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.

Jurassic World – Film Review

The two main child protagonists of Jurassic World feel as though they are torn straight from the screenplay of an early 90’s family film. Subjected to the whims of their work obsessed divorcing parents, they are suffering from emotional neglect. But as an audience, we are not here to see pre-pubescent angst surrounding divorce, otherwise we’d have rented a copy of Mrs Doubtfire or Miracle on 34th Street. Surely this is the new millennium and we’re here to watch blended families, accepting them for who they are.

Additionally, we came here for dinosaurs.

Certainly Jurassic World delivers an array of prehistoric bipedal creatures creating carnage across the island jungle. One only wishes that they would tear the heads of the whiney wannabees from their shoulders. The two boys have the chance of a lifetime to experience firsthand the wonders of the Jurassic Age, and all they do is moan the whole time that their CEO aunt (charged with running the Jurassic World theme park) isn’t spending enough time with them. And if they’re not letting off steam about their absent aunty, they’re flapping on about how herds of velociraptor are about to rip them limb from limb.

For goodness sake, the velociraptors have bigger things to worry about, such as being hunted down by the Indominus Rex. In regards to their aunt’s perpetual workload, I don’t know what they expected. She is charged with the world’s largest and most ambitious fictional theme park, and she hadn’t taken any annual leave to spend time with the boys. So, it is no wonder her plate’s too full to spend quality bonding time with her nephews. She barely has time to leave herself emotionally vulnerable enough to become Chris Pratt’s damsel in distress.

In a separate act of glaring plot flaws, the most ridiculous incident involving these youths occurs when the children stumble upon the abandoned atrium of the original Jurassic Park. Discovering an old rusty jeep, from the original park, they claim to know how to hotwire it because their grandfather had a 1992 model, and had shown them how the engine worked, before he sold it.

Now, if the car was from 1992, why couldn’t the car have belonged to their parents; instead of their grandparents? 1992 is only 23 years ago. Their parents could easily have purchased the car within the lifetime of the children. There is no need for the filmmakers to make anyone over the age of 27 feel like a fossil, just because we remember the release of the original Jurassic Park in 1993. Most people who were teenagers at the time of the first film, would barely have had time to have given birth to a child, let alone have two pre-teen bumbling fools such as the two in this movie.

Maybe it’s just that dinosaurs lived more than 60 million years ago, as to why 1994 feels relatively recent; or perhaps it has been a while since the first film was released and I’m older than I feel. Either way the state of the atrium where the jeep was found, was not reflective of the period for which it had been abandoned. And on a completely different point, I don’t think grandparents should be encouraging or educating their grandchildren on how to hotwire cars. It will only lead to theft.

Finally, in a world where lessons are rarely learnt (i.e. this is the fourth time some idiot has thought it would be safe to interact with genetically cloned/modified dinosaurs on an island), one lesson is made clear: if you spend too much time fighting with your ex-husband and working too hard to pay attention to your children, eventually everything will end in a blood soaked nightmare involving a Tyrannosaurus Rex and the deaths of numerous characters who are inconsequential to the plot.

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”.

Kid #20 – How a papercut can escalate

The twentieth kid I hated made me bleed.

It was only a paper cut, but it really hurt. Plus fast-moving sheets of A4 copier paper is about as high-stakes as my classrooms get. The worst part was my ego was crushed, because I yelped in pain as it happened, thus dissolving the stern facade I was trying to project to the class. Worse still, the child decided my agony was hysterical and proceeded to mercilessly laugh his way across the room to his stool, continuing to smirk and snigger for a further five minutes.

I’d witnessed nastiness from children before. Yet in terms of callousness this was up there. I’d been innocently standing at the entrance to the room, sent there by a job agency to work a day of supply teaching. I was handing out the worksheets as the students came in, courteously greeting them and guiding them to their chairs. The hyena, who snatched the Science revision from my hand tearing the skin inside my index finger, was just the beginning of a very bad day. It was a day worse than a Daniel Powter song.

It was an all-boys school in some western suburb of London – one that I’ve blotted from my mind, due to the trauma. The rest of the lads lumbered into the room, each snatching their own copy of the revision notes, luckily not severing any more of my fingers. I tried to resume my stern approach as I read out the register. The class was so preoccupied with their self-absorption they refused to engage with the process and I resorted to having someone, who looked half decent, to go through the register with me. This turned out to be a useless proposition, as the student happily marked all 30 names on the register as ‘present’ despite the absence of at least ten of them from the room.

Luckily each student had a notebook with their name on it. There were a bunch of unclaimed notebooks, so I assumed these belonged to the missing students and marked them absent accordingly.

On with the lesson. I’d been left a note by the teacher informing me to show a short documentary and then spend the remaining hour and a half of the lesson letting students revise for an exam. An hour and a half was going to be a very long time for these chumps. It’s a long time for the best of us to spend in one spot. I took a deep breath and began the watch.

The screening of the documentary lasted less than three minutes due to cries of “switch it off!”, “this is boring!” and “who’s David Attenborough?”. I switched it off and set the monkeys to work on their revision.

