Monday, 8 August 2016

Imminent Baby Challenge Day Eleven: "Chalkface"

Okay, firstly an admission that this really isn't going day-by-day as I intended. Having a heavily pregnant wife, a toddler who's just discovering the joys of defiance and a pressing need to sleep before the new baby gets here has put a serious crimp in my original timetable.

Frankly, I need to rest and the nagging of friends and family has finally convinced me.

I'm still going to do this, but the pace is going to have to slacken a bit.

Regardless, here is the next story in the sequence. The words "mug", "naive" and "masochist" were suggested by a very good friend of mine to describe this challenge I've set myself, so I...wrote a story around them, instead of resting. Whoops. Thanks again Rachel.

The random genre picker gave me 'education' which is, finally, something I know something about - hooray!

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you - 'Chalkface'.


Randolph wanted to kill Amanda; Amanda wanted to kill Randolph. These two facts were immutable and understood by everyone. Whatever was the real root of their intertwined 'dance of death,' no-one wanted any part of it, including me. I sat in the staffroom, sipped weak tea from a soapy-smelling mug and tuned out their sniping.

Bickering was for good days; bickering was talking.

On bad days, there was just glaring and a sense of a gathering storm until the bell rang for the next period and I could escape back to my next class without causing offence.

Most of the staff thought they'd screwed at some point, that only a relationship gone sour could provide that potency of poison, but I knew better because I'd joined at the same time as them. They'd both been mildly ambitious when they'd qualified as teachers, but the hothouse environment of a school turns small seedlings into mighty carnivorous plants.

Me? As long as the kids seem happy, senior management stays off my back and my salary gets paid, I'm okay. I don't want promotion: I don't have the stomach for management and I'm not enough of a masochist to spend every waking second on lesson preparation like they do.

I was friends with these two before they contracted ambition, but my story's not about me. It's about them and the Great Ofsted Fuck-Up.

For those not in the know, Ofsted are the UK's schools inspectorate and are, despite my best efforts to see them otherwise, evil incarnate. They only pop by every few years for a day, but it's always unannounced and that's reason enough to keep a school on permanent red alert: an exhausting prospect. I used to be naïve enough to believe they were on our side, that they were only interested in improving schools; I know better now.

Now, usually, the school had no problem with the Her Majesty's Inspectorate. Every inspection for decades had gone perfectly. That it, until the Great Ofsted Fuck-Up.

I'm not one for swearing: that's what the Headteacher still calls it, probably.

It started on a wet Wednesday that had been preceded by many similar days. The kids were damp from walking to school and edgy from being stuck inside every lunchtime. The single glazed windows were always thickly fogged with condensation and some of the maths rooms were starting to grow black mould on the ceiling. The whole place took on the feel of an overcrowded lifeboat, desperately looking for land, the crew increasingly mutinous.

Adrian, a boy from my form, was the pebble that started the landslide that was the GOFU (I won't permit swearing from my classes and I've indulged myself too much already). He was a fat, sad lad whose parents were going through a really nasty divorce: lots of venom, using Adrian as a weapon again each other, that sort of thing. Somehow they'd forgotten that he was just a little boy. They'd also forgotten that they needed to pay attention to his achievement at school: since their separation, his grades had slid from unimpressive to awful.

Despite everything, he was still holding it all together.

Until that day.

I'd been about to escape from my humid sweatbox of a classroom, but I hadn't decided where to go yet. The staffroom was unbearable: Randolph and Amanda were clawing at each other like two hungry lions trapped in a cage built for one. It'd been that way since the new “Whole School Attainment Co-ordinator” vacancy had been announced – just a fancy title with a little extra pay and a lot of extra responsibility, but they both wanted the shiny new toy. Half of Randolph's subordinates from the History department decamped to the library every lunchtime to read the newspapers stocked there, unsullied by student hands thankfully. Perhaps I would join them there.

Adrian crashed through the door, crying hysterically. I rushed to him; through everything that had happened to him, I'd never seen him shed a single tear. He wasn't self-possessed enough to laugh it off all stress and anger with a smirk, but he'd maintained an impenetrable 'disinterested shrug' for weeks now.

