Gemma Warren gets hopelessly lost

17th March 2000 at 00:00
I've gone with some kids on an outdoor activity holiday to Wales and we're orienteering. That's when you find your way from point to point by map for no obvious reason that I can think of.

I spend an hour looking for one point with my group, to no avail. We're thrashing around in this clearing, and all I can see is some stupid wooden post with some letters on it. "I give up," I tell Year 9. "There's nothing here but a stupid wooden post with some letters on it. Let's see if we can find a coffee shop."

It turns out that the wooden post is what we're supposed to be looking for, so I'm not exactly flavour of the month with Year 9. They relegate me to the status of rucksack carrier and try their best to pretend I'm not there. But the real reason I'm so pissed off is that to find each point on the stupid laminated map you have to use a compass, and I haven't got the faintest idea how to do it. Year 9 have learnt how to do this in geography and don't give it a second thought.

There are three things you ought to know about me. I have no sense of direction. I don't know my left from my right. I have no understanding of anything that requires any kind of calculation. As far as skills go, I'm a one-horse race: I do only English.

To be fair to Year 9, they try their valiant hardest to teach me. They explain, not once, but thrice. They use analogies. They rephrase it. They ask me questions to check my understanding. They break the task down into tiny stages. They try hard not to laugh when I get it all wrong and they tactfully change the subject when it becomes obvious after a while that, however hard I try, I'm not going to pick this up

I am the typical underachiever. I can't really see the point of using this compass, but I'm willing to give it a go. At the beginning, I play the joker, and try to laugh off the fact that I can't do it. Inside, I am dying of embarrassment, because everyone else can do it. Then I descend into trying to disrupt others, confusing them, asking pointless questions, trying to trip them up at their own game. By the end, I've lapsed into sulky silence, trudging along at the back, grateful to be ignored, but feeling humiliated, and left out. I hate walking. I hate compass reading. I hate myself. I want to be back on my own turf, and I wish that Year 9 really knew how good I was at English and how I write a column in The TES. But they don't seem to care, because compass reading is the currency that counts here.

The experience makes me realise what it must be like to sit in one of my lessons. How English is blindingly obvious to me, but not to the average member of Year 9 who can't understand why Shakespeare didn't just give everyone a break and write in English. "Why have you got a different copy of Romeo and Juliet, Miss?" asked one of this very same group a few weeks ago. "Because her copy has got the answers in," supplied another. To them, I'm the ultimate expert, but I think they also found out that day that being the expert isn't always easy. I think that every teacher should have to learn something completely new. We'd learn what it's like to be on the other side of the fence. It is not pleasant. I don't ever want to see a compass again.

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

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