The concrete ping-pong table in the playground has surely become one of the great iconic monuments in state schools today. After two or three decades, they still stand as square and solid as ever, like fabled PE teachers of old.
Watching the younger students play there always helps to brighten a break duty, particularly at this time of year. A strong easterly blast currently means that the ball often has to be sideways in order for it catch the trade wind that will then redirect the ball back over that stone “net”. It’s quite a skill.
If there isn’t such an event already, there really ought to be a World Gale-Force Table-Tennis Championships. Fred in Year 8 would surely be up there with the best. That young man is widely acknowledged by his peers to be totally unplayable when the wind is up.
Before his game begins, he famously holds up a wetted finger in order to gauge the direction and strength of the prevailing air current. His friends look on with a mixture of awe and amusement. He’s effectively won before they have even started.
Perhaps inspired by Fred and his mates, one colleague here had the simple idea this term of proposing staff table-tennis after school on Fridays. To pull in the more reluctant of players, the venue is indoors (the staffroom) and between matches there are cakes galore, provided by a rota of participants.
The table is quite a bit shorter, narrower and more curved around the corners than regulation, but it’s the “same for everybody”, as I informed one disgruntled opponent from science. Meanwhile, the £20 needed for the net, bats and balls came out of the school’s staff welfare budget. There is obviously not a huge amount in that pot but I cannot think of a better way of using such funds.
An ace way to boost teacher wellbeing
The event has attracted colleagues from all over the school. Surprisingly enough, the most keenly fought matches have taken place between members of the PE team, while the most eccentric encounter involved our two language assistants. They have both adopted a unique, high-elevation “serve and volley” game more commonly found at Wimbledon. They are definitely moving us all on.
People’s personalities shine through when they are at the table, some going for broke with almost every shot, while the more cautious types just try to keep things safely on the table. My own top tip is to slice across the ball exotically with the bat while sending it high into the air, shouting “Watch out! It’s got spin on it!” to your opponent. It’s done well for me in real tennis and generally works in ping-pong, too.
I have posted to staff a table-tennis ladder, ranking all the participants using a complex formula known only to me. This surprised them all, as they had no idea that any kind of competition was going on – other than the race to be first to the amazing Victoria sponge.
Needless to say, I was absolutely delighted to discover that I have ranked myself as number one. Sadly, some of my keenest and most competitive colleagues have found themselves ranked below the school’s founder, who has been deceased for over 450 years.
So if you are looking for one way of brightening up the end of another wearying winter week at school, just put up a net, bake a cake and start serving.
Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire