Calm art of disorder

27th November 1998 at 00:00

Mr Pickup has taken up Feng Shui. It's part of his pre-retirement strategy, as he told me at morning break.

"It's great, Morris," he explained with apparently deep contentment. "Just by rearranging my personal living surroundings, and ensuring that they're all in harmony with each other, I can transfer this harmony to my entire life. It'll mean I can coast gently downhill to next June and begin retirement with my karma fully balanced."

It was the first time I'd heard him speaking of karma outside an Indian restaurant, and I could only pause in awesome wonder at the change that's come over him since his retirement became assured. He's an altogether calmer and gentler man; I only wish the same could be said of myself.

The pupils in Class 1W remain the stuff of my nightmares. They have averaged 14 punishment exercises a week, two suspensions a month, plus one likely permanent exclusion. And that's just the girls. Today I even caught them running races up and down the stairs in the science wing, and this during class time, no less, obviously taking advantage of some errand they'd been sent upon. Kylie Paterson and Joanna Grieves seemed to be holding an Olympic decider for first down three flights and back up again, while Michael Willis and Peter O'Farrell had gone for a relay approach, jumping three stairs at a time and calling their feminine colleagues a "bunchae lazy slags".

I put an immediate stop to their shenanigans and sent them packing. "And if I catch you messing around when you've been sent on a message like this again, then I'll..."

"You'll what, sir?" Joanna drawled, her mouth chewing gum in an intensely bovine style of mastication.

"I'll...I'll... put you all on report," I threatened darkly. "Now off you go."

To their credit, they did. Maybe they're getting more scared of me.


More ruddy children running up and down stairs in the science wing. This time it was 1F, three of whose number I caught dripping with sweat on the first floor stairwell at 11.30 this morning, and another three of whom were clearly about to start the same ridiculous wacky races from the top floor.

I dispatched them back to class with the same ruthless efficiency I'd displayed yesterday.

"But, sir!" Lavinia Parker called out. "Mr Stone's asked us taeI" "Mr Stone, nothing!" I barked angrily. "If Mr Stone knew the half of what you were up to when you're supposed to be at his science lesson, then he'd be tying you to his Van de Graaff generator! Now be off with you!" I resolved quietly to have a word with Stone: he's a new young teacher in the physics department, and clearly isn't too aware of the dangers inherent in letting members out of his classes on dubious errands. I'm sure he'll welcome some words of advice from an old hand like myself.


The endless debate about Higher Still continues apace, inflamed by the latest talk of boycotts. Most of the staff are up in arms about a set of changes that seem destined to wreak havoc upon our system.

"And all for what?" questioned George Crumley at an informal lunchtime discussion. "So that they can lower standards enough to keep the academic pass rates up, that's what! Although," he added darkly, "they still seem hell-bent on crushing geography candidate numbers into the dust."

"How come?" I queried.

It was like opening the flood-gates, as George relived the bitter experience of attending a Higher Still development meeting. "Honestly, you've never seen such an ill-prepared collection of half-witted, half-baked strategies. The wee wifie in charge of social studies seemed nice enough - she covers history, geography, modern studies - and hairdressing."

"Hairdressing?" George shrugged his shoulders. "Hairdressing. But she didn't go into that when she was talking to us. Except for the permanent waves of dissent that came to the fore when it transpired that the sample geography Higher looks set to last twice as long as every other Higher exam on the market.

"Just wait until the modern studies mob gets hold of that one! We'll see more desertions from Higher geography than we've had since the days when we had investigations in Standard grade - and look what that did to our numbers. If we don't watch out, we'll be ending up in the same boat as the mod langs department for examination classes - and up the same creek with the same quantity of paddles!" "Gosh!" I sympathised. "As bad as modern languages?" "Well, maybe not that bad," he was forced to concede, "but almost.."

