I see you’ve played ‘Knifey Spooney’ before

Last week I found myself covering a nursery class and being asked to cut their lunch up. These children would have been between two to four years of age. There was a range of fine motor skills on show, with the more dextrous students neatly piercing the fork tines into their roast chicken and gently slicing through the cooked flesh with their oxymoronic safety knives. In the middle ground there were: those who held their implements like pens, those with the knife and fork interchanging between hands, and those using a spoon as a knife.

The remaining students – let’s call them the ‘Remedial Diners’ Club’ – were salivating into their plates knowing enough table etiquette to restrain from using fingers, but too dyspraxic to fasten a grip on their cutlery to succeed in the daily task of eating lunch.

So it was, I found myself circumnavigating the dining hall performing dissections on not only roast chicken, but also potatoes, beans and various other legumes. Furiously, I muttered to myself about the disservice parents had done by not educating their children before they left the family dinner table. But then I looked up to find other adults were also cutting food for these youngsters, further compounding the problem. Not that it is often the responsibility of educators to branch out beyond the usual topics of numeracy and literacy, into realms of topics such as ‘how to eat food’; but it struck me that teaching the children what to do would save time in the long run. These children were not being equipped for the coming years of independent food consumption. I could see that students in Year One and Two were also being given the silver service treatment of pre-cut food. I half expected to see a staff member mimic how a mother bird feeds its young, chewing the canteen lunch and regurgitating it into the mouth of one of these infants.

As I stood there guiding another student’s hands into the correct holding position, I began questioning myself. When had I started to use cutlery? It was in the blurred years between living memory and those early years which are mere fragments of sights, sounds and smells of my early existence. Was my subconscious obsession with correct cutlery use a mere relic of my own particular upbringing? Was correct handling of a fork not valued in all households?

I decided to check with another friend, who I knew would happily lament the misuse of cutlery in modern society. They too were raised to eat dinner in the late 1980s, when corncob skewers held your corn, prawns were eaten with a cocktail fork and every meal was presented in a CorningWare Wildflower baking dish or casserole (look it up – you’ll recognise the flower pattern when you see it).

They too could not particularly recall the exact moment they started using cutlery correctly, so assumed it was somewhere around the age of three or four. They also highlighted a special pushing implement I had not heard of. Apparently it is called a ‘baby food pusher’, appearing to date back to at least the 1920s thus confirming my friend’s suspicion that they had an ‘old-fashioned’ upbringing.

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The pusher (see above) is used in place of a knife to teach children to push the food onto the back of their fork. That’s right! The back of the fork! Check Debrett’s Handbook of Modern Manners and you’ll discover even peas must be collected on your fork with mash potato. No shovelling allowed:

If using a knife and fork together, always keep the tines of the fork pointing downwards and push the food on to the fork. It may be necessary to use mashed potato to make peas stick to the fork but it is incorrect to turn the fork over and scoop.

Now, based on my haphazard research, the consensus seemed to be that by kindergarten age, children should be able to use cutlery. I checked with my six month old nephew, who has recently graduated from milk to solids. When I asked him whether he’d begun using cutlery his answer was incomprehensible. So, I checked with his parents who told me he was still reliant on other humans creating spoon simulations of locomotives and aircrafts to guide the food into his mouth. They also quoted a parenting book as saying that it was all ‘spoons and hands up to 12 months of age’.

This at least narrowed the field of cutlery handling to somewhere within the toddler wasteland of one to three years old. I checked in with an old work buddy who has spent many years of their professional life teaching children younger than five. They also confirmed they had “absolutely” started using cutlery by primary age. So, I knew there would be no complimentary carving of food in their classroom.

But then I checked in with an Indian friend who claimed they used their hands until they were five years old. Then they clarified it was probably three years old and offered to take me to dinner to prove it. I took them up on their offer, where we ate our curry using cutlery. Perhaps British values of cutlery-use have pressured conformity on those who have other plate-to-mouth methods. My Indian friend also pointed out how odd they found it when they first went to school and saw a girl using knife and fork to eat some roti.

Perhaps the children who were struggling with their cutlery in the dinner hall were not incompetent after all. Perhaps they were just unfamiliar and should be left to eat food the way they were used to at home; mopping up their pasta sauce with a chapatti, eating roast beef with chopsticks and peeling a banana with a runcible spoon.

Cutlery etiquette is all very confusing and leaves you in a hey diddle diddle. No wonder the dish forked off with the spoon.

Mary Poppins Returns – Film Review

It’s striking how Mary Poppins exists solely for the purpose of child-minding yet has no children of her own. In fact I find an immense pathos in her character. It was there in the first film and it is present in Mary Poppins Returns. There is a longing for more in her eyes.

