More balls than Wimbledon

31st October 1997, 12:00am
John Mitchell


More balls than Wimbledon
Monday: I think I am the object of a teenage crush. I know it seems highly unlikely, but Marlene Beveridge has taken to hanging around my room at every conceivable opportunity.

She wears a constant expression of trance-like adoration, and insists upon staying behind after her fourth-year colleagues have departed from their English lesson. The pretexts vary from asking me for "some extra homework, sir" (an unlikely request, given previous academic endeavours in the school) to begging my continued care over her wretched cyber-pet, upon which she has bestowed the unfortunate appellation of Morris.

"Look, really, Marlene," I tried to persuade her as she entrusted this piece of electronic gimcrackery to my ministrations once more. "This craze is dying out now, and I really don't think it's appropriate for me to be . . ."

Her eyes welled with tears. "But sir," she pleaded. "I can't take him into PE with me, and nobody else can baby-sit Morris like you can." "Doh... all right," I shook my head gruffly. "But it'll have to stop, Marlene. It's time you found yourself some interests other than - " I held the plastic toy in some disdain, but could think of no appropriate descriptor - "than this," I concluded lamely.

There was a pregnant pause as Marlene licked her lips and stared deeply into my eyes. "I'm trying to, Mr Simpson. I'm trying to."

I loosened my collar, wished her well for her PE lesson, and excused myself for a belated interval and a chocolate digestive. It's all rather worrying, to be honest.

Tuesday: I'm going on a course tomorrow, along with half a dozen other members of the guidance staff. It's a module on avoiding conflict situations with hyperactive children and accentuating parental relationships in the development of home-school liaison strategies. I'm quite looking forward to my day away from the chalk-face.

Not so Marlene Beveridge, unfortunately. She looked utterly distraught when I announced that another teacher would be looking after 4C tomorrow, and spent the rest of the lesson in a trance of disbelief. I had to speak quite sharply to her - and I see the wounded look in her eyes as I did - after I had set the class a written task, because she seemed more intent upon embellishing her sheet of A4 with some ludicrous illustrative artwork than with the character analysis of Macbeth which I had demanded of them.

The produce of her artistic labours was eventually presented to me at the end of the lesson. It was a gaudy and slightly salacious offering in the form of a custom-made greetings card whose frontage portrayed a "pair of star-crossed lovers" (I told her she'd got the wrong play, but she didn't seem terribly bothered), gazing tenderly at each other as they bade some fond farewells. Inside, the words "Missing You Already" were emblazoned in every colour of the rainbow.

I bit my bottom lip as she sauntered from my desk: this was all becoming slightly embarrassing, and I took the matter to my elderly mentor Mr Pickup at morning break. For once, he took me seriously and - aside from somewhat tastelessly describing girls like Marlene Beveridge as "jailbait" - he issued some timely advice. "Watch out, Morris," he confided in the gravest of tones. "Watch out. Make sure that you're never alone with her, and if that ever does happen, then make sure you're in a room with an open door, and speak as loudly as you can."

Wednesday: What an appalling waste of time today's course proved to be. Frankly, I was worried as soon as the opening credits went up, so to speak. Our course leader, Sonia Phillips, initiated proceedings with the usual "getting-to-know-you-ice-breaker-strategies", such as thrusting footballs across the room at each other and shouting out our own names and a brief autobiography before tossing the ball in another direction. But I've been through that before, and you learn to live with such embarrassing farragoes after a while.

What was worse was the set of role-play exercises she had devised for us, which involved several buckets and a Wimbledon-like array of tennis balls. Ms Phillips would invent a scenario for us involving several different characters - pupils, parents, teachers, for example - and then get us to talk with each other about our feelings towards them.

If we felt unpleasant emotions, we were required to put a tennis ball in a bucket marked "Negative", if we felt more positive about a character, then we were to put a ball in a bucket marked "Positive". And if we felt ambivalent - well, you get the picture. Half way into our discussions, Ms Phillips would blow a whistle - believe me, this is true - and introduce some more information about the characters in her little scenario which might change our attitudes towards the protagonists. And so it went on. As an attempt to make us analyse our approach to personal relationships, it had minor merit. As the focus for three hours of in-service activity, it was a grand waste of everyone's time. Bored beyond redemption, I started to leaf through the contents of my jacket pocket, and chanced upon my recent pay-slip. Idly checking that my tax deductions were in order, I was rudely interrupted by Sonia Phillips' sharply voiced query.

