Blackboard surfing takes a back seat

18th August 1995 at 01:00
Old habits die hard. Basking in the sun after a day of the decorating and gardening that tends to characterise the holiday at home, I lazily remarked that already three weeks of the holiday were over. "Don't be a fool," my wife replied. "You've just retired."

So I have. But until September, when we head to New England for the fall, it won't feel very different. I wonder what I'll miss the most? One thing, certainly, will be that indefinable atmosphere that I guess all schools have at the beginning of the new school year, that subtle compound of floor polish and new paint, packs of books and paper, and an almost tangible sense of purpose. It's redolent of opportunity, optimism and a tinge of apprehension - the authentic September smell. I used to love it.

There is one thing, though, that I shall not miss one iota. No more assemblies! The thought is comforting, even reassuring. Don't misunderstand me: I actually valued assemblies - though not always the compulsory worship laid down in fatuous legislation - very much. I was sure that when well- handled (an important qualification) they could make a real contribution to the cultural and moral development of the 13-18 age group, and perhaps to their spiritual development as well. They certainly helped to cement the sense of the school as a community and of the values that explicitly it stood for. But their very importance meant that such assemblies, with two year groups each week against my name, were particularly demanding to prepare for and deliver.

It was partly a matter of style, that's true. I had no stomach for the empty formalities of a Bible reading, hymn and prayer; still less (after incautiously reading out on one occasion a notice prohibiting boys from playing with their balls in the enclosed playground) for extempore and ex cathedra rule-making. Unqualified to preach and personally reluctant to harangue (I was never one of those who - Charles Causley's striking line - "helves for children less fortunate than ourselves") I used to ransack poetry, paintings, history and personal experience for words and images that seemed to me to be accessible to young people and sharp with truth. Sometimes, when there was something particularly important to be said - as when at Evesham once a whole year group, fired by the example of the previous night's Grange Hill, staged a day-long sit-in in their form rooms - I would stay up half the night to write an assembly story that I could tell next day, leaving the moral hanging as it were, ready to be picked. With each new generation those stories could be recycled, but there were still times when the wells of inspiration ran dangerously dry.

And headteachers are vulnerable on these occasions. It's the price you pay for power - redoubled if you are pompous. You can be sure that half the audience, certainly the teachers in their number, are quietly hoping for a small disaster. They don't always hope in vain. Once, I remember (and I still dream about what this led to) I found a photograph of a splendid granite column which on national service in Jordan we recovered from the desert sands. It had been erected by the emperor Trajan to mark the completion of his great highway through Syria to the sea. Looking again at the beautifully incised, still legible inscription, I remembered the term the Romans coined to characterise true workmanship. Such work, they said, was sine cera; literally, without the beeswax that a dishonest mason would use to hide a false chisel cut. It's the origin, of course, of our word "sincere". So there, in outline, was my next assembly: a story, a phrase of Latin, an appropriate theme.

I would need, however, a visual aid. I asked a senior colleague to put a blackboard and easel on the platform. "A blackboard?" he queried, with thinly concealed astonishment. "Yes," I rather waspishly replied, "a blackboard. " The bell for assembly was already ringing when he returned. "I've found your blackboard," he said. "But"- and here he made characteristically expressive gestures with his hand - "be careful. It's a bit . . . dodgy." Mentally framing my all-important introduction, I paid too little attention to this remark. I donned my gown and, self-important, strode off towards the hall.

"Good morning," I said. "I'm going to tell you a story that goes back to 112 AD, and to the furthest borders of the Roman Empire. But before I do" - and I picked up my chalk - "I'm going to write two simple Latin words on the board behind me. I want to tell you about the meaning of these two words." With a firm hand I began to write. S-I-N-E C-E- ... halfway through the downstroke of the R, the right-hand easel peg (it proved to be a much-chewed HB pencil) parted company with the easel. The blackboard crashed on to my foot, toppled over the edge of the platform and with a sickening crack landed squarely on the heads of three attentive 11-year-olds in the front row. There was a stunned silence in the hall. With a commendable disregard for what felt like a broken toe, I leapt lightly down to minister to the wounded.

In my haste I landed on the blackboard, now horizontal on the floor. I don't know what the coefficient of friction is between a well-chalked blackboard and highly polished parquet, but it must be nearly zero. Together, we surfed at speed across the hall, crashed into the piano, and came to rest beneath it. For a long moment the silence held, and then there was a storm of rapturous laughter. I looked up at the not wholly sympathetic face of the head of music and feebly asked him to announce the hymn. It was Bright the vision that delighted, but few of those present were in any state to sing it.

It could have been worse, I suppose. There was no permanent injury, and the parents didn't sue. There was also a noticeable improvement in staff attendance at assembly, and we bought an overhead projector. But I never wore a gown again, and shunning the platform, moved all assemblies to the body of the kirk. Where assemblies are concerned, you can't take risks.

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