Father's day

5th November 2004 at 00:00
Labels, labels everywhere. Well, almost everywhere, as Michael Cook discovers

Almost everything has a label in primary school. I don't mean staffroom shorthand for the children (troublemakerbedwetter jug ears) or the staff (NQTunion rep drinker). I mean pens labelled "Pens"; scrap paper labelled "Scrap paper". Somewhere, surely, on a shelf (marked "Shelf") is a box of labels marked "Labels".

When I mention this to Mrs Lewis, she looks at me like I'm an idiot, and patiently explains about immersing the children in paint. I look at her like she's an idiot, until I realise she said "print" not "paint".

Even I have a label, in case my look of panic gets me mistaken for a passing psycho, or an Ofsted inspector. My badge reads "Helper". How about that! Two mornings in, and already I'm officially a learning aid. But just when I need them, the labels run out.

My task: fetch the steps from the caretaker's cupboard, and staple snakes to the ceiling. Alfie shows me the way, a father-son moment that might hold more meaning if he didn't abandon me as I am rummaging through the mops and the sick buckets. I am lost.

You see, in my day, a classroom was an enclosed indoor space (or "room") usually of rectangular proportions, containing 30 children, one teacher and a door. The door was connected to the corridor. This corridor ingeniously led to other doors of other rooms. Nowadays, they don't do doors. Classroom becomes art room becomes cloakroom becomes library without walls or warning. And, unhelpfully, the rooms are in disguise: the seaside; the desert; the Land Where the Bong Tree Grows. Here, a lighthouse guards the treacherous waters round the boys' toilets. Over there, the only photocopier in Ancient Egypt.

I stagger through a tissue-paper rainforest half expecting to find a lost GI who hasn't heard the war is over. Eventually, somewhere west of Moonbase 3, I hear a teacher ask Alfie where his dad is, and burst gratefully into Class 3 with just the right amount of air-punching and son-hugging to keep a tiny shred of dignity. Until Mrs Lewis has to send some girls to find where I left the steps.

Next week, I'll bring my own label: "Idiot". So we all know where we are.

Michael Cook is a freelance copywriter and a parent helper at Ernehale infants school, Arnold, Nottingham, which his children, Alfie and Poppy attend

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