Sunday, 21 June 2015

Obstacle Race

We are approaching the season of school sports days.  I disliked them when I was a school pupil and did my duty when I was a teacher.  I hated the ridiculous nature of running in competition against anyone or anything other than a clock.  Teachers leave an indelible imprint on our lives.  Some of those marks are beautiful tattoos we wear with pride and fond memories, others are ugly brands we do our best to cover up, ignore and hope to forget.  Sadly some of those uglier memories just won't go away.  

Of course many memories of our teachers concern humorous events.  I have to wonder whether present generations of children will carry with them such a range of memories about their teachers into their own futures.  Successive government interference and reform has for decades aimed to turn teachers into functionaries "delivering" a prescribed curriculum.  A set number of subjects with a statutory list of elements that must be covered and squeezed into a week.  Each Secretary of State for Education after Kenneth Baker has felt the need to make a mark of their own on the nation's children by messing about with the curriculum (again), claiming they will reduce the burden on teachers.  All they do is move the deck chairs around on the deck of a ship that is sinking under the weight of its own  administration.  I shudder when I think of the shelf space that had to be built to house the government-sponsored folders of papers and instructions relating to my own subject of music, all of which was scrapped within very few years.  This was happening in every subject area in every school in the country.  Every teacher had a set of folders for every subject.  When the documents changed skips were filled.  It has been one of the most pointless wastes of educational resources and goodwill.

But back to teachers.  Thankfully I still see some extraordinary people who seem to have that magic something that makes the class zing with excitement, purpose and confidence.  I see some teachers who are struggling, but doing their best.  Most teachers fall somewhere between.  They nearly all end up frustrated and exhausted by being tasked with the impossible.  Recent pronouncements from the present Education Secretary do not bode well.  More blame to come, I fear.

I wonder what the present system would have made of my teachers?  From my infant school days I can only really remember Mrs Cherasse, whose name no one could spell and we all sat round our table discussing it and considering the options.  Inexplicably, Garry's contribution was to tell us to look under the table as he exposed himself.  It was funny to start with, but we got wise and he got bored.  I only give Mrs Sharrasse's name so the reader gets the idea of the challenge this conundrum presented.  Beth's mum used to address all letters to "Dear Madam".  Easy when you know.  

I can remember more from my junior school days.  In first year juniors (now called Year 3, of course) I had Miss H who was a lovely older lady I remember mostly for spellings and for introducing me to the recorder.  I didn't learn to read notation with her, but I enjoyed playing the instrument.  One day she called me and the other boy in the class with the same name to come to her desk to announce sotto voce that we had come "top of the class", he in arithmetic and me in English.  I didn't know what it meant, but it sounded good.  I never managed that trick again, but to be honest I really didn't aspire to it either.  Years later I had a part-time job selling local newspaper subscriptions door to door and one evening she opened a door.  It was lovely to see her again.  I reminded her of the "top of the class" incident and what could she say, but, "Oh, well done!"  It didn't help her overcome her bewilderment as she clearly didn't remember me at all.

The following year I had Miss K, a tall and very correct lady from Scotland whose accent I never managed to fathom.  I spent much of that year in confusion, especially one afternoon when I suffered a string burn at the hands of my best friend (the one I mention in my song, "Pansy Potter").  I was incredulous that she would suggest I put soup on it.  I checked several times.  
"No, soup." 
"You mean soup?"  
"No I said, 'soup'"
In an attempt to break the deadlock I tried a different tack, "Where do I get soup from, Miss?"
"From the toilet, of course!"

I sat down with my hand still stinging painfully and absolutely none the wiser.
"You twit," BF said helpfully, "she was telling you to put soap on it."
I didn't learn much that year, except that a change of best friend was in order.  I wasn't used to getting into the number of scrapes which his hyperactive exuberance inspired.  My new BF was a perfect match and we were inseparable for the rest of my time at that school (or would have been, had it not been for the dreaded Mrs W).  I lost him for a few decades but found him again a few years ago.  He's a professional golfer in Germany now.

