Find meaning in the festive madness

Geoff Brookes

I'll tell you what Christmas means to me. It means the GCSE RE mock exam, with no one wanting to be there. I'm in the hall supporting the invigilators, which means I'm doing their job. It's what we all have to do - no Christmas cheer here. Bah humbug.

"Why do some people not believe in God?" the exam paper asks, and I wonder will God - if he exists - stop Toyah, or some other obscurely named pupil, doing her mascara during the exam?

One thing Christmas means to teachers is marking mock exam papers. It also means digesting new teaching initiatives, reports, developments and changes, then sighing and knowing that this is what we can look forward to next year.

'Tis the season to be jolly? Don't make me laugh. Christmas means the school hall being sticky with squash and the light fittings throbbing to some inexplicable tribal rhythms during the disco. At the end, an over-excited Year 7 activates the fire alarm and we all troop outside in the biting wind.

It means the school Christmas dinner and a pervasive smell of industrial boiling, which triggers a stampede to the chip shop. Those of us who remain, trapped by duty, are confronted by red-faced antler-wearing dinner ladies. The pudding has the texture and shape of blocks from an Inca temple.

Christmas means a school tree - donated by a local woodland group - that looks like a stick. It sheds needles and ornaments, courtesy of some kids who are commissioned by their parents to steal them.

It means the science teacher comes to school wearing a musical tie: it wasn't amusing last year, it isn't amusing this year.

It means the staff function where teachers with absolutely nothing in common eat dodgy food in a grim hotel, get drunk together and slag off the headteacher. They then fall into taxis muttering incoherently about key stage 3 assessment.

It means the carol service where you begin to understand the true meaning of frost bite in an unheated and rarely used chapel. You huddle for warmth and watch Louise in Year 8 doing that thing with a tambourine. The head girl races through a reading about the Three Wise Men and talks wisely of "gold, franky scent and myrah".

It means that children are off school because they are needed to carry the Christmas shopping. Great idea. What about mine? I haven't even started shopping yet and it would be much easier if I was on long-term sick leave.

Mind you, it is always a testing time for staff on sick leave. They need to shop just as much as the rest of us, but inevitably they will be seen out, usually laughing on an escalator, carrying interesting-looking bags while you clutch a grubby list, wondering where to start. Ill health can often look, well, healthy.

Christmas means that the school is cold because the boilers are broken and your neighbours, who don't teach, are jetting off somewhere exotic.

And then you receive a Christmas card. It's grubby and has lots of crossings out because originally it was intended for someone called John. It's also inexpertly sealed and sheds glitter. But your heart melts, because Christmas means something to the children we teach.

We can be as grumpy as we like, but they keep it all alive. We can see it in their eyes. We are part of their traditions, even if we don't want to be.

My sister-in-law, a junior school teacher, will drown in cheap bubble bath this Christmas, even though it smells like a loft full of bats. If the children bought it for Pounds 1, they had been robbed.

Why do people never know what you really want? After the longest term of the year, what teachers desire most is wine. But the gesture is so important. Each of those presents is real and important to the child. When they are older, they move on to other traditions. The girls exchange presents in gift bags. The boys stand around looking puzzled.

Christmas means finding the school villain not spending his dinner money so that he can buy his mum a present. It means that Jordan is even more excited than normal because his dad will be released from prison for a while.

What does Christmas really mean? It means a sense of innocence that cuts through our frankly tired, overworked cynicism.

Andrew, aged 13 and with special needs, believes unshakably in Santa. So what do you do? Tell him to get real? Or do you help him to preserve the magic just a little bit longer. We are the lucky ones at Christmas because the children keep it alive for us.

So what does it all mean to me this year? If I could wrap it all, it would be the grand finale of the science department competition, where pupils were asked to make an animal out of recycled materials. The star entry was a teddy bear made from the family's old hair extensions. Finally I know what Christmas truly means. It's the new clothes, new toys and new make-up complete with new hair style. It's absolutely priceless. Merry Christmas.

Geoff Brookes, Deputy head of Cefn Hengoed School in Swansea.

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