Kid #32 – Guitar Virtuoso

The thirty-second kid I hated thought he could play the guitar.

Thought he was a real-life juvenile Jimi Hendrix, a snotty-nosed Slava Grigoryan, a tiny Tommy Emmanuel.

‘Thought’ was the operative word. ‘Play’ was a lofty dream of what he wanted to do with the guitar. ‘Owned’ was a more apt description of his relationship with the guitar.

The thirty-third kid owned a guitar.

He owned it in the sense that a person experiencing a midlife crisis owns a guitar, because they listened to too many Santana songs so thought they’d give it a good old-fashioned go themselves. They watch a few YouTube videos, pay half their live-savings towards private lessons and, when they get to the advanced stages of Deep Purple’s insidious Smoke on the Water guitar riff (the Chopsticks of the guitar), give up to instead frame the instrument for hanging in the pool room, while pursuing a macramé course.

The difficulty with this child was the YouTube videos he had watched were of Piano Cat, he had only paid £2 to be taught in a group of twenty children and, most problematically, he hadn’t given up. He just kept coming back. Every time we had guitar club, there he would be flapping his sticky flapjack-crumb-covered fingers on the fret board, massacring the chords to Michael Row the Boat Ashore.

Now, to put the ‘guitar club’ into perspective, the British education system has in the past many years hatched a half-cocked hairbrained scheme to have extra-curricular clubs outside of school hours. Clubs are usually hosted by staff working overtime, who are being compensated with time in lieu, a fistful of coins or a pat on the back. Meanwhile, the school can smugly show off to parents, top up the petty cash tin and earn a little tick in a box from the inspectors.

The reality for parents is their child will be baby sat for a cheaper rate than the normal after-school childcare services or the cost of a nanny.

In the case of this child, it was probably just to keep him out of the house for an extra hour. He was extremely hyperactive and the additional time away from home was most likely sweet relief for his folks. His parents were always very adamant that he held a deep passion for guitar, but then he also attended Lego club, cooking club, football club and origami club. Maybe he was an all-rounder.

“He just loves guitar club,” his mother would gush.

“He waits all week for guitar club.”

“He’s always practising at home.”

“He wants to be able to play like his uncle.”

Not to cast aspersions, but the way this student treated his guitar left one to think his uncle was some type of Antonia Banderas character toting a guitar-case loaded with weaponry. The child was prone to tantrums and aggressions. In contrast to my own upbringing where I was told to wash my hands before handling musical instruments, this child would have used the six-stringed song-maker as a dinner plate, given the opportunity.

We’d barely get through the first chord of Twinkle Twinkle and he’d be setting upon one of the children a few years younger. One lesson, we barely got to the end of the SpongeBob SquarePants Theme song, because of the disruption he caused. He’d be giving funny looks to the kids, speaking over the top of others and running in and out of the room. He was a complete nuisance and when you’ve got a room full of novice guitarists under the age of ten, the last thing you need is any distraction. Then when he’d finally settle, we’d still be waylaid by a plectrum falling into another child’s guitar or a string falling out of tune on the bright pink guitar one girl had purchased from Poundland – this is what she claimed, despite my scepticism that you’d even manufacture one tuning peg for less than five pounds. A group setting was not the place for guitar lessons, and it was not the place for this menace.

The school itself was not doing itself any favours. The headteacher at the time appeared confused as to the concept of reward and consequence. On one occasion after throwing a temper tantrum in class, we wandered past the headteacher’s office to see this belligerent pest eating ice-cream. On another occasion, after throwing a shoe at a student, we walked past to find said child being asked his opinion on the proposed plans for a proposed new half-million-dollar playground. It was at that point I figured we could forgo the weekly £2 club fee by getting rid of him altogether – the school was clearly saving money on consultancy fees so wouldn’t miss a couple of pounds.

I politely suggested to the mother that guitar wasn’t for this child. She seemed surprised. She mentioned something about how he was practicing a lot with uncle. I wondered quietly to myself whether she’d confused the guitar with the guns, because they both started with the letter ‘G’. Either way it seemed he was going nowhere. So instead he remained. My sanity did not. Neither did several of the other children who became fed up and left.

It seemed a case of ‘he who plays discordantly the loudest shall be heard’. And upon reflection, the purpose of much rock ‘n’ roll music is to manically release stress by banging membranophones, shouting into a microphone and slapping your hand across some nylon strings. It was probably good relief for this child to have an outlet.

I found my relief on the bus home listening to James Taylor.

How to talk to boys (about haircuts and girls)

“You’re going to have all the girls at school chasing after you tomorrow.”