Where school teachers, babysitters, au pairs and nanny’s metaphorically swoop in to educate and care for children, Mary Poppins does it literally, first with an umbrella and then more recently off the back of a kite. Then as quickly as she arrives, she disappears again. She only appears in sequences where she is dispensing advice, medicinal spoons of sugar or reprimands. She doesn’t appear to eat, consuming little more than the odd cup of tea. She doesn’t appear to leisurely read any books. She may not even sleep, as she’s too busy singing everyone else to sleep and we never see her retiring to her own bedroom. She plays directly into the preconception many children have of their daytime educators and carers that they live either in the broom cupboard or simply materialise at the times they are needed. A student of mine was once dumbfounded to have bumped into me at the local cinema, then asked why I wasn’t at school.

This is where I find the pathos. She seems to live solely for the children. She doesn’t appear to have her own family. She is the sad epitome of the teacher who is so invested in their students that it has been at the cost of all other facets of their life. Even when the opportunity of finding a companion presents in chimney sweep Bert, she is too preoccupied by her duty to be “practically perfect in every way”. By the time she flies in on the kite in Mary Poppins Returns Bert has presumably put down his brush and been hauled up in a depression-era nursing home. Mary, on the other hand, hasn’t aged a day. Any attempt by her to befriend Bert would be weird, though equally it would seem inappropriate for her to begin flirting with young lamp lighter Jack.

No. It seems Mary is destined to be an old maid. Far from being the banner waving champion of the suffragette movement as Mrs Banks was or the flyer distributing voice of the labour party as Jane Banks is, Mary Poppins is so preoccupied with perfection it verges on being a diagnosable case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. She is so flustered by things being out of place that it’s hard to imagine she’d cope with the imperfection of most human relationships.

So, I find myself wondering how much I am like her. I found myself in a great moment of empathy near the films end when she is handed a balloon by Angela Lansbury and declares “it’s time” then floats away. I know that feeling too well from leaving classes of children behind me. She knows her job is done but still appears saddened to return the children to their circumstances for better or worse. Those children are not hers. She has invested in them as though they were her own, but they are not hers. And where Mary Poppins gets to return to her lonely single bed apartment in the sky, many teachers and nannies probably return to their single bed apartment on the wrong side of town too exhausted from picking up the pieces of other people’s messes to tidy up their own mess. When Mary pauses a short moment before re-ascending, I couldn’t help but think this was a gut-wrenching moment for her. I couldn’t help but think the Banks’ life was a life she wished she had.

Is she forever destined to pick up the pieces of people’s own mismanaged attempts at child rearing? Will she be perpetually running her gloved finger along the infinitely dusty mantel of childhood emotional neglect? Shall she be shackled eternally to her talking parrot umbrella as sole confident and companion?

For all the singing and dancing, Mary Poppins epitomises the lonely path professional child minders must often tread, with one foot in the adult world and one in childhood. As Emily Blunt sings, we are perhaps left looking for ‘The Place Where the Lost Things Go’ in a vain attempt to recapture our own childhood while forgetting to live our adult life.

Kid #30 – Be Quiet and Sit Down!

The thirtieth kid I hated probably had undiagnosed ADHD.

After all, she was a girl and we’re continually being told now that lots of girls are on the autistic spectrum or have ADHD, they are just better at hiding their symptoms. Or perhaps, in this case, not so good at hiding symptoms.

She was the sort of child where all the children would sit neatly in their places on the carpet. All of them would sit in straight rows. All of them would have their legs crossed and arms placed safely in front of them.

This child would also sit still, at least until the teacher had glanced down at their watch only to look back up, just in time to see her squirming around on the carpet like she was trying to remove a tarantula from her hair.

Further, through some sort of warp in the time continuum she would seem to have appeared on the complete other side of the carpet space. It was very hard to explain – using physics – how she had managed to transport herself a good three metres past at least twenty other children, in the half-second it had taken for the watch-glancing to occur.

We tried a number of approaches: The usual specialty sitting cushions that have built-in barbs to hold the student in place, calming music to distract the student from using the muscles in their limbs, custom-made jackets where the sleeves fold around the back to join together with a buckle, and also a good old-fashioned set of safety reins. Basically, all the usual ethically-approved torture devices.

None of these seemed to achieve anything, so in lieu of a good spanking, we resorted to putting up with it.

Now the benefit of putting up with bad behaviour is that you don’t have to do anything and the child appears happier.

The downside of putting up with bad behaviour is everything else.

The behaviour becomes accepted as bad behaviour. In reality, it is probably some form of attention-seeking, due to another deficit in the child’s life. In this child’s case it was the lack of boundaries at home that was causing her to act out. Or rather the lack of love and boundaries.

When she was picked up from school, her father would be walking out of the gate before she had even caught up to him. No hugs and kisses. No “How was your day?”. At the end of the day she would simply point out her father to me. I would wave to him. He would wave back. Then as she walked over to him, he’d turn his back and start walking out the schoolyard. It was as though he was running an errand – and not an errand he seemed particularly bothered about.

The inverse would occur in the mornings when she would burst into the classroom, often knocking over a chair or tripping on a table leg, full of hyperactivity asking if there was any jobs to be done and how things were. It was guaranteed she would be one of the first students of the day to arrive. Clearly the parents were making the most of their access to free-government-funded babysitting. Or maybe they were just punctual people.

I almost found her early-morning enthusiasm endearing.

But as the terms spun on, my patience waned. Yes, she was given opportunity to express her personality freely. However, it becomes very draining giving so much emotional attention to the needs of an (undiagnosed) ADHD person. If it wasn’t providing her new strategies to conflict-resolve with her friends and enemies, the time would be spent concocting a long list of pretend jobs to keep her occupied.

Perhaps the long trail of chaos she left in her wake was nothing to be concerned about. Perhaps it was my own anal-retentiveness that found it difficult to allow her abrupt nature. Everything must be in its place including the little human beings I educate.

I’ve slowly become more patient at letting children express themselves through incessant babbling and constant movement around the classroom – at least for thirty seconds per day.

But if I ever met this kid again, I doubt I’d have self-restraint enough to avoid finding a more conclusive purpose for the spikey therapy cushion.

Girl Asleep – Film Review

If there’s anything more horrifying than a sweet sixteenth birthday party, it’s the horrifying thought of a forgettable fifteenth birthday party. So, it’s no surprise that Greta Driscoll would prefer to be a Girl Asleep when she enters the school corridor to find her mother has invited every single pubescent fool to her birthday party.

The thought of being fifteen again is so harrowing, that it’s easy to see why Molly Ringwall demanded that sixteenth candle be placed on her cake – just so she could move things right along.

Not in the case of protagonist Greta, whose mother is looking for her own excuse to dance, father is wanting to hang a cheesy birthday banner and sister is just wanting a party to invite her boyfriend to.

Set in the 1970s, Girl Asleep is a bizarre mix of the ocker humour of Muriel’s Wedding and the fantastical dark whimsy of Maurice Sendak’s picture book Where the Wild Things Are. It’s a film in two parts, in that it’s grounded in the banality of Australian suburban life (albeit an overblown surreal representation), while later transcending into a parallel world inhabited by mystical creatures.

It’s hard to pin down what makes this such an enjoyable film. Perhaps it is the familiarity in the nostalgic portrait of seventies’ Australia; Certainly there’s a disarming enthusiasm from Harrison Feldman’s performance (much like his character Oscar in Upper Middle Bogan) that makes it hard to look away. Most of all it is likely to be we’re empathising with young Greta’s quest to escape back into her innocence of youth, as many of us often try/want to do.

Kid #29 – Mommie Dearest

The twenty-ninth kid I hated had a name that sounded like an alcoholic beverage spelt backwards.

She was the real ‘Regina George’ of the playground. Nine years old and a real piece of work. It was scary enough encountering her as a teacher. I daren’t like to think how the other students in my class dealt with her hysteria.

Worse than the student herself, was her mother. The apple had not simply fallen close to the tree, but appeared to have been cloned.

My first encounter with the mother was as I brought the children into the playground on my first day of teaching that class, and had the pleasure of being sworn at, a walking stick waved in my face and a fair amount of shouting – not ‘raised voice’ but shouting. Apparently, another student was in tears because I’d told them to stand in line quietly. The child I was being accosted about, didn’t even belong to this raging lady.

Mostly due to shock, I can’t remember the rest of the encounter. But I most likely did my silent ignoring, head-shaking, frowning and general retreating-behaviour that happens when I’m faced with confrontation. There was no polite smiling and nodding. I let her be on her merry way, thinking to myself that if this was how she defended someone else’s child, I didn’t want to be in the crossfire when she defended her own daughter.

It turned out that crossfire could not come too soon. Her daughter would intimidate other students, steal their stationery, swear at them when no one was looking, pinch them, punch them and spread malicious lies. She was a class A ‘b’-word. However, she was equally cunning and could never be pinned for any wrong doing. She had become so expert at her subversive tirade on other students and her pathological lying that her coating of Teflon was beginning to form an entire suit of armour. Additionally, when her mother arrived to discuss any misgivings the school had about her daughter, she would begin ranting again, waving her pretend walking stick and inevitably leave a receptionist or manager in tears.

Now perhaps I empathised too much with Janis Ian and friends in Mean Girls, or perhaps I had been watching too many detective programs at the time (namely Wildside, which is an Australian series set in the gritty underbelly of Sydney’s suburbs and often sees rogue detective Tony Martin – the actor, not the comedian – slamming down his hand on interrogation tables); but I found myself making it my mission to catch this monster out.

The usual method was to accept any accusations the other children made. I’d take their side 99 per cent of the time to see if she’d crack. But she held tight, accepting no blame. This approach would lead to another complaint by the mother.

