Kid #21 – You can guide a kid to textbooks, but you can’t make them think

The twenty-first kid I hated had a real ‘make me!’ attitude.

By ‘make me!’, I am referring to the following sorts of interactions:

Teacher/Parent/Adult/Authority figure: Please, can you tuck your shirt in?

Kid: Make me!

Or

Teacher/Parent/Adult/Authority figure: Please, can you sit down?

Kid: Make me!

And so on and so forth.

For argument’s sake, let’s say kid number 21 was called ‘Tarquin’. He had become so notorious around the school for his defiance that students and staff alike would say, “Have you met Tarquin yet?”, “Is Tarquin in your class?” or “Such and such student couldn’t be worse than Tarquin”.

Who was this child? And did I really want to meet him?

I was covering classes in this school for a number of months. The school was situated in an area of London prone to a certain amount of gang warfare. The gangs were usually made up of vulnerable teenagers and misguided young adults involving themselves in forcing young female members to be involved in various sexual acts, general theft and a bit of knife crime.

My gut feeling was the majority of students in the school were not part of such gangs, but some of those who weren’t continuing beyond Year 10 were probably on the cusp of joining such groups. The school was very active in bringing to the attention of students, the pitfalls of gang culture. Ex-gang members were often brought in as guest speakers; extra-curricular clubs and activities were organised as distractions; and the issue of knife crime was debated as a topic in English classes, using the institutionalised racism of the Stephen Lawrence case as a backdrop (albeit some of the children seemed more interested in the knife side of ‘knife crime’ and less concerned about the crime).

One film studies class was even making a mockumentary about the 2011 London riots, documenting a gang who had resorted to raiding stationery shops for highlighters.

With such a demographic and a number of already lippy students, I was prepared for the worst upon meeting the twenty first kid. Would he be part of such a gang? Is that why he was so well-known?

Apprehensive at every turn, when covering year nine classes, I expected the child to storm in at any moment. Then one day covering a woodwork class it happened…

In stormed ‘Tarquin’. He did not fit the gangster mould at all. I was expecting a much more vicious and streetwise child from a struggling background. Instead he appeared to be a well-spoken middle-class lad born into a good home. So initially I relaxed.

However, he had turned up five minutes late to class and seemed rather unapologetic. I should have been more cautious.

When asked to sit down in a seat, he declared that he was fine and continued to wander around the room. He began picking up tools; saws, chisels and other sharp construction implements, which I had been explicitly instructed to make sure students did not handle. The students were only supposed to work on their written booklet explaining how they were going to construct their wooden pencil box for next lesson.

The rest of the year nines seemed to be enjoying the show. Here was their class-clown ready to spoil the day. He was no Krusty, but if it meant they didn’t need to complete their written element of work, they’d settle for his second rate cousin.

The child continued to ignore me completely, despite every polite attempt to get his attention and encourage him to sit in a chair. There is nothing ruder or more defiant than being ignored completely by a student. Yet there is also an element of knowing with such a child. They’ve realised the limitations of the adults to ‘make’ them do things. Beyond my words I had nothing. I could call a senior staff member in, and soon enough I did, but he treated them the same way. It would have been easier if he’d smashed a window or something, because then we’d have been able to call the police who may have been able to force him to do something. Something like sitting in a cell, instead of the chair I’d originally asked him to rest upon.

But even force with not lead to learning.

And there-in lay the dilemma when later in the lesson he was asked to do his work and responded with, “make me!”.

There is in fact no way to make someone learn. They can only be cajoled, encouraged, persuaded and threatened with consequence, to complete a task.

Instead this child was happy to enjoy his minute status as a celebrity. He wandered the room greeting all his pals, as though he was some sort of politician working a room. He sat at his table like a chairman of an important board meeting, leading discussions in everything but the topic at hand. When the lesson finally ended he swanned (or perhaps even minced) out of the room with an air of contempt towards those he had just spent time with; he obviously had more important places to be.

It’s hard to know with some of these children whether the bravado comes from a place of insecurity or, as stated early, the knowledge that rules can be pushed to their limit (or even ignored) to get what you want.

The problem with this character was he’d only realised half the picture. He knew there were limited short term consequences to his blatant disregard for authority. He was reaping the rewards of his popularity within the safety net of his school environment. But left out to float in the ocean of the real world, he’d be swallowed up by the shark that is society and torn limb from limb like an malnourished walrus – I feel this is an apt metaphor considering his body type.

Luckily I only taught that class until the end of the week and moved to another part of the school, where again the name Tarquin became merely a quasi-outlaw rumoured about in the corridors. A god among pupils and fool among teachers. His destiny was tied up in failure due the size of his ego and belt strap.

So although the child may have suffered from some social autism, if we met again I doubt I’d invite him in for coffee. He’d have to ‘make me!’.