This was the problematic remark made by a mother about her son’s haircut, when I was waiting for my own hairs to be cut earlier this week.

It is one of many tropes uttered without thought as to the wider implications of the relationship we have between the sexes and that which we have with ourselves.

In one foul swoop the mother has reduced her son’s interaction with women to that of a satin bowerbird collecting blue bottle tops for his nest. She sets up for him some sort of Georgie-Porgie, pudding and pie scenario where he’ll have a sex-crazed flock of girls swooning after his lusciously lopped locks. There’s a solid notion that he is somehow a reverse Samson whose newly cut hair will provide prowess to attract women.

Let’s start with the mother’s own relationship with men and how this statement may reflect her outlook on the male species. She obviously likes a well-manicured crop of hair on male heads, as she happily sat providing commentary for the duration of both her sons’ haircuts, and then her husband’s. Is it too much of an extrapolation to assume that the main thing attracting her to her own husband was his haircut? Probably (and hopefully) not. Yet she made the above throw-away remark, which would insinuate that this was the main thing – not his personality or intellect. It puts her in a position of appearing superficial if we are to assume haircuts are the main attraction she has to men.

Secondly, let’s think about the boy. It doesn’t do positive things for his self esteem to be told that he’s defining feature of attraction is the follicles on his noggin. There’s much dialogue surrounding the default position of complimenting young girls on their appearance, when adults can’t think of any other ways of engaging. To flip an old adage on its newly shaven head, ‘even if you only have nice things to say, you should on some occasions still say nothing at all’.

Phrases such as “what a pretty set of shoes”, or “what a lovely bow”, or “what a sweet smile you have” are no longer welcome, as they put primary value on appearance. Similarly, boys should be built to value their positive traits and abilities. The boy has made no contribution to the growing of his hair, nor the cutting of his hair. So why make him value it as a strong feature. That’s not to take away from the need to have pride in appearance and professionalism that a neat hairdo brings. But this should be for the purpose of his own pride of self and not for the enticement of the female species.

Finally, and most damagingly, the mother’s remark devalues women. The boy will be left with the impression that one of the main interests of girls is hair. She didn’t say “some girls”. She didn’t say “maybe a girl”. She didn’t say “a few girls”. She said “all” the girls. That’s right. All of the female students at the school will be chasing after him tomorrow. (Without considering the fact that it would be vastly intimidating to be chased by a lynch mob of people enamoured by the way your hair was sculpted) it is not a sensible notion, to give an impressionable young man, that women are so vacuous as to only be concerned with a man’s appearance from the eyebrow’s up.

An innocuous comment can hold clues to a deeper set of values. And in this case I think some reflection is needed – not to mention that perhaps Harry Haircut may want “all” the boys at school to notice his haircut. His mother didn’t think of that either.

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.

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.

Film Review – Whiplash

Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) does a lot of shouting in his classroom, during the film Whiplash. In the firing line is drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller).

Namby Pamby naysayers will discredit the value of shouting at children to make them achieve greatness. Even the characters in the film attempt to dethrone Fletcher, from his position as a jazz instructor at the illustrious Shaffer Conservatory, because of his aggressive approach. But the proof is in the pudding. Both Fletcher and his student Neiman fulfil their potential, and it’s not undue to the extensive bouts of yelling and expletives spilling from Fletcher’s mouth box.

Sure, having a calm and pleasant approach when talking to students will usually produce positive outcomes. But rarely exceptional results. There’s nothing like a bit of screaming in someone’s face to illicit the ‘I’m going to prove you wrong’ response. This appears to be the general tone of interaction between the two protagonists for the majority of the film -sometimes with the defiant quest for approval going both ways.

It’s not to say that Fletcher and Neiman are functional human beings. Both of them sit somewhere on a sociopathic spectrum. But their relationships with other people do not need to be healthy, because they have their music. The film certainly panders to the cliché that geniuses are introverted types who obsess over their artwork at the cost of everything else. The literal blood, sweat and tears from these characters adds to the cacophonous musicality of the drums and Fletcher’s shouting that carry this film. There are points at which the expletives become lyrics and almost merge into the percussive rhythms being smacked out on the Myler drumheads.

Whiplash is the dark evil cousin of Mr Holland’s Opus. It is a no-holds-barred look at the quest for greatness. It shows that there is a place for a red-faced outburst at children (and adults for that matter) when pushing them to their limits. The shouting does not come from a place of hate, vengeance or malice. It comes from the emotional core of a person wanting to drive their subjects to their ultimate position on the highest podium.

You must shout to be heard above the white noise of the masses.

