Year 11 Lessons | A Teacher’s Tale
Crimes and misdemeanors. There were lots of things that went wrong that day, some serious, some not so. But two needed dealing with. Two were serious enough to warrant a call back after school and a detention. You have to sort things quickly. No point punishing the crime ages after the event. Children like that just don’t understand. These two needed to feel the impact, the repercussions of their misbehaviour immediately. A day later, and it wouldn’t make sense.
Earlier, before the end of school, there was a rumour that spread, and it did so in the old way. Before wireless and emails, before social networks and the ubiquity of mobiles, information could spread at the speed of sound, faster perhaps, permeating whole corridors in seconds. The nervous system of a large secondary school is a thing of wonder. Senses are finely tuned, and with children and staff wandering corridors, running, shouting, whispering in ultra-local dialects that express with wondrous efficiency precisely what fight is going on, and where, and who has just been caught doing what with whom, everyone was suddenly, somehow aware that something had happened. Something significant.
Something significant. Something real. Something that forced its genuine reality through the whole quagmires of bullshit that flooded every lesson. ‘My sister has my book.’ ‘I had to see the nurse.’ ‘I did it, I promise, it’s just…’ All these fictions, sprayed like tear gas, designed to confuse and fluster in the fog of war, thirty other voices already baying and demanding, needing work done or attention given. And yet, through this, something real.
Mr Smith was the first I think. Popped up from History. Something’s happened. He was connected. The first man I ever met who admitted that the first thing he did each morning when he woke up was check his email. Check email? First? He seemed to be from the future, yet teaching the past. But something in the hurried arch of his shoulders seemed important.
We had no internet in the classroom, no way of working out what might have happened, or when, or even where. It was knowledge enough that the world had, somehow, changed. They sensed it. The web of nerves transmitted, the nodes knew. There was a hush that afternoon, a nervousness. An excitement. Because, finally, something had happened. Finally, explosively, the bell went.
The cathode ray tube is a thing of wonder. It fires up pixels, faster than the eye can see, a scatter gun of tiny torches, giving the impression of movement, of picture. The one in our departmental office was only meant to be on for Wimbledon, or World Cups in awkward timezones. The aerial had gone missing. The extension cable borrowed for something else. But someone retrieved it, while the kettle was on, after the final bell and while the melee dispersed, and we waited while circuits warmed and the heat of the real faded up into screenlight.
And then we saw it. Then it began to burn. The fire and smoke and, as the loop of information circled and gathered and repeated again, the dawning of understanding at what had been done.
The two boys arrived, pimp-rolling into my room, eyes down and sullen. ‘Just give me the work man.’ They wanted it over, wanted to just do the time and not take the time to think about why they were spending time. They were in no hurry to get away to do anything in particular, just to get away. The corollary of cogito ergo sum: thoughtless and deadened, the information had missed them, or they’d not had the receptors to perceive it. ‘Follow me.’
I took them out of the classroom and across a boundary, into a staff office. Colleagues sat open-mouthed, understanding in their silence this new foreign presence. ‘This,’ I pointed, is important. ‘This is the world changing, right now.’ They looked, searching for the VHS, some disaster movie memories stirring somewhere, some Playstation graphics. ‘This is happening now, and this, for the next hour, is what you are doing.’
There was silence, mostly, and growing dread. We were more together now than before. Distinctions between teachers and students, class boundaries suddenly so arbitrary. What could they mean when this could be done?
How long does it take for the shocking to become familiar? Perhaps it’s a function of age, or past experience. Perhaps their circuits had been maxed already, flow-choked with adrenaline, shoot-em-ups and local violence. Scooters and daggers. By the hour’s end they were bored. One tower had fallen, and then another. ‘Shiiiiiiiiiit’ and ‘Oh my fuckin’ days’ greeting the first, less interest the next. By now, it was normal. Their world had assimilated these new events already. Here was the new landscape, fuck it, let’s roll.
They were allowed to go, and quite what they thought as they rolled away I never found out. Tomorrow was the next day, and the moment was history. But I remembered that detention. And still do. Did they pay for their crimes? Was justice served quickly enough? Was anything learned at all?