The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Monday, April 11, 2005

A new term! And the best: the summer term - riddled with examinations, study leave, block release days, work experience, the annual school summer camp down by the Moonies HQ, and - joy of joys - work experience! I can't wait.

Possibly the choicest, fruitiest discovery of the extended Easter break was realising I'd contracted worms from my delightful students.

Threadworms. Pinworms. Intestinal parasites.

Think about that.

At some quiet, unnoticed moment, these paragons of hygiene, this new model army of well-scrubbed cherubs have passed from their hands to my hands trace fecal matter, and I have gone on to ingest the stuff.


I need to say that again, just once. Ugh.

My first thought when I hear the horrifying diagnosis: Phillip.
1995, my second year of teaching, and little twelve year old bruiser Phillip is late to school.

Phillip 'doesn't' read, he 'can't' read, he 'hates' school (indeed he was thrown out forever at fifteen, after beating then robbing a pensioner outside the school gates, then firebombing the deputy head for dessert - and they say standards of behaviour are slipping).
He's the only person fulfilling any adult role in his house, so late starts could possibly be interpreted as forgiveable. With no adult interaction whatsoever, the boy gets himself up, gets together a uniform, after a fashion, and remembers his free school meals card.
To ask for punctuality or a pen on top of this is to keep a guttering light of wild optimism aflame.

Phillip's eyes are rimed from sleep, and his hair is frozen in a damp vertical shock from the cowlick all the way to the rear left of his skull. In the last year, he's admitted three things to me:
1. My lessons have not so far been boring.
2. He likes reading out loud - as long as I don't make him do it, because, as well I know, he 'can't' read.
3. He likes English nowadays.

I call on Phillip to read a passage from White Fang, delivering him the book open at his page in an attempt to settle him more quickly.
Judiciously used, I can give you an actual teaching tip: ask hesitant readers to read for way longer than anyone else.
They'll do a page in halting, purposely-stultifying monotone, in the hope you will register the pained annoyance on their peers' faces, and rescue them. Don't.

After a page and a half, they'll come to terms with the fact that they're reading the damn book forever because that damn teacher won't let up, and suddenly their throat relaxes, their hands stop shaking, and the reading become five degrees more melodious than before.

The best thing of all? Nobody will notice. They're too into the book.
He eagerly settles into it, rubbing his eyes awake, but when I suggest a writing task the usual fuss ensues. No pen. No book. No desk. No intention of doing it.

To my shock, after ten minutes, a smiling Phillip returns to me, brandishing a page of grubbily ripped paper containing a wild scrawl of which he and I are soon inordinately proud.
I ask for his pen to make one correction; he passes me a freshly chewed version of the fancy pen I'd had in my desk, lid glistening with intent spittle.
I ask for his hand to shake, a formal congratulation for completing more classwork than ever before.
Phillip grins from under the flop of dark fringe, and thrusts towards me his miniaturised hand. The nails are blackened, the knuckles are scabbed, and for one horrifying second I glimpse the white recently crusted scale between the fingers of his right hand, before flinching.
That's how I learnt never to be overly tactile with crusty little boys. This week I learnt the same lesson again.