprehension of gist and focus) than the content, so I started telling vaguely creepy stories in French. These were stories that were worthless in themselves (and in fact had no real ending), but served to concentrate pupils’ attention on what I was saying and I built up the tension until …. BANG …. I would suddenly yell and gesticulate threateningly, usually causing screams of panic and fear, followed immediately by laughter and relief.
What I have never been able to fathom is why classes would ask for a repeat performance the following day, or, even worse, ask for a translation what they had just heard and reacted to in French. I would point out that it couldn’t possibly work because this time they knew what was coming, but they persisted in their demands for another “performance”, so I would do it again. And it would work – again. They got a genuine fright and they screamed even though they knew what I was going to do and roughly when!
So, it’s all in the telling of the tale ….
Many years ago, a teacher of English was discussing Macbeth with a senior class and he emphasised the use of blood and the colour red in the course of Shakespeare’s tale. He made very good and salient points, went into detail and produced many examples to elucidate the symbolism and meaning of the text.
Listening to the teacher was a young man who was not particularly gifted at English, but he was a hard worker and so he listened attentively. Some pupils seem to need tools to help them achieve the level of attention required to work well – some like music playing in the background, some like to drum their fingers on the table or their cheeks, and others like to tap pencils. This young man had a very sharp pencil which he held in his right hand and which he tapped gently and silently against his lips, immediately below his nose.
While most teachers know what they’re talking about and manage to convey a wealth of information and intelligent interpretation, not all teachers are gifted with a lively and interesting delivery with which to inspire and motivate their listeners. I’m afraid the English teacher in question tended toward a rather monotonous delivery which did little to encourage attention and concentration, and indeed, at least in this case, had the effect of inducing tiredness and drowsiness.
It will be recalled that the young pupil was tapping a very sharp pencil on his lips immediately below his nose as his teacher’s delivery had the effect of making him dozy. As his eyes began to close, his head arched gently back and he faded into a state of semi-consciousness, but still with the sharp end of the pencil where his lips had been before his head rocked backward.
As he became less aware and consequently exercised less control over his neck muscles, his head fell forward at the perfect angle to allow the sharpened lead point to enter his right nostril and tear the inside, instantly waking the pupil and producing a gush of blood onto his open jotter.
The accompanying scream jangled the nerves of every person in the room and as all eyes landed on the shocked, bleeding pupil, he shot out of his chair and the room at great speed, leaving the teacher and the remaining pupils to contemplate the sight of blood and the colour red in more tangible form.
Concerts, plays and charity events
Pupils enjoy seeing their teachers outside the context of the classroom. They like seeing their teachers in different frameworks and situations, especially situations in which they don’t take themselves too seriously and which allow pupils to see them as human beings.
Come to that, it is a pleasure for staff to present a different face, open up a little and work with pupils in different circumstances and conditions in which each helps the other to achieve a common end.
School concerts, plays and charity events provide a wonderful opportunity to enjoy a change of routine, pace and environment while building rapport and friendship with pupils and other members of staff as we all work toward the goal of presenting a show.
When I started out in teaching, I attended a couple of musical events at the school and found myself quite envious of the camaraderie and fun the participants clearly had, so when I was approached to be a joint master of ceremonies at a charity concert (with a colleague named Bill), I jumped at the chance.
Bill was a natural – he remained calm, collected and competent throughout, but I quickly discovered that my desire to participate was greater than any meagre ability I had to present the acts. I became very nervous, anxious and unsure of myself, and the low point came when there was a delay and Bill and I had to fill the time. I resorted to doing impressions and invited the audience to identify my “victims”. It wasn’t good and I resolved never to repeat the experience, at least not as a presenter. I decided I would help out in sketches or small parts, but I really couldn’t face extended appearances involving chatting to an audience again.
I know that’s bizarre, given my job involved speaking to groups of people all day and every day, but it’s something I never completely got over. Even when, years later, I addressed groups of colleagues at conferences or presented ideas on the use of film in the classroom. The old dry-mouthed, blank-inducing nervousness and anxiety reared its ugly head. In order to cope I prepared thoroughly and tried to amuse and appear calm and controlled, but underneath I was often a quaking wreck.
Nonetheless, there were plenty of opportunities to make shorter contributions to various theatrical enterprises. I found I could cope better if “performances” were comic and brief.
In a charity version of “Blind Date” I impersonated none other than Sean Connery (my boyhood hero), and titillated the audience by suggesting I could “swing my niblick” (a golfing term), but I was a little put out when Bill (I can’t remember who he pretended to be) stole my best line and claimed he was “big down under” (reference to Australia)! Later on, I was somewhat baffled when the wife of a colleague congratulated me on how much I sounded like Mr Connery, but confided that close-up, I really didn’t look much like him ….
Arthur has a very good singing voice and was happy to sing at charity events and concerts. He decided that he would sing “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” on one occasion, and thought it would be hilarious if I and another colleague acted as his backing singers for the chorus. This was a good idea, but for some reason I just could not cope with the words (Do Wah Diddy, Diddy Dum, Diddy Do) and each time I was required to produce these words I uttered a jumbled and largely incoherent version which, fortunately, many took as an attempt at humour and which, indeed, many appeared to find amusing, but the fact is I could not get the nonsense words into my head, except as soon as the music stopped and then I recalled them perfectly, and have been able to do so to this day.
On another occasion, Arthur sang “Unchained Melody” as a duet with our colleague and friend Alison, who also has a very good voice. Despite (or perhaps because of) my performance as Arthur’s backing singer, they asked me to join them on stage though this time as a strictly non-singing participant. It will be recalled that in the film “Ghost”, Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore have a romantic interlude with a potter’s wheel while “Unchained Melody” plays in the background. Arthur and Alison thought it would be amusing to set up a potter’s wheel in the foreground of their stage set, clearly referring to the sensual scene in the film. As Arthur and Alison launched into their rendition of the song (which was videotaped for posterity, by the way), I was unsure of what, exactly, to do with myself, but when I spotted the potter’s wheel, I received inspiration.
As Arthur and Alison focused on their delivery and harmonies, I placed myself immediately behind the potter’s wheel (and immediately in front of the audience), and set about running my hands up and down an imaginary piece of pottery in as sensual a way as I could to evoke the spirit of the scene in the film, all the time pulling faces and pouting my lips à la Les Dawson. The young audience was most appreciative and appeared highly amused. At the end of the song, Arthur and Alison seemed quite happy with their performance, thanked the audience most graciously and left the stage without a single word of rebuke to me, nor even mentioning what I had done. Naturally, I thought they were happy with the way everything had gone and that was an end to it.
Until …. five years later, just after registration one morning, Alison burst into my room and declared, “I know what you did!”, brandishing a video tape in my face.
Apparently, her mother had been on a family visit that weekend and, while talking about “old times”, Alison suddenly remembered the video tape of her performance of “Unchained Melody”, which she had never watched, and so she decided to share the moment with her mother ….
“I wondered why the audience was laughing!” she yelled, accusingly, but other than that she was left quite speechless, which was something of a first for Alison!
At the next charity concert, I decided to abandon the prospect of singing and considered instead a “career” in dancing. I had attended a “Blues Brothers” evening with friend and colleague Mike and, inspired by the dynamic and infectious music and dance we had witnessed, I suggested to Mike that we do a dance duet to “Everybody needs somebody to love” from the film soundtrack. To my astonishment, he agreed wholeheartedly and we set about choreographing our routine.
Hardly natural or talented dancers, we concentrated on short, sharp and simple foot movements (à la Bob Fosse) combined with wild arm movements (à la falling over) to distract from the said foot movements. What we lacked in talent, technique and knowledge, we compensated for in terms of energy, drive and commitment. After school, we even cleared away tables and chairs in a computing room and went through our paces with the music booming in the background.
Of course, we failed to take in to account the possibility that another colleague might be tempted to work late in the second computing room next door, and he might be attracted/distracted by the pounding music, the sound of furniture being dragged across the room, or the hysterical laughter of two grown professionals as they fell over one another while trying to produce the simplest of dance steps.
The other colleague (another Mike) never entered the room. He could have come in, chatted, laughed with us or even joined in, but instead he simply stood at the adjoining door and stared fixedly through the window.
When we eventually became aware of him, we just cracked up with embarrassment at the thought of what he had seen.
He, on the other hand, continued to stare in apparent disbelief, his mouth slightly open and with a very slight shake of the head. Then he just walked away, giving us no opportunity to explain ourselves, and he never mentioned it to either of us. It is to be hoped he subsequently learned of the charity concert for which we were rehearsing ….