Mrs W. was an inspirational teacher.  She inspired fear and despair in roughly equal measures.  She was like a Ring Wraith and in some manifestation of prescience was actually from New Zealand.  Her accent was also quite difficult to understand at times, but one only ever asked questions once.  It was a brave or foolhardy person who ever asked for repetition or clarification.  Had I read any Dante by the age of nine I might have easily visualised a sign over the door to our class-in-a-hut declaring, "ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE", in appropriately wiggly writing.  Our desks were in paired rows each pair populated by one boy and one girl.  I didn't want to sit next to a girl and certainly not Lynn.  I wanted to sit next to NBF.  Lynn was noisy, she always made strange vocalisations when she was concentrating and it was really off-putting, but she could do a good pigeon walk with a pecking head.  I practised the head thing myself, later combining it most effectively with crossed-eyes and fish-mouth.  Mrs W. ruled with a voice of thunder, a tongue of steel and a grasp of sarcasm that could strip the rust off an Austin A40.  I was scared of her and even Doug and Dinsdale Piranha would have been no match.  She was a deadly shot with a piece of chalk and rumour was that sometimes she would throw a blackboard rubber if she got really cross.  I developed nervous stomach aches and spent a lot of time away from school that year.  Towards the end of that year my family moved, so my father could be closer to London to his work, much to my delight.  I changed junior schools.  In my new school I was in Mrs. T's class for a term before moving up Mr. H. for my final year in primary school.  It was during this final year that the Obstacle Race occurred.  It was also the year when I was made to play football for the school team for the first and only time and where I was all but concussed by receiving the heavy, muddy, wet, leather football full in the face twice within minutes.  I saw something similar happen to a boy a few weeks ago.  He was escorted off the pitch and given magic ice-pack treatment and his parents told to keep an eye on him.  Maybe we really were tougher in those days.  That year was also the year I fell in love with the new member of staff, Mr P., who was the teacher of the class next door and taught music.  He quickly discovered my interest in music and nurtured it in a most generous way.  I shall doubtless mention him again sometime.

The Obstacle Race.  Well the song says it all really.  I was pretty agile, used to scrambling about in bushes and good at climbing trees and had a fairly good sense of balance, but I could never thread a needle.  I stood a chance of being placed somewhere in this school sports day, because the obstacle race was fun.  What I didn't know was how devious Mrs C. (I think she was on teaching practice) was going to be in designing a race that had needle threading as one of the obstacles.  I balanced, I climbed, I scrambled, I even kicked a football, but I came to a dead stop at the needle part.  All advantages gained through my agility were lost as the eye of the needle disappeared in a confusion of splayed cotton.  I had no scissors to cut the thread and start again.  I looked up each time one of my classmates threaded the needle and charged on to the finish line.  Sports day was held up for a full five minutes while I attempted my task, although by one of those quirks of time it seemed much longer.  Mrs C. tried to convince me that it was okay to leave it and run for the finish line, but I was determined.  In the end I gave up and headed for the finish with all the excitement of a face flannel, so the next event could start.  Oh the shame of it all.

However, none of those encounters with games and sports at primary school prepared me for the horror that was to come in secondary school.  At least I never had to play football again, but this was a rugby-playing grammar school which, as I soon discovered, was much, much worse.  The three members of the P.E. staff were sadists to a man.  The one-stop treatment for any insult or injury to the dignity of a member of the department was usually a whole-class slippering.  There is something deeply disturbing about a grown man being allowed to have thirty eleven year-olds lined neatly along the length of the gym, bending to touch their toes at his command as he proceeds down the line whacking each child with a gym shoe.  No, it's worse than that.  It is and was sick and unhealthy.  It was as though each member of the department tried to outdo the others in their crude displays of machismo that frequently turned into sadistic bullying.  Once I spent three months in hospital with rheumatic fever.  When I emerged blinking in the sunlight and eventually returned to school I was under instructions not to undertake anything too strenuous.  Mr N. probably thought a slippering too risky, so one day he gave me a detention for not sweating enough after a cross-country run!  I never knew how he quantified what would have been an appropriate amount of sweat to excrete.  Mr L. replaced Mr S.  I'm pretty sure he was probably much the nicest of them all, but the department had a reputation to maintain, so he took to name-calling, ridicule and shaming  as his weapons of choice.  I remember one of his favourite things was to insult those of us who grew our hair.  He called us the "fourth-form women".  At the time, this seemed an odd strategy coming from the man who was in the process of introducing hockey to the school.  He announced to everyone in the new swimming pool changing room that my toes were deformed.  How could I not take it personally?

