A hard day in heaven

16th April 2004 at 01:00
A class from hell or a room full of angels?It's a tough decision, writes Jude Mallatratt

I have glimpsed teacher heaven. Today, I filled in for my son's Year 4 teacher. I approached the class hesitantly, bearing in mind her emotional outburst of last week, when the children reduced her to tears. My son had forewarned me about "Ralph", the troublemaker, and I'd worked out ways of demonstrating that I meant business.

First, though, I need to tell you the joke about the teacher who'd died and was standing outside the Pearly Gates. St Peter congratulated her on being an excellent, patient teacher all her life and offered her a classroom where all the desks were in straight rows, not a paper or pencil out of place, the students clean, sitting attentively in their desks in front of neat, careful work.

The teacher looked at St Peter doubtfully. "Do you have anything else?" she asked. St Peter, amazed, showed her another room, one filled with noisy children, running around, throwing paper aeroplanes. The floor was a mess, the desks askew; the children hardly paused or threw them a glance as they entered. "Ah," she sighed. "That's better. I'm used to this."

The point is, today I saw a carbon copy of that first classroom, the one with the neat children all waiting respectfully. They stood in unison as I entered, and chanted "good morning". They sat quietly, listening to my every word, following my every instruction. Ralph sat at his desk, the model student. It was unnerving.

And there was a blackboard. I can't remember when I last used chalk. I fingered it nostalgically. One sentence and I remembered why I had always disliked it. It went all over my fingers and face, but not one child sniggered or commented. Everything I wrote was dutifully copied in neat, copperplate handwriting.

When anyone entered the room the entire class leapt to their feet and chorused a greeting. It was almost the only sound all day. At lunchtime, all materials neatly put away, they filed out, smiling encouragingly. Half an hour later they returned, and the rest of the day followed the same eerie pattern: homework automatically copied into homework diaries; yesterday's homework neatly placed in the correct trays for marking - all 28, complete, on time. Stunned, I bid them all goodbye and received the polite, collective farewell.

I gazed around the classroom. Every chair was neatly tucked under its desk, one pencil on the floor near Ralph's desk (which admittedly was not the cleanest or neatest in the room). The only fault I could find was on the chalkboard, where my lack of practice sadly showed. Now I can only ask myself. If St Peter showed me the same two classrooms, which choice would I make?

Jude Mallatratt is a medieval historian and writer who lives in Mbabane, Swaziland, where her husband, a development worker, teaches ICT at Swaziland college of technology

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