Kid #31 – The Tea Party

The thirty-first child I hated, regurgitated a half-eaten biscuit into the hand of a London mayor.

Before you scour the dark web for articles about Sadiq or Boris receiving a handful of chewed cookie crumbs, it wasn’t the mayor of London. It was just a mayor of a borough in London. A borough that won’t be specified for fear of drawing too much attention to this post.

When we first received our invitation to afternoon tea, I was not even aware of the delinquent child who was to create this storm in…well…a tea cup. He was from the other Year 6 class and although we would have a number of showdowns later that year when he was placed in my Maths class, it was this late luncheon that would be the first and lasting impression of this baked goods guzzler.

We arrived promptly at the council chambers building, with our sixty students in toe. The initial ominous sign that this afternoon tea wouldn’t end well was the elevator which would fit no more than ten children at a time.

After several trips up and down to the umpteenth floor of the building, we were then ushered down a long corridor by a man who appeared to act like the mayor’s butler. However, he was probably just an overpaid civil servant employed to serve ratepayer-funded juice and nibbles to overfed pre-teens.

Unfortunately for the butler, he had a more theatrical manner than our eleven-year old students could handle. They mistook his enthusiasm as a signal to have a free-for-all. So when he pushed the two doors to the dining room open in the fashion Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast presented dinner to Belle, the children stampeded him as they clambered over each other attempting to sit by their best mate.

Underwhelmingly there were no dancing candelabras, spinning plates or champagne towers. In fact, there weren’t even any teapots, which was probably best as these juveniles needed no caffeine. There were however some large platters of digestives, cheese biscuits and apple segments. Also, each child had been presented with a polystyrene cup filled with orange juice. A handful of children struggled with the concept of waiting for the mayor’s arrival and began knocking back their beverage.

Finally, the mayor arrived. She was a kindly old lady, who probably was hoping the students to have stepped off a steam train in a lovely Edwardian children’s novel. Nay, she was soon to realise they were more reminiscent of something scraped off the floor out the back of a Victorian slum.

In an unsuspecting dodder, she asked her butler to take half the children to the artefact room. I accompanied this group. It was here the students were able to be unappreciative of a variety of items with historical significance. Least of all, the butler allowed each of them to hold a sword. He later complained to the mayor about the children’s behaviour with the sword – a complaint, which I felt was somewhat ironic considering he’d witnessed them struggling with disposable drinkware, let alone a large carving implement.

Upon our return to the dining room, the students were re-seated and commenced their afternoon tea, while her worship the mayor pottered around forcing small talk upon illiterate mutes entrusted to our care.

It was at this moment that I witnessed the child who is the ire of this blog entry.

There sat Fatty-boombalatty stuffing his face at the end of the round table in the far corner (I’m aware that ‘end of the round table’ is a contradiction in terms, but so is a fatty-boombalatty stuffing their face). Immersed in his own solo biscuit version of ‘fluffy bunnies’, he managed to negotiate a fourth digestive into the undigested contents of his face hole. Possibly from three parts horror, five parts embarrassment and two parts fear of recreating Mr Creosote’s ‘it’s only wafer thin’ moment, I bellowed across the room for this miscreant to “Stop!”.

Unfortunately, the child took this in its most literal sense and stopped at the point where his masticating bottom jaw was at a sixty-degree angle to the top of his mouth and the half-eaten biscuits proceeded to tumble out in a mushy sludge onto the well-intentioned yet mistakenly-chosen white table cloth.

As is the case when shocking displays of poor manners are witnessed by a large group of people, a momentary gasp of silence descended upon the room.

Snapping out of her dodder, the mayor said to the boy, “here give me that”. If she thought he was going to use a napkin to collect up the chewed remnants of afternoon tea, she clearly hadn’t been paying attention to the preceding defiance of basic table etiquette. The boy collected up the brown sludge and placed it directly in the mayor’s un-gloved hand.

“Get out now,” I yelled. “Go clean your hands and apologise!” (at the child, not the mayor).

I pointed to where I thought the bathroom was. The boy sheepishly slunk across the room. It turned out I’d directed him into the kitchen, where the McVities in question had been prepared. The council ‘chef’ ushered him back out.

“I’ll take him,” sighed the mayor, presumably assuming this fell under her duty as host (her butler was engaged showing the other group the sword). She passed the reconstituted biscuit sludge towards me. I quickly scrambled about and collected it in a serviette, not falling for the trap she’d fallen into.

Slumping into a nearby chair, I pondered whether any of this could have been dealt with better. Biting into a stale cracker I decided Wallace was wrong when he once said, “No crackers, Gromit. We’ve forgotten the crackers”. Wallace should have left the crackers in the pantry, as should have I.

