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How can you say no to all those woolly thinkers?

"Teaching would be easy," I say to my colleague," if only real life didn't intrude all the time." My student Lorna had just phoned to say she couldn't attend class: "Liam's unwell." It takesme a few seconds only to remember that this is her two-year-old.

He has got slack cheek syndrome apparently. I make concerned noises and visualise a two-year-old who looks like a St Bernard with huge drooling jowls. Somewhat taken with this, I mention it to my colleague who snorts derisively. "Slapped Cheek Syndrome," she snaps as she picks up her folders for class. "Red flushed patches - can occur all over the body."

Slapped Cheek Syndrome is a new one on me. I'm usually more concerned about the spread of Grey Woolly Hat Syndrome (GWHS). However disparate a bunch, most learners understand the rules of the game, and try to concentrate on what they have in common with their classmates so that we can crack on. Some, though, are determined to stand out from the crowd. They signal this by wearing a grey woolly hat.

Tommy's woolly hat was worn pulled right down to his eyebrows. He was noisy, interrupted, giggled a bit, fell off his chair and was totally engaging. He would come out and demand a tete-a-tete which excluded the rest of the class. "Tommy - you're intruding on my private space," I said to him finally. (We were about to embark on interviewing skills, so it was a great lead-in.)

He leapt back with alacrity. "I didn't know," he said, confused and obviously somewhat worried. I explained. He shook his head at the complexity of it all. "I never heard of that," he said. "You see, I went to school in Aberdeen," he added by way of mysterious explanation. We spent the rest of the session on role play, on non-verbal communication, and I'd like to say his behaviour moderated.

I'd like to say. Wearing a woolly hat is a bit like wearing a mask - it unlocks the soul underneath and allows freedoms non-woolly hat wearers are denied. Peter also wears a woolly hat. His choice of topic for his presenttion "The Role of the Male in a Post-Feminist Society" was problematic. Note, this is National Certificate level, not PhD. But he said he didn't care that it would involve him in an awful lot of reading and research - he knew a lot already, he had a vested interest in the subject and it would be great. I would like it. With only two females and 18 lads in the class I pondered whether his topic might result in Slapped Cheek Syndrome but reckoned there would probably be safety in numbers and let him go ahead with his plan. GWHS means you like a challenge.

Luke, in my creative writing class, wears a woolly hat and writes songs - probably at the same time. The group spent the session discussing the short story. Luke was quiet, as always, but thoughtful. At the end of the session he came up to me. "What was that word you used last week?" he asked. GWHS means you always ask impossible questions. However, by some happy chance we hit on the word - serendipity. No, really, that was the word. Serendipity.

He took a crumpled sheet of paper from his pocket and smoothed it out on the desk. "Could you write that down for me?" he asked. "It's a lovely word." I wrote it down and he wrapped it up, as if it were a small precious object lying on the sheet of crumpled paper, and placed it carefully in his pocket. "Thanks," he said and left happy. That's the trouble with students who present with GWHS. They can be so sweet.

GWHS has spread, I suspect, from the real to the virtual world. I'm convinced that one of my online learners sits at the computer terminal wearing a woolly hat. Her e-mails are turning into Bridget Jones's Diary. I do think, though, that she is going to stick to her diet this time.

If only she could take a lesson from my son in the art of brevity. A text message from me - "R.U. in Paris?" - drew the response text "No". A well-brought-up young man who has never worn a woolly hat in his life.

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in media

communication at Dundee College.

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