A parent-helper's view

25th November 2005 at 00:00
When his peers intrude on his habitat, Michael Cook feels like a performing monkey

There are times, when I am helping in school, that I feel like a caged monkey in a zoo doing tricks for peanuts. This usually occurs when the headteacher is showing round potential parents. Unfamiliar faces are led past to gawp and stare. Sometimes, I am pointed out as a feature, the helpful dad, like an estate agent might point out an original bay window or an ornamental mantelpiece (although, from the look on the faces of some of the parents, I am more akin to the lack of a garage or a loose tile on the roof).

Today, when the head sweeps in on her guided tour, I feel more like a caged monkey in the zoo doing tricks for peanuts on the Planet of The Apes. I am being watched by my own kind. While the children are in assembly, I'm alone in the classroom, squashed into an infant-sized chair, struggling to cut equal lengths of raw spaghetti with a pair of crinkly scissors when someone I know walks in.

In fact, not just someone I know: two good friends, Tim and Emma, and their little girl Lily. They had told me that they were coming to look round the school for their eldest daughter, but I had forgotten, what with my current pasta problem and everything. It all feels strangely out of context; two worlds colliding.

I suppose it's partly a bloke thing. I go drinking with Tim. Down the pub, we aim to put the world to rights by the second pint, so the most taxing problems we have to deal with after that are the precise order of our eight desert island discs, and how to get past the chip shop on the way home without giving in to temptation.

But here at school, the stakes are raised and the interaction becomes necessarily more serious. They are trying to decide the immediate future of their first-born child. Me being here, helping here, week after week, implies a strong recommendation of the school. And, if you asked me if I would recommend it, I would gladly answer yes. Alfie and Poppy have had a richly valuable and happy time here. They've been stretched creatively, and guided socially, and do the whole reading and writing thing pretty well too.

But, equally, and as friends will confirm, what the hell do I know? Every morning I spend in school, I realise that little bit more just how ignorant I am about children, teaching or education. Every week I marvel in awe-struck wonder at the transformation of these little people in front of my very eyes. But to ask me to explain it, pass judgment on it, or recommend it, is like asking a caveman to look at the sun and explain the Big Bang theory.

You wouldn't ask a monkey to recommend a zoo - he's not seen a lot of zoos, after all. So please don't listen to a word I say on schools. Just keep chucking the peanuts.

Michael Cook is a freelance copywriter and a parent-helper at Ernehale infants school, Arnold, Nottingham, which his children, Alfie and Poppy, attend

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