At exactly the same time, my three young children (aged five and three) contracted chickenpox. I couldn’t remember if I had caught it when I was young, but we quickly discovered that in fact I had managed to avoid it in my youth because now, at the age of 38, I caught it from my own darling children.
Friends, family and colleagues all thought this was hilarious and told me just to enjoy a few days off, though when I was examined by a doctor, he leaned forward and said rather ominously, “You’re going to be very ill” and went on to tell me he had access to medication normally used for HIV patients, though he preferred not to give it to me as it cost £100 per pill. Up to that point I hadn’t felt particularly ill, just itchy.
As it transpired, I needed only four days off school and, covered in some 250 very itchy spots, I was able to perform our routine with Mike, though I have to say the effort nearly killed me!
I was eventually persuaded to perform a song at another concert and I agreed because this time the song itself was not to be the focus of attention – my appearance would distract attention from my awful singing.
I sang “Man, I feel like a woman” by Shania Twain, but dressed as Shania Twain. It took a lot of persuasion because I really am not attracted to the idea of dressing in women’s clothing, but eventually I was convinced that it would be fun and entertaining for the audience.
It is a matter of great regret that I was never photographed in my Shania Twain outfit, in fact I never even saw myself in a mirror. I wore tights, high-heeled shoes and a blouse that belonged to my wife, and a very short hockey skirt. I also received a full make-up job from one of the sixth-year girls who took great pride in applying foundation, lipstick and mascara, and placed a long black wig on my head. Come to think of it, maybe it’s just as well no photographic evidence exists ….
I made my way along the corridor to the rear of the stage, struggling to keep my balance in the high heels (although I found if I took my time and placed my feet carefully, it went quite smoothly), and praying I would meet no-one (which was idiotic, given I was about to stand in front of an audience of about 300).
There were several gasps and titters from the stage crew as I took my place in the centre at the rear of the stage. The curtains were closed and a choir was singing just in front of the curtains. The idea was that after their song a “special guest” would be introduced, the curtains would be drawn to reveal me in all my feminine glory and, as the entire audience laughed, I was to launch into “Man, I feel like a woman”.
The choir’s song ended and I took up my position, arms stretched out to receive the audience’s applause and warm reception. The curtains were opened quickly and I stepped forward to …. nothing.
No response whatsoever.
No laughter, no applause, no warm reception.
Then, just as I was beginning to panic under my fixed smile, there was a communal and very audible intake of breath and an outbreak of laughter and applause as the audience finally recognised me!
I was so convincingly made up and dressed that the entire audience took what felt like an eternity (but was probably about three seconds) to identify me and share the joke.
Now the problem was that the laughter and applause drowned out the musical accompaniment so that I couldn’t hear when I was to sing, so I just launched into it anyway, and I think that only added to the entertainment value.
I even received a special mention from the Headmaster at the end of the show as he gave a vote of thanks and he complimented me on my “performance”. However, the following day I received an even greater compliment when the young ladies in my Higher class arrived and congratulated me on my appearance, one remarking “Nice legs, by the way”, and another agreeing with “Yes, you’ve got better legs than me, and that’s saying something!”
I felt greatly, if a little disconcertedly, honoured.
There was one occasion when I sang “properly” at a charity concert – Arthur and I sang “Le Temps des Cathédrales”, but we had Bruno Pelletier playing on DVD behind us and Arthur can sing, so I got away with it.
I was also invited to yell “It’s Christmas” at the end of the choir’s rendition of Slade’s “Merry Christmas everybody”. I was so loud that some asked about the power of the microphone I had used, and they found it hard to believe I didn’t need one.
For Children in Need in 2010 a number of senior pupils, a student teacher and I cobbled together a routine based on “Haben sie gehort das deutsche band” from “The Producers”. It was suitably awful but reasonably entertaining and evidence of this effort can still be found on YouTube. As I write, the video of our performance has been viewed 188 times. Brave souls.
Apart from these performances, I also helped out backstage with school productions of “Grease” and “Annie”, and I have to say that in every production in which I participated I was struck by the willingness, determination, engagement and professionalism of all concerned. Apart from developing umpteen educational skills, such events enable pupils and teachers to evolve relationships and a community spirit as all work together toward a common goal.
And apart from that, they’re fun!
It is an honour, privilege and responsibility to try to teach others how to teach. I was keen to have a go at mentoring student teachers as I didn’t feel that I was particularly well trained and I felt I had picked up a few ideas on what to do and what not to do during my time in teaching. Of course, mentoring students requires a similar set of skills to those needed for “normal” teaching, but applied to a radically different context – you have to be able to distil a set of principles from your experience, analyse the strengths and weaknesses of the student and try to offer helpful and personalised advice on moving forward. Just like pupils, every student is different and as a mentor you have to adapt in order to help them get the most out of their time and experience with you. I felt I was reasonably successful at engaging pupils and I had managed to guide assistants, so I as happy to try my hand at mentoring student teachers.
For a while we seemed to receive nothing but French students – native speakers who decided to make their careers teaching French in Scotland. Apart from the obvious areas of interest such as the structure of a lesson (the content and its delivery), I also focused on rapport and engagement. French students had a number of other hurdles to negotiate as well. It isn’t always easy to teach your native tongue as you may not be entirely sure of grammar, and as a native speaker you will not be as conscious of the pitfalls, difficulties and mistakes that foreigners often encounter when learning that language.
French students are educated in a different culture and environment but as I had some experience of that environment in Le Havre and Rennes, I felt I might be able to offer some insight and understanding – not just about what they knew, but about what they didn’t know in terms of the educational culture they were entering.
I oversaw six student teachers and only once did the arrogance of youth rear its head. Generally, students were willing to take on board advice concerning what to teach and how to teach it. Most went on to pursue careers in teaching (indeed, one became my “boss” when we developed Higher materials together several years later), and it is a source of considerable satisfaction to me to think I made even a minor contribution to these students’ professional development.
School trips abroad
It is, I think, impossible to overstate the extent to which school trips provide opportunities for personal development and growth. Travel, meeting people, experiencing different cultures and coping with various situations and circumstances all provide a stimulus for learning, evolution and the development of interpersonal skills. And that applies to the accompanying staff as much as it does to pupils!
Experience can make an almost subconscious (if, at times, painful) contribution to growth and development, and it can be difficult to analyse and quantify its effect. People accept it and move on often without realising and appreciating the impact an experience has had. However, people do recognise and recall the fun moments of experience and I have taken great pleasure in sharing amusing anecdotes of my travels with pupils in order to encourage them to seek their own moments of fun, experience and growth, and anecdotes from school trips are particularly appealing as pupils can identify with them and aspire to embark on their own school adventures.
In the French department we organised several trips, usually to France, and always by coach as it was the most economical way to travel, it was door to door, and the close proximity of all concerned added to the social element of the venture.
The driver (or drivers) plays an important role in the success (or otherwise) of a school trip. He plays an essential part not just in terms of the safety and security of the participants, but also in the general atmosphere. Drivers I have encountered have almost invariably been friendly, open and interested, and have always made a real contribution to the ambience on a trip.
On one of our early ventures our driver, Andy, was aware of the considerable distance we had to cover to reach the south-east of France, and in order to spare us the fatigue-inducing effects of such a long journey he tended to set a good and steady pace. He was a very good, smooth driver and we were unaware of excessive speed, but we did recognise and appreciate the good time he was making as we trundled along the motorways in Scotland, England and France.
At a payment booth on a motorway not too far from our final destination (with a police station immediately adjacent to it), the French police stopped us for a routine inspection. Andy went quite pale and became almost panicky when asked for his tachograph disc (which recorded the duration of our journey and the speeds at which we travelled). He gesticulated wildly and announced “Kaput!” (which I’m sure was appreciated by the French-speaking police) as he handed over the disc.
The look on the policeman’s face when he examined the disc and read the speed at which we had been travelling was something to behold – his mouth fell open and his eyes widened as he leaned in to the disc to verify what he had already seen two inches farther back, and he gasped.
I don’t know what the reading said, but the policeman looked up, fixed poor Andy in his sights and simply crooked his finger at him, inviting him to follow him as he stepped down from the coach.
Andy was led into the adjacent police station, and we were left without a driver.
Some ten minutes later, more than a little anxious about the situation and the fact we had forty pupils who should have been en route to a hot meal in their hotel and who were instead parked in a driverless coach outside a French police station, Arthur and I went in to the station to inquire what was happening.