Sometimes I’d go with the more nurturing approach of sitting quietly and talking about the right thing to do, in an attempt, to check whether her conscience would kick in. It did not. Instead it further affirmed our suspicions of her sociopathic tendencies. Also, this approach would lead to another complaint by the mother.

And finally, the crème-del-a-crème was when beyond doubt she had caused another ruckus amongst her friends by gossip-mongering and – this is where my behaviour management style became a bit too much bad cop bad cop – I knelt down to be at eye-level and repeatedly asked “Did you call such-n-such a such-n-such?”

She didn’t crack.

The insistent repeating-of-the-question technique had worked in the televisual law enforcement programs when the detective was trying to get a confession from the ring leader of an international drug cartel. Why had it not cracked the nine-year-old?

And again, this approach led to another complaint by the mother and a meeting with the father, mother and daughter.

I would later find out that this pattern of complaint had repeated itself every year. Other staff would give me long lists of colleagues who had momentarily caught the ire, of these parents and their offspring, for months or a year at a time.

“Oh, you’re teaching that class,” they’d say. “Look out for that girl’s mother.”

“Oh, thanks for the heads-up,” I’d say. “It’s too late.”

It can’t quite be captured with words the level to which she and her mother terrorised the other staff and students. But the mere utterance of her name would normally trigger a fleeting spasm in the eyeball of whoever heard the name mentioned.

After that final meeting and a precarious understanding was met, the mother became almost polite, when collecting her child in the afternoons. The strained attempt at being decent was perhaps more unsettling than the reckless abuse she was more used to wielding. Nevertheless, all our careers felt less at risk of being destroyed on the whim of one of her outrageous accusations.

There was of course the complaint that I’d tried to strangle another student.

“Now, I know this wasn’t my daughter,” said the heinous mother, “but my daughter did see you pull on the backpack of another girl and almost choke her around the neck.”

More than likely that other girl had barged onto a bus, knocking over a senior citizen, and I’d reacted by loosely grabbing the top of her backpack as she continued to lunge forward self-inflicting her own asphyxiation.

Either way, I nodded politely, she made her complaint, I noticed she wasn’t using her walking stick anymore and then she wandered off into the distance for another day. At least now she was complaining about my mistreatment of other people’s children again, and not her own demonic offspring. We’d come full circle.

I headed back to the staffroom where we put our feet up on the desks, knocked back a strong cup of coffee, crossed another suspect off our watchlist and laughed heartily about how tough life on the beat was.

Or did that happen in an episode of The Bill? I can’t recall.

Kid #28 – The case of the stolen lippy

The twenty-eighth kid I hated held a grudge.

It was a very long grudge and gives proof to the adage that children have elephants’ memory – or so say I.  Well, at the least, they remember when they’ve been wronged, despite an inability to remember more academic tasks like how to spell; or how to add numbers.

The grudge this child held was due to the fact I’d confiscated her cherry coloured (and presumably flavoured) lip gloss. The girl wasn’t one of my student’s. I merely caught her smearing the stuff across her face as I descended the stairs to perform my weekly yard duty. I’d normally turn a blind eye to neutral lip gloss, as the crisp dry winters of England usually crack as many lips as a clumsy kitchenhand cracks saucers. But this ten-year-old trickster had no use for cherry colour or cherry flavour, unless of course she was about to seduce one of her peers or had low blood sugar, respectively – albeit in the case of low blood sugar it wouldn’t be medically recommended to eat a tub of emollients.

So it was, that I confiscated the afore mentioned cherry lip gloss and told her she could pick it up in the afternoon.

I had every intention of returning it. The problem was two weeks passed before the girl finally came to claim her lip gloss. As I opened the drawer, I had put it in two weeks before, I found nothing more than the usual collection of half chewed pens and confiscated gum. No lip gloss. It had been taken by an equally troublesome child; another mystery for another day.

“I’m terribly sorry,” I said, “but your lip gloss is no longer here.”

“Where have you put it?” she demanded.

“I put it in this drawer.”

“Well you owe me a new one,” she said.

She stormed off.

I felt a little bad that the lip gloss had been stolen, although I was hardly to know there was a high theft rate of beauty products from the stationary drawer. Probably some pre-teen, with a penchant for broken pencils, pilfered the possessions of the drawer and thought they had hit the jackpot.

Thinking nothing more of it I continued my day-to-day duties as an educator of young minds until one day our paths crossed again in the playground.

“That’s him,” exclaimed the girl to her friends. “he’s the one who stole my lip gloss”.

‘Stole?’ I thought to myself. We’re my lips particularly red and shiny? Did I look that well-presented, that I could have stolen her infantile lip enhancer? Had I been spotted picking cherries too frequently from the schoolyard cherry tree?

Presumably it was the latter. Either way this was to become an ongoing pattern.

On an intermittent basis the student would spot me in the playground and the same accusations would surface.