A teacher’s worst nightmare

There is a re-occurring dream haunting my sleep. I’ve been having it for seven years. I’ve also been a teacher for seven years. Here’s the dream (which I’m sure is not a reflection of my psychological state; I just overheat under the doona/duvet):

Everything is normal. I’m normally going about my daily business, when suddenly there I am in front of a class full of children. Some faces I don’t recognise, some I do. The ones I recognise are not nice kids. They are usually the kids I hated. But everyone is getting on with their work. So its ok, considering the class is filled with 32 children – two kiddies over the standard recommendation of 30 children.

There I stand before the students opening my mouth with nothing coming out. Also I tend to not be wearing shoes for some reason (having no clothes at all would be too clichéd). I struggle to reach my feet to put on the shoes which appear in my hand. And when I finally speak, I’ve forgotten what I needed to talk about.

I regress into my early attempts as a teacher to be relatable. I try to tell a joke, do a funny voice, or smile. The children appreciate this. They laugh a bit. I become insecure. Are they laughing at the joke? Or are they laughing at me? After all, I’m standing there bare-footed trying to be buddies with them.

A child stands up and yells something. It’s indecipherable, as with many things in dreams. That being said, many children are indecipherable when they yell things in reality. I panic because he’s standing on classroom furniture. If my boss comes in they’ll wonder what’s going on. They’ll discover I’m a fraud who forgot to put his shoes on, cracks jokes with his students and has mistaken the school desks for climbing frames.

Luckily no one enters. But the children are still laughing. It is slowly becoming more manic. I lift up some textbooks to handout. They are too heavy. They feel like lead. I grab a pile of worksheets. They are also heavy, but more like a pile of aluminium sheets than lead. So I manage to lift one worksheet at a time to circulate them around the class.

No one is paying attention to what I’m doing. They walk around the room like zombie hyenas, unable to stop laughing. Perhaps if I get all these worksheets distributed they’ll start working. Yet, handing out one sheet at a time is completely inefficient. Five sheets in, I realise it will be the end of class before I’ve even finished placing all 32 worksheets on the desks.

I’m stuck with the remaining 27 sheets at the back of the room. I can’t make my way towards the whiteboard. There’s a young girl showboating at the front of the room, drawing obscene images on the board in permanent marker, strutting up and down the carpet space.

I begin asking the students to ‘calm their farms’. They get louder and louder. I get louder and louder to be heard. The chaos feels as though it will spill out of the classroom. I’ll be discovered as a failure. I won’t be allowed to teach again.

I shout more and more. They refuse to listen. The laughter turns to jeering.

The walls of the room begin shifting. The windows narrow, there are sofas on the side of the room, a television appears at the side broadcasting an episode of The Simpsons; I’m at home in my flat. But so are the children. They’ve infiltrated my personal sanctuary. I’m repulsed.

I look out the window for sweet relief. There it is a garden full of green ferns and limestone wall terraces. There’s a swing and a cubby house. Sand begins to cascade from the wall. This is the backyard of my parents from my childhood. Am I relapsing into the security blanket of my own youth? Why is the wall crumbling?

The phone rings. Someone close to me (relative/friend/whoever) has died in a horrible plane accident.

This is terrible. It’s the kids’ fault. They kept me here; away from what was important; away from people who cared; away from life.

Then black.

Top 10 Places to Avoid This Summer Holidays

Teachers across the Northern Hemisphere are closing their stationery cupboards, and kicking their feet up on their cheap laminate classroom furniture to sit back sipping martinis. A peaceful silence rings through the empty corridors. The incessant nattering of playground banter is now a distant echo haunting the rooms and bed chambers of family homes. A final sip of the martini glass, and empty vodka bottles in the bottom drawer of the desk, signal it’s time for heading into the real world to make the most of this month long summer break.

One foot places itself down on the concrete pavement outside the school grounds, and it hits; it’s like school never ends. There are kids everywhere!

  1. Footpaths

Like a mob of un-herded cattle escaped from the top paddock, children struggle to have any special awareness when it comes to making space for other pedestrians on the sidewalk. No matter the width of the path, those kids will find a way of filling it. They travel in mobs to boost their self-esteem. If one of them drops behind the main group, or has to step off the pavement to make way for another passer-by, it could be months before they are restored to their original social rank within the gang. Unless you want to be responsible for a young person becoming a societal outcast, keep your feet on the kerb.

  1. Museums

Sure you like dinosaur bones. You’ve liked them since you were a kid – but that’s the very point. Kids love dinosaurs and they are now swarming the corridors of the museums. Yes, they’ve spent the last 11 months bundled up in classrooms learning how to read and write. But now they want to do some real learning to find out why diplodocuses didn’t eat meat; how many Romans stabbed Caesar in the back; and how many croutons in a Caesar salad.

