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.

Kid #6 – The best use for contraband paper planes

The sixth kid I hated had migrated from Wales to the Australian desert. He had a penchant for being annoying; making paper aeroplanes; and being a smart aleck who had no friends.

When you first travel to a remote desert town in Australia, there is a realisation that however much expense and time you spent to get there, the same amount is also required to leave the place. The heat, the flies and the loneliness smack you across the face often leading the toughest of men and women to enter the foetal position and start bawling. At first you want to leave, but you know you must stay if only because you would have wasted all that effort getting there in the first place. Those who stay for a lifetime are remarkable people. The rest of us come and go for a few years at a time then return to the big cities.

Coming from one of the Australian capital cities to a desert town is hard enough. So arriving in the desert from another country on the opposite side of the world must be near fatal.

The same must be true for children. Except in addition to everything else, none of this was their decision. The young child residing in my Year Eight English class told me he’d been torn away from his friends back home, without consultation and that this was making him very upset. This may have been true, but was no excuse for his inane attention seeking, swearing and general rough housing with the other boys and girls. He was also putting the sop story on pretty thick for someone who acted like the Big Cheese.

He looked like trouble when you saw him. His eyes smiled with malicious thoughts; you could see his nostrils flaring slightly ready to snarl; and the side of his top lip twitched upward to display his nonchalance towards institutionalised education. He was a weedy kid with a weedy attitude to match. His acts of rebellion were an endless source of amusement for the other children in class, however no one wanted to be his friend, because he was unpredictable and would usually drag everyone down around him if he got caught out over a misdemeanour.

There was no one incident with this child that stands out as the cause of my hatred for him. He was mostly just an ongoing annoyance to myself and most of the other staff. So one particular day I finally snapped. He and his enemies were flying paper planes around the room. It was amateur hour in terms of the handicraft and the scene looked like something out a 1980’s high school sitcom. I added the final paper aeroplane to the pile on my desk and without explanation told the class to line up at the door. We then proceeded to the courtyard, where due to the frosted window panes, no other staff member or student would be able to see what was about to unfold.

I lined the students along one wall, with my Year 8 fooligan on the other. I then distributed one paper aeroplane to each child (29 planes in total. I am very patient when I want to be. And had waited to collect the exact amount). The origami firing squad were poised to attack when one student pointed out, “What happens if one goes in his eye?”. It was a valid point so I took an empty box, from by the photocopier, and placed it on the boy’s head.

“Fire”.

There’s nothing more satisfying than the war-cry of children gaining sweet revenge in a punishment that fits the crime. The paper aircrafts glided through the air hitting every part of the victim’s body and creating no damage at all. They didn’t even damage his ego – although I had suspected this would be the case all along. He was a resilient child in that regard. I wouldn’t have unleashed an attack if I didn’t think he could take the hit.

The class reconvened and all A4 papers remained in their original flat form from thence forth.

However word of the events on the battlefield leaked out to the Year 9 and 10 English classes, who were soon requesting their own airborne conflict. I denied any knowledge of the previous raid, but learnt a very valuable lesson that day. When a child’s behaviour escalates, you are welcome to escalate the situation further yourself by turning the class against him, but inevitably the scoundrel wins because they have access to a larger artillery.

I ultimately came to a disciplinary deadlock with this child where both of us could see the funnier side of things, but if we ever met again I doubt I would fold paper cranes with him.