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Lessons from the odd couple

I always go for my annual health check in August, that way I can expect a low enough blood pressure reading to convince myself I'll survive the next 11 months.

Doctor Rains was new to the practice. He looked up at me and grinned, "Mr Eddison? Now that name rings a bell."

"Never heard that one before," I replied. Then I realised he was being serious. A few seconds later it dawned on me who he was. And the realisation instantly took me back to my probationary year.

I began teaching in 1988, having spent 12 years in an engineering factory and four as a mature student. The school, on a run-down council estate, was not dissimilar from the one I went to; except where we sang Jerusalem every morning, this one rang to the tune of "Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough". And I may not have been hard enough if it hadn't been for Marigold and Richard.

Marigold, the deputy head, was the Daily Mail disguised as House Garden. Middle-aged and middle-class, she wore flowery dresses over bullet-proof corsetry and perfume fierce enough to ward off the least adequately toilet-trained.

Her home was in the west of Sheffield where posh people live and where, in the city's industrial heyday, the prevailing wind brusquely wafted away the smoke and stench of vulgar industrial toil.

Marigold modelled the rules - actually, I interpreted them as guidelines - for surviving the trials of classroom life.

She refused point-blank to tie the damp shoelaces of little boys returning from the toilets. She had cupboards more regimented than a Sandhurst passing out parade.

And she sailed serenely through the urgent needs of small children like the QE2 ploughing through a flotilla of bobbing dinghies.

Unfortunately she also modelled what not to do. Like whenever Ryan scratched in his English book something that resembled a motorway pile-up, or ate his dinner with his fingers, or climbed on the school roof and threw tiles at the caretaker, she would shake her head and say: "What do you expect from children round here?"

And whenever Zoe bit someone, or stole their pencil case, or was overly generous with her headlice, she would raise her eyebrows and declare: "But really, you can't expect anything better from children round here."

And when she said these things, I would force a smile and say to myself: "But I came from round here. Or from somewhere very similar."

Richard came from round here, too. His age and background were identical to those of Ryan and Zoe. But in terms of expectations he taught me a quite different lesson.

"Actually, Mr Eddison," he said, while I was demonstrating with several different sized balls how the solar system is arranged, "Venus is nearer the Sun than Earth, and Mars is further away. And actually, Mr Eddison, you need to swap Saturn and Jupiter around. And actually, Mr Eddison, I don't think you know your asteroids from Uranus."

Actually, Richard was right and he spent the rest of the year advising me on such things as the difference between pollination and fertilisation, why planes don't fall out of the sky and how to switch the bloody computer on.

Looking back, I suppose Richard had at least one thing in common with Marigold; self-belief of the armour-plated variety. And that made him resistant to both the restraints of social deprivation and to other people's low expectations.

Which I suppose explains why he's where he is today: assessing my fitness to survive another year of teaching.

- Steve Eddison is a key stage 2 teacher in Sheffield. Mike Kent is on holiday.

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