I can't do it, sir,” he sobbed, running to the back of my room and folding up again the wall. “I can't do it! I can't do it!”

It took five minutes of calming and coaxing before he'd even turn his face to me. His round face was shiny with tears but, more than that, there was a trapped look in his eyes that hadn't been there before.

Mr Carter,” he gasped, chin wobbling slightly. “I failed his test and now I have to do the test every day until I pass!”

It's just a test,” I comforted, “and anyway, just make sure you pass it tomorrow.”

That set off fresh tears that took even longer to calm. Gradually, like I was trying to land a thrashing fish, I teased out of him that this had been going on for weeks. Day after day of new tests, sat by himself in Randolph's history classroom at lunchtime, failing time after time. With everything going on at home, lunch with his few friends had been his temporary solace and now even that'd been taken anyway from him.

This lad was at breaking point.

I'll talk to him,” I promised. “I'll talk with Mr Carter and get this sorted out. Just you wait and see.”

For a few seconds, he looked as grateful as a man given a reprieve from the firing squad, but then all the barriers of adolescence slammed back up over his vulnerabilities and that look of careful insouciance surfaced on his face again.

I don't really care,” he said, quickly drying his tears. “Whatever. Mr Carter's a dickhead anyway.”

And that was the rest of Adrian's break and his lunch gone too in detentions with me. He knew as well as I did what the consequences of that should have been – suspension – and he knew I was a soft touch, so I wouldn't report him. As I watched him writing lines, I wondered whether he was smarter than I'd given him credit for. Yes, he'd spent all of his free time with me, but he'd not had to spend any time with the loathed Mr Randolph Carter.

That was the first pebble of the landslide.

I tried to get him to back off Adrian the next time we were both in the staffroom.

He's so far behind everyone else that he's dragging the class' progress indicators down,” he said with a voice as bland as milky coffee.

Randy, I know,” I sympathised, “but it's a miracle the boy's still coming to school, the amount of pressure he's under. Just give him a few weeks to pull it together and try again.”

He pushed his glasses back up his long nose and shook his head, looking over my shoulder; I could tell that his attention was already elsewhere. I turned.

Amanda was in the corner of the room, talking to the Head, laughing. I looked into Randolph's narrowing eyes and suddenly I knew why he wasn't helping Adrian.

Randy, one kid's progress is not going to affect whether you get this promotion or not. Cut him some slack, for Christ's sake!”

If there was any trace of a human being in him, ambition had burned it out long ago.

Listen!” he said, a sneer entering his voice. “You've been stuck in your role for five years, but I want to be a Head before I'm thirty-five. Mediocrity might be okay for you, but not for me.”

I bristled and tried to think of a reply, but he'd already left to disrupt that comfortable conversation between Amanda and the Head.

The next day, Adrian got himself suspended.

I blame myself really. Randolph might've been a big shot in the Head's eyes and he might've been Head of the History department, but I should've had the stomach to stand up to him. I should've told someone that Adrian was getting ready to blow his top.

He finally snapped in his Science lesson. Amanda was his science teacher and had a cosy little thing going on with her class. She wasn't sexist, not really, but she had a sizeable clique of girls in that class who worshipped the ground that she walked on. Why not? Amanda was supremely self-confident, evidently successful, attractive and fashionable and her class usually got great results: what wasn't there to admire?

She might have noticed the three boys in her class that year, but I doubted it. They weren't strong students and I suspect they were at the awkward age where they lacked the nerve to speak to attractive women. They always bobbed along gently, their habitual underperformance masked by the results of their peers.

I wasn't there when Adrian asserted himself, but I heard the story through the grapevine.

Miss, I need your help,” he'd said, struggling with a difficult calculation in the corner of the room.

Quiet!” she scolded him. “I'm busy!”

And she was. She was telling the girls at the front all about her adventures at university as she ran her hand hypnotically through her black hair, drinking in their adoration.

Didn't your mother ever teach you manners?” she continued, mockingly. Her entourage giggled dutifully. That was it for Adrian, especially after the week he'd had with Randolph.