Months later, I was considering relenting to the harassment by replacing the lip gloss. Instead, another teacher friend had fortuitously made lip gloss with her Year 11 students at another school, during a chemistry lesson. She had some spare containers of lip gloss remaining from the lesson, so I happily took one and placed it in my top coat pocket to give to the belligerent child when our next encounter took place.

Of course, all things being even, when the girl next spotted me in the playground she had finally forgotten about the lip gloss; as did I until I next took my coat to the drycleaner and realised the entire contents of the container had melted into the fabric of my coat pocket.

So although the whole saga was probably of bigger concern to myself than to the student, if we met again in a school stairwell, I doubt I’d offer any of my own cherry flavoured lipsmacker.

 

Kid #27 – Avoiding work at all costs

The twenty seventh kid I hated was a chronic work avoider.

The first day I taught him, he returned after lunch break to tell me he’d lost something very important in the playground. He then began crying.

I asked him what he had lost.

“It’s my Grandad’s war medals,” he said.

I asked him why he’d brought something so important to school.

“I wanted to show my friends,” he responded. “My grandad gave them to me as he was dying and said I must look after them. But I can’t find them in my jacket. I need to check again.”

Medals, given to a young child by their dying grandparent, were certainly a very important thing to be taken seriously. It was my first day at the office, so I did not want to have war paraphernalia lost on my watch. I allowed the boy to check his bag and jacket.

He did it very slowly and very meticulously. He managed to string it out for the first ten minutes of the Maths lesson. I let this slide, because of the importance of what he was looking for.

He did not find them, but said he’d shown them to two other boys in the class. I asked the two other boys to help him look through their bags in case it was mixed up in their possessions (*slash* stolen). Another ten minutes of looking occurred, but no war medallions surfaced.

“Perhaps I left them in the playground,” said he, the child who enjoyed avoiding any semblance of work.

Perhaps, I thought to myself. I certainly didn’t want anyone else to find them in the playground, so I allowed him to be accompanied by another student to check on the benches and under trees in the yard. He returned fifteen minutes later empty handed.

“I’ll have a look in my desk again,” he said.

I allowed this as his final attempt, as the Maths lesson came to a close.

It was then time for art.

“I can’t find the medals anywhere,” said the boy. “I think I’ll look for them later. They’ll turn up.”

What was this? An hour earlier he’d been on the verge of emotional collapse at the thought of his family heirloom being lost. Now he was resolved they’d “turn up”. I smelt a rat, but kept it to myself.

He spent the art session ignoring the set task of drawing birds, instead choosing to sketch a Lamborghini 350 GT – another successful effort at work avoidance.

As we left the classroom for the end of the day, I made a big song and dance about hoping to find the lost medals. I could see the kid beginning to squirm. He insisted it would be fine and he’d look for them at a later date.

When his grandmother arrived to pick him up, I dropped the bombshell, knowing by now it was most likely a lie.

“I’m sorry, but the medals your grandson brought to school today seem to have gone missing,” I told her.

“What medals?”

“The war medal…”

I was interrupted. The boy looked me in the eye, “Sir, it was a joke!”

Aha. It was as I’d always suspected. I really hammed it up then.

“A joke!?” I spluttered. “I was really worried. I thought you’d lost something really important. Especially since you said they’d been given to you when your grandfather was on his deathbed.”

I emphasised the last part for the grandmother.

“My husband’s not dead, and he didn’t fight in a war,” she responded.

Then she looking to her grandson, “Say sorry to your teacher”.

He would be sorry. Playing on my emotions. For goodness sake, where did he even get such a contrived idea?

As the year went on, I would force him at near to gunpoint (of course not an actual gun, because it was not an American school), to finish his work. He’d come up with many reasons not to finish work, including the need to sharpen one pencil for half an hour, the loss of his exercise book (which he’d usually hidden behind the book corner cushions), or the ever present need to urinate.

At the age of eight he would go the extra mile and urinate his pants as a way of avoiding work. His parents claimed he had a weak bladder, but we were never given any medical evidence to suggest a weakness in his urethral sphincter.

Instead he would sit there with his wet pants, looking miserable, surrounded by the musty smell of excreted liquid. He knew eventually an adult would find him and discretely remove him from the room. He’d be given sympathy and attention for his accident, beyond the realms of any praise he may ever receive for his academic work. So in his mind wetting himself became a success.

Instead of the parents finding a solution for this (i.e. potty training him or seeing a proper doctor), they simply told us to send him to the bathroom more frequently and provided us with a spare pair of trousers. It was a sad, depressing and smelly situation.

The other art of avoidance he had mastered was telling confusing stories. He never got to the point. If he did get to the point, it was jumbled somewhere in the middle.

The speech therapist even set to work with exercises aimed at getting him to sequence events clearly on cards before he spoke about them out loud.

