Driving Mercedes away

19th November 2004 at 00:00
Traditional barriers in vocational employment are being broken down and Mercedes is at the cutting edge. She wants to be an automotive engineer, but finds herself the only woman in her group. She copes with this by ignoring all the lads, and relies for moral support on Leigh, who understands her isolation. Leigh has no intention of ending up in any branch of the motor industry. His chosen career is Pop Idol. He has dyed his hair and got an earring, and is just waiting for his acne to die down.

In the meantime, Leigh is practising the lifestyle. Last week the students visited a manufacturer and at the end of the visit, Leigh eschewed the bus back to college and disappeared into a taxi with Mercedes. His educational maintenance award isn't going to last long.

But today, Leigh is not in class. Mercedes arrives 15 minutes late and mumbles "Sorry", the only word she will utter in the next hour. The guest speaker has already started, and has been trying to engage the students by asking them what they plan to do when the course ends. He attempts to draw Mercedes in.

She stretches across her chair until nearly horizontal and stares determinedly at the floor. The guest speaker picks up the body language (it isn't hard). "No plans yet?" he asks brightly, backing off.

Mercedes pushes her chair away from the table where the group is seated and slowly spins round to face the workbench, her back to everyone. The speaker pauses momentarily, and looks to the rest of the group, who ignore her.

They have seen it all before. He picks up the thread of his talk and goes on.

Mercedes fidgets. She sighs. She glances up, tearfully. After a while, she pushes her chair into the deepest corner of the room and stares at the wall. Then she puts her arms on the workbench, sinks her head onto her arms and whimpers spasmodically. The lads are rolling their eyes and the speaker is clearly uncomfortable.

The class tutor whispers: "Carry on a moment" and slips from the room. Soon he returns with a female colleague and calls a break. This is clearly not a matter a man wants to deal with alone. The female tutor detains Mercedes in the corridor where she bursts into tears. After a brief chat, the tutor says she will send Mercedes home and phones mum. If Leigh had been here, he would at least have called her a taxi. It's a hundred years since the suffragettes fought for women's rights, but there is still a lot to play for.

Later, I go to the library to work on my training assignment for "motivating and controlling students in vocational studies". My textbook reveals that the difficulties I face are common, although I'm still no nearer to solving them. I'm working through a list of "dos and don'ts". In the "do" column, the handbook says "be assertive".

Just then, I'm disturbed by the noise of someone's personal stereo. I glance up. The offending lad has his back to me, but his mate notices me looking and tells him to turn it down before there's trouble. The offender turns to face me and I summon up all my nerve and glare, assertively. He looks sheepish and turns it down. Gosh, it worked!

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