There was a lot of swearing, perhaps a few chairs kicked over and a wall punched. I didn't even see him before he'd been hustled off site and banned from returning for three days.

I tried to talk to Amanda about it.

Nasty little boy!” she spat, watching Randolph fetch the Head a cup of tea like an exterminator watches a cockroach. “He'll be by himself at the back of my room for the rest of the year now!”

Absolutely,” I agreed, “but I wonder if you remember the email I sent to everyone about the trouble he was having with his mother and...”

Can't go soft on them!” she spat again. “Teachers get reputations for being soft!”

She stared pointedly at me for a few seconds, before rushing off to sit next to the Head.

My cheeks burned, but you can't retort to empty air. What could I say that was still professional? That I can't stand people who are rude? That I can't stand people who aren't in teaching for the kids? They're all that matters at the end of the day and all the fancy window-dressing of titles and slight bumps in pay doesn't change that. I could've said any of that, but I didn't.

As I walked back to my classroom, cheeks burning and struggling to regain my composure for my afternoon lessons, a few thoughts drifted around my skull, marinading in rage.

I didn't know them anymore: the part of them that cared about other people had been burned out.

They got good results, but it was for them, not for the kids.

They were bullies: to me, to Adrian and to anyone who didn't fit their worldview or their desire for personal glory.

They were false and evil.

Ofsted rang the Head that afternoon: they'd be in tomorrow, they said cheerfully, possible emitting sulphurous fumes out of the phone's earpiece. The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing people that assessments and accountability work in their favour.

It was nothing to worry about, the Head said in the snap meeting he summoned the staff to after school. He said that there was nothing to worry about eight times before the meeting concluded. He said that we had some of the finest teachers in the county at our school: Amanda and Randolph visibly preened at that.

I don't worry about Ofsted. I'm a pretty good teacher and Her Majesty's Inspectorate are only ever interested in the cream and the dregs. I'd seen a few white faces that meeting before Amanda and Randolph's smug expressions blocked that all out.

After the meeting, I gathered up everything I needed in my satchel and headed out through the drizzle to my car, where I saw a hunched figure, soaked with rain.

All sorts of alarmed thoughts ran through my head, but it was only Adrian. He hadn't got a coat and his shoes were so wet that water was dribbling out of the parting seams.

I can't do it, sir,” he said flatly, rain dripping from the softening spikes of his hair. “I can't beat them.”

I took him by the shoulder and led him back into the building. It turned out that his Mum had kicked him out for some reason; I couldn't understand the intricacies of it, but I knew this was a human being who was being thoroughly broken by the 'responsible' adults around him.

Sometimes, you just have to fight back,” I told him as he dried out by the radiator. He nodded and a smile crept over his face like a timid field mouse. I'd not seen him smile for months.

The next day was the day of the Great Ofsted Fuck-Up. As soon as the inspectors, an indistinguishable man and woman in grey suits, arrived, the Head was begging them to see his two best teachers.

It was a shame about Randolph's History lesson. His teaching was great, but a random book scrutiny uncovered that he'd not given poor Adrian any written feedback in his book for nearly a year. Of course, if work is carefully copied across from the original book to a brand new one by an angry student, the hours of careful marking by their teacher would get left behind. If that's what happened, of course. The inspectors were not happy at all about Randolph's sloppy work and were especially unimpressed when he got aggressive during his feedback.

It was also a shame about Amanda's Science lesson. Her teaching was great, but she handed out hydrochloric acid ten times the safe concentration to her class during the experiment: stronger enough to quickly eat into flesh. The mistake was spotted immediately, but unfortunately, it was a flagrant breach of health and safety regulations which failed the school its inspection almost immediately. Of course, if the bottles of dilute acid she'd organised the night before were swapped with ones holding neat acid from the hazardous chemicals storeroom, that would be the result. You'd need a member of staff to access the cupboard though, if that's what happened.

Amanda and Randolph tried to weather the fallout of the Head's nuclear rage but, eventually, they were swept away.

The results in History and Science decreased substantially after they left, but whenever Adrian gave me a discreet wink in form, I could hold my head high, knowing that I'd done the right thing for the kids.

If it benefited me at all, that was entirely incidental.

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