In what is the single biggest mistake of my fledgling teaching career to date, I accidentally said the ‘c’ word to a bunch of 5 year olds. We were returning from Assembly when one of the children asked “When will you be returning to see us?” “Well, I’ll be back in November until Christmas…” I realized too late what I’d said. Complete and utter bedlam ensued. I’d forgotten just how nuts kids go when ‘Christmas’ is mentioned (what were you thinking I meant?)
I was definitely not in college anymore; this was the real world. To be more precise, an inner city school in which 34 languages are spoken (and not any of the 33 I happen to speak fluently). The bus ride in had involved watching kids write swear words on the bus window. My inner stickler wanted to correct their spelling of ‘shit’ (spelt ‘siht’ – I shit you not). As if to emphasise I was now in the ghetto equivalent of Lilliput, I put my back out during ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’.
I was given some last-minute tips in the morning from one of the staff, including “if a child picks up a chair, you do the same”. She noticed the disconcerted look on my face “don’t question why, it just works, trust me I speak from experience”. With my continuing back spasms I hoped any child that confronted me chose something small and manageable.
My mentor was Jean, a stern woman so committed to the School I felt a tinge of sadness imagining her life post retirement. She had previously worked in a mental hospital and joked how she’d not come far. The naughtiest kid in the class was my namesake Tim and every time she bellowed his name I jumped out of my skin wondering what I’d done wrong. On the return from playtime one child reported being hit by Tim. Other children joined in until Jean asked who hadn’t been hit by Tim; only me, apparently.
With my clumsy, big feet I was definitely the elephant in the room, constantly knocking over children and chairs. I was glad to sit down for my first attempt at storytelling. I congratulated myself on keeping a straight face as I read the line ‘Sammy the squirrel felt happy to empty his nuts and little sacks’ although I was upstaged by a story I read by Tim, involving a dwarf made of gold that hit a bear with a stick.
Jean broke into a rare smile to tell me how she’d managed to get two twin selective mutes to talk. She asked them to record themselves at home, and then give her the tapes they’d made. Jean would compliment them on their intelligence, humour and grasp of English and little by little they began to speak in School.
The Head Teacher ended Assembly by giving out awards for the best behaved children. “My final award” he said “goes to a child whose behaviour has improved, who has eaten all of his packed lunch every day and worked very hard with his literacy and maths. I think he knows who he is and I’d like him to come and collect a well-earned certificate”. Two kids stood up. “Sit down Tim!” screamed Jean. I would have made Pavlov’s dog proud.