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.

It Follows – Film Review

The wonderful thing about It Follows, is the realism for the non-supernatural elements of the film. It is free of the melodramatic over-acting present in many of its predecessors such as I know what you did last summer or Scream.

In fact the opening scenes involving Jay (Maika Monroe) appear to be reminiscent of most independent features about small American towns.

A group of youths, spending their summers together hanging out playing board games, watching movies and swimming in an above-ground pool. The general comradery and jest is present when Jay exits the pool and shakes her wet hair over her sister while her friend lets out a fart. This is all happening while they sit on the couch reading e-books, eating Cheetos and watching Killers from Space.

Then, as with all good horror films, the picture-perfect slice of American pie begins crumbling around the central characters as ‘It’ begins to follow.

I have no intention of spoiling what ‘It’ is; you must see ‘It’ for yourself.

What must briefly be discussed is a sequence that happens during the calm before the storm.

Jay is swimming in her above ground swimming pool. It’s suburban America at its finest. The entire atmosphere is reminiscent of my Australian childhood summers spent playing shark attack games with my cousins in their above ground swimming pool. The difference here is there’s no tomfoolery. Just one lone person floating on her back.

Then all of a sudden you realise she’s being watched. Is it by some evil pervert, a monstrous beast or a masked serial killer? No, it’s a couple of ten year old boys – neither looking like children of the corn, but more like Tom Sayer and Huckleberry Finn.

In this case, it seems Tom and Huck have just discovered girls. But more importantly, I ask, where are their parents?

It Follows 2

Have they not had the birds and bees talk so these two kids hiding in the bushes can realise they’re batting out of their league. This young lady is almost twice their age, and she has a date lined up for the evening. Both those kids should be down the park batting with an actual baseball bat, instead of whatever batting it is they’re trying to do at this moment.

Plus it’s rude to stare. No manners at all.

Poor Jay realises the boys are there and tells them as much. She laughs them off. But she still feels the need to get out of her own swimming pool and head inside, just because these vernal voyeurs couldn’t keep their eye balls to themselves.

Peeping Tom and Huck have proven that objectification of women can start at a young age.

Perhaps I am not unlike these two lads, in that I’ve been watching this film gazing at the female form as she is terrorised by ‘It’ who follows.

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!’.

While We’re Young – Film Review

Ben Stiller’s character in While We’re Young has been having trouble with his wife Naomi Watts and finds himself on his best mate’s (Adam Horovitz) couch. He’s feeling a bit sheepish about this, having recently shafted his friend (who has a new baby), in preference for hanging out with indie kids Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried.

In a vulnerable moment, unfolding linen for the fold-out couch, Stiller declares to his host that he could have been jealous of his friend having a kid.

His friend responds with the following:

“You know before you have a kid everyone tells you it’s the best thing you’ll ever do. And as soon as you get the baby back from the hospital those same people are like ‘don’t worry it gets better’. Well, like, what the f*** was all that before?”

Indeed.

We are fed this idea from our older relatives, society, friends, Huggies commercials, films, wives and husbands. The idea that birthing a child into our home will be a life-changing experience. One that will wipe away the doubt about our self-worth during our twenties; conceal our worries about ageing in our thirties; or validate us that we weren’t too late in our forties. We always worry that we’re behind the eight ball and all our friends are already married and having kids. We forget people ten years older, even twenty years older are having the same feeling. It happens at different times for different people. Still, there’s this expectation that any concerns we had about our esteem before the baby will be washed clean, because there will be no time left for naval-gazing.

It will be ‘baby-time’ and the only thing that will matter is that little bundle of joy. It will become the soul-focus of our attentions. Nothing else will matter. Everyone will want a piece of baby, and there will no longer be pressure on our own successes or failures, because no one will be looking. They’ll just be drooling and gawking at baby, looking into baby’s big glossy blue eyes.

I’ve not got a baby, so I’m not sure how much of this is true or untrue. My ramblings above are mere conjecture. But I’m sure of one thing, and that’s Ben Stiller’s friend was right having a go at all the people saying ‘it’s the best thing you’ll ever do’. He’s right. That’s what people do.

They pressure you into situations they drowned in. They rose-tint glass everything, as much for their own sake as yours. They’ve blocked from their mind the memories of the twenty hour labor, sleepless nights, aching bodies and projectile vomited milk products. Sure now their life may have changed for the better and have direction, but Stiller’s mate is right. One glance at a urine sodden nappy sagging from your own infant’s crutch and their quite happy to remind you ‘it gets better’, while they inch towards the door to return to their own offspring who are can now hold a conversation and an Xbox controller simultaneously.