Kid #18 – Dealing with stubborn children and indignation

The eighteenth kid I hated thought I had called her a racist.

She was so insistent and fierce in her accusation it was almost as though the word ‘racist’ was a racist term. Mind you, it’s fair enough to be angry about being called a racist when you are not a racist. The point was I had never called her a racist. At most I would have said, “What you have just said to your friend is racist”, which is quite different because it would have been done with the intent of raising the girl’s awareness to the fact others may perceive her misjudged humour as racism.

It is very hard to explain logical thought processes to an angry 13 year old girl. What she had originally said to her peer, I cannot remember because of the hysteria that followed. I do remember that whatever it was, she shouted it across the room. It happened in a notoriously difficult school to manage students. They had an entire room dedicated to time out during the day and telephones in every classroom for teachers to call the ‘time out’ room supervisor to retrieve various problem children.

As was the case with most of the students there, they would look for any opportunity to get out of working. Any slight against their name was the perfect excuse for going on strike. This is exactly what this child decided to do.

“You can’t call me a racist,” she screeched, throwing her chair to the floor and storming out of the classroom.

This was followed by the customary oohing and aahing from the peanut gallery. Promptly putting a kybosh on that, I continued on with the lesson. Surely the whole thing would blow over in a few minutes.

How wrong I was.

Never underestimate the stubbornness of a tantrum-prone teenager. They’ll hold the sort of grudge you may expect from the victims, of a heinous crime, against their perpetrator. Their little teenage mind will stew the matter over and over in their head, seeking out revenge at any opportune moment. They write melodramatic hate notes in their personal journals in the hope their woes will be uncovered by a nosey parent or sibling. Then they will be vindicated.

It first became evident the situation was unresolved when the young madam returned to class the following day.

“I’m not doing any work until you apologise,” she moaned for the whole class to hear.

“Apologise for what?” I responded, feigning ignorance about what she was talking about.

“You called me a racist,” she exclaimed. “Didn’t he everyone? He called me a racist. Didn’t he?”

“I didn’t call you a racist,” I said calmly. “Now, please get on with your work.”

She started scanning the room for support. The only back up she was provided with came from her fellow ‘mean girls’ producing a set of indignant scowls on their faces. They started conducting their own little sit-in at their desk, refusing en masse to complete any work. This of course did not differ greatly from their normal output, but now they had an explanation for their lack of productivity.

Again hoping the whole thing may blow over, I waited for improvement the following day. Things did not improve. She became even more demanding of an apology. And the next day the same. And the day after that.

It was now a standoff. I couldn’t apologise, even if I had done something wrong. She’d then turn it into an even bigger situation. She certainly wouldn’t get back to work.

Because of her defiance to work, she began having detention after detention. It was usually 20 minutes at the end of the day in the form classroom. She and any other punks who’d been caught out, would sit and squirm and moan for the majority of the 20 minutes before finally scampering out the door like imprisoned rats on the escape. The other students would come and go from detentions. But she was iron willed. She was not going to get back to work until there was an apology.

Finally she was taken to the Year group coordinator. He had a lengthy discussion with her about what had happened. He tried to talk her down. But just when there was a window of opportunity for her to compromise, she’d unleash into a full blown attack again lamenting how she had been defamed. It was a worthy effort at deflection and would have been award-winning if schools gave prizes for such things. Alas, they do not. But also alas, she was non-responsive to punishments or temporary removals from the room.

The term came to an end and only upon the start of the following term did she appear to have somewhat forgotten her stance. Yet within the first few lessons she was arcing up again. Probably she had been cast as Frankenstein’s monster instead of Elizabeth, in the class play; or some such oversight.

I only taught that class for a short term contract. But when it came to the end it was done. The Little Miss ‘I’m not a racist’, had been a major contributor to my distress and frustration. Never had I taught a class where I’d spent time developing rapport to then have children continue being un-cooperative.

I remember shouting at them on the last day, “I have never met such a rude and impolite group of people in all my years of teaching”. Albeit, I’d taught for less than three years at that stage – it was true they were the worst. “I’ve taught five year olds who do more work than you. I hope you’re proud that you’re dumb stupid idiots and that you can go rot in the fiery pits of hell.” (The end part may be an embellishment – I don’t think I said ‘fiery’).

I then marched out of the building, only to return two weeks later to work another day of supply teaching; thankfully covering a different class.

I’m pretty sure it was puberty that caused this girl to be so unamusing. I was assured she was quite pleasant before she turned 13. She may well be a successful something or the other by now. But if I met her again I doubt I’d give her a bar of chocolate; she’d probably misconstrue it.