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Bloodied but unbowed

We should all have a health and safety certificate, I'm told. So I sign up for a day course. It gets off to a bad start because a few of us have out-of-date information about the venue, and are hanging around in the wrong place. We eventually find out where to go and sneak in late, grateful that the lecturer does not bawl us out.

I arrive in time to hear the lecturer ask if anyone knows how to tell if a cut is to an artery or a vein. One or two know - and are delighted to explain that an artery spurts, and the blood is bright red. In fact, it spurts in time to the heartbeat, the lecturer adds. Blood from a vein, on the other hand, is darker because it has less oxygen, and it oozes. The student next to me is grey - not spurting, but swaying.

By the end of the day, my attention is flagging but we still have to sit a test to get our qualification. How much face will I lose if I don't pass?

It is years since I have completed a multiple-choice paper. I much prefer assignments, where I might fool the assessor with long words and tenuous references.

I already know, of course, that if the postman delivers a large envelope, it's a certificate. If it's a small envelope, it will contain a fail slip.

I wait for the postman with dread.

There's nothing like personal experience to help me understand how my students feel. So, later that week I'm with a class when a student walks in late. I am about to say he has to get up earlier to catch the bus, but instead hold my tongue. He is amazed at his luck.

Soon they will be taking their test - and how reassuring I am about that today. They need to practise analysing texts. As they are really poor at synonyms, we have been picking out unfamiliar vocabulary to work on.

For a change, I've taken in a poem, choosing Thomas Hardy's "The Ruined Maid". The poem concerns a country farm girl who unexpectedly meets up with one of her former co-workers in town.

A conversation ensues in which the country girl remarks on how her friend appears to have risen in the world, and her friend replies cheerfully that life is so much better now she has been "ruined".

Before we start, I give the title and ask the students what they think "ruined" means. I will not record the replies, but for students who are poor at synonyms, they respond with remarkable accuracy and inventiveness.

As the students may find the poem difficult without a bit of help, I read it to them. They are amazed to hear my middle-class southern accent replaced with a Wessex burr. Not to mention that a lecturer is prepared to read anything in the least risque.

I already know that they think anyone over the age of 30 who discusses sex (let alone does it) is quite disgusting.

The students retell the conversation in their own words - with gusto - and request more poetry next week. What reckless urge is it that makes me decide to try limericks?

The author is a college lecturer

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