Gemma Warren finds the key to the past

3rd March 2000 at 00:00
One of the things I remember from school is the boring assemblies. We had to sit on the floor in the gym with a freezing bum, knowing that at the end all we had to look forward to was double maths.

If the discomfort wasn't bad enough, the mental torment was worse. We were regaled with stories from either the lives of saints or the lives of past headmistresses, with the implication that there wasn't much difference between the two. These assemblies seemed to confirm that teachers did nothing more exciting than swap stories about word derivations and modern day versions of Aesop's fables to torture us with.

"I bet there's a book written for teachers, called One Hundred Boring Assemblies," said my best friend. "And I bet she reads it in bed, because she's got nothing better to do," I chortled back, fresh from my first encounter with sex education. We collapsed in hysterics and were put in one of numerous detentions for bad behaviour in assembly. The kind of detentions that I now give out myself.

As a teacher I can officially confirm that there is a book entitled One Hundred Assemblies, but it does have some uses. And yes, teachers do read it in bed, but, believe me, they'd rather not. And, of course, my attitude to assemblies has changed dramatically now that I've been responsible for a few. There's nothing more off-putting than being faced with 1,000 expectant children, with your own form sniggering at the back "she's nothing to do with us, I swear", and a helpful member of Year 7 sitting under the stage saying "I can see up your skirt, Miss". The words of wisdom that you'd practised suddenly seem like total gibberish. "Bollocks," you can see Year 10 mouthing to each other as you begin. And you feel you ought to agree with them. Assemblies prove that what goes around comes around.

The worst telling-off I ever got after a primary school assembly followed a fit of giggles provoked by my headmistress telling the story of when she got lockd out of her house on a Saturday night. "I wish she'd have got locked in," I whispered to my best friend, "forever!" The outcome of the story was that the headmistress had found a card in her pocket advertising a 24-hour locksmith. She had called him; he had come out and fixed her front door. My detention seemed even more unjust considering the pointlessness of the story.

Almost 20 years later, I'm coming in from an evening out. I climb the stairs to my flat, to find my flatmate outside. We can't get in; the lock's broken. Neither of us had thought that locks could break. A distant memory of a freezing bum and a boring detention clicks into my brain. "Leave it with me," I tell him. "She's a teacher," he says to his friend, "she can sort anything." "We'll call a 24-hour locksmith," I announce. "A what?" he asks. "They don't exist." "Twenty quid says they do." We find a Yellow Pages, we call out the 24-hour locksmith and an hour later are back in our flat.

I feel suitably chastened. I want to thank my old headmistress, wherever she is, for giving me some information that was truly useful. I will happily take her out to dinner with my pound;20. And then I will read my One Hundred Assemblies from cover to cover because I know now that highly useful information lies therein. I will then tell this story to my form, WAR 11, during our assembly on Monday morning, and put up with the usual exaggerated yawns, and "that's a shit story Miss, no offence" comments that come with all of my assembly stories. I won't mind, because I did exactly the same thing and, I've got to admit, on the surface, it doesn't sound like high drama. I know that on a cold, rainy night in 2020, someone from WAR 11 is going to get locked out of their flat, and they'll remember me and smile. But just remember WAR 11; you'll need a lot more than pound;20 to take me out for dinner.

Gemma Warren teaches at the Latymer school, Edmonton, north London. e-mail:

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