Seeing him at work with the speech therapist showed clearly there was evidently something amiss with his processing of normal thoughts. But equally there was a cunning behind the jumbled chronology in his storytelling. This came to my attention one sunny morning detention, when one of the older children in the school told me they had been speaking with my student.

“I’ve been teaching him how to avoid doing things,” declared the older child.

“Oh yes,” I said humouring him, even though he was supposed to be reading silently for detention. “And what, may I ask, have you told him he should be doing?”

“Well he needs to create a distraction. Something that doesn’t disrupt the rest of the students and is partly about the work, but doesn’t really help with what he’s supposed to be doing. Normally by telling a long story or giving a long explanation about something, he can distract the teacher and get out of doing the work. The teacher will become interested in what he’s saying and start talking to him about other things,” he paused, with a wry smile creeping across his face. “I’m doing it to you right now.”

Touché you idiot genius, I thought to myself. But I had knowingly humoured him, so in a sense I was still the winner.

“That explains a lot,” I said kindly. “Now sit down and be quiet for the rest of this detention!”

And so it was the medal losing, pant wetting, tale telling child continued to attempt playing me like a fiddle (but not fiddling with me for a play – as that would have been inappropriate).

He was probably just a lost soul looking for a little bit of tender loving care.

But if I ever met him again, I doubt I’d decorate him with a medallion.

Kid #25 – The Know-It-All

The twenty-fifth kid I hated was a know-it-all who heaved a big sigh, whenever someone didn’t know the answer to something.

For example a question, regarding seemingly simple mathematical equations, would be answered incorrectly by a student. Child number twenty-five would then respond with a deep sigh followed by a phrase such as: “It’s soooo obvious”; or “Everyone knows the answer is three”; or “That’s easy!”.

To which I would usually reply: “If it’s so obvious, why don’t I send you to university”; or “Clearly not everyone knew the answer otherwise idiot Joe over here would have responded correctly”; or “Go jump in a creek, you purulent child”.

Sure these were petulant reactions to a petulant child, but he was infuriating.

He would lean back on his chair causing his eyes to roll backwards in his head. We gave him the benefit of the doubt about the eye-rolling – he claimed it was a nervous tick. More likely it was induced by a case of misplaced arrogance from his overfed lower middle-class ego that had been fuelled by the sycophants who fuelled him further with Haribos so he’d not beat them up.

If it weren’t for his intimidating physique, booming sigh and pseudo-psychosomatic eye rolling, he’d have been just another mediocre nerd who had spent a few extra hours reading some pages of an Encyclopaedia to one-up his mates.

We’ve all had to withstand such buffoonery either as children, parents or teachers. The child who memorised some large, yet ultimately useless, calculation to impress; or the fool who attended a summer school learning Latin and then enjoyed espousing the importance of prefixes derived from ancient languages; or the young hoodlum who spent every other evening swim training, so thinks they’re the next Leisel Jones, because their mother said so.

Child number twenty-five was that kind of kid. The dark reality was his show-boating was an attempt to distract from the clear eating disorder he had. He was at least three times larger than the second most obese student in the class. His mother was not obese.

She would come to parent meetings lamenting how the child never listened to her, when her husband was working away. She complained her son seemed agitated and unfocussed. In lieu of a medical degree, it was still reasonably clear that most of these things could be traced back to his high daily intake of sugar (and this was before faux dieticians Sarah Wilson and Davina McCall were publishing sugar-free books).

This is not to solely blame the child’s poor attitude on his diet. That would be unfair. He was most likely a horrible person by nature. But his mother’s constant feeding did not help. She was a sympathetic feeder, giving him what he wanted, when he wanted it. Hell, if I lived with him on a permanent basis I’d probably done the same – not just giving him slices of cake, but force feeding him the entire triple-layered chocolate sponge, Boris Bogtrotter style.

There was one particular meeting where the mother really felt at the end of her tether. I was also at mine. But as I said to the class teaching assistant, “How do you tell a mother her child is fat, and that it’s her fault?”

The answer to that question is probably to be more direct. Instead, in my ever diplomatic style, I beat around the bush. I raised with her our concern that her son had been turning up to school with energy drinks in his bag. Politely I suggested the guarana and caffeine could be a root cause for his lack of focus and any hyperactivity. She said she hadn’t given the drinks to him. He must have stolen them.

Either way, that didn’t explain the Nutella sandwiches, bags of sweets or chocolate coated sultanas he’d often bring to school. The idea he’d stolen them is as bizarrely ignorant as saying a child watched porn without their parents knowing, or cranked up thousand dollar bills on in-app purchases, or got drunk off your vintage wine cellar while you were out picking daisies. Parents should throw the television out the window, disconnect the Wi-Fi and pour the alcohol down the drain respectively. Remove temptation.

Likewise if your offspring have a sweet tooth, then incinerate all sugar-based products within a one hundred metre radius of your home. Leave them to gnaw on what they hope to be a sugar-cane chair, only to find it’s made from bamboo. They’ll be eating salad sandwiches soon enough.

