Phil Ball's memoir, The Hapless Teacher's Handbook, recalls the terrors of dipping a toe into school life and the heroic colleagues who continue to hold out lifebelts to newcomers
Bonnie Howden, or Mrs Howden as I thought it fit to address her, sprang up from the staffroom sofa as if she were a jack-in-the-box and greeted me like some long-lost nephew. "How absolutely lovely of you to choose to come here!" she enthused, spraying spittle hither and thither. "It's really lovely. No one's been here to see us for so long!" she screeched, almost hugging me. She was unable to form her "r" consonants, so that they morphed into a "w" sound - "wea-lly lovely!" It made her sound even kinder somehow.
She must have been in her mid-50s, wiry and smart, with her grey hair tied back in a bun. The only nod to unorthodoxy was the shocking-pink trouser suit that she had chosen for that Monday, presumably to wake up the children. Dynamic wasn't the word. She grabbed my arm and marched me out of the staffroom "to meet the children".
We flew into the classroom hand in hand, Peter Pan and Tinkerbell. The tiny children, a group of seven-year-olds, were sitting quietly at their desks.
Mrs Howden had already prepared them for me, it seemed. Without a further word she plonked me down on a chair to the side of her desk and suddenly raised her arms, like the conductor of an orchestra. The children, blinking like startled rabbits in the aura of her trouser suit, began to sing the welcome they had clearly been rehearsing the week before.
"We welcome you, oh Mr Ball,
We welcome you into our class
We welcome you like a sunny day,
We welcome you as you sit on your ass."
Or something along those lines. But it was very touching. I hadn't been expecting to make such an impact on their lives. I smiled awkwardly as Mrs Howden wound up to full amphetamine mode. Leaping across the classroom to the piano, she launched into a couple of hymns, pounding on the keys like a deranged concert pianist. The children already seemed to be exhausted, singing like little automata, their mouths opening and closing like stoical goldfish in a tank. But there was no stopping Bonnie. Music was her muse.
At the end of the second hymn, flushed and trembling with the emotion of it all, she shot to her feet and addressed the class with the dreaded questions: "Perhaps Mr Ball plays the piano? Perhaps Mr Ball can sing?" I looked at the floor. "James!" she bellowed, pointing at some poor child in the front row of desks. "Ask our new visitor if he can play the piano,"
upon which the tiny child rose obediently and walked slowly to where I was sitting, the two of us hopelessly exposed in the bright lights of the Mrs Howden show. He stopped in front of me, and with an almost reverential bow squeaked into the silence.
"Please, Mr Ball. Can you play the piano?" Yes I could play the piano, albeit poorly. Mrs Howden, despite the thrashing she'd just given the poor instrument, was clearly a competent pianist. She belonged to that lost generation for whom piano lessons had been second nature. I was unsure as to whether I should lie or just go for it. The little boy still stood there, looking vaguely expectant. In the lingering silence, I decided to admit it.
"Yes," I replied, smiling at the boy. "But I'm not very good." On hearing this, Mrs Howden began to clap, hopping up and down with the sheer excitement of it all. "Mr Ball can play! I just knew he would. We just know - don't we, children - that he will play beautifully for us? Now what do we say?" As I stood up from my chair and began the slow walk to the gallows, the children began to recite mechanically another of their teacher's mantras:
"You must never be shy
You must always try
Always break the crust
Of life's steaming pie."
I sat at the stool and wondered, in the sudden silence, how I might "break the crust". Self-taught on this instrument, in the usual messy way - plonking out chords in the freezing front room of my idle youth - I had none of the wonderful trained fluency that Mrs Howden had just displayed.
Scrabbling through the mental files of my limited repertoire, I decided to try out one of the few hymns I could half play - "Now Thank We All Our God".
I began to plink-plonk the unrecognisable chords, then to sing, out of desperation. Mrs Howden, rushing to the rescue, began to accompany me from the opposite side of the class, in a voice trembling with emotion. "Who from our mother's arms, hath blessed us on our way."
After what seemed like an hour, as we hit the final verse I was beginning to feel some strange sort of love for this woman. Our voices had begun to gel, hiding the appalling piano-playing. Within 10 minutes of my arriving at the school, I was engaged in a duet with a complete stranger, in front of 25 open-mouthed little urchins.
"For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore!" The final line bounced from the poster-coloured walls of the little room and tripped across the silent heads of our startled audience. My leader was taking some time to recover from the ecstasy of it all.
"That was quite splendid," she announced, on finally opening her eyes. "A wound of applause for Mr Ball!" And thus began my teaching career, on a cold November morning, with the windows steamed up and the world outside doing whatever it was doing.
It felt as though I'd never really been away, that I'd not taken long enough, perhaps, to see what else there might be in the affairs of man, beyond the walls of life's classroom. But it felt right, in a comforting sort of way, as the children settled back that morning into something resembling their daily routine. It felt right that I had at least chosen to work with human beings, as opposed to pushing a pen or even making money, however one did that.
