This weekend, I thought I'd post an extract from my Amazon Kindle e-book 'Being Miss'. Enjoy. Apologies for the bogeys, but when you've got 11 year old boys as your main characters, some things are inevitable ....
It's half-way through the school day at a boys' school and 'Miss' is teaching 'Carrie's War' by Nina Bawden to year 7. Or ... at least ... trying to.
Year 7 shuffle about, getting their things ready. ‘Right,’ I say. ‘Yesterday, we read Chapter 1, didn’t we, and you did some homework on it. Today we’re going to carry on and read Chapter 2, but can anyone remember what I said would be different about Chapter 2? Sebastian?’ I choose him because he’s picking his nose and sometimes it’s the only way to stop them. ‘Can you remember?’
He pops the morsel into his mouth and then says, ‘Chapter 2 uses flashback?’ He’s bright, then, though foul.
‘That’s right, Sebastian. Well done. What is flashback, Year 7s?’
They’re keen, hands up all over the place like Pentecostals. We have a short discussion on flashback, and then we open the books to Chapter 2.
There’s a knock at the door. It’s Mary, the lady who organises the peripatetic music teachers. She often has to come and pull out a boy who’s forgotten his music lesson. ‘Sorry to interrupt,’ she says. ‘Magnus has trumpet now.’
Magnus, a dippy boy with long hair and, I bet, artist or actor parents, leaps up in his chair and slaps his hand over his mouth. ‘Whoops,’ he says.
‘Yes, whoops indeed,’ says Mary. ‘You’ve missed ten minutes. Get your skates on.’ He pushes his books and pencil case into his rucksack as though they were old clothes and pencils fall out of the unzipped case onto the floor. The boy sitting next to him tries to be helpful and bends down to pick them up, but does so at the same time as Magnus and they bump heads and both yell. It’s like the Chuckle Brothers and the class is in fits. Mary doesn’t look amused. Magnus eventually makes it out of the room, his rucksack dragged along behind him picking up the dust that’s along the skirting board.
The Year 7s and I read about Nick and Carrie’s train journey to the village in Wales to which they are being evacuated, and then I ask them to open their exercise books. ‘Write down this title, Year 7,’ I say, taking up a board pen.
‘Which title, Miss?’
‘The one I’m just about to write on the board. Give me a chance.’
Talk about anxious.
I start writing ‘Comparing Nick and Carrie’s evacuation experience’ but decide that this sounds too much like an exploration of their bowel habits, so I rub most of it out with the heel of my hand and change it to ‘Comparing the ways Nick and Carrie react in Chapter 2’. Inevitably, the quickest kids in the class have already written out the original title and there are muted groans of protest; I can hear them foraging in their pencil cases for their eraser pens. If this had been sixth-formers, I’d never have heard the end of it, but the Year 7s daren’t complain too much.
‘Miss?’ This is Rupert, the teeny-weeniest boy in the year, but with a voice that is already breaking. It’s a bizarre combination, even more so than the six foot six Year 11 I’ve got who sounds like he’s on helium. I can only just see the top of Rupert’s dark head over the desk, but I know it’s him because of his sexy gravelled tones. He could be the next Tom Cruise, I suppose, although he’ll need foot-high inserts in his shoes if his hormones don’t sort themselves out.
‘I don’t know whether to start a new page or not.’
Oh, not this old chestnut. It’s my own fault. If they waste space in their books I write in red pen, 'Write out five times: 'Miss can hear trees falling in the Amazon rainforest and it distresses her greatly.' No wonder they’re paranoid. They all start panicking like birds faced with a cat on a branch.
Gordon: ‘I don’t know either. I’ve only got two lines.’
Stephen: ‘Is it a long title? If so, I think I’ll need to turn over.’
Luke: ‘I’ve got four lines. Is that enough?’
‘Look, Year 7. I think you’ve been here long enough now to be able to judge whether to start a new page or not. We can’t waste time every lesson discussing it.’ Even as I say this, I hear a tree crash to the forest floor.
They settle down to writing out quotations, so I take the opportunity to check that they’ve done their homework: a personal response to the first chapter. I announce the homework inspection and wander round the classroom, dispensing ‘that looks super’s and ‘where’s your title?’s here and there. Thirteen of them have spelt response as responce, even though they had to copy it off the board. I point this out to them all. One boy has spelt it ‘risponts’: a new one on me.
Stephen, one of the top boys in the class, has written four pages. His writing is tiny.
‘Stephen, how long did that take you?’ I ask him.
‘Two and a half hours, Miss.’
‘You’re meant to spend twenty minutes on Year 7 homework.’
‘I know, Miss. I got carried away. I kept thinking of things.’
