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Old or new, the Welsh don't change

When David Lewis left Australia for South Wales he found that some things are the same in schools everywhere . . .

Word has got round that I've come from Australia. "Gor! 'E dunne talk like Crocodile Dundee."

"Look 'ow brown 'e is."

"Tha's 'cos it's so 'ot in Australia."

"D'ja ever get bit by one of them spiders, Sir?" "Do they really wear those hats with corks dangling down?" "D'you know Donald from Home and Away, Sir?" A cascade of questions and speculation hits me as I face my first class as a relief teacher in South Wales. My fear that my students and I will not be able to understand each other diminishes as I quickly retune my ear to their sing-song valleys speech and they tune in to the novelty of my harder-edged Australian accent.

"Gor! Say 'Gidday' again, Sir." They practise with relish. "Gidday, mite." "D'you live anywhere near that school in Neighbours?" "No." My old school was rather more like Heartbreak High.

"Have you ever seen that thing like this?" one asks, zigzagging a finger up and down. After a moment's bafflement I realise he means the Sydney Opera House. "Oh yeah, plenty of times," I reply, and congratulate myself on a lucky guess.

"D'ja ever go surfing? D'ja ever see them big white sharks?" "Yep, I do a lot of that. No, I don't worry about sharks. They're generally quite friendly and mind their own business."

This is greeted with splutters of incredulity. "Oh yeah, let's go swimming with the sharks. Yeah, sure."

"Whatya doing here anyway, Sir? This place is a dump. I wouldn't come here if I could live in the sun in Australia."

I glance through the rain-lashed windows at the trees thrashing in the gale outside and almost concede the point, but reply cheerfully: "Oh, I like the greenery and the scenery here. One place I lived was called the Sunshine State and sometimes it didn't rain for years. That can be just as bad. Anyway, I might go back for the Sydney Olympics.

"Cool!" etc, and off we go on another spate of speculations.

Finally I get them settled down, and I'm encouraged to find they're reasonably industrious, or at least not indignantly affronted by the idea of doing some work, as were some of my Queensland classes. Other first impressions are generally favourable. The childen are fairly friendly, there's little or no graffiti on the desks, and they're mostly well turned out in their uniforms. My own dress code has undergone a radical change from shorts and open-neck, short-sleeve shirt to jacket, collar and tie. It feels unnatural.

Another difference is the length of the school day. Previously attuned to winding down and dismissing my last class by 3pm, I now have to keep going an extra hour, and in double lessons to boot. In Queensland it's recognised that the first couple of hours in the cool of the morning are the most productive, and long double lessons are avoided in the afternoons, when it's hot and soporific. Here, they're running two afternoon doubles in succession.

Being left-handed, I always tick to the left when marking work. One special educational needs class is amazed by this novelty and takes it for an Australian habit. "Oh yes," I assure them, "I always do back-to-front ticks, and if I was in Australia, I'd do them upside down too." When the amusement subsides this leads on to a discussion of other things that are back to front in Australia, like the seasons.

I casually mention that I once lived right on the equator, where I could step out of the front door into the southern half of the world and out of the back into the northern.

How all this is assimilated I discover a few days later when a long-absent student rejoins the class and is forewarned about the peculiarities of the new teacher by the others. "He does back-to-front and upside-down ticks on your work and he used to live right on the equator, so if he stepped out the front door it was the middle of summer and if he stepped out the back it was middle of winter." I refrain from correcting this. It's nice to see there's still a bit of wonderment in the world.

In a top-stream class I'm asked what parts of Australia I've lived in and I mention New South Wales. "Oh, so now you're back in Old South Wales," is the reply.

The school is perched high on the side of a steep valley, and as it has grown over the years it has crept slowly downhill like an educational glacier. Now it is staggered on 25 levels, and finding your way around is like descending into the bowels of the Titanic. In keeping with the mining tradition of the area the staff have nicknamed the lowest level Pit Bottom. My fitness improves significantly as I shuttle between classes in this basement and the 10-year-old "temporary" classes high up on the hillside.

The staff are friendly, and I detect an extra warmth when England are thrashed by Australia at rugby. With the Welsh team being beaten by just about everybody, the Australians are seen as welcome avengers.

One of the threats to a teacher's dignity is the nickname. Each new class greets me with questions about my supposed surfing prowess, which seems to have captured the imagination and grown considerably in the telling; a student asks if I'll be surfing at the Olympics. Maybe they'll honour me with a flattering macho nickname.

This fond delusion is rudely shattered by my last class of the day, when I hear someone humming a horribly familiar tune. My heart sinks. Periodically the tune is gleefully taken up by other elements in the class amid scarcely suppressed giggles.

I stand on my dignity and ignore it as best I can, but by the time the class is dismissed everyone is in on the joke and a noisy and irreverent bunch disappear down the corridor singing, "Skippy, Skippeee, Skippy the bush kangaroo".

Once I've got used to the minor differences, what really strikes me is the sense of deja vu; students everywhere are obstructive and anarchic. The behaviour is so similar to that of the Australian pupils I begin to suspect there's an Internet site (perhaps called klass.kaos) where students of the world share and refine tactics.

Yes, I think wearily, I've seen it all before. The over-eager rush to get into class that jams the door with bodies; the mock co-operation where everyone shouts "shush" and tells everyone else to be quiet and listen to the teacher; the magnification of minor distractions into dramas (a wasp that induces mass hysteria); trading insults with a passing class, transparently contrived attempts to suck the teacher into petty squabbles ("Did you see that, Sir? If I did that I'd be in big trouble"); debates about the date, the time, how long until the bell. And so on.

And then there are the strange noises. Not just the common or garden tappings, scrapings, shufflings or squeakings of digital watches but the almost unattributable animal noises produced in the back of the throat - jungle noises, I call them.

In the Australian rain forests, whipbirds communicate through whistles and loud clicks or whip cracks over distances of 100 yards or more. A unique double act in one of my Queensland classes could produce a convincing whipbird exchange.

The Welsh students are not to be outdone, because it isn't long before I hear someone producing a pretty convincing didgeridoo sound. I feel quite at home.

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