If I had my time again, I’d probably be more direct with the parent, or have done some better health education in class to steer the child in the right direction. If only I’d had access to That Sugar Film, back then, things may have been different.

I’m sure the young man is growing up to be a more tolerant and intelligent person who will hopefully come to his own conclusions about his diet. Our destiny is in our diet.

But if I ever met him again, I doubt I’d suggest popping down to the local ice creamery for a catch up.

The twenty-fifth kid I hated was a know-it-all who heaved a big sigh, whenever someone didn’t know the answer to something.

For example a question, regarding seemingly simple mathematical equations, would be answered incorrectly by a student. Child number twenty-five would then respond with a deep sigh followed by a phrase such as: “It’s soooo obvious”; or “Everyone knows the answer is three”; or “That’s easy!”.

To which I would usually reply: “If it’s so obvious, why don’t I send you to university”; or “Clearly not everyone knew the answer otherwise idiot Joe over here would have responded correctly”; or “Go jump in a creek, you purulent child”.

Sure these were petulant reactions to a petulant child, but he was infuriating.

He would lean back on his chair causing his eyes to roll backwards in his head. We gave him the benefit of the doubt about the eye-rolling – he claimed it was a nervous tick. More likely it was induced by a case of misplaced arrogance from his overfed lower middle-class ego that had been fuelled by the sycophants who fuelled him further with Haribos so he’d not beat them up.

If it weren’t for his intimidating physique, booming sigh and pseudo-psychosomatic eye rolling, he’d have been just another mediocre nerd who had spent a few extra hours reading some pages of an Encyclopaedia to one-up his mates.

We’ve all had to withstand such buffoonery either as children, parents or teachers. The child who memorised some large, yet ultimately useless, calculation to impress; or the fool who attended a summer school learning Latin and then enjoyed espousing the importance of prefixes derived from ancient languages; or the young hoodlum who spent every other evening swim training, so thinks they’re the next Leisel Jones, because their mother said so.

Child number twenty-five was that kind of kid. The dark reality was his show-boating was an attempt to distract from the clear eating disorder he had. He was at least three times larger than the second most obese student in the class. His mother was not obese.

She would come to parent meetings lamenting how the child never listened to her, when her husband was working away. She complained her son seemed agitated and unfocussed. In lieu of a medical degree, it was still reasonably clear that most of these things could be traced back to his high daily intake of sugar (and this was before faux dieticians Sarah Wilson and Davina McCall were publishing sugar-free books).

This is not to solely blame the child’s poor attitude on his diet. That would be unfair. He was most likely a horrible person by nature. But his mother’s constant feeding did not help. She was a sympathetic feeder, giving him what he wanted, when he wanted it. Hell, if I lived with him on a permanent basis I’d probably done the same – not just giving him slices of cake, but force feeding him the entire triple-layered chocolate sponge, Boris Bogtrotter style.

There was one particular meeting where the mother really felt at the end of her tether. I was also at mine. But as I said to the class teaching assistant, “How do you tell a mother her child is fat, and that it’s her fault?”

The answer to that question is probably to be more direct. Instead, in my ever diplomatic style, I beat around the bush. I raised with her our concern that her son had been turning up to school with energy drinks in his bag. Politely I suggested the guarana and caffeine could be a root cause for his lack of focus and any hyperactivity. She said she hadn’t given the drinks to him. He must have stolen them.

Either way, that didn’t explain the Nutella sandwiches, bags of sweets or chocolate coated sultanas he’d often bring to school. The idea he’d stolen them is as bizarrely ignorant as saying a child watched porn without their parents knowing, or cranked up thousand dollar bills on in-app purchases, or got drunk off your vintage wine cellar while you were out picking daisies. Parents should throw the television out the window, disconnect the Wi-Fi and pour the alcohol down the drain respectively. Remove temptation.

Likewise if your offspring have a sweet tooth, then incinerate all sugar-based products within a one hundred metre radius of your home. Leave them to gnaw on what they hope to be a sugar-cane chair, only to find it’s made from bamboo. They’ll be eating salad sandwiches soon enough.

If I had my time again, I’d probably be more direct with the parent, or have done some better health education in class to steer the child in the right direction. If only I’d had access to That Sugar Film, back then, things may have been different.

I’m sure the young man is growing up to be a more tolerant and intelligent person who will hopefully come to his own conclusions about his diet. Our destiny is in our diet.

But if I ever met him again, I doubt I’d suggest popping down to the local ice creamery for a catch up.

Kid #22 – The naughtiest child ever

The twenty second-kid I hated was the worst child I’d ever taught.

Or at least that’s what I told him, or rather death-whispered it in his ear as I dismissed him.

It probably wasn’t even true. I’d taught worse (Kid number two, for instance was a lot worse).

