A sting in the tail

20th September 2013 at 01:00

I love these early September afternoons when the weather thinks it's still summer and my children don't yet know I'm a soft touch. Having a new class who follow rules and hang on your every word makes this the best time to be a teacher. If only things were always this relaxed.

Angelica is the first to twitch. A moment later the spiky-haired boy sitting next to her - whose name I am struggling to remember - is doing the same. The truth dawns when Jennifer who sits opposite them suddenly leaps to her feet and flails ineffectively at some invisible assailant. Vespula vulgaris has infiltrated our classroom with a determination to wreak educational havoc. Panic ensues and pandemonium snaps at its heels.

Suddenly I feel like the UN in the middle of a world crisis. This is because before I get the chance to negotiate a peace settlement, the warlike Harry has assumed leadership and taken unilateral action on everybody's behalf. Armed to the teeth with his maths folder, he charges into the thick of it (wherever the thick of it might be). He swashes to the left and buckles to the right before roaring at Jennifer to keep still. "It's on your back. I can get it if you keep still," he tells her.

Jennifer's flight response kicks in and she runs for cover in the books corner. Harry is not to be deterred, however, and sets off in pursuit, intent on smiting anything in his path.

My appeals for calm eventually penetrate the chaos and shock a critical mass of children into a watchful silence. A fragile ceasefire is declared. Harry grudgingly lowers his weapon of choice. "But it's a wasp, Mr Eddison," he protests.

"I can see what it is," I tell him, although, in fairness, I can't. I can only gauge its location by observing the flinching of those it gets close to. "And, if we want to avoid anybody getting stung, I suggest we keep as still as we can until it finds its way out of the window."

"I think we should kill it to be on the safe side," Harry says.

"If you ignore it, it will ignore you," I explain, only to be undermined by the fact that it isn't ignoring the boy whose name I can't remember. For some reason it is fascinated by the gel used to spike his hair. We wait calmly while it investigates the unusual topography of his head. Only Harry is visibly agitated.

Eventually, the insect gets bored and, after one more circuit of the room, disappears. Assuming it must have exited, I relax. "There you are, Harry," I say. "All you have to do with wasps is stay calm. Don't threaten them and they won't threaten you."

"But my dad says they were only put on this Earth to annoy and sting people," he replies. "They don't have any uses and should be wiped out."

I leap to their defence. "Well, maybe you should tell your dad that the common wasp - Latin name Vespula vulgaris - is an essential part of our ecosystem and, without it, we would be overrun by pests that damage crops and spread disease. He should also know that wasps have no desire whatsoever to sting humans."

That is unless you accidentally rest your arm on the one crawling across your table. I shriek something in Latin and it isn't Vespula vulgaris.

Steve Eddison teaches at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield, England.

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