Long story short, Andy was to pay an on-the-spot fine of the equivalent of £60 for speeding offences and he had responded by taking from his trouser pocket and slamming down on the sergeant’s desk the equivalent of 75p. It didn’t go down well.
We explained that we desperately needed our driver in order to transport our charges to their hotel where they were due to be fed. The authorities remained completely unmoved. Andy would be released after he had paid his fine, and not before.
Naturally, we continued to express our concern for our pupils and pointed out the consequences on them if we were not allowed to continue our journey, and soon, but all to no avail. They would not budge.
It was then that Arthur had a stroke of genius. He invited the police to keep our driver, but to provide us with another, and that did it! Clearly, they were not willing to go to these lengths and reconsidered the time and effort that was going in to obtaining a £60 fine. They produced a huge tome containing translations into umpteen foreign languages of useful phrases for such situations, dumped it unceremoniously inn front of Andy, found the right page and pointed to a sentence. He was receiving a warning – this time – and he was being released without charge.
Needless to say, there were celebrations among staff and pupils and Andy was extremely grateful, though he was somewhat taken aback when Arthur informed him of his gambit to gain his release as he was none too sure of just how serious Arthur was when he made the suggestion to the police ….
Andy was a very gentle, kind and sincere man who knew very little French. His vocabulary was restricted to “Oui”, “Non”, “Merci” and “Beaucoup”, but he was determined to make use of what he knew. So, when the waitress in the hotel brought him his soup one evening, he was pleased to be able to thank her, saying “Merci beaucoup.”
Unfortunately, due to a magnificent mixture of hesitation (or lack of confidence) and slight mispronunciation (or lack of awareness), he converted “Thanks very much” into “Thanks, nice bum”. Upon hearing this issue from his lips, I feared the worst – I imagined his tomato soup in his lap or in his face, but no …. the lady in question merely went slightly red, smiled appreciatively and gave a short and sweet little giggle. Clearly, she understood what had happened and what Andy had set out to say and chose not to embarrass him, though she did come over to me and suggested I inform Andy of his mistake, presumably in case he came across a waitress who was less understanding. He, of course, went the colour of his tomato soup when I told him of his inadvertent faux pas.
On arrival at the hotel we were all allocated rooms and Arthur and I set about distributing keys. Within two minutes Andy was back and asked for a different room as he needed to be near his coach (its security was his responsibility, and he had been given a room at the far side of the hotel. Arthur kindly offered to swap and he set off for what had been Andy’s room.
Once there, he checked that Andy hadn’t left behind any of his belongings and in so doing, he glanced under the bed. There, on the floor under the foot of the bed he spotted three polaroid instant photos. Curious, he picked them up and realised, to his horror, that a previous male occupant of the room had photographed himself in the full-length mirror attached to the room’s wardrobe. Why to his horror? Well, the previous occupant was naked and concentrated his photographic efforts on the middle section of his body, strategically placing a pair of large-rimmed black glasses to give the appearance of a face – bespectacled eyes above a nose, if you follow me.
The next morning, Arthur just couldn’t resist teasing the obviously innocent Andy and discreetly passed him the photos over breakfast, inquiring if he had left anything behind in his original room. The poor man just didn’t know what to say – misfortune seemed to be piling on misfortune on this trip, and he was just aghast until Arthur and I could contain our laughter no longer and we were able to reassure him he was in no way considered a suspect.
When travelling abroad, pupils can be a little disorientated and, naturally enough, they will seek what is familiar in order to gain reassurance, but may only find the unfamiliar. For example, before setting off on a trip, one pupil was shocked to discover she would not be able to watch “Top of the pops” on the Thursday evening, and declared she would take her own mini TV with her so she could watch it …., and in Chamonix a young lad approached a member of staff and inquired as to the whereabouts of the nearest R S McColl ….
We therefore attempted to provide background information before leaving, and prepared linguistically for numerous situations in which pupils might find themselves – buying food, drink, clothes, souvenirs, asking for directions or information etc. We prepared vocabulary and structures for several contexts and did role-play in the classroom during the weeks preceding the trip. I was therefore reasonably confident that most of our pupils would be able to get by in most common situations.
While visiting the south-east of France on one trip, we ventured into the north-west of Italy and entered the town of Aosta. The journey into the town centre was quite an adventure in itself as the streets were very narrow and of course we were travelling in a 48-seater coach. Our driver negotiated the “roads” brilliantly and eventually we made it to the charming and relaxing town square in the centre.
Our pupils were reassured to discover that most of the local shopkeepers spoke good French and so they would be able to communicate, and they set off in search of exotic souvenirs for their families.
Toward the end of the allotted “discovery time”, as I was enjoying an Italian coffee on the terrace of a café, one of my younger pupils approached me quite excitedly and said he had found what he wanted to buy, but lacked the confidence to make the purchase.
He wanted to buy a plate which was in a display case immediately below the counter in a shop just around the corner. Reducing the required vocabulary to a bare minimum, I reminded him of how to say various things and how to ask one or two questions – he only needed to know how to indicate what he wanted, ask the price, hand over the money and say thank you.
He was quite anxious, so I accompanied him into the shop which was filled to overflowing with souvenirs and fellow pupils. I could see the plate, exactly as he had described it, and I took up position about ten feet away so I was close enough to hear if he ran into any difficulties.
The young pupil positioned himself directly in front of the desired plate and looked across the counter. The shopkeeper arrived momentarily and asked (in French) if he could help the young lad.
The pupil looked at the plate and then raised his head to address the shopkeeper. I was proud of him already as he drew breath to speak.
“Uuuuhhhh”, he said loudly, pointing clearly at the plate.
“Aaaahhhh”, he added loudly, pointing at himself.
And then, the pièce de résistance – “Ooohhh”, he grunted as he shoved his right hand forward, containing every Italian banknote he possessed.
The shopkeeper carefully withdrew what the lad owed him and wrapped his plate with great care, and as he did so, I left the shop.
I was totally bemused – it shouldn’t have happened, but a successful transaction had taken place and communication had been achieved, yet I couldn’t help but feel a tad superfluous and maybe even a professional failure!
On a trip to Holland, we paid a visit to a theme park in nearby Germany. The big attraction, according to the kids, was a rollercoaster with a difference – it was enclosed and it ran in the pitch black. Most of the accompanying staff joined the kids in the queue and it took half an hour to reach the start point, during which time there was constant discussion of what we could expect, heightening anxieties and building tension and apprehension among those of us who disliked heights, darkness and the unknown.
I discovered that Arthur had a fear of heights. Quite an acute fear of heights. He wasn’t happy just climbing the stairways to reach the start point, and he fell almost completely silent – very rare for him.
As we advanced up the stairs, our group mingled with the other guests and so we were separated and placed in a variety of rows in the car when it came to our turn. I was fortunate enough to have a couple of pupils on either side of me (which I found strangely reassuring), and I turned around to see Arthur and another member of staff take their seats two rows behind. I gave Arthur a reassuring smile and he tried to do the same but only managed to produce a rictus-style grin which contained no sincerity whatsoever and indeed rather suggested a fear of imminent death. I noticed he also had a firm grip on the hand rail attached to the seat in front of him. Already.
And then we were off. Suddenly we flew forward and were launched into blackness. Our car climbed steeply at speed, banked abruptly, stopped sharply, and even reversed at one point, all accompanied by screams and calls of “Oh, my God!” I have to say, however, that the enclosed darkness was counterproductive in my case. I can only think that precisely because I couldn’t see anything I felt no genuine fear – there was no build-up of apprehension or dread, no surprise and no shock. I simply felt buffeted as I was transported up and down, right and left. I was more entertained by the reactions of those around me than by the experience itself.
Eventually we pulled in to the well-lit end point and I clambered out of my seat feigning terror and relief as the kids excitedly got out of the car and, noisily comparing moments of terror and fright, they headed for the exit and their next death-defying experience.
As the crowd cleared, I looked for Arthur and finally found him – still in his seat in the car, still wearing a rictus grin and still holding on to the hand rail in front of him, but his fingers had been so tensed up they were now virtually locked in place.
It was hard not to laugh as he gazed, unseeing, before him.
With encouragement from the rest of the staff, he finally managed to unclamp his fingers and exit the car. As we descended the stairway to ground level, he kept his left hand on the hand rail and said not one single word.
Once we were again on terra firma, Arthur went over to a fence surrounding a couple of trees and fumbled for a packet of small cigars and his lighter. I went over and asked if he was alright. He stared me straight in the eye, gave a slight shudder of his head to indicate “no”, and then managed to light his cigar. After a very long draw and an equally long exhalation, he looked at me again and burst out laughing. I was as relieved as he was!