I can’t tell him off for making such a fantastic effort, but I can imagine the trouble this probably caused at home on Sunday evening …
Mummy Stephen: ‘Stevie, precious, it’s midnight. You really must put your light out now. You’ve got school tomorrow.’
Stephen: ‘I know, Mum, but I’m still doing my English homework. I’ve almost finished.’
Mummy Stephen: ‘What’s your English teacher doing, setting you such a big homework? Surely it shouldn’t take you this long. Didn’t you get two homeworks to do it in?’
Of course, Stephen isn’t going to tell his mum at this point that I wrote on the board ‘no more than a page’.
Mummy Stephen: ‘Have you done your other homeworks, Stephen?’
Stephen: ‘It’s okay. I’ll get up before dawn and do my Physics, Chemistry and RS.’
Then Mummy Stephen would have gone into the living room and had a long conversation with Daddy Stephen about how unfair it is of teachers to set such big tasks for Year 7s and Daddy Stephen would have promised to draft a letter to the Head about it and Stevie Stephen, having heard them say this, would have started crying because he doesn’t want anyone to think he’s complained and then Mummy Stephen will cry because she loves Stevie Stephen to distraction and he’s got big bags under his eyes and might start bedwetting again at this rate. In fact, as I look at Stephen’s work, I swear I can see a few blotchy bits in the last paragraph. I hope it’s tears.
‘You can have a merit sticker for that, Stephen,’ I say, feeling very guilty, and he beams.
‘You haven’t read it yet, Miss,’ says Angus, a boy to his left, one of the bolder ones. ‘It might be rubbish.’
‘Angus, mind your own business, please,’ I tell him. ‘When I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it.’
I let them all get on with it for ten minutes while I sit at my desk. I’m flagging now. Without enthusiasm, I open another Year 9 book and continue marking their Gothic stories. So far, their efforts have been mediocre. Have I been teaching them properly?
Straight away, I’m hooked. Kevin has opened his story with: ‘The cavernous expanse of the church’s dank interior hung around him as Father Thomas stood, the magic sword in his hand, waiting. He could hear the voices of the dead, of the undead, of those waiting to die. He could feel the hot breath of the Angel of Doom on his neck and the whisper of the evil angel’s triumph. He wondered: Was this the end? Was this to be his final hour? Was there to be no chance for revenge?’
‘Fantastic!’ I write in the margin at the end of the first paragraph. I’m chuffed to bits. This is a boy who sits in the corner, who says nothing, looks a bit unkempt, and who doesn’t seem to interact with anyone in the class.
The story is first-class and I’m going tick-crazy as I mark it and give it an A* with a merit. Encouraged, I reach for the next book, checking that the Year 7s are still busily at work. Sebastian is still exploring his orifices, but at least he’s writing with the other hand. I open the book to Phillip’s story, which begins, ‘It was a dark and stormy night and outside it was dark. It was also stormy.’ I clap the book shut.
‘Right, Year 7,’ I say, standing up. ‘You’ve got a couple of minutes to finish off the point you’re on. The lesson’s nearly over.’
To a man, they’re all on the last word of their last point, and within three seconds, all their books are shut and they’re packing away. ‘Don’t pack your exercise books! I’m taking them in,’ I yell, remembering just in time. Half of them have to unpack again.
They stand behind their chairs. Sebastian waits, absently, his finger so far up his nose that I can’t see the knuckle and he must have established contact with his optic nerve by now. They’re all chatting, but they know I won’t let them out until they stop, so one by one, with a bit of supportive ‘sshhh’ing from Stephen, who’s got the moral high ground, it goes quiet.
‘As you go out, please put your homework TIDILY on Sacha’s desk here,’ I say. ‘And I hope all the people who spelt response wrong have corrected it.’ Two or three look hangdog and pull pens out of their blazer pockets. ‘Otherwise, you can all go.’
On the word ‘go’, the bell rings. I shake my head slowly in wonder at my own skill in anticipating it, and a couple of them look at me with respect. These few are still at that stage where teachers are gods and perform daily miracles. By Year 8, they’ll know better.
As Sebastian passes me, a digit still rammed up his nose, I give him a significant look and wish I hadn’t as he pulls the finger out and I get a birds-eye view of the biggest bogey in the world. I’m not even sure it’s not a part of his brain tissue, balanced there precariously on the end of his index finger.
‘Sebastian, that is vile,’ I say. ‘Haven’t you got a tissue?’
He shakes his head. I fish in my pocket for one and offer it to him, trying to avoid skin-to-skin contact. He wipes the bogey onto the tissue and tucks it into his pocket for later. Whether that’s ‘later’ as in ‘using the tissue again’ or ‘later’ as in ‘eating the bogey’ I’m not, unfortunately, sure.
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