However, the worst of them all was Mr. S. whom Mr L. eventually replaced.  Something terrible must have happened to him to turn him into the awful human being I experienced in school.  I seriously hope he was dismissed and never allowed near another school.  Routinely, his voice was set to stun, though he could still turn it up mid-phrase if he thought a boy looked at him the wrong way.  When I was twelve my mother was taken into hospital for one of her regular visits.  During her life she worked her way routinely through the medical dictionary.  Often these experiences required surgical intervention.  How one person could have the misfortune to suffer so much ill-health I don't know.  It certainly wasn't fair. Every time she was taken into hospital I fretted.  I was very close to my mother.  I know I was preoccupied with thoughts of her when I should have been listening to Mr S.'s discourse on the finer points of doing something or other in a rugby scrum.  The next thing I became aware of was a blast of vocal invective so loud it reached hitherto unattained sound pressure levels and was accompanied by a searing pain in my head as I was dragged out of the scrum by my hair.  Then in a feat of coordination that I suppose they taught at the P.E. teacher factory he bent to put his face into mine as he continued screaming at me whilst somehow maintaining a grip in my hair and shaking me so violently I could not even hear the words he used or what he was upset about.  I was being shaken so hard my teeth rattled, I bit my tongue and I was forced to dance in order to maintain any balance at all.  Later, in the changing room I combed handfuls of hair out of my head after the obligatory mud sharing ritual known as the communal bath.  I lost hair for days afterwards.  I never found out what crime I'd committed and it is only curiosity that makes me wonder now.  It is unlikely I shall ever find myself in another rugby scrum (although maybe it's okay if I control my own fantasies, right?) so I shall never need to exercise any benefit from that bastard's corrective discipline.  He was a bully who had no business working with children.  It's a good job I don't hold grudges; if I saw him on fire I would be prepared to piss on him.

I wrote "Obstacle Race" originally as a song for children.  The ones I tried it with found it difficult, so I wrote more verses and now sing it as Marshlander.  It is one of the few of my songs I can sing to children.  I quite like that singing and playing it also requires a certain agility.

They put me down for the obstacle race
I didn't know what to do.
There were balls to kick and ropes to walk 
and a hoop I had to jump through.
But near the end of the obstacle race
There’s the thing I dread.
It was when they gave me 
A needle to thread!

A needle to thread!  A needle to thread!  
It was when they gave me a needle to thread.

The gun went bang!  I ran and ran.
It was going rather well.
I wasn’t the first, but I wasn’t the last 
But sad the truth to tell
Though I kept up the pace till the end of the race
The task that stopped me dead
Was when they gave me
A needle to thread!

A needle to thread!  A needle to thread!
It was when they gave me a needle to thread.

I don’t like sports, but it takes all sorts 
And my teacher said it’s good
To put on a brave face and run in a race
And all the children should take part for the fun,
Fresh air and sun (and the hayfever, I said).
I can jump through a hoop, but I can’t see the loop in the 
Needle to thread.

A needle to thread!  A needle to thread!  
I can jump through a hoop, but I can’t see the loop in the 
Needle to thread.

I’d like to think that this glaring chink in my athletic prowess
Was a lesson of sorts even though it was sports
And I normally couldn’t care less.
I was left on the track and stuck at the back
But what made me go red
Was the public humiliation of having a 
Needle to thread.

A needle to thread!  A needle to thread!
The public humiliation of having a
Needle to thread.

A final thought on sports day 
Now that I’m fully grown
For some of us it’s torture
Teacher, leave those kids alone!
I still can’t see the point of running around to get ahead,
But first prize for the barmiest obstacle goes to a 
Needle to thread.

A needle to thread!  A needle to thread!
First prize for the barmiest obstacle goes to a 
Needle to thread.

Obstacle Race ©Marshlander 2010

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