And what of the existential level of this trickery and life-altering occasion. Should childbirth being ‘the best thing’ be reason enough for putting a bun in the oven. What about all our own unresolved life dilemmas, misspent youth and broken dreams? Shouldn’t we solve, spend and repair some of these, respectively, before shelving them in the top drawer to make emotional space for a child? How can we push the next generation, to live life to the full, when we still feel incomplete? Or is that the answer? Perhaps it is a chicken before the egg scenario, where we’re destined to have children to complete our puzzle. It certainly makes sense in terms of sustaining the human race.

The film doesn’t answer these questions, but we certainly see Watts and Stiller grappling with their childfree lifestyle to find completion in other spaces and places. The situations unfolding in the film, certainly suggest there are times in our lives when a child would probably be better left out of the picture.

As a close friend once told me, “I can barely look after myself, how could I look after a child?”

I didn’t understand at the time, his fear of placing all his own insecurities on another human being. But having taught children now, I can see that there are certainly some states of mind that are more beneficial to the healthy development of a small person. And, I would suggest, some people would be better spent being more cautious like my friend.

Yet I’m also an old romantic (when I’m not being a cynic) and still believe, perhaps ignorantly, there is an innate and instinctual part of our human condition that is maternal or paternal. And so whether or not we are glad to have children or are glad to not have children, it will be the urge towards parenthood that leads us to these decisions. If it wasn’t there, we’d not make a decision either way.

While We’re Young explores all these dilemmas deftly. It follows the complexities of parenting and being childless, from both sides of the fence. It at times treats both states as self-satisfying, while at others points both out to be selfless. It’s a trundle through the lives of baby boomers, generation x and generation y. Each generation self-reflecting their obsessions through different mediums of traditional documentary, social media and then viral video. The older generations turning their nose up at the new; a ‘documentarian’ is more credible than a ‘YouTuber’. But then again maybe not. But then again probably yes. The subplot becomes the main plot. Was this film about babies and youth? Or was it about narcissism and self-worth? I’m confused. You’re confused reading this.

The film appears a jumble of ideas at times, trying to intertwine all these things, raising as many questions as it answers. But all the while we see ourselves in it. These are the decisions we can’t make and the paths we can’t take without consequence While We’re Young.

 

 

 

The Falling – Film Review

Set in an all-girls school in the late 1960s, The Falling is a teacher’s worst nightmare.

In short one of the girls Abbie (Florence Pugh) becomes pregnant; then as if that’s not bad enough she dies before giving birth; and then if both those things aren’t bad enough the majority of the student population begin having fainting spells.

The wondrous element of this film is guessing whether the fainting spells are being caused by a higher magical power that may have killed Abbie, or whether it is a case of mass hysteria. Conversely, there may have been a gas leak in the main cafeteria.

It’s hard enough managing a class of thirty students at the best of times. But when the mob-mentality starts and students beginning mimicking the ‘class fool’, it becomes very difficult to contain. The closest I’ve come to mass hysteria is when a child asks to go to the toilet and then ten other children also want to go. You suspect they’re just avoiding their work and causing trouble, but you can’t take the risk of having twenty or so ten-year-olds sympathetically pooping their pants because you were sceptical it was a run-of-the-mill case of mass hysteria.

Likewise stern-faced head teacher Miss Alvaro (Monica Dollan) is loath to admit there may be something wrong with schoolgirl Lydia (Maisie Williams) and her entourage of fainting peers. But she’s already got one corpse on her hands and can’t risk having a procession of neatly dressed private school girls being wheeled through the doors of the town morgue for inspection. Instead she does the sensible thing, involving the medical experts and … the rest you’ll have to watch for yourself, as I’ve already said too much.

And while mass hysteria in school children may draw the ire of suspicious people, like myself and the fictional Miss Alvaro, real-life occurrences caused by real-life traumas have unravelled as recently as October 2011, when an outbreak of symptoms, similar to Tourette’s Syndrome, appeared in a number of teenage girls in the town of LeRoy, New York.

Again there were those who thought it was a bunch of attention-seeking teenagers making a secret pact to outwit adults, while others were seriously concerned for the girls’ well-being and had them sectioned off so a remedy could be found. The unfolding of events are documented in the television documentary The Town That Caught Tourrette’s.

So while I won’t be showing The Falling or any other footage concerning mass hysteria to my students, for fear of a revolution; I highly recommend the adult population begin making their way en masse to their DVD player or VOD service to watch an amazing film showing the vulnerabilities and pressures of youth. Just don’t pass out halfway through, or you’ll miss the good bits – Is it really mass hysteria or is it something more sinister?

 

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.