All going up in flames

4th November 2011 at 00:00

"Remember remember the fifth of November ..." Well, I shall never forget one recent Bonfire Night party, in particular the words spat out by a freshly cuckolded guest to those of us cowering in the kitchen, all trying to steer clear of the marital conflagration outside.

Earlier that evening he had been one of those silhouetted figures in the darkness at the far end of the field, heroically lighting the touch-paper for the firework display.

Unfortunately, he had been in even deeper darkness about the comings and goings of his wife. Someone else was lighting her touch-paper. Or, as he exclaimed as he burst into the kitchen: "I found her and that fat bastard snogging on a bench by the fire and sharing a fucking toffee apple".

I knew how he felt. In my youth I remember being dumped at least twice at bonfire parties. At university, the event would often be enlivened by a turbulent conclusion to the strained relationship between fresher student and the long-standing girl or boyfriend from back home. That well-intentioned invite to the union bonfire always backfired, given the new presence of "Sophie", "Carl" or whoever. Thus, I have come to regard the whole event as synonymous with meltdown.

It's much the same story at school. We have reached that point in the academic year when many a relationship at work seems poised to blow up. All was going so well, but now we look back at September with the kind of fond nostalgia normally reserved for memories of childhood Christmases.

In September, we told colleagues that all our classes were "lovely". All our Year 7 pupils seemed so "sweet", so "keen". And despite receiving alarming data about the notorious "Liam", we declared back during those halcyon first few weeks that "we couldn't see what all the fuss was about". We and the pupils were so fresh and energised.

Things seem rather different now. Our relations with most pupils are still positive, but our teaching week is once again beginning to feature a few darker spells. Various pupils and one or two classes are starting to grate, and we are beginning to see what they meant about Liam.

Other relationships are struggling, too. My own on-off love affair with a proper, workable filing system is also coming to a sorry end, as it always does by November. The New Order worked so well in the first few weeks. But eventually there was an overflow again and one pile began a hostile takeover of another.

No surprise, then, that another declining relationship now is the one between me and the classroom cleaner. By November she has realised how unlucky she is to have me on her patch. My marriage to the classroom computer is also on the rocks, the early excitement at reuniting after the summer break now replaced by the usual mutual exchange of insults. I am a "fatal error" again; it has become a "complete tart", again.

However, there is hope ahead and my plaintive tone is mainly to reassure disillusioned teachers that November really is the nadir. If we can get through until Christmas I find relationships generally start to improve from January onwards. By then we will have come to a new and more realistic working relationship with everyone and everything. (Though not always. Readers should be aware that things can go further down, as well as up).

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

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