Mrs Howden was the type of person from whom I would normally have hidden - and from whom I might have run screaming had I not been obliged that morning to have shared a classroom with her. I would never have guessed at her range of skills, at how a simple enthusiasm for things - anything really - could have such far-reaching effects. As I watched her that first morning I found it impossible to write anything at all on my official observation sheet.
There were various criteria provided for us: Habitual position in the classroom? Range of voice and intonation? Use of blackboard? Discipline: Firm? Authoritative? Authoritarian? Lax? Permissive? I had no idea. The things that I was being asked to consider seemed to me to be of little consequence. There was no checklist, for example, to measure sanity: Mad as a hatter? Utterly barking? Mildly insane? Besides, I was far more interested in the pink trouser suit. A question on the sheet such as "What colours has the teacher chosen to wear?" would have focused me much more clearly on why Mrs Howden was a successful teacher.
The pink trouser suit said "I love you all!" in a clumsy, but endearing way. She could easily have chosen black, which would have made her look elegant, or a more businesslike blue. But the pink communicated happiness, and Bonnie would probably have been bouncing around in the same manner even if she'd just come home from her mother's funeral. And sure enough, as their Monday morning weariness began to wear off, the children began to respond in kind. Who knows what fears and dreads kids bring to school with them? Few of them would tell you. The only escape is to go to school and hope to find something brighter, which is why Mrs Howden's shocking-pink enthusiasm did just fine.
By the end of the first week, I was smitten. I had not been asked to repeat the musical performance, but she had encouraged me to wander around the classroom, to lend a hand where I thought I could, and to just talk to the children. One thing I did notice for the observation sheet, however, was that she didn't really teach much. I had not considered this point before.
It also surprised me, given the hyperactive kick-off that she had treated us to. She would set them tasks, put them into little groups and let them get on with it, which they invariably did. The observation sheet seemed to only ask me questions about her performance, not about what the kids actually got up to.
I resolved to raise this point when I got back to my tutors, but it seemed to me that Bonnie was effective precisely because she trusted them to get on with it, and they trusted her, of course. As I walked home on Friday afternoon, at the end of my first week, a bitter east-coast wind was dancing the first sparse snowflakes around in the gathering gloom. I hunched up against the cold and decided that I should have done more that week, despite the orders that we were only to observe. Bonnie's wonderful acceptance of just about anything - she would probably have applauded if I'd walked into the classroom naked - had made me think that maybe I should try to write a song for the kids, and play it on the last day, in a fortnight's time. It was the least I could do to return her kindness.
Problem was, I'd never written a kids' song, and the only grown-up ones I had attempted to write had been wrist-cutting bedsit anthems, songs best kept from the public domain.
Turning a corner into the howling wind, I suddenly got it. I saw a small, snowman-type creature alone on the North Pole, lonely but friendly, waiting for visits that hardly ever came. As the cars whooshed by in the gathering sleet, the name Jomble-Wimp formed itself in my head. I had no idea where it had come from - maybe from the North Pole. In this kind of weather, Cleethorpes didn't feel that far away from the pole.
I hardly ventured out that weekend, partly because of the weather but mainly because the issue of the Jomble-Wimp had assumed vital importance.
At times the idea seemed vaguely preposterous, and I thought it would be far healthier to go and get drunk in my local. The kids might not even like it, assuming I ever summoned up the courage to play it to them unsolicited.
Nevertheless, by the Sunday evening I'd got it, tune and all.
"Deep in the north, where the white wind blows Where there's snowbergs and icebergs And no one ever goes
I went to see the Jomble-Wimp
A friendly chap you'll see
I always went there once a year
When he asked me round for tea.
Chorus: The Jomble-Wimp the Jomble-Wimp
Was always kind to me
The Jomble-Wimp the Jomble-Wimp
Ate buttered snow for tea."
There were two more verses, in which I made my annual visit to the Jomble-Wimp, and in which he cooked for me generous helpings of icicle pie, frost cakes and frozen flimble, finished off with hailstone sandwiches - but still I wasn't sure. The only thing that made me feel good was that I'd carried the idea through. Mrs Howden was having some influence.
At the end of that second Monday, I casually mentioned I'd written a song for the children, on guitar. I was hoping that the piano-plonking might now be a distant memory and in truth I couldn't wait until the final day to try out the song. Predictably, she hopped up and down with glee. "You've written a song? Oh how wonderful! You must play it to the children. Yes, I insist. Tomorrow morning, just before playtime!"
Of course, her trust was implicit, as ever. It was a great gift that she possessed. Anyone else in their right minds might have gently enquired as to the subject of the song, or even as to the genre. I could easily have written a song called "You're all going to die one day", or "School sucks", but Mrs Howden just assumed it would be kosher. She could see no bad in anyone. So I took my guitar to school and tried to make some contribution.
