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First encounters

Nicholas Woolley discovers children

Bubbles of snot pop in his nostrils. "Non!" he screams. "Aarrrggghh!" He's on the floor writhing, his purple face shiny and wet. And when his flailing legs catch a stray snow boot, and send it skimming into the legs of one of his classmates, she too bursts into tears. I'll ignore her, I think, and concentrate on the boy. I can't deal with everything at once. So I muster my cajoling skills and say, half pleading: "Please calm down."

"Non! Non! J'veux pas les porter! Arrgghhhh!" I failed French at O-level so the protests of this whining Franco-Ontarian, delivered in an accent I've never heard before and through a goopy filter of mucus, areunintelligible.

I try to communicate anyway, speaking in my best Lancashire high school French. "Do you know the way to the town hall?" "Non!" he splutters.

"My windscreen wipers are not working properly."

"Arrggghhhh!" Luckily, a colleague sees me struggling. She knows the child, and says:

"That's Wesley. He hates putting his mittens on. You'll just have to do it for him." She is too calm.

Is that all - a tantrum over a pair of gloves? I feel cheated. And I can't help as I'm rooted to the spot: the space between my knees is in use as a temporary storage facility for the hats and scarves of the junior kindergarten. I'm effectively on a leash, too, because a small girl is munching the end of my tie. She's already eaten the hem of my jacket.

"Non!" I want to scream. "Aarrrggghhh!" Fifteen minutes later, Wesley finally goes outside, glove-less, for morning recess. And I retire to the staffroom, cursing the flu epidemic.

It' this illness that brings me here. After cutting my teeth as a teacher in Ontario's jails - where tantrums are dealt with quite differently - an opening came up for supply teachers with the local Catholic school board. I started just before Christmas, in the heart of the sickness season. It's been a busy time.

It is also extremely refreshing; I'd forgotten that small children exist. In my peer group, only the real keeners have started procreating. And the last time I stepped into a primary school, I was in Junior Four.

I never see Wesley-aged folk in everyday life. Unlike teenagers, my usual clientele, they don't hang around coffee shops and malls. I don't see them loitering in the street, dragging their heels, killing time. They travel from home to school with stealth, in the back of Mom and Dad's minivan.

So it is almost surreal to see such small kindergarten students shuffling around big hallways and classrooms, speaking two languages but unable to tie their shoelaces. They all have big heads and little bodies, and move with strange jerks, frame by frame. When they shout, their voices are tiny and squeaky.

And the teacher-student relationship is unsettling. As my mother-in-law, a Grade 3 teacher, puts it: "They all have big round eyes and think you're God." Hardly high school, then.

I've never thought that my usual students were once little Wesleys - snottily unselfconscious, laughably uncoordinated, and not in the least bit concerned with seeming adult. I suddenly realise I've never taught children before.

Nicholas Woolley taught English for two years in Manchester before moving to Canada

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