On another trip to France, we decided to pop to Switzerland for a brief visit, if only because we could. We did a little sight-seeing and even stopped for a session in an ice-rink near Geneva, though I have to confess I remember very little about the whole sortie – I had other things on my mind ….
It was going to take two and a half hours to reach our destination in Switzerland from our hotel in the south-east of France, so it was decided to get up and set off early to give us a reasonable amount of time there. Before heading downstairs for breakfast, I laid my passport on the bed so that I wouldn’t forget it (I don’t have a good memory) when I returned to my room for a last-minute spruce-up before setting off for Switzerland.
After breakfast, which took a little longer than expected due to some pupils’ malingering in the bedrooms, the driver was anxious to get started, so we went straight from the dining room to the coach.
On the way, everything was going smoothly – there was lovely countryside to contemplate, it was chilly but remarkably sunny, the driver was coping with the twists and turns of the mountainous and panoramic routes, and the pupils were happily engaged in chatter or card games.
About halfway there and half an hour from the border, as I sat next to another member of staff, a very ugly and overwhelming thought hit me rather abruptly. I let out a totally involuntary and spontaneous oath which expressed my sudden panic and anger at myself as I realised I had left my passport on the bed in my hotel room!
It was far too late to go back. I felt terrible as I reckoned I had jeopardised the entire trip, though I quickly reasoned that in fact only I was affected and that if I was honest at the border I would simply end up kicking my heels at the border post for some four or five hours. However, my absence would also have a knock-on effect on excursion possibilities as we would be short-staffed. Although I am generally very honest, I felt I had to find an alternative to total honesty if I wasn’t to let everyone down.
As we approached the border post and Arthur started gathering the staff passports to present to the authorities along with the group passport for the pupils, I wondered how likely it was that they would check passenger lists and passports individually, or even that they would do a headcount, and I took action.
I got out of my seat and went to join a group of pupils about halfway up the coach. I didn’t want to arouse their suspicion (I was, after all, supposed to set an example AND it struck me that some members of our party might find it amusing to draw attention to me if they knew I was “on the run”), so I sat between two pupils and tried desperately to strike up a conversation or start a game of cards – anything to distract attention from the officials now boarding the coach.
Young people are not stupid. They may not have guessed exactly why I was among them at that particular time and place, but they knew something bizarre was going on. Nonetheless, they played my game and went along with my scheme as the officials looked swiftly at the passports, chatted jovially with the driver and even called out “Have a good trip” to all of us before they left the coach and allowed us to continue on our way.
Feeling mightily relieved, I made my excuses to the now clearly suspicious and curious pupils and re-joined the staff who were all highly amused at my situation.
I can recall very little of the excursion. I vaguely remember accompanying pupils to the ice-rink, but the whole time I was preoccupied with thoughts of my illegal status and my criminality – I just couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel room, or at least out of this country again!
On the return journey, I desperately tried to think what to do. I couldn’t repeat the same strategy – it was tempting fate, would be too obvious and the pupils would know for certain there was a problem. As we approached the border and Arthur once again collected the passports, I did the only thing I could think of and I headed for the on-board toilet. I know it’s obvious, but I was desperate (for a plan, not the toilet). As I made my way to the toilet there were winks, knowing smiles, giggles and a variety of comments. They knew, and I had to endure the embarrassment as I climbed down the steps and hid in the toilet.
The worst thing? The coach wasn’t even stopped – we were waved through and I had hidden for nothing. I heard a cry of “You can come out now, sir”, and I walked along the aisle to my seat accompanied by a few slaps on the back and any number of giggles.
Never have I been so glad to return to a hotel room and to see my passport. I have never forgotten it since.
In 2009 the school participated in an exchange with a secondary school in Brescia, in northern Italy. The Italian party came to us in March, attended various classes in the mornings and visited several landmarks in the afternoons. Although I accompanied the group on a couple of occasions, I wasn’t part of the organising team, but when a colleague fell ill I was invited to take her place on the return leg of the exchange. And so, in September we embarked on a highly enjoyable trip to Brescia.
The staff and pupils were very welcoming and organised all sorts of cultural activities and excursions for us. Two of us, Karen and myself, were given accommodation with an Italian teacher of English and her husband, Mariagrazia and Sergio. Sergio spoke little English, but what little he spoke was considerably better than my highly limited Italian. He was a social worker whose main hobby seemed to be singing. He was part of a choir and one of his ambitions was to perform in a large and prestigious venue such as the Teatro Grande, the Opera House in Brescia.
As it happened, the mother of one of the Italian exchange students worked in the Teatro Grande and kindly organised a tour of the newly-refurbished opera house for our group. It was a beautifully furnished and ornate building with lush red velvet seats and a huge stage. We were treated to an extensive tour and, as several of our party occupied the seats in one of the boxes, I couldn’t resist the temptation of exercising my powerful (if tremendously flawed) vocal instrument.
I made my way through the wings to the enormous stage and took my place in the centre. I was somewhat taken aback by the distance from the others in the box and I called out to them to check out the acoustics. I found we could converse at a perfectly normal level despite the distance and the angle. What fantastic planning and engineering had gone into the designing of that place.
When it came to singing a song, I realised there was really only one I had “rehearsed” enough to sing in such surroundings – Happy Birthday, so I launched into a vaguely operatic rendition of Happy Birthday and dedicated it to Mariagrazia whose birthday had fallen, by happy coincidence, just four days before. Needless to say, the event was captured on a number of mobile phone cameras and I left the stage a very happy man having sung on the stage of a famous opera house, and the “performance” can still be seen on YouTube.
Of course, I could barely contain myself when I saw Sergio and told him of my performance in the Teatro Grande. The poor man was a little upset as this was one of his great ambitions, yet this upstart foreigner had achieved that about which he had only dreamt. I did try to make him feel better by pointing out that I had only sung Happy Birthday – badly – to an audience of about eight, and they laughed at me!
A few days later, as we attended a farewell party for our group, Sergio and I stepped outside into the dark, chilly evening and sang a duet – our shortened version of “Nessun Dorma” (from Puccini’s “Turandot”, don’t you know). We gave it our all and encouraged one another to hold the final note as long as we could. Not only were we happy with ourselves, but a solitary drunken figure in a corner of the car park where we sang actually applauded us! I shall hold on to that moment of singing success forever …. no need to spoil it with the truth!
On one of the excursions, we made our way up an incline that wasn’t too steep but was very long, to be greeted at the top by a beautiful panorama which made the journey worthwhile. However, what I remember most is a brief conversation I had with a German tourist in a small open-air café which looked out on to the magnificent view.
After our efforts to reach this vantage point, Mariagrazia, a pupil called Rebecca and I felt the need for some refreshment so we ordered a couple of coffees and a coke, and sat next to a middle-aged German chap and his wife.
He heard us speaking English and clearly wanted to practise his reasonable, if fairly limited, English (though miles better than my smattering of German), and so he asked where we were from and what we were doing there. I provided the details, but he wasn’t sure where Imvergordon was, so I knew I had to give him a landmark he might recognise. People have nearly always heard of Inverness, but frequently can’t place it on a map, while if you mention Loch Ness there is usually a glimmer of recognition and a finding of geographical bearings.
And so, I told this German chap about our relative proximity to Loch Ness and his eyes lit up. He became quite animated and obviously had some knowledge of Loch Ness. I prepared myself for the usual conversation about the Loch Ness Monster, the arguments for and against its existence and its effect on tourism. He looked me in the eye and was struggling to find the vocabulary to express what he so clearly wanted to say.
“Loch Ness. I have read about this. It is where they have giant ….”
I didn’t really want to be rude and supply the missing word “monsters”, though he was taking so long to get there, I took a breath to say the word when suddenly he finished his own sentence.
“ …. potatoes!”
I was stunned and surprised, but most of all highly amused by this information that was so far removed from what I expected to hear. So surprised and amused that I couldn’t contain my laughter. I turned to Rebecca who had clearly thought along the same lines as I had and was struggling to stifle a laugh of her own, and the look on my face didn’t help.
The chap started to explain that he had read in some scientific publication about agricultural experiments that were taking place near Loch Ness, but I had to stop him to apologise for my reaction to what he had said. Fortunately, he had a good sense of humour and was equally amused when I explained what had tickled me. I never did make inquiries about those giant potatoes ….
