The dark side of the whiteboard - Of mice and know-it-all men

27th August 2010 at 01:00

I've just returned from a culturally enlightening holiday. It began at a Costa coffee stop on the A1, where my son explained the subtle yet significant differences between a flat white, a cappuccino and a latte, in the sort of voice usually used for helping the over-70s at self-scanning checkouts. Never again will I have to settle for an Americano because the rest of the menu is in double Dutch. It is reassuring to know that the thousands I've spent on my son's education are reaping such rich rewards: he may never make it to the Bar, but a barista is now well within his grasp.

Nor did my cultural enrichment end at the airport. My hosts in France were an ex-teacher and a builder with first-class honours from the University of Pub Trivia. Within 24 hours, I discovered that the town we were staying in was the birthplace of the mathematician Fermat, that the 2002 Saint-Emilion was compromised by too much merlot, and that the vine weevil has a lot to answer for. Within 48 hours, I'd gathered the gist of tectonic plate theory and how to crisp a duck. For the rest of the week, whenever I saw the builder, I resorted to the "utterly engrossed" face I reserve for conversations with the headmaster or my ex. It's a technique worth developing: a tilted head and an expression of utter absorption will convince any man that you are hanging on to his every word, when in fact you are mentally rearranging the furniture in your classroom. Princess Di had it down to a T.

The great thing about builders (apart from the fact that they actually do something useful for a living) is that they are never short of opinions. This one did not disappoint. He overheard me talking to the former teacher about the demise of AQA's poems from other cultures in its new GCSE spec. I expressed concern that its potential replacement - Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men - would do little to challenge some of our pupils' xenophobia or extend their understanding of religious cultures outside their own. And since I work in a region containing some of the least diverse districts in the UK, this is alarming. One town - Berwick - is about as cosmopolitan as Craggy Island and has the demographic diversity of a South Berkshire meet.

Our tendency towards a homogenous culture is particularly worrying because of two recent events: the GTC investigation (and subsequent clearing) of racial intolerance by a BNP-affiliated teacher in Sunderland, and a second, more alarming, report of the County Durham white supremacist, convicted of keeping a jam jar of ricin next to the bramble jelly in his kitchen. With stories like these, you can see why we need to develop pupils' understanding of other cultures, and I'm not sure that simply feeling sorry for the black stable buck, Crooks, or watching John Malkovich pet a few puppies will do the trick.

Thankfully, Bob the Builder was there to put me right. Of Mice and Men is apparently the definitive exposition of 1930s migrant culture and a perfect vehicle from which to explore all other cultures. Which is just as well, because I am a teacher, I already have the DVD, and I'll always take the easy way out.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the North of England.

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