The seventeenth kid I hated walked into my classroom unannounced and offered me a condom.
There was no context; no provocation; no boys. It was an all-girls school. Why were they carrying around condoms? Perhaps a question better left unanswered.
It was my first day teaching in a British school. So it’s a wonder I didn’t pack my bags then and go back to where I came from. My only error on that particular day was perhaps envisaging that all English schools were like Hogwarts, where the vilest female student you may come upon would be Pansy Parkinson; and I don’t imagine she ever waved a contraceptive in Dumbledore’s face.
There was a lot of expectation hanging on this first day. I’d spent at least a week living in a hostel, waiting for the call from the job agency to provide me with my first day of work as a supply/cover/relief teacher. You needed to be ready by 7am each morning to sit by your phone and wait to be sent to whichever far corner of London needed you for the day. Every morning I had woken up early, waited by the phone, headed down to the basement (with no phone reception) for breakfast at 8am, waited in line with 60 plus French students queuing up for their camp breakfast of jam on toast, finally got my own two slices of jammed toast, headed back up from the basement to find three missed calls, returned the calls only to find the jobs were now taken, eaten breakfast, and by 9am realised that I wouldn’t be working that day.
So when the call to work finally came, I was ready for action. My first big day of work in the big old city of London!
Onto the Jubilee line I went, heading on what I assumed would be a five minute journey – everyone who visits London tells you how efficient and fast the train system is. I was expecting the Underground to be some sort of TARDIS, so was rather confused when twenty minutes later the train was above ground somewhere in Zone three or four, and I was alighting into the leafy London suburbs.
Wandering down the road to the school, I couldn’t help but notice a large population of Muslims pottering about their business. I had not realised at this point how many people in London seem to cluster together with their own countrymen. The French hang out in Chelsea; Australians drink anything but Fosters in Clapham; English people drink Fosters everywhere else; Jamaicans enjoy Lambeth; New Zealanders complain about coffee in Kilburn; Indians keep everyone well fed in Harrow; and so forth.
Seeing so many pleasant looking Muslim families put me at ease. Many of the women were wearing headscarves and if they were like my Muslim friends back home, they’d have a good heart and moral compass. And so it was, that I erroneously let my guard down. I had already learnt in Australia that students at Catholic schools can rebel just as strong as non-religious students. I don’t know why I thought the Muslim students would be any different.
The school itself was not religious. But there was such a high percentage of Muslim students that the entire school menu was Halal and good value to boot. I remember being quite excited that it was a mere £2 for a full plate of curry. In light of this my optimism naively continued.
When I entered the school I was asked to teach five sessions of Mathematics. Walking into the first class it became evident that I should not fall back on any assumptions that the children with nice religious upbringings would be any more respectful than the rest of them. Their headscarves were all akimbo, they slouched in their seats and wore a variety of scowls on their phizogs.
I began the lesson. Students began talking over me asking questions about why they had to work when their normal teacher wasn’t there; where was my accent from; and how long until the lesson finished. This was going to be a long day with a discount curry somewhere in the middle.
Most of the day went along smooth enough. I went for the ‘make sure nobody leaves their chair or get injured’ approach, which is not strong on learning time but big on survival. Students responded positively and there was no animosity. I started to relax again. Four lessons down and one to go. Then the real clincher came.
It was a group of Year 11 students – presumably the ones who had lofty aspirations of sponging off their parents into their mid-thirties. You could tell this was the case, because of the vacant expression behind their over mascaraed eyes, their overuse of the word ‘like’ and their cheap costume jewellery (I realise that’s an oxymoron – but I want to emphasise the cheapness). Their superficialness was only surpassed by their subtlety in sending text messages to each other without being noticed. Normally you can spot the kid who’s holding their phone just under the desk, dropping it into their lap or with their hand permanently fixed inside their pencil case. Initially they’ll look around the room a bit and engage in trivial questioning to put you off the scent. Then eventually they’ll surrender to the need for self-validation through social media and begin fiercely punching away at their screen, thus giving up the charade.
These Year 11 girls, however, were stoic. I had no idea they had been messaging each other until three girls barged their way into the classroom and sat down at one of the desks to begin gossiping with their friends. When asked where they had come from and why they were there, they rudely ignored the question and continued on. I’d never encountered such a blasé attitude and disregard. I genuinely was unsure what to do. There was only 20 minutes left of my day at the school, but it was going to be a long 20 minutes if I didn’t do something about it.
One of the other students kindly volunteered the information that girls from another class had been messaging the girls in my class to let them know that they too had a relief teacher. This explained why they had so easily escaped from the room where they should have been. I at least had managed to contain my students within their classroom. The problem was I now had students I didn’t need contained with the classroom.
After the revelation of this information and another student informing me that there was a school security officer who could remove them, two of the three girls got the scare and scampered back to the other room. The final girl remained.
I offered her the chance to leave peacefully and began walking towards the door to open it for her. My plan being to stand at the doorway with a kind hand gesturing towards the hallway for her to leave.
Just before I got to the door, she jumped from her seat. Flying across the room, she flung herself between me and the door, then stood with her spine hard against the exit. I should have opened the door before telling her what her options were. Now I was stumped. I didn’t know how to contact the school ‘security officer’. It also seemed unfair to prompt the other girls for any more information about it, because they were already becoming the target of some mild ridicule from their peers for ‘snitching’.
I was starting to work up a sweat; and not from being unused to the mild heatwave of a London summer. The girl then pulled from her pocket the square foil packet containing the birth control device. She waved the condom in my face so all the other students could see.
“Do you want a condom?” she cackled.
It was the cackle teenage girls give to older men when they think the male they’re talking to spends most of his time residing in a monastery carving wooden toys and ordering take out with other monks. They have that condescending tone where they presume a man, who is simply doing his job by teaching arithmetic, is completely asexual and wouldn’t know a pharmacy from a porn shop let alone know what a condom is. They hope by being overtly sexual that the gentleman will surrender himself to her and leave him wide open for litigation.
Or maybe the girl simply had a condom in her pocket and didn’t know what to do with it.
Either way, this was not an interesting problem solving exercise to undertake on my first day of teaching in a new country. It was a headache. Not to mention the ramifications for getting embroiled in some sort of lawsuit while working overseas.
Luckily the problem was solved for me. The security officer arrived and made some light hearted joke with the child in question. Whether or not that joke was appropriate, I don’t recall. But that is by the by. The main thing was he managed to remove her. Easy of course for him to deal with behaviour management in a laissez-faire manner; he didn’t need to teach them how to find the square root of anything.
The main thing taken away from this whole experience was to guard the door and don’t let anything get between you and the door.
There was no malice behind what the girl did; she was just a jovial juvenile with a Johnny in her jacket. But if we met again in a sex education class, I doubt I’d get her to demonstrate the sheathing of the banana.