First encounters;Talkback;Opinion;Features amp; Arts

10th December 1999 at 00:00
Gemma Warren gets feastive

Christmas always leaves me with a strange sense of unfamiliarity. Throughout my school career so far, I have thrown myself, with the rest, into decorations, cards and presents, but I have been left slightly at a loss. Being Jewish, it's hard to know where you fit in at Christmas time, especially when you work with kids who spend every day from the start of November counting down and saying: "Miss, we don't have to do any work today because it's almost Christmas."

Last year my colleagues asked what I was doing over Christmas, and it seemed so out of place to say "nothing". Christmas routines are unfamiliar to me. "A partridge in a pear tree to you too mate," I always feel like saying. Ask me about Chanukah, and it would be a different story, but that's usually done and dusted by the time the tinsel goes up.

Don't get me wrong. I love celebrating as much as anyone else. Christmas is the only thing that can get a smile out of my form, WAR 11, that doesn't involve the words "Ms Warren's off sick today", so it's always a good thing as far as I'm concerned. But it always makes me feel a bit, well, cold. Exactly like Father Christmas I suppose, but for different reasons.

This year, I decided to take my unfamiliarity in hand and do a bit of religious education with WAR 11. They know all about Judaism. "We did that in Year 8, Miss," they tell me, reaching back to their Walkmans which they have taken off for five seconds to humour my latest PSHE whim.

"Well, what is Judaism, then?" "It's when Lennox Lewis thinks he's won a boxing match, but he hasn't, and a load of blokes go off and discuss it."

"No, that's adjudication," I say. "I'm talking about the Jews."

"Is that Stonehenge?" "No, that's the Druids."

"Same thing," someone mutters from the back. I get that flicker of interest that accompanies anything WAR 11 recognise as being faintly subversive to everyday routine, and I tell them a few basic facts.

"Does that mean you've never eaten pork, Miss?" "Never."

"And you're not supposed to go out on a Friday night?" "Nope." "And all blokes have got their willies cut off?" "Well, not exactly, but we'll come to that another time..."

Our PSHE sessions have taken on a distinctly multicultural flavour since we had our little chat. I think they like having a Jewish teacher, if only because we get to celebrate a few more festivals than other classes. "Double the spirituality," I tell them during PSHE.

"Double the food," they tell me, as they munch their way through Pesach, Purim, Shavout and Succot.

"My neighbour thinks he might be Jewish, Miss," says one particularly interested member of WAR 11.

"Tell him to look at his willy," another advises her.

"There are dangers in being too enlightened," I warn.

This Christmas, we're approaching the festivities from a slightly different angle. We'll be pulling crackers at our end-of-term party, and we'll be spinning dreidels as well. We'll be having fairy lights and Chanukah lights at the same time - WAR 11 don't want to do things by halves.

Looking back on my time as a pupil, I don't remember much of the lessons, but I do remember the things we did outside our usual routine. When WAR 11's grandchildren ask them what they did at the millennium, I want them to remember this Christmas, and this Chanukah as well, because like most things WAR 11 do it's unique, and they've helped me create a Christmas I can share for the first time.

"Happy Christmas Everyone" reads the banner we've draped over the whiteboard, and alongside it someone's scribbled, "however you want to celebrate".

Gemma Warren teaches at the Latymer School, Edmonton, north London

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