During their time with us in Invergordon, the Italian group received some training in Scottish country dancing before taking part in a ceilidh held in their honour. They loved it and were very taken with the dynamic dancing involved and the social aspect of the event. Consequently, on our leg of the exchange they were keen to reciprocate and they organised an intense training session in traditional Italian dances led by professional dancers. This was followed by some social dancing involving the whole exchange group – pupils, staff and some parents. It took place one afternoon after lessons in the school courtyard.
Just as with singing, I have little (if any) talent for dancing, but what I lack in ability and fitness, I try to compensate with enthusiasm, so I threw myself into the dances in a bid to encourage others to join in and simply to help the event go well. However, my enthusiastic participation may have been a trifle excessive as, at the end of the session, a pupil approached me and advised me to have a shower, adding “You REALLY need one!” Frankly, I was more concerned by my wildly racing heart rate and the fact I struggled to catch my breath and could barely speak a full five minutes after the music stopped. As death seemed imminent, I couldn’t have cared less about my personal hygiene, but of course I eventually recovered and came to consider the sense of smell of others and had a shower at the earliest opportunity.
My only other dalliance with dancing came at the farewell party held the evening before our departure. Abundant food and light drinks were laid on and music was provided in the shape of disco equipment. But no-one was dancing – this group that had shared so many experiences and had helped one another get through homesickness, anxiety and apprehension to become more rounded, sympathetic and understanding young people just weren’t willing (or able) to cast aside their inhibitions to dance together at their farewell party, and I felt it was my duty to get the ball rolling ….
I had never done this before (and I am unlikely to ever do it again), but I got up on a table and started gyrating to the music in an attempt to break the ice. This is really not typical of me and I don’t know what made me do it, but I swivelled my hips and tried to produce elegant lines with my arms and hands to the best of my ability. Strictly Come Dancing it was not, and to my surprise and disquiet, my “dancing” did not have the desired effect and the pupils simply gathered around me to enjoy the spectacle of this teacher who was making a fool of himself! Fortunately, one or two eventually felt some pity and started swaying to the beat of the music and that was enough for me – I jumped down from my table-top and joined in with the others until I could discreetly withdraw altogether.
The things teachers do to inspire their charges ….
Incidentally, and rather embarrassingly, short footage exists of both these dancing interludes on YouTube.
There are, of course, many other memories of trips abroad such as the time I thought I lost 14 pupils on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower and spent 45 minutes hunting for them, only to discover they (and a member of staff) had taken the lift to the third floor without telling me.
There was the time a colleague, Sean, and I shared a room and couldn’t get to sleep as we recounted stories from the day and laughed so hard we had to resort to taking painkillers at 1 a.m. to rid ourselves of the headaches we had induced through intense giggling, and then nearly got another colleague banned from Holland when we shared some of our stories with a Passport Control officer as we left the country.
Or the time I crept up behind a pupil on a ferry as she sat next to her friend, and waited for her to turn and find my face just millimetres from hers to give her a fright, only to discover she wasn’t a pupil at all, but a member of the public who must have thought goodness knows what about my strange interpersonal habits!
Too many memories to bore you with here, but such memories only testify to the value (in so many ways) and lasting effects of school trips abroad.
Trips to see “Les Misérables”
I have made it clear that my interest in “Les Misérables” bordered on obsession (my family would tell you there is no doubt about it – it was clear-cut). Because I used it in school, my obsession became contagious as pupils took to it (though I would not have insisted if they had said they didn’t like it). They read the book or extracts from it, watched DVDs, wrote essays and reviews, discussed characters and themes, translated the songs and even occasionally sang them (in French and in English) in concerts and in the classroom.
At one point, even innocent phrases used in class reminded me of songs from Les Mis and I would add to the phrase, singing lyrics from a song from the show, e.g. a question such as “What have I done?” might be asked, and I (or eventually a pupil) might add …. “…. Sweet Jesus, what have I done, become a thief in the night …. etc.”
Naturally enough, all of this led to repeated requests to see the show live rather than depend on books, DVDs and CDs, so we organised several excursions to London (and another to Edinburgh) to attend performances. As I have already said, all school trips and excursions serve not only to fulfil their direct educational purpose, but also help develop personal skills and growth which can be achieved in all sorts of ways, and this principle is applicable to both pupils and staff ….
When organising these trips to London, I quickly discovered that while the cost of transport and theatre tickets remained pretty static, the cost of accommodation varied considerably, and not just between hotels – the time of year and even other events (such as the London Olympics) influenced the price. I therefore researched hotels carefully in an attempt to find the best deal for our party, especially as accommodation was the costliest element of our trip.
And so, on one occasion, I opted for a hotel in Russell Square because it was more reasonably priced than many of the other possibilities, though it meant a fair hike to the theatre in the evening for our group of 14, but I thought that might be quite enjoyable as it was London and everything was new, big and fascinating. However, I failed to take in to account the fact that by early evening our group was tired and hungry and couldn’t face the fairly lengthy walk to theatre land. So, thinking on my feet, I came up with the obvious and easy solution of taking the underground – a station was just a few hundred yards from our hotel.
Those readers who have travelled on the London Underground in the early evening will know why this was not a good idea. To say the station was mobbed is a gross understatement. If ever there was a physical embodiment of the phrase “packed like sardines in a tin can”, it was Russell Square Underground station that evening shortly after five p.m. You could not move without rubbing up against someone, nudging them or pushing them, all in order to get nearer the train platform, which was also awash with people.
I was also unaware of the fact that at Russell Square station, there is a considerable distance to descend to reach the platforms themselves. We all piled into one of the three available lifts, the capacity of which was some fifty persons, but it filled remarkably quickly as there seemed to be no alternative flights of stairs, and it appeared that half of London’s population had decided to join us at that particular station at that particular time.
As we descended and I began to realise the mistake I had made in choosing this area for our accommodation and then in opting for the underground as a means of transport to the theatre, I realised we had another somewhat more pressing problem. One of the pupils, Nicola, was slightly claustrophobic and was not coping well with the crowds we encountered on entering the station, and then in the busy lift. The poor girl was struggling to remain calm and breathe at a regular pace. I tried to be reassuring and pointed out we would soon be out of the lift and on the platform. Of course, when the doors parted to reveal an almost solid mass of people she felt even worse and she began to sound panicky and breathe even more heavily.
It was clear we had to get Nicola (and the others) out of there as fast as possible. I suggested leaving immediately, but that would have meant taking the lift again and that prospect didn’t go down well. Nicola and a few of her friends sat on a bench at the rear of the platform and I turned to seek information on when the next train was due, only to see and hear it make its triumphant entrance into the station. I was overjoyed. Obviously, we’d have to battle our way on to the train, but at least we were making progress and our pupils’ ordeal would soon be over.
My colleague Joan and I called our pupils forward to make their way on the train, and as it pulled up my heart just sank. The train was, naturally, just as crammed with people as the station. The warning klaxon sounded and the doors opened to reveal a wall of people, some of whom stood with their backs to us, still in the slightly curved shape of the doors against which they had clearly been pressed quite firmly.
I stood and hesitated, failing to see how our group could possibly join the train, but Joan leapt into action, announcing “Right, come on!”, and charged into the group of passengers on the train. With about half of our group immediately behind her, Joan led what amounted to an assault on the carriage and, astonishingly, managed to get several of her charges on board. However, it was physically impossible to get the others on board, especially Nicola for whom the prospect of boarding the packed carriage was virtually crippling.
Joan gave me a look from inside the carriage that said “Come on then!”, but I could only shake my head despondently and mouth “We can’t”. I moved two of my fingers in a walking motion in front of me, indicating we would go to the theatre on foot. As the warning klaxon sounded again and the doors started to close, a look of horror came across Joan’s face and she mouthed “Where’s the theatre?” Fortunately, I had just invested in a mobile phone (they were relatively new at the time) and we had all shared our numbers in case of an emergency, and this was definitely an emergency, so I gestured to her to phone once we got to the surface, and as I did so the train whisked them off into the tunnel.
I turned and saw looks that asked “What now?” from the remaining half of the group. Having reassured them we were leaving, we looked for an alternative to the lifts as a means of exit and within seconds we found the entrance to a spiral staircase which led to the surface. Our joy was slightly diminished when we saw a sign informing us there were 175 steps. However, we saw no alternative so we set off on our ascent.
Initially, I wondered if Nicola would cope with this situation, but it turned out she was so relieved at escaping the crowds on the platform that even the relatively confined space of the spiral staircase posed no problem as long as our progress was unimpeded by other people. The others in the group also seemed happy to join in the “adventure”.
