School's Out - Give short shrift to the cargoes

The incident would not normally be worth mentioning. My bumping into a colleague in a Brittany market is hardly the most staggering of coincidences. Almost the entire teaching profession seems to be at loose in France at the moment, ordering cheese loudly.

(In terms of improbability, it was as nothing. For instance, two people on our staff recently discovered they had both, during earlier careers, been fired across a marquee from the same circus cannon.)

What was striking about our meeting was the morose, almost hostile way my colleague greeted me. "Just look at us", he said, looking disdainfully at our legwear. "What an utter embarrassment." Sadly, I understood what he meant.

He and I - along with seemingly every other male teacher - are spending our holiday shuffling around in those long, shapeless, voluminous, multi- pocketed so-called cargo shorts. And each one of us looks suitably strained and shamed by the experience.

We presented such a sorry contrast to the Frenchmen at that market. The Bretons nearly all deck the fronts of their houses with a tasteful flourish of petunias and geraniums. Similarly, their men are decked in bright but unfussy little shorts dating from the 1980s, just covering the upper thigh. There is an effortless chique about their display of proud legs. You could almost smell self-respect.

All right, maybe one or two of them had gone a little too "Olympic Games" - you know, those rather showy items more suited to running a 10,000m race, with the inverted V cut all the way up the side of the thighs to the hips - but even this seemed a more stylish option than the terrible world of cargo shorts.

John Masefield's much-recited poem "Cargoes", with its two sharply contrasting images, suddenly takes on an extra dimension. In terms of style, those Frenchmen were on board the Quinquireme of Nineveh; my colleague and I were on the dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack. They were the peacocks, we the pig-lead.

Male teachers are fabled for never getting the clothing right, but the past few summer holidays have been a particular disaster. Yes, we have tried going into denial, tried thrusting both hands on to our hips in a futile attempt to emulate the men in the clothes catalogue. No one is taken in. Nothing can conceal the meltdown waist down.

All this may sound trivial, I know, but not entirely so. The holidays are the time when we are most in the public eye. Can we not appreciate that these shambolic shorts are, quite literally, bringing the profession to its knees? Teachers are not the only transgressors, of course, but why should we be seen to be so slavishly following this fashion catastrophe? Instead we could, like Moses, lead the country out from this wilderness: our National Challenge.

We may like to think that fellow holidaymakers can see beyond our clothes and appreciate that their children are safe in the hands of a man wearing comedy scoutleader's shorts. Sadly, most of them do not. Nowadays it is not the excessive length of teachers' summer holiday which alienates us from the general public; it's the ridiculous length of our summer shorts.

Time, then, to jettison our cargo and to step into something more sensible. What can be wrong with a pair of normal shorts, with just a couple of pockets and ending unobtrusively around mid-thigh? The status of the profession would rise with that ascending hemline. At last we could meet each other in French markets with a new-found sense of pride - underpinned by our pins.

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire.

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