"Morris! D'you have a problem with this?" "What? Sorry?" I gulped, every inch the guilty schoolboy.

"D'you have a problem?" she inquired archly. "You can share it with us if you like."

"No, no - not at all," I began, before stopping myself short, and taking the momentous decision to say what I thought. For once.

"Well, actually, yes, come to think of it, Sonia, I do. It's to do with the fact that I've left five classes behind in school, all doing work I had to prepare for them because I'd be here today, all of which will need to be marked when I get back. And I'm just thinking that I could have spent my time more profitably in teaching them, than in transferring sets of tennis balls from one bucket to another."

She looked briefly nonplussed, then clearly decided to take a conciliatory line.

"I hear where you're coming from, Morris," she nodded sagely.

"Do you? Do you really?" I was gathering speed now. "How many classes have you taught this year? Eh?" "Well, I don't know if that's terribly . . ."

"How many, Sonia? One? Two? None?" She looked down. "Precisely!" I continued in full and raging torrent. "And how much are you being paid for this in-service? For telling us how to teach classes, when you haven't been in front of one yourself for the last umpteen years?" "I don't think that's a matter for . . ."

"How much, Sonia? Pounds 300? Pounds 400? That's the going rate, isn't it? Ladies and gentlemen," I turned to the other delegates, all of them open-mouthed in amazement.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this course is costing our schools Pounds 400 between them. Plus the costs of cover. Plus the extra work we'll have to do when we get back. Yet in my school, Miss Denver's been trying to get Pounds 250 for a new set of Standard grade history books since June. Mr Potter from technical's been waiting for a new lathe since last Christmas. And Miss Tarbet of home economics has been trying to put buns in a non-existent oven for the past 14 months.

"What do you think the money would be better spent on? That - or this? I don't know about you, but I've had enough - I'm back to school for the afternoon, and spending my time on something useful - like teaching!" Talk about the turning worm! My colleagues looked shocked, although Brian Cooper had the grace to attempt a desultory round of applause. I walked forcefully from the room as Sonia Phillips desperately tried to redeem the situation.

"Would you like a feedback form?" she asked as I passed her at the door.

"No, thank you," I replied politely. "Consider it given verbally, please. " And I walked into the fresh air with a sense of power and a sense of purpose. Free at last.

Thursday: I've been in receipt of congratulatory remarks from my colleagues all day, not least Mr Pickup, who clearly views my reported outburst as the end-product of his years of training. And even Brian Cooper - though he didn't have the courage to join me in the walk-out - had clearly experienced similar views to my own regarding the nature of our in-service activities. It was Brian, I later learned, who had placed a bucket in the corner of the gents' toilet, above which he had traced the large inscription in thick black felt-pen: "IF YOU'RE FEELING NEGATIVE TODAY, PLEASE PUT YOUR BALLS IN THIS BUCKET" As a testament to yesterday's events, it seemed highly appropriate.

Friday: Marlene Beveridge is becoming impossible. She arrived at my door at 3.30 in order to pick up Morris, and was clearly distraught that I had neglected my pet-sitting duties.

"But I came to get him yesterday afternoon, sir," she gasped breathlessly, "and you weren't anywhere to be seen. I thought you must have taken him home with you to make sure he was fed and watered properly."

"Actually, Marlene," I explained gently, "he was shut in my top drawer, and I'm afraid to say that I forgot all about him."

Her eyes opened wide and she caught her breath once more. Suddenly, and to my horror, she burst into floods of tears, accused me of several kinds of infidelity and concluded her emotional outburst with a piercing wail and the charge that I had - and I paraphrase only slightly - "stopped loving her the way I used to do".

Of all the moments for Mr Tod to enter my classroom, it was probably the least appropriate. Our headteacher stopped, gazed fiercely at the weeping girl in front of my desk, and suggested that I make a written report of whatever incident had caused Marlene's distress at the earliest opportunity.

"And maybe you'd combine it with a report of your behaviour at Wednesday's in-service as well, Mr Simpson?" he thrust a letter at me. "I've just received this from Sonia Phillips. She wasn't too chuffed at your little outburst during her course. And neither was her cousin."

"Her cousin?" "Bill Wright, our director of education" "Sonia Phillips is Bill Wright's cousin?" I gawped in disbelief. "But that's awful" "It is for your career," Mr Tod confirmed. "But not for Sonia Phillips. How else d'you think she got the in-service contract?"

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