At first they mostly got about talking to each other and avoiding any form of work. They were calm though, so I gave them the benefit of the doubt. However, twenty minutes into the sit-in, the same child who’d injured my finger began to get fidgety. He was sitting at the back of the room and I could see him begin to rock from side to side.

“Please sit still.”

“I can’t sir, it’s the stool.”

“Well let me have a look,” I said and walked towards him.

“Oh no no. It’s fine. It’s fine.”

I backed off, knowing full well that naughty boys wobble stools and not the other way round.  Every couple of minutes there’d be another creak from the back of the room.

“Please stop,” I asked again politely.

After a solid ten minutes of this stool wobbling an almighty crash came from the back of the room. Giggling and more hysteria erupted from the boys. I collected the planks of wood from what remained of the stool and placed them on the teacher’s desk.

All of a sudden the students’ tone changed. They quizzed me on what I’d do with the pieces of the stool.

“I haven’t decided yet,” was my response.

Uncertainty is sometimes the best weapon for keeping kids on their toes. If they don’t know what you’re capable of, they won’t realise how little you are actually capable of. Mostly I intended to sit quietly pondering who had the hair-brained idea of installing cheap pine furniture in a school classroom instead of sturdy welded-iron framed bottom rests.

The serenity of the student’s fear was soon disrupted again.

“It’s hot in here, sir,” gasped a melodramatic pupil. “Can I please open the window?”

Before I could decide whether or not this was a sensible decision, the paper-cutting stool-breaking offender leapt from his new seat and lurched towards the back door of the classroom.

“I’ll open the door!” he shouted.

Now, why architects and builders construct Science classrooms with two doors is beyond me. It’s probably something to do with being able to escape when something explodes. Instead it tends to act as an escape for when a student’s mind implodes from their own stupidity. They may as well replace the ‘exit’ signs above the doors with the word ‘freedom’.

Thus a game of ‘cat and mouse’ began with students at one end of the room trying to distract me while their comrades escaped from whichever alternate exit was furthest from me. After less than five minutes of this nonsense, I sent for the classroom keys and locked the back door. Fortunately, the kid I hated was outside at this point, so I was given a fifteen minute break as he slowly navigated his way around the perimeter of the school yard before entering back through the main door of the classroom.

In regards to the fire safety, well it was too bad if anything ignited. Although since it was not a practical science lesson the odds of this occurring were low. The most likely thing to set fire to anything was the data projector, but I’d turned that off when the documentary proved to be a failed teaching technique.

Settling back into my chair to keep watch I hear an anti-Semitic comment thrown across the room. This is countered by an Islamophobic remark from the opposite side of the class. All of a sudden my classroom has become the Gaza strip. Here was a bunch of teenagers mimicking the violence, they’d seen on the news, both in Palestine and in their own city. Judging by the character of the pupils, some of them may well have had older siblings or relatives involved in some sort of gang culture. I did not want to know. I’m a patient person, but this sort of crazed anger and extreme hatred is what was causing the real-world wars. I’m not employed as a government diplomat. I’m employed as a teacher and at a stretch a vicarious student counsellor. I decided to bring in the big guns and sent for the deputy head teacher.

The deputy came into the room. “Stop fooling around for your teacher. We pay good money for these teachers to come in and teach when your normal teachers are away. For every teacher that comes we pay …” and then he mentioned a figure for a daily rate, which was twice what I was being paid. So either he was lying to shock the children into submission, or I was getting a raw deal from my job agent skimming a large commission off the top. Not only did I want to get home, but according to this deputy I was being ripped off as well. I never bothered following up the salary issue. I didn’t care to know.

“You can all have half an hour detention after school,” he said.

Then he turned to me. “Will you be ok to supervise that?” he asked.

Great, I thought. I’m being short changed already and now I need to spend an extra 30 minutes keeping an eye on these nuisances.

Finally the lesson came to an end, and was then followed by two more equally traumatic sessions with a year seven and then a year eight class. Plus of course the bonus detention at the end of it all. A horrible day bookended by horrible people.

As I left the school that afternoon, and was getting my timesheet signed, the deputy principal signing my form asked how my day had been. I responded honestly.

“They were a bit of a handful,” I said. “Not much work was done and they weren’t very polite”.

“I know,” he said. “It would be great if you could come back again though. They don’t really get a consistent set of teachers here. A lot of the relief/supply staff don’t come back.”

I wonder why, I thought to myself.

“Well, I’ll have a think about it,” I said.

As soon as I was outside the school I rang the teaching agency, who’d deployed me there, and said I’d rather not attend work at that school again. They sounded unsurprised and said that would be fine. It was the only time I ever refused to go back to a school.

And if I ever was to again meet the child who damaged my finger joint, I doubt I’d resist the temptation to sever the dermis of his inner hand with a nice sharp-edged piece of cardboard.

The DUFF – Film Review

It feels like it could be a film from the late 90s. Surely every American (and for that matter non-American) teenager knows what a DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) is now days.

There are plenty of films they could make with more modern acronyms like BAE (before anyone else) – a teen friendship movie starring Maisie Williams, Shailene Woodley, Chloe Grace Moretz and a pair of used overalls; OTP (one true pairing) – a romantic comedy where Justin Bieber runs a zoo; TBT (throwback Thursday) – a body swap movie with Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton, where no one notices the difference; or YOLO (you only live once) – a road trip where Jennifer Love Hewitt and Molly Ringwald travel the world doing extreme sports.