"You think you've got troubles?" interrupted Mrs Harry from business studies. "Our model exam consisted of watching a video for half an hour - an exercise hardly likely to inspire credibility in the subject in the eyes of the universities - and then being given sets of questions designed to be answered in two hours. Unfortunately, none of the compilers seemed to have attempted it, because Fitzroy from St Alice's went off and couldn't complete them in under three!" "Well, it's nothing compared with the internecine warfare that's the English Higher," I remarked calmly. "Honestly, you wouldn't believe what Simon Young was telling me about their last meeting. One side says the kids won't be prepared for the real world unless we do it their way; the other lot says we're abandoning the students to a syllabus where the closest they'll come to literature is a one-page extract from Trainspotting."

"And where do you stand, Morris?" queried Crumley.

"Me? I just let them fight it out like ferrets in a sack. They've ruined enough generations of children with every new set of experimentation for me to be taken in again. I'm going to go on teaching Hamlet the same as I have for the last 14 years, and hope that the kids learn something about literature - and life - from it all. And intersperse it with the occasional chunk of advice and practice in writing job application letters. Just in case."

I caught Mr Pickup's glowing nods of approval from the corner of the staffroom. "That's my boy," he mouthed quietly in my direction. "That's my boy."


Pickup's really taken to this Feng Shui lark. He's started hanging calming pictures around his religious education classroom, and is even rearranging the furniture: his free-standing chalkboard has been turned to face the corner, and where litter bins and desktop pencil sharpeners once stood, an array of comfortable cushions has been placed around all four corners of the room. Some delicate china blue ornaments finish off the effect, along with assorted hanging chimes that tinkle with every passing breeze.

"Teaching seems such an attractive profession when you've only got seven months left," he sighed in blissful sanguinity as we eyed the fruits of his labours together. I pursed my lips in envy, congratulated him on the decorative effect, and adjourned to the staffroom.

It was there that I discovered Simon Stone congratulating Joyce Honeypot on the sterling success of her efforts to increase the health standards of our first year pupils.

"I don't know what you're doing with them in PE, Joyce," he enthused, "but the pulse and heart readings I'm getting from both my first year classes are much better than average."

"Oh really?" smirked Joyce. "Yes, really. IW and IF were out on the usual staircase-run this week, and when they came back for measurements you'd hardly think they'd done anything more than a Sunday afternoon stroll."

I frowned inwardly as I realised the implications of Stone's interpretation of events - and my own part in their formation.

"I asked them if they'd done everything on the exercise sheet," Stone continued, "and they told me they'd got as far as they could before they'd had to come back."

I cringed inwardly, as he went on: "Their rates were up, sure, so we got the point across about biological changes and rhythms - but they still only measured half of what I've seen in other schools. And I thought you should know that," Stone ingratiated himself. "The PE department's obviously doing something right, Joyce."

Stone obviously has a light burning somewhere or other for Ms Honeypot. Given his interpretation of this week's events with the first year, I decided to keep my own light hidden firmly under a bushel.


Pickup seemed back to his usual self today, or so I thought. There was an initial euphoric snort of contemptible delight as he emptied the contents of his pigeon-hole (he had read the council's recent results of the education department's self-evaluation report, which urged all of us to "Take A Closer Look" at ourselves - and find ourselves beautiful); I thought he was going to launch into a scathing indictment but he invited me along to his classroom instead.

"What d'you think, Morris?" he swept an arm across his newly arranged resource shelves.

"Um, very - er - well, very well-filled," was all I could think of.

"But don't you see?" he entreated me. "The books are arranged by colour now, rather than by author. Makes it bloody hard to find what you're looking for sometimes, but it's so much more aesthetically pleasing, don't you think?" I gulped like a fish, but he continued before I could frame an answer. "And next week," he explained, "I'm asking Mr Murdoch to come in and take away all of the desks."

"All of the desks?" I echoed uselessly.

"Yes, all of the desks. The room should look so much better without them. Don't you think?" I shrugged my shoulders and raised my eyebrows. As a strategy for educational advancement, it certainly had the value of novelty...

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