I, on the other hand, was feeling guilty and felt the need to lighten the mood and lessen the impact of having to climb 175 steps to reach the surface, so I started making jokes and ran up several steps at a time with exaggerated dynamism and energy. We reached the surface shortly afterward and the whole party seemed to have enjoyed the experience amid much joking and laughter, and Nicola seemed to recover with every step she took until she showed no sign of distress by the time we reached the top of the staircase. The same cannot be said of me – I was so unfit, became so breathless and expended so much energy trying to entertain as we climbed, that when we got to the top I sounded like a loud, asthmatic Darth Vader about to expire.
Once I had recovered enough to make a phone call, I called Joan and gave her directions to a restaurant near the theatre where we all met and had dinner together.
The funny thing is I remember hardly anything about the performance that night.
Pupils (and staff) went through a lot to see the show in London or Edinburgh – hours of travel, fatigue and discomfort, high expense and usually lots of walking, but every trip was marked by excitement, pleasure, admiration and even inspiration. The show generally had quite an effect on those who saw it. Apart from producing heart-felt essays for me, many pupils went on to make repeat visits to the show (some even in New York), while others developed a broader interest in the theatre and literature, reading more Victor Hugo and writing pieces about “Notre Dame de Paris” for Advanced Higher Music. One pupil even went on to pursue a career in acting and claimed it all started with a visit to Les Mis. For me, it is a source of great satisfaction and pride that these trips should have had such a positive effect.
Of course, sometimes the excitement was the result of meeting a celebrity who was in the cast. Producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh has regularly cast young pop stars in the role of Marius and some years ago, that honour fell to Jon Lee, formerly of S-Club 7 fame, and who was now trying to establish a career in musical theatre.
Several of the girls on one trip were keen to meet him and get his autograph so I agreed we could go around to the Stage Door after the performance. By that time, we were all quite tired and I was a bit grumpy as we had a fairly lengthy walk ahead of us and it was starting to get cold. That said, I understood the attraction of meeting someone they had seen on TV, so I was happy enough to go along with being Stage Door johnnies – up to a point.
Several members of the cast appeared and our group was quite thrilled to see them close up as they had thoroughly enjoyed their performances, but still the “main event” (Jon Lee) hadn’t emerged. It was cold and getting late, and I was keen to make a move, but our party was equally determined to see Jon Lee and I was left in no doubt that seeing him was our priority.
I was somewhat appeased when Sophia Ragavelas (who played Eponine) appeared and immediately started chatting with the kids. I had a brief conversation with her and she took a genuine interest in where we were from and what we thought of the show, but still no Jon Lee.
Eventually the young blond-haired singer barged out of the Stage Door, to the obvious delight of his Invergordon fans, and he looked around, grunted something as he slapped his forehead and re-entered the building! The girls were crest-fallen and I was not happy at all. I rapidly rehearsed to myself a speech about how these young people had travelled 600 miles and spent eight hours on a train to see him, so would he mind signing a few autographs. A few seconds later he re-appeared, this time carrying a sizeable musical case presumably with a large instrument inside. He had simply forgotten it and had gone back in to collect it, and had not, as I surmised, decided he couldn’t face any adoring fans and run away.
I felt a little guilty at my misinterpretation of his actions, and in the face of a strange reluctance on the part of my pupils to initiate a conversation, I stepped in and asked – nicely – if he would give them his autograph. The lad couldn’t have been any nicer or more accommodating. He chatted with them and supplied as many autographs as they requested, though when he spied a free cab, he decided he had to grab it. At that moment, he was chatting to Nikki who was a very big fan and who was over the moon at meeting the man. He apologised and explained he needed to grab the taxi and, placing his hands around Nikki’s waist, he moved her gently to one side so he could go for his taxi. As he hurried off, Nikki just stared at me with a little smile which suggested something approaching bliss, and then she let out a lengthy squeal of pure excitement and disbelief. I think she virtually floated all the way to the hotel after that.
In a vaguely similar incident, I scared the living daylights out of Gareth Gates in April 2010. That was the year of the 25th anniversary of Les Mis and Sir Cameron Mackintosh launched a nationwide tour of a reworked version of the show (incorporating new staging and direction), and it returned to the Playhouse in Edinburgh, a mere 12 years after its last visit and the first time I saw it.
A colleague, Linda, and I organised a trip and a party of about 20 set off for Edinburgh to catch a matinee performance. Valjean was played by John Owen-Jones, probably my favourite actor/singer in the part, and Marius was played by Gareth Gates who, like Jon Lee, had had success as a pop star and was now breaking in to musical theatre. As usual the show was much appreciated and at the end, our group joined me giving the cast a standing ovation.
After the show our coach driver kindly offered to bring the coach to us so we were to wait outside the entrance to the theatre. As we huddled together to chat about what we had just seen, one of our young ladies, Emma, looked down the steep hill at the side of the theatre (which leads to the Stage Door) and announced to our group, “Oh my God! Gareth Gates is coming up that hill right now!” To my surprise, she and her friends moved not one inch, despite their obvious excitement at catching sight of Mr Gates. Realising they would later regret their inaction, I suggested they go and speak to him. There were abrupt shakings of the head and cries of “No!”, but I repeated my suggestion and pointed out he would soon be gone. Their response was the same – it was clearly considered uncool to approach him, though their desire to speak to him was clear to all. “Do you want me to go and speak to him?” I asked. It was evidently not considered uncool for an ageing teacher to accost a young pop star as they uniformly nodded their heads in agreement and looked at me expectantly.
Now, you have to understand that if I am tasked with doing something, I like to get on with it straight away and I prefer to be direct. So, without even considering the possibility of waiting for Mr Gates at the top of the hill, I set off down the steep slope at a pace.
Mr Gates and two or three fellow cast members were casually making their way up the hill when he looked up and caught sight of me bearing down on him. The look of growing concern that came over his face made me realise how I must have appeared to him – a total stranger with a look of intent (focus) approaching at considerable speed. I realised I must have inadvertently seemed quite threatening.
It was then that I flashed a big smile (supposed to be reassuring) and called out the classic line, “It’s all right – I’m a teacher!” As if that was a guarantee of anything!
The young man’s mind was, however, suitably put at rest when we shook hands and he was able to verify I was, indeed, quite harmless. He willingly agreed to have his photo taken with our group, with whom he chatted happily for several minutes.
The favour was returned to me within just a few minutes when several pupils pointed out John Owen-Jones to me, as he also made his way up the hill from the Stage Door. I learned from my experience with poor Gareth and I allowed Mr Owen-Jones to reach the street before pouncing on him. We had a brief conversation about the qualities of the new version of the show and a few pupils were thoughtful enough to photograph me talking to him, and although I didn’t squeal with delight, I was a very happy man as we clambered on to our coach and headed for home.
Colleagues and pupils
Although a teacher may sometimes feel alone when facing a class, in fact in a good school a teacher should always feel part of a team which is striving toward a common end. Communication is key to the success of a school – listening and talking to colleagues and pupils. All should feel valued, supported and respected, and essential to that end are the character and personality of all concerned.
I have been very lucky over the years to have some wonderful colleagues to whom I could turn with professional or personal concerns. The camaraderie and support among the staff helped me get through some difficult times and helped to create a family-like atmosphere in which the surface of familiarity, gentle teasing and banter was underpinned by care, compassion and consideration.
Within the languages department, Margaret was a rock of common sense and stability in what became a sea of change and occasional madness. She also loved “Les Misérables” and introduced her daughter Amy to it at a fairly tender age. This clearly did her no harm at all as she went on to become a drama teacher and, as I write this, she has just announced that she is to direct the schools’ edition of “Les Mis” within her own school.
There have been some interesting characters who have produced memorable moments – moments that help to enliven daily routine or provide an entertaining diversion in what can be a repetitive business.
One colleague (who shall remain nameless) seemed to be drawn to our assistantes. All of them. Each year he indulged in a little harmless flirting with our young lady (I can think of only two male assistants in all my time at the school), exercising his French to compliment and general charm them. One year, however, I couldn’t resist the temptation to have a little fun at his expense ….
Our young lady (I’m afraid I can’t remember her name) had been taking classes in the base next to my room. She finished her lessons mid-afternoon and, after a brief chat with me to ascertain how things had gone and to make arrangements for her next visit, she left early to catch a bus, leaving behind a half-consumed bottle of water. As I sat in the base writing a few notes, I noticed the bottle and an idea came into my head.
