Charity begins

5th September 2003 at 01:00
It's day one and she's lost. Meet Charity Casement NQT

Where the hell am I? The map says I should be in the staffroom but this place isn't fit for human habitation. And what's that terrible damp smell? Oh God, I think I'm going to cryI St Brian's is where I am. It had seemed the perfect choice when I was looking for my first job back in May. I wanted to work in a "bog standard" comprehensive and the discreet ad in The TES was a good start. No logos, no acronyms and, most importantly, no mission statement. I wasn't going to start my career in a school that was an "investor in people", or that "specialised" in sport, or had beacon status. And being surrounded by advanced skills teachers would just have made me feel inadequate.

I got the job (in the history department - no golden hello, but I wasn't in it for the money) and visited in June. That's when I discovered that, far from being bog standard, St Brian's is quite remarkable. It gets the worst results in the borough (an achievement for this part of south London), and has been in special measures. Local children don't attend - and not because it's oversubscribed.

I heard about my head of department, Judith Crock, during my visit. A couple of Year 11 gangs had decided to settle their differences in her class. With air guns. The governors managed to keep the incident out of the local papers but Miss Crock was signed off by her doctor until September. I remembered my PGCE tutor's lecture about the importance of induction and kept ringing Miss Crock - once from the beach in Paxos (my tutor said relaxation was important, too). By August her answering machine was refusing to take any more messages.

So, new job but no head of department and no timetable. I didn't sleep much the night before my first day as a teacher.

Which could explain how I've ended up in the bowels of St Brian's. There was no one on reception so I followed the yellowing, hand-drawn map I was given back in June. But I must have gone wrong somewhere because this place feels more like Freddy Krueger's lair than a staffroom. "Where am I?" I snivel.

"You're in the boiler room," says a voice from within the gloom. It belongs, I discover, to Roy the caretaker - "and security guard". He guides me to the staffroom, which is a minor improvement on Freddy's hideout. All brown and beige walls and battered furniture. It should have a nameplate: Sunny Vale Retirement Home.

"Here we are everyone," Roy shouts dramatically. "More fresh meat for the lions." I assume the carnivorous beasts in question are the kids, until I see a small, neat man with a hungry look who approaches me as if sizing up a wounded antelope.

"Hi," he half-smiles, proffering a clammy hand. "Nigel Horsmel. I'm the deputy head. And you are?"

"Charity, Charity Casement."

"Charity! What a lovely name. And I like your cardigan, too. Did you knit it yourself?" Before I can answer he brings the introductions to an end.

"Your head of department isn't in, I'm afraid, but your timetable is in your pigeonhole. OK?" And, with that, he's gone.

In the far corner steam is rising from a huge old tea urn. All I need now is a mug and somewhere to sitI Next week: Charity meets Superhead

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