Another fine mess...

25th September 1998 at 01:00
Familiar moans and groans recalled by Mike Smit

When I was a headteacher, I had a picture of Laurel and Hardy on my office wall. They were holding a sign saying, "Complaints Department 100,000 miles" with an arrow pointing towards the North Pole.

Heads get many complaints - not just medical ones - from pupils, parents, advisers, inspectors, the public and even guinea pigs.

We bought a guinea pig to teach the joys of looking after animals: cleaning, feeding, watering and so on. Once the children were fed up with it, this became my job and the guinea pig was not amused. Neither was I. Half my life was devoted to catering for his every need, while he just ran around, squeaked, and made the school smell.

I did not own an English-Guinea Pig Dictionary, but if I had it would have confirmed that his alien-like noises were squeaks of complaint about my animal husbandry. There was something about the look in his eyes and the tone of his squeak that I had met before and would meet again.

There was the parent who complained that I was personally responsible for the loss of her son's shoe lace and wondered why I hadn't body searched all the pupils. Then there was the adviser who complained that we weren't making enough large models in technology. I said that, once the children and staff were in, our school was only just big enough to store a paper clip, folded in half. He smiled and said, "Why don't you hang washing lines from the ceiling and attach models to them with clothes pegs." I pointed out the potential danger of his scheme - that an unsuspecting dinner lady might be pole-axed by a spire dropping off a model of York Minster if the bulk-buy, school standard glue gave out.

Our caretaker once complained the children were using the toilets too often. The parent mentioned before came back to complain that her son had caught a tropical disease from the drinking fountain. If she'd known what a Year 3 boy had done in it she'd never have let her son drink from it again - it was all part of a scheme to prevent excessive use of the toilet.

In the Laurel and Hardy film Dirty Business, Ollie falls into a fireplace and bricks drop on his head one by one. He makes no attempt to move, but simply looks at the camera with an air of patient, weary resignation. That is how I often felt.

We are living in the age of complaint. If we buy something and don't like it we can take it back and it is replaced or we get our money back. No doubt, in years to come, the illiterate will complain about the failure of the National Literacy Strategy.

I thought I was the Saint Francis of Assisi of teaching. But to some of the visitors who faced me across my desk, I was Attila the Chalk. It was a comfort to see Laurel and Hardy smiling behind their backs.

As for the guinea pig, our relationship hit rock bottom. The last straw came when I went to change what was to be his last straw and found that he had gone. He didn't even leave a note.

I was wracked with guilt. Was it my fault? Despite a search, the guinea pig never turned up. He had, however, taken temporary shelter in my tracksuit trousers and had eaten one of the legs. My union insurance policy did not cover me. Neither did the trousers.

I wish I could have sat that guinea pig in my office and talked through his complaint. I might have persuaded him to stay and not eat my trousers.

Oh well. Our next school production was Treasure Island. My tracksuit bottoms were the perfect costume for Long John Silver. No complaints.

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