Arnold's wworld

20th February 1998 at 00:00
Over the years, I have been asked to conduct school assembly often enough (once to be exact) to know that it's unquestionably the single most terrifying ordeal that any human being can voluntarily undertake. I would sooner fly in a hot-air balloon with Richard Branson - sooner offer him a bung - than ever have to do an assembly again.

I was a teacher at the time - one of those that smirks, tut-tuts and yawns through his colleagues' assemblies, smug in the knowledge that he never has to do one himself. And then I was asked to. Even as I mumbled "yes", I lost the will to live.

I was given plenty of time to prepare for it, but for the first month I did nothing. I was in denial, trusting that I'd be saved by a stroke of good luck - a pools win, perhaps, or a road accident that would keep me cosily bandaged and bed-bound on the date. It was only in the last three weeks or so that the awful truth dawned on me: this could well be the one occasion when a man really was going to have to do what a man has to do.

I started preparing with a vengeance. I read the Bible, or more exactly opened it at random and trusted that God would direct my hovering finger, like a heat-seeking Exocet, to a suitable verse. Omnipotent He might be, a marksman He's not. You try planning a whole assembly around "And Arphaxad begat Salah; and Salah begat Eber".

I spent a disproportionate amount of the preparatory time singing "Lord of the Dance" to the accompaniment of a stopwatch. I discovered that, even if the pianist could be persuaded to play it as a dirge, with the last verse repeated three times, it still left 10 unforgiving minutes to fill. By my calculations, that would require 1,443 words. And only one sprang readily to mind. Help!

I didn't have nightmares about the assembly - because I wasn't sleeping. I wasn't eating. I became strangely ataxic: it was as if each of my limbs had declared unilateral independence. On one of many practice runs, I discovered that several crucial synapses must have imploded: I was no longer able to direct any of the 1,443 bon (-ish) mots from my cerebellum to my vocal chords. All I could manage was a strangulated bark. It might have passed without comment, addressing a basking herd of well-disposed seals, but I reckoned that in a school assembly it might very easily provoke a titter. And a titter, I knew, would destroy me. A sea of upturned faces would witness my final melt-down. Death, I asked, where is thy sting?

I walked to school on the fateful morning, praying for the headline I hoped would be splashed across the evening paper - Teacher Struck on Way to School. I didn't care how: by bus, by mystery virus, by act of God, by alien space craft, by basking sharks. No such luck.

I arrived at the school hall. The deputy and the caretaker in their shirtsleeves. Pipes Burst. Assembly cancelled. "I'll book you in for one next year. Remind me if I forget. Sorry you wasted your time." "I didn't," I said. "To be honest I forgot I was down to do it." The odd thing is, I felt strangely disappointed. In my opinion, it would have been a pretty good assembly. Indeed, if you want 10 cracking minutes on Arphaxad begetting Salah, you should contact:

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