Kid number 22 was a very naughty boy. I only taught him for one day, but his behaviour stood out as so delinquent there was little left to do than give him a piece of my mind. He was a product of his home, yet also the school he attended.

When I arrived in the morning to cover his Year Three class, I was told by the deputy, “Don’t worry too much about getting anything done. Just baby-sit them for the day and their normal teacher will be able to sort anything out tomorrow”.

This was an ominous sign. I felt an urge to excuse myself and return to bed, sacrificing that day’s pay. Instead, I went against my better judgement and began setting up the classroom.

As the morning bell rang the cacophonous stampede of size 7-12 leather Clarks could be heard galloping up the stairwell and spilling into the upstairs corridor. I braced myself against the door-jam of the classroom, ready to politely (but firmly) greet each child.

Then the whooping started.

“Yes, it’s a supply teacher!”; “Awesome, Mrs Smithsworthy isn’t in today!”; “We’re not going to do any work today!”

How did these kids even know what a ‘supply teacher’ is? Most kids under the age of 13 are too self-consumed to see past their left elbow. They’re caught up in their own little world. Sometimes, I’d be halfway through a day’s work, before certain kids would realise I wasn’t their normal teacher.

Perhaps the deputy had spoken with them in the playground and told them the same thing he told me.

And there was kid number 22. His face was permanently scarred with a mischievous slash psychopathic grin, ready to cause chaos; a delinquent at the age of seven. He had one of those haircuts where everything is shaved short except for the mullet fringe at the back. Not that a haircut is reason to judge what a personality will be like, but sometimes a personality is a reason to judge what a haircut will be like.

The child was full of expletives, immediately escalating himself to a morning break detention. The rest of the class wasn’t far behind, paying such little attention to the lesson that I had to drop Maths for the day to spend time going through the ‘Golden Rules’ chart on the pin-up board.

It was at this point I became more infuriated. It seemed the children had a comprehensive knowledge of what the classroom expectations were, but had consciously chosen to flaunt them. Normally, I find younger children have misunderstandings of appropriate behaviour, whereas teenagers know the limits and choose to exceed them.

This Year Three class were acting like teenagers. They knew I was a cover teacher so had chosen to throw the ‘Golden Rules’ out the window along with a couple of pencils and one boy’s exercise book.

I’d not seen such collective self-awareness in young children for a long time, if ever. We finished re-vising the rules and how to behave normally, before ascending to the third floor of the building for a music lesson. The music specialist took this lesson, so I returned to the sanctuary of the now peaceful classroom.

A senior staff member popped her head in to see how things were going. I lied and said it was fine, hoping to myself that the time continuum would collapse on itself and it’d suddenly become 3.30pm.

She also asked where the teaching assistant was. I said I had seen a lady in the room earlier in the day. But she hadn’t said much.

The teaching assistant who was supposed to have been with these naughty children had seemingly gone AWOL. She too must have been told by the deputy that the day would be a right off; and I imagine she retreated to the photocopying room to regain whatever sanity she had lost dealing with these kids over the preceding months.

The peace was short-lived as four boys returned to the room prematurely. The twenty-second kid had been incessantly banging his drum, after being told to stop by the music teacher. His goons had joined in the fun by laughing evil laughs and egging him on.

Now they were my problem again. I made them write lines, which due to their illiteracy became one single line i.e. one line between the four of them.

Lunch came and went. The afternoon was marred by the Maths lesson we hadn’t completed in the morning and the kid, I had come to hate, threw his toys out the pram when I asked him to count to ten with some number blocks. The blocks were tossed from the metaphoric pram to the corner of the room, while he was guided to the opposite corner to sit in ‘time-out’.

This of course was short lived, because the sugar from the Walkers cheese and onion chips he’d eaten at lunch had clearly kicked in and caused him to have another burst of adrenaline. He began literally bouncing off walls and running into things.

It is children like this that make a good case for bringing back the dunce hat. Then at least there’d be something to weigh the child down with, so they’d find it harder to leave ‘time-out’.

The day finally ended and I escorted the children to the playground for pickup. Though, it was more like they escorted themselves out, as we had all had more than enough by then.

The naughty child was now hitting another child or sibling.

Then suddenly he spotted his parents walking in with his kick scooter.

So before he ran off to them, I bent down and whispered in his ear, “You are the worst [dramatic pause] child I have ever taught. And if I teach here again, I hope you improve your behaviour young man”.

I never did teach there again thank goodness, and the kid simply rode off into the distance, running over a little girl’s toe in the process.

Maybe the boy had a condition. Maybe I was harsh to whisper in his ear just to satisfy myself I’d gained some juvenile revenge. Really, someone within the school should have started addressing the breadth of misbehaviour. There was no need for that much naughtiness.

For me it was another day another dollar. And I never returned.

Perhaps things are better there now and the boy has been diagnosed with some form of deficit disorder.

But if I ever met him again, I doubt I’d join him on the halfpipe with my scooter.

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.