The DUFF feels like a massive attempt to modernise Mean Girls. It ends up being a mere template of the teen movie genre with all the usual archetypes including Ken Jeong as the mild mannered mentor, a bunch of stick thin young models as the school bullies and chiselled-jawed Robbie Amell as the school jock – despite the opening narration stating “for generations of high-schoolers you could only be a jock, a geek, a princess, a bully or a basket-case; but times have changed”. Apparently the producers didn’t get their own memo.

The only markers suggesting it is any different from older teen movies is the heavy handed use of handheld mobile devices, social media and Duckface – a phrase Allison Janney uses in this film, proving she is the most hip character in a film that already looks dated.

Mae Whitman (a wonderful comedic actress from Arrested Development, Scott Pilgrim Vs the World and television series Parenthood) stars in the title role of designated ugly fat friend. Not since America Ferrera was cast as Ugly Betty, has such an attractive young starlet been dressed in ill-fitting clothes and deemed to be not only fat and ugly, but completely devoid of social skills (oh, and of course the only asset is they are highly intelligent, because there’s a direct correlation between deformity and intellect).

Where are the real ugly fat people? The people whose self-esteem is left in tatters after twelve years of institutionalised education. The victims of school bullying who are haunted throughout their adult life by their childhood persecution. The people so fat their school uniform needs to be altered. The people whose stomach is continually spilling over their trouser bottoms. The person with a lazy eye. The people who have panic attacks talking to the opposite sex and never end up kissing anyone, let alone the school pin-up. The people who cry themselves to sleep. The person whose hair is full of split-ends. The people who come last in everything. The invisible people. Where are they? Why aren’t they the protagonists in these films?

If you want a film full of neat happy endings with a romanticised moral message about cyber-bullying then this is your film. It certainly has its moments and the highly predictable plot makes for good veg-out viewing, with a heart-felt message about being yourself. However, if you want the real fall-out of teenage years watch the documentary American Teen.

Kid #19 – Dealing with broken dreams

The nineteenth kid I hated had aspirations of becoming the next Steven Spielberg by sulking.

I was teaching in a sixth form college in South London, covering some media classes. Some of the students were excellent in their production skills. Others were killing time. Their interest in cinema generally did not extend to the silver screen, but dwelt somewhere between Misfits and a Twisties commercial.

The kid I hated would arrive to class late, put his feet up on the furniture, answer his phone in the middle of class, talk to his friend as soon as you tried to tell the class something and for the most part had an expression so sour you’d have assumed he’d eaten a mouthful of turned raspberries. However, unlike his apathetic counter parts he did want to make films. This was part of the problem. He spent the majority of his time away from the classroom constructing ideas and hair-brained schemes for re-imagining the special effects and Shakespearean acting he had seen in Marvel superhero films (an obsession directly caused by the course’s subject material, which included the film Spiderman 2).

Sometimes when you have a sulking teenager, you begin to think it’s something you’ve done that caused the sulking. Every time I asked for the kid’s attention he appeared to become more sullen. The mere presence of me seemed to weigh down upon him like a lead trumpet.

I soon came to realise these feelings were just my own paranoia.

I spotted him in the corridor and down by the bus stop a few times. He was equally depressive then, which made me realise he was in a perpetual state of affliction. Seemingly the world had dealt him an unfair hand and if he didn’t spar against the global population of the planet singlehandedly, he’d never become the filmmaking legend he wished to be. He was a more angst-ridden version of Dawson from Dawson’s Creek, but without the girlfriends.

Then when I finally saw his finished products, I was more than underwhelmed. One featured an escaped serial killer, who looked more like a well-shaven hipster sporting a felt-tip drawn scar under his left eye. The mise en scène was less film noir and more like the cinematographer forgot to turn the light on.

Considering schools these days are normally working with equipment one hundred times better than what I used in my final year of university (less than ten years ago), it’s disappointing when you see something that looks like it’s been recorded by an ancient relative on a handy-cam in the mid-eighties. What this student produced couldn’t even be passed off as an avant-garde David Lynch recording.

These types of students are why it’s difficult for me to teach media. I don’t profess to be any sort of Stanley Kubrick myself. So it’s not particularly the incompetence that bothers me. After all it’s my job to educate and fill the gaps in learning. But the apathy and slapdash construction of the student cinematic ‘farse’terpieces is sometimes so frustrating I want to wrench them from the editing suite shouting, “Just let me do it!”. This in itself is a bad approach, which is why for the most part I’ve decided it best to avoid teaching media classes for now. And for the pupils producing perfect moving pictures, I tend to become jealous of their potential and end off wallowing in my own self-pity regarding my broken dreams of cinematic success. So my decision to steer clear of such classes remains.

So although my former media student may have snapped out of his pubescent mood, if we met again in Hollywood I doubt I’d fork out the cash to watch his productions at the cinema; I’d wait for their DVD release – and then borrow a copy for free from the public library.