Still too raw to stand there and teach them anything, and unsure as to what kind of wisdom I could impart, I opted for the performance method. The guitar made me feel safer, stuck there between me and the unfortunate recipients. Bonnie, to my consternation, had asked the children to clear the desks at the front, leaving a floor space where they could sit down in a circle and gaze up at me. It all seemed a bit Watch with Mother for my liking, but I was in no position to protest. I sang the song. The children listened, attentive as ever, the lights of the classroom glistening on their snotty little noses. When I finished, life was never the same again.
There was a pre- and a post-Jomble-Wimp period.
The children applauded, of course - but I was expecting that. Bonnie would make them applaud if you picked your nose. What I hadn't been expecting was the following interrogation. Almost all the children had their hands up, straining to ask their questions. Mrs Howden nodded at me to take over. I pointed to a tiny little girl by my feet. "Please, Mr Ball. Does the Jomble-Wimp have a mummy?"
"Yes he does," I replied, hoping to reassure her. "But Jomble-Wimps don't stay very long with their parents. They're expected to be able to live on their own." Another question: "Can we go to see him?" I turned to Mrs Howden, pretending to ask her permission for a trip. "Possibly. But it's a long way to the North Pole, and it's very cold. Maybe you could just write him a letter?": a suggestion that Bonnie immediately took up the suggestion with the effortless skill of an experienced teacher.
By lunchtime we were still working on the Jomble-Wimp. Some tables had tried to write rudimentary letters, in their scrawny unformed handwriting, whilst others had opted for pictures. Some had drawn the dishes mentioned in the song, which Bonnie had helpfully written out on the blackboard.
Another table was busy on a task deciding what things they should take to the North Pole, in order to keep themselves alive and to make the Jomble-Wimp happy. Their concern for his loneliness was utterly genuine, and each table kept me occupied with a constant volley of questions: "Does he like peanut butter?", "Shall I send him my duffel coat?", "Does he watch telly?"
Thus did Jomble-Wimp fever gripped the small school of St Peter's that chilly November. Like that magical moment when you score the only goal of the match and you feel the sudden pleasure that comes from having an influence on things, so did the furry white creature from the North Pole show me the value of trying to break the crust of life's steaming pie. So flattered was I to have invaded the primary syllabus that second week, so astonished was I to have set such a fuss in motion, that it sent me into a creative frenzy.
Children's songs spewed forth from me and multiplied in frightening quantities. Bonnie invited me to her house one evening so that I could sing them all to her and she could score them on her piano. She had three daughters, ranging in age from 16 to 21, and she introduced each one to me by opening a separate door, like giving me a peep into the rooms of a large doll's house. Each daughter was apparently engaged on some musical activity, cello between knees, violin on shoulder, clarinet in mouth. Each one smiled, and went back to her duties. I had never asked her about her husband, but she sensed the question. "Ron died 10 years ago, but hey what - you have to get on with things. No point in hanging about." And so I went back to my PGCE course in Hull with nothing much written on those observation notes, and a strangely heavy heart.
I had gone to Cleethorpes for a bit of home cooking and some live football, prepared to put up with the minor inconvenience of attending school for three potentially tedious weeks - at the end of which I felt unexpectedly transformed. I'd imagined all sorts of Dickensian scenes, but instead had come across some kind of fairy godmother and a happy school.
All that faced me now was the emptiness of the course, a big unfriendly city and the faintly queasy feeling that the real teaching practice after Christmas could not possibly turn out to be as easy and rewarding as this little episode had proved to be. Mrs Howden was a genius, a revelation. She came from a generation that saw teaching as a public service and vocation.
But it's one thing to see your job in that wholly respectable light and quite another to do it well.
I had arrived at St Peter's with the casual air of the graduate who thinks he's seen it all. I left three weeks later with the conviction that I knew absolutely nothing. I knew that it would take years to get anywhere near Mrs Howden's level of expertise, and even then I wasn't sure that it was something you could really learn. All I wanted to write in my observation notes was that this woman had treated every single one of the children as if they were intelligent beings, whatever they had done or said.
Watching her turn the dumbest remark into something clever, watching her encouraging the slowest-witted kid to believe he could do it next time, watching her carry out her innocent conviction that everyone was as well intentioned as herself, you couldn't help but feel that somewhere in the rotten old world there was a corner that was forever Bonnie, keeping things going, chivvying us all on and teaching us to be kind.
Part II next week: Mr Ball meets DH Lawrence at a job interview. Extracted from The Hapless Teacher's Handbook, Ebury Press, pound;10.99. Copyright ) Phil Ball 2006. Readers can buy The Hapless Teacher's Handbook for pound;9.99 plus free pp. To order please call 08700 11 33 69, or write to EFC Bookshop, PO Box 200, Falmouth, TR114WJ and quote the reference "TES" or order online at www.efcbookshop.com