I jotted a brief note on a scrap of paper, picked up the bottle and carried it to the room of my flirtatious colleague just along the corridor. His door was open and he was in full flow, reciting some notes from the back of his room while his young class took them down in their jotters. I entered his room as quietly as I could, though not without attracting the attention of those pupils nearest the door. I put my finger to my lips and placed the bottle and the scrap of paper on the teacher’s desk, but a bemused giggle from a pupil caught my colleague’s notice and he looked over at me. I had no choice but to deliver the message in person. I picked up the bottle so he could see it and whispered (loudly) what I had written on the scrap of paper, “Her lips have touched this”, whereupon my dear colleague virtually flew across his classroom as I exited as fast as my legs would carry me, with the sound of pupils’ laughter dimming behind. My colleague seized the bottle and, laughing and yelling somewhat incoherently, he set out to pursue me along the corridor, launching the contents of the water bottle in my general direction.
Fortunately, his sense of duty outweighed his desire for revenge and he returned immediately to his class, laughing and uttering threats toward me to the great amusement of his pupils.
Every year in June, the incoming Primary 7 class would visit the Academy for a week’s transition and acclimatisation. They would follow the timetable set for their first year with us, get a taste of life in the Academy, meet their new classmates and, of course, meet their new teachers.
One teacher of geography, John, had a highly developed (almost wicked) sense of humour and if an opportunity to have some fun presented itself, he was quick to take advantage of it.
At the end of a class with the visiting Primary 7 pupils, a young lad stayed behind to ask John a few questions. Naturally, John did his best to provide answers, but in so doing he caused the lad to be separated from his classmates who moved on to their next class which was French, with Arthur.
After satisfying the lad’s curiosity, John gave him precise directions to Arthur’s room and advised him to apologise for his lateness and to simply say why he was late, assuring him that Arthur was a very reasonable and pleasant man, and telling the boy exactly what to say as he entered Arthur’s room.
Now, you have to be aware that Arthur had a thick dark moustache and bore, at the time, an uncanny resemblance to the comic actor John Cleese (of “Fawlty Towers” fame).
The lad followed John’s directions to the letter, found Arthur’s room, entered and said, “I’m sorry I’m late, Mr Fawlty, but I was talking to the geography teacher”, upon which the class roared with laughter and poor Arthur was left to pick up the pieces.
I was equally lucky to have lively but attentive pupils who were willing to “play the game” with me. Just as teachers can play an important part in pupils’ lives, so too do pupils play an essential role in teachers’ lives, and my pupils helped make my professional life relatively easy and worthwhile. That is not to say, however, that they did not, occasionally, present challenges ….
In one S3 class I had a pupil (we’ll call him Paul) who liked to make his presence felt each time he came into my room. He had a routine of minor defiance of which he was, I think, largely unaware, but after this initial “entrance” he usually settled down and was largely co-operative, though French was certainly not his favourite subject.
He had been placed in the front row so I could keep an eye on him and he would come in, plomp himself down on his seat, dump his bag at his feet and then put his feet on the chair next to him. I would tell him to remove his feet from the chair (eventually it was enough just to look at him), which he did with a show of reluctance, usually within three seconds, and then I would have to tell him to take his things from his bag so he could get on with the work of the class. After that, while he hardly set the heather on fire, he would make enough effort to get by and keep me off his back.
During our inspection in November 1999, I was to be observed with this S3 class. I was not unhappy about it – they were not especially keen on French but they were lively and made the effort required. I did, however, let them know that an inspector was going to join us for the following lesson and Paul seemed surprisingly concerned. He even asked a few questions about what we were going to do during the observed lesson. I advised him and the whole class just to be themselves, do what they normally did and everything would be fine.
I had known and worked with the inspector in question for some years and was well used to his appearance, but he cut quite a conspicuous figure as this tall man in a good suit with red cheeks and a long, flowing grey beard toured the school, and pupils certainly took notice of him.
On the day of our observation I was, as might be expected, a little nervous – it’s never nice to be judged – but I knew what I was doing and I had confidence in the kids. The bell rang and the pupils trooped in. Inspectors often give classes a couple of minutes to settle so I wasn’t surprised when ours wasn’t there at the start of the lesson.
Everyone settled and Paul took his place. I had hoped he might have abandoned his routine for once but no, up went the feet on the chair next to him. I took a deep breath, looked at him and said, “Feet.” After a moment’s hesitation, he removed his feet from the chair. I started to explain what we were going to do that day and as I did so, I realised that Paul, as per usual, had no equipment on his table so I stopped myself mid-flow, looked at him sharply and said, “Books” rather pointedly. He gave me a look of disapproval and bent down to gather what he needed for the period.
It was at this point that the inspector crept into the room, opening the door and closing it behind him as quietly as he could so as not to interrupt the flow of the lesson. He walked past me and made his way to the rear of the room where he propped himself against a pillar, and as he did so, Paul sat up and placed his materials on his table, ready for work.
Once again, I started to introduce the lesson, this time for the benefit of the inspector as well as the pupils. However, I didn’t get very far before I was interrupted by a familiar voice in the front row:
“Excuse me. I thought that inspector gudgie was going to come in today”, said Paul.
The atmosphere in the room suddenly became very tense as the rest of the class jumped to the same conclusion as I had, that Paul was trying to be funny and draw attention to himself. I couldn’t be bothered indulging him on this occasion – I had other things on my mind, so I gave him a knowing look accompanied by a slight shake of the head which were supposed to mean “Not today!”
I re-turned my attention to the class and for the third time I began to introduce the lesson. Paul looked outraged and insulted that I hadn’t answered his question.
“Excuse me. You didn’t answer my question. I thought we were having a visitor”.
I looked at him, uncertain of how to respond but certain in my own mind that Paul was up to mischief. Paul lost patience with my hesitation and added:
“You know – Santa. The guy with the beard”, and he feigned stroking a long beard as he said it.
At this point the others in the class erupted in laughter or gasped with embarrassment.
“You mean the inspector who’s standing at the back of the room and is looking at you right now?” I asked.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a head swivel any faster as Paul turned around and stared, open-mouthed and quite aghast, at the inspector who icily returned his stare. He clearly had not been playing up and had been genuinely unaware of the man’s entrance and presence in the room, and now he was totally confused and shocked.
The class was highly amused but quickly regained its composure as I embarked on my fourth (and final) attempt to introduce the lesson. Paul, whose credibility had completely evaporated, just got on with his work that period – until the next time.
Last years and retirement
My last few years in teaching were marked by significant and far-reaching changes in the education system. I still enjoyed the company of my pupils and colleagues, but as the character and demands of the job evolved, I felt I no longer fitted the profile and that it was time to step aside and allow the next generation to take over.
It didn’t help when a new S1 pupil came up to me at the start of my final year and pronounced those words no teacher should hear: “You taught my Granny”. Worse still, I remembered the Granny well and it was like yesterday that I taught her! I knew then that it was time to give serious consideration to retirement.
I had jokingly referred to a countdown to retirement for years, inviting pupils to hurry a response in class because I was due to retire in ten, then seven, then three years etc., but in the last few months it became strangely real, yet unreal. After so many years doing something, you become inured and it’s difficult to conceive of a different way of life, even when you have a specific date from which you know your life will change. It was difficult to comprehend a series of “lasts” – the last time I attended a parents’ night, my last set of reports and my last staff meeting etc.
I put a brief announcement on Facebook to the effect that I was going to retire and I was stunned by the response. I received about 400 “likes” and some 100 messages which were invariably immensely kind and flattering, and I was deeply touched and humbled by the reaction of pupils present and past, and friends and family.
During my last days at the school I received many cards and gifts which were completely unexpected and I was deeply moved by everyone’s thoughtfulness and generosity. I received even more “likes” and messages on Facebook when I posted photos of my gifts and cards.
A cardinal element of teaching (and one which is mostly taken for granted or ignored) is the environment in which you work. My room was plastered with colourful posters, drawings, essays, photos and grammar notes. Even the ceiling had items hanging from it. I would like to think this contributed to a warm and welcoming atmosphere which in turn encouraged industry and collaboration. Of course, I had to clear the room for my departure and it is one of my greatest regrets that I didn’t photograph it before it was stripped as, without me realising it, that room had become an essential part of my teaching and my professional life, and it was rather sad to see it bare and to have that as my final image of the room.
I did, however, leave behind a single souvenir in the hope it would remain untouched – a figure of a frog on top of a snail which I used to place around the room and challenge classes to find. It would be nice to think it’s still there, but I rather doubt it.
