One day I struck gold. Having spent 8 weeks in the Job Club, digging through want ads, reviving my CV for the umpteenth time, and pretending to be pleasant, I had a response to a Supply Teaching application I made from an ad in the local paper. I hadn't taught since the days of Crosby, Stills and Hash and had long decided that a career in teaching was not for me. But since I had the credentials and needed a job I felt that it was time to dust off my degree.
I rang up the Head Teacher to arrange an interview but he had no time for formalities for he was a desperate man. He needed an English teacher and I was his girl. I was to start the next day at 8 a.m.
In the job club, all my buddies seemed to be happy that I had finally got work. I told them that we would celebrate when I got my first pay cheque.
Dame Shirley had the nerve to suggest how I should dress for school, and with affected jocularity she said, "Don't dress like you normally do. Hahahah." She was not put off by my blank stare and wondered how I managed to get a job looking as I do.
"Wouldn't you feel better wearing clothes like mine?" She seemed to imply.
I cut her dead by letting her know I didn't like the kind of clothes she was wearing and she huffed off like a sick chiwawa.
I was offered a box of Milk Tray by the proceeds of a frantic whip-round by my buddies including the few reluctant smokers who would rather have spent their money on fags.
We didn't have the money to go to the pub after Job Club but we did go down to the beach front to watch a few fishermen waiting for the Big One. I wondered if they were unemployed. The fishermen shaded themselves from the sun under the giant "No Fishing" signs helpfully provided by Southend Council. We decided they must be unemployed and that night they would eat flounder as I would contemplate my new job.
A panic took hold of me and I couldn't sleep. Beowulf kept me awake. I knew it was important but I couldn't remember why. And how had things changed since I last taught and is it "John Major and me" or "John Major and I," and since I had only taught in an American school; were these British Comprehensives as terrifying as I have heard and should I pack the riot gear.
That feted morning I ensured I washed off the night's sweat before getting suitably dressed. I hyped myself up with as much coffee as I could drink compensating for the lack of sleep. I set off into the unknown driving to work for the first time in 8 months. I drove through the school gates and the hole in my exhaust turned a few heads. I parked and walked up the steps to the most imposing building. I remember from teaching a long time ago there was never a toilet when you needed one. I was ten minutes early and things seemed remarkably quiet. There was nobody about; no sign of life, no kids. Had I found the wrong school.
I wandered into the cream and green corridor which was lined with pictures of assembled old boys and girls. All of a sudden a bell rang and at the end of the corridor the two swing doors flung open and a cacophonous swarm of uniformed green kids wearing much matching green sweaters raced through the corridor like killer bees. They were loose and coming in my direction. They came at me: buzzing, swarming, scurrying along the corridor to wherever in the hell they were all going from wherever in the hell they were all coming from and I was definitely in their way. They were like fighting salmon against the stream, against me. The old boys and girls cheered the race from the walls which flexed and buckled under the strain. It was a stampede in a cinematic western and I was the poor rattlesnake caught in the middle. I was mixing my metaphors and I was an English teacher.
But then as I had quickly reported the stampede, it was all over. The walls sprang back to life and the old boys and girls regained their composure and a soft breeze ensued. There were no hellos and there were no goodbyes.
I looked for the Head Teacher. He said he would meet me in the corridor when I arrived but no sign. Perhaps he had been swept away by the steers.
I sought refuge in the Visitors Toilet: the one with the skirt on the door. They're just kids I kept telling myself and I do have a BA. I slapped some water on my face and decided to look for a teacher-type person for help. Eventually a weary lady rescued me and introduced herself as Chris. She guided me gently to the staff room where there were many worn out sofas and signboards with flapping pages on every wall. Chris told me that I would be taking Mrs. Jerkins' classes today. She did not mention coffee which I desperately needed but did say she was going my way and that she would drop me off. I was led off passsing the playground to my class: a pre fab shelter.
They were waiting for me.
I was introduced to the thirty blank faces who were staring at me like a scene out of Village of the Damned. I pulled myself together and said, "Thank you Chris."
As she left the class she whispered to me, Please don't call me Chris in front of the children. Just Mrs. Black.
So I broke a rule with the very first words I uttered. Oh My God.