  1. Buses

No one likes public transport at the best of times. But at least if you have the opportunity to catch a bus in the middle of the day, you will normally get a seat. Not during the holidays. The bus is usually the cheaper mode of transport for the penny-pinching youths. In some cases they even get a free ride. Meanwhile, you’re sitting there listening to, their over-amplified earbud headphones pumping out the latest facile drone from The Vamps; unmodulated melodrama from a bunch of teenagers; or the inane chanting of ‘Hail to the Bus Drive Man’ from the local day care group who are off to the Science Museum (which you were supposed to be avoiding, à la point 9)

If you’re really lucky you’ll witness some good old fashioned hoodlumism. I once witnessed a group of young girls verbally laying into a tramp who was sitting quietly at the back of the bus. It escalated into him shouting at them, “I fought for this country” and having to storm off the bus. It’s easy to have a go at a homeless war veteran when your parents are paying for your bus fare.

  1. Airfares

Business is business. Airlines over-inflate their prices during the peak travel period during summer holidays; so it’s best to sail or drive to your end destination. Also, next time you’re banging on about teachers having too many holidays, just remember they’re slowly bankrupting themselves buying hyper-inflated air travel. Spare a thought for this all too common first world problem as you sit in your four-weeks-annual-leave-per-year vinyl office chair. Life is cruel.

  1. Shopping Malls

In the immortal words of the Lano and Woodley song ‘Shoppin’ Town’ it says, “We hang around here every Thursday night, every Friday night and Saturday morning too. We stand around and think of smart-arsed things to do”. Guess what? It’s summer holidays (plus it is sale time at Westfield), so this is going to happen 24/7. There’s no ‘cooler’ place to be than the vast consumerist wasteland that is the hallowed halls of the global corporate overlords. You know that feeling of intimidation as you walk past ashen faced gangs of teens standing around and saying nothing as they leer at you with their vacant eyes – a penny for their thoughts would be a waste of your spare change, even if you’d just been to the 99p store and had copper-plated disc spilling from your purse.

  1. Children’s Hospitals

Visiting a sick child in hospital is a generous use of your time. But when the Sun’s shining and the rest of the family are anxiously waiting for the child to get the all clear, so they can set off on their holiday to Ghana, the concern for these little people is amplified. Normally they’re missing out on school, so there’s silver-lining. But when they’re missing out on making memories, it hits home. So maybe in this case do go to a children’s hospital. At least you may cheer a kid up, instead of them just getting in your way.

  1. Summer Camps

I spent the last two summers teaching English at a summer camp. Numerous people lead summer camps across America. It’s a great way to meet people from around the world and exchange culture. You get paid to do adventure sports, go swimming and generally have a swell time. But all the while there are the children. You never switch off. If you are the chosen one, they’ll come knocking on your door at 3am with soiled pyjama pants. Is this how you want to spend your summer? Giving these whipper-snappers the time of their life? Who’s going to pour cordial for you? The sun will be back behind the clouds by the time that happens.

  1. Beach

The Beach Boys warned us, “won’t be long until summer time is through”. Yet do you want to spend that summer at the seaside where you could get caught in the crossfire of a sand boondie fight; buried under a mermaid-shaped sandcastle while you sleep; or mauled by a baby covered in melted soft-serve? Choose wisely. But make sure you get in when there’s a window of opportunity otherwise it will be, as The Beach Boys also warned, “Summer’s gone, summer’s gone away, gone away”.

  1. Theme Parks

Theme parks are super-fun. But two hours in a queue to ride Space Mountain (and that’s using the fastpass) seems like an excessive use of time that could be spent reading Calvin and Hobbes comics on the beach. Plus you’ll be stuck in a queue making small talk with the same person you’ve been travelling with for the past five days, while being surrounded by ten-year-olds who forgot to relieve themselves before joining the line. If you’d visited the park during a school day you’d have had the place to yourself and probably be sitting in Sleeping Beauty’s castle by now, sipping bottles of Gurgleurp with Donald Duck.

  1. McDonalds

Further to Lano and Woodley’s previous lyrics, their song ‘Shoppin’ Town’ also insists, “We went to Maccas, and all went spaccas, chucked our pickles on the wall, and Peter MacNeil laughed so much he spewed”.

Alternatively you’ll be subjected to the gluttonous behaviour of Japanese teenagers having “potato parties”.

Perhaps even worse, the far corner of the restaurant will be occupied by thirty or more five-year-olds being catered to by a “fully trained party entertainer” as an over-indulged boy named Anthony enjoys his McDonalds’ birthday party.

As the ominous smell of rehydrated fried eggs enters your nasal passage, you’ll be reminded of all the great summers you spent as a kid eating fast food, hanging around in shopping centres, riding rollercoasters, body boarding down the beach, rollerblading in parks, getting stuck in trees, excitedly watching the city skyline from the bus window, caring for your friends, and building cubby houses from furniture. You didn’t notice the crowds back then. Maybe it’s time to get back to having, “fun, fun, fun, in the Sun, Sun, Sun”.