Curiously, on my final day I was remarkably calm. I had expected to blub and make a fool of myself, but I remained composed as I said my farewells and received even more kind and generous gifts and cards. Once again, it seemed unreal. My final “class” was with a young lady, Zoe, who had done the Higher course with me and was about to embark on Advanced Higher. She showed me an email she and the rest of the Higher/National 5 class sent to Bruno Pelletier, inviting him to send a video message wishing me well for my retirement. Each member of the class sent the message three times in order to ensure he received it! They got no response, but I was tremendously touched that they had thought of doing that and had made such an effort.
I left the school at about 12.30 on the 1st of July 2016, laden with gifts and cards, and many happy memories.
The first of July is also the birthday of my younger son, Michael, and my daughter, Lauren, (who are twins), and so we were to have a family dinner to mark both their birthday and my retirement in a local hotel. My older son, Scott, and Lauren’s husband, Ryan, had also made the effort to be there.
The family had given me some lovely gifts the evening before (including a “leaver’s hoodie” which I wore to school for my last day), and there was some excitement in the air, though I was still dazed and trying to come to terms with the momentous events of the day.
When we arrived at the hotel I went straight to reception to confirm our booking and I was immediately escorted in the opposite direction from the dining room and ushered into a private function room instead. As I entered, I caught sight of a group of Lauren and Michael’s friends. I was a little confused, and then I turned and saw several of our friends (Alison’s and mine), including a number of people to whom I had said an emotional good-bye just seven hours before! It took a few seconds to dawn on me that this was, in fact, a surprise retirement party for me. Alison and Lauren had organised everything “on the fly”!
I made my way around the room and chatted to the guests, thanking them for coming and sharing some anecdotes from the dim and distant past, and a few minutes later Alison took to the floor and made a speech (her first ever). She delivered it with a confidence and poise which I envied, and summed up the events and emotions surrounding my retirement very articulately and touchingly. At the end of her speech, another surprise – everyone was invited to another room where Lauren was going to show a PowerPoint presentation she had prepared in my honour.
Somewhat warily, I made my way through to the TV room. I had no idea what was coming, but I was reasonably sure it would prove embarrassing.
I took pride of place on a sofa directly in front of the screen while all the other guests gathered behind and I steeled myself for whatever was to come.
Lauren had uncovered some old photos dating back 30 years or more, and had trawled YouTube to find footage of me dancing and singing. The guests were suitably amused and I was suitably embarrassed yet honoured she had made all this effort.
Toward the end of the presentation, we read about my obsession with Les Mis and how I had organised trips to London and Edinburgh, then up popped photos of me speaking to John Owen-Jones with a teasing text saying he’d sent a message (upon which I thought we were going to hear an extract from “What have I done?”, Valjean’s soliloquy), followed by a still of Mr Owen-Jones looking straight into a camera. Suddenly the still sprang to life and John Owen-Jones said “Hello Stuart”. He went on to say he was between acts of Les Mis on Broadway and wanted to wish me all the best for my retirement! I was utterly speechless and could feel the tears welling up, so pleased was I that he had taken the time to record a message for me, but also grateful to Lauren and Alison for organising this whole surprise.
However, the presentation was not yet over and there appeared some text saying Bruno Pelletier was another of my idols, but that I had never met him so there were no photos. It crossed my mind that Lauren had come across the signed photo sent to me by Bruno and she was going to show that. Next, there appeared a picture of Bruno Pelletier in a baseball cap, accompanied by text which said that if I couldn’t speak to Bruno Pelletier, he would speak to me, and once again the still photo sprang into life!
“Hello everybody. Hello Mr Stuart Fernie”, he said, and went on to wish me well for my retirement (four times) and to thank me for my efforts to teach French, adding that it was an honour for him to take part in our party.
To say I was stunned, deeply moved and delighted just doesn’t cover it.
How honoured was I that these two video guests should have made their appearances, that Alison and Lauren should have gone to all this trouble for me (and kept it a secret!), and that my family, friends and colleagues should have made the effort to attend my surprise party.
Needless to say, I was delighted to share these video messages on Facebook, especially with my former Higher class who had requested such a video message, and who, it transpired, had been informed that the video was in hand and they said not one word to me!
Exactly one week before my retirement, a retiral dinner was organised by the school for the six of us who were leaving at the end of the school year. As well as the present staff, invitations were sent out to many former colleagues who had shared at least some time with us in Invergordon Academy. It was a delight to see so many “kent faces”, and to chat with them about the old times as we embarked on a new and different future.
Pivotal events such as retirement invite reflection and as I prepared my second speech of the year (my daughter had got married in January), my head was filled with memories and contemplation. Not everything was wonderful in the course of these 35 years. I have experienced joy, happiness and satisfaction, but I have also known frustration, anger and exasperation. Three constants helped me get through difficult professional times – my family, my colleagues and my pupils, and I thank them all from the bottom of my heart for the contribution they have all made to my life, and I dedicate this volume of memoirs to them all.
I leave you with the speech I made at the retirement dinner.
Many thanks for taking the time to read these pages. I hope you found them of some value.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is difficult to sum up in a few words the thoughts, feelings and experiences of some 35 years. The obvious thing is to discuss the changes I’ve seen in the education system in that time, but don’t worry – I’ll spare you that rant. However, I will tell you about my first observation.
Bear in mind what is involved in an observation today – a double-sided sheet incorporating at least 20 if not 30 elements. At the end of my observed lesson the Assistant Head Russell Preston (who was responsible for probationers) approached and gave me his purely verbal feedback – “That was fine, Stuart, but you might want to move the tables away from the wall”. How things have changed ….
When starting out in teaching, it is essential to find your own style – you have to work out what works for you and your pupils, and you have to learn from your mistakes.
I would like to think I did learn from my mistakes, but I should point out that I am a life-long learner.
For example, I learned that it is best to prepare in advance and not have to leave a class to collect some photocopying you’ve forgotten, giving the class time to set up a waste-paper bin filled with water above the classroom door which has been left ajar. This is particularly true if the depute rector decides to pop in to your room just ahead of you.
It’s best not to assume that parents will be able (or willing) to exercise control over their offspring. One parents’ evening, a pupil and his father sat in front of me and the pupil held a polystyrene cup filled with tea. While I was speaking to this pupil, he bit a chunk out of the lip of the cup and proceeded to eat it. A little taken aback, I pointed out to the pupil “You’re eating the cup”, whereupon he took another bite. I looked at the father and said “He’s eating the cup”, at which he looked at me and smiled, making a bizarre sound which indicated agreement, amusement and a complete inability to influence events.
It’s probably best not to physically remove a pen from a pupil’s mouth – even if he has arrived late, is under the influence of magic mushrooms and refuses to remove his pen when speaking to you. Physically removing the pen is particularly ill-advised if you consequently discover it is ridged and causes a distinct rattle of teeth while being removed.
It’s probably best not to suddenly roar out of the blue at pupils who are inattentive and chattering, even if it has the desired effect of correcting their behaviour. At least not if you have a pupil with a heart condition right in front of you who has had such a fright when you bellowed that he starts gasping for air and goes very red.
There are many, many happy memories from the classroom, charity concerts, school trips and the staffroom, car sharing to get to work, even meetings – far too many to be able to share with you here tonight, but memories which I will cherish and may well go on to write about in my memoirs.
Although there are many happy memories, I have to say it hasn’t always been great.
There have been difficult and frustrating times both professionally and personally, and I think in teaching it is often difficult to separate the two, and it is during the more difficult times that I learned to appreciate and value the wisdom and camaraderie of my colleagues. At the risk of sounding like the theme song to “Neighbours”, it’s at those times you discover that good colleagues become good friends. Clearly, I worked most closely with Margaret and Arthur over the years, but I would like to thank you ALL for your camaraderie, friendship and support.
I have frequently said that I have no luck – I rarely win anything, have no luck in cards (ask Jim Bryce about that), and the only time I put a bet on the Grand National, my horse actually ran away before the start of the race.
However, I have come to rethink my position concerning luck. I met Alison (aside to Alison - that is what you wrote, isn’t it?), and I was lucky enough to find a job at Invergordon Academy and have some of the best colleagues and pupils I could hope for, and I am now lucky enough to have been made redundant!
It has frequently been said there is something special about Invergordon, and actually I don’t think it’s hard to define – it’s just not that common.
It’s about caring. Putting pupils first and wanting what’s best for them, but extending that attitude to colleagues. It’s about professionalism with humanity and I know that I have benefited greatly from that environment, and I thank you most sincerely, past and present colleagues.
I wish you all the best for the future, but whatever that holds, please remember you are already getting it right.
Fin – so far!
My thanks for taking the time to read my page. I would, of course, be delighted to hear from anyone wishing to discuss aspects of this memoir further - I can be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org .
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