Bloodshot is the colour of my poor old eyes

25th September 1998 at 01:00
Getting home from Donovan's Fringe gig at the Palladium at three o'clock on a Monday morning when you're due to start teaching at nine is probably not a good idea, especially if you're old enough to remember all the words to his greatest hits. Nevertheless, if you were there, you'll probably agree it was worth it, not just for the music and the memories but for one particular story he told.

His new American record producer wanted him to play guitar the way he used to, back in the Sixties, in the days of the "Fairytale album". The album wasn't re-released on CD, so he found himself popping in to Tower Records in New York to buy it on vinyl. And then Donovan sat down to listen to Donovan. "I had to try to figure out how to play like me," he said.

When I got home, I raked out the album. Donovan grinned from the sleeve looking like a very young 12-year-old. Was it really so long ago? Did he ever look so young?

A middle-aged Donovan listening to his younger self is a "Krapp's Last Tape" experience of cource. Surreal, sobering and salutary all at the same time. The story he told coloured my week- or maybe it was just the lack of sleep - and I found myself caught up in the Beckettian theme all over college.

Week one. The more seasoned of us are forced to confront the past as new part-time members of staff join our group. "You need to be six-handed to do this job," Maria groans on Thursday. We smile not just because we recognise our own days of induction into FE, but because we know and she doesn't that besides teaching there are packs to write, courses to plan, meetings to attend, students to counsel and staff development to enjoy.

While the newer members of staff prepare themselves for a steep learning curve, the older hands experience the poignancy of reliving through them that period of naive innocence when we were new. We regale them with horror stories of the classroom. Of students we will never forget the chance to retell anecdotes that everybody else is tired of hearing.

We talk about standards. "Do you think they're dropping?" we are asked. From our lofty heights of experience we can judge that yes they are, and across the board. Haven't I just bought a half pound of "slighty salted butter" and wasn't Suzanne a little perturbed that the birthday cake she ordered for her daughter read pinkly "Happy Birthday Louse"?

We joke about students' irreverent behaviour. Maybe we should, like British Airways, introduce a yellow card for students who are disruptive. And what of students who think you're Rikki Lake and Oprah Winfrey rolled into one and you begin to suffer from sympathy fatigue? Someone produces a gilt-edged, expensive-looking card and suggests we each order a supply. The words are discreetly lettered in a delicate script: "I am sorry for your trouble. I have listened carefully and I sympathise. Now buzz off." OK, so it's not quite so polite and everyone laughs.

We engage gleefully in being world-weary and experienced, perhaps because, as Donovan and Krapp discovered, it's slightly discomfiting to be made aware suddenly of the distance we've travelled.

Week two. You begin to wonder if you're going to have to scrape that new member of staff off the ceiling and if teaching three hours a week really does entitle him to a credible nervous breakdown. You, however, are on 24 hard hours and look calm as you please during tea break. You realise that somewhere along the line you have learned to cope with pretty much anything.

Anyone can teach on a good day when you've had a late timetable switch, you don't seem to have a room allocated to you, and your video playback fails to materialise. But try it on a really bad day. You still have to make it look as if you've spent six weeks preparing for this moment and you have absolutely everything under control. These are the days of living dangerously when you know you're worth every penny and more.

And no matter how many academic sessions you do, you can't beat the buzz you get from students who've discovered FE as if it's some kind of hidden treasure and are simply bowled over by it. Richard, who enrolled on his Higher National course straight from fifth year at school, comes to the workroom to let me know he's having root treatment that afternoon and will have to miss class.

He mumbles that he loves college. He is doing the course he wants to do, studying the subjects that interest him. "I've matured so much since I came here," he confides, which is actually a matter of two weeks. But if we can do that for him in a fortnight, just think of the distance he'll go in a year.

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in media and communication at Dundee College.

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