Gemma Warren on the rites of spring

12th May 2000 at 01:00
I've just finished celebrating the Jewish festival of Passover, during which we remember the time when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt and then led to freedom by Moses. We eat no bread for eight days, nor anything with yeast or wheat, to help us remember how the slaves left Egypt - so hastily that they had no time to let their bread rise. In practice, this means no toast, Marmite or chocolate digestives for more than a week. Forget religion. It's hell. So far, the two Passovers of my teaching career have fallen in the Easter holidays, which is a bit of a blessing in itself, as I would have to seriously consider what my teaching would be like without the influence of Hob-Nobs.

Despite the dietary restrictions, I like Passover. Primarily because it's about education. For the first two nights, Jewish people have a Seder ceremony, in which the story of the Exodus is retold. The idea is to feel part of that epic dash for freedom, and to feel, no doubt, grateful for the liberties we enjoy. The whole thing gives precedence to storytelling and involvement with narrative. It does your heart good if you're an English teacher. "She'll be asking us questions on it next," grumbled my brothers, as I tried to explain my enthusiasm at our Seder this year. Like most joint activities that involve teaching and learning, the tribe mentality functions. You're not supposed to show that you're enjoying it, especially when you're under 18. It's a moving time: remembrance, religion and simmering family resentment.

Last year, our local rabbi came into school assembly to talk about Passover. WAR 10 were suitably impressed, especially as they were the only class in the school to sport a bona fide Jewish form teacher. I think it gave them a bit of street cred for the whole two seconds that assemblies stay in their memory. "Does that mean you can't eat chocolate digestives for a whole week, Miss?" they asked, with more concern than I'd ever seen before. "Or Marmite," I told them, basking in my new-found status as religious hero. They bonded in collective sympathy. Finally, I had discovered a way to unlock the hidden spirituality in Year 10: the concept of food deprivation. Who says religion is dead in secondary schools?

To capitalise on this flicker of interest - the educational equivalent of being privileged enough to view the northern lights - I decided that i our next form period we would hold a mock Seder so they could see what it was all about. We planned it for a week, and on the appointed Tuesday morning they all arrived with plates of pork cocktail sausages, chocolate digestives and cakes, probably in the belief that they would give me a taste of what I would be missing. We told the story of the Exodus, accompanied by startled exclamations of "We've done this in RE, Miss!" If anything, I think they enjoyed the experience of realising that something they'd done in a school lesson had some relevance to the outside world. It was a religious experience in itself.

This year, WAR 11 are older and wiser. The pressures of their GCSEs have meant that our form periods are spent drawing up revision timetables and discussing relaxation techniques. Strangely enough, the exams have effectively taken away all our real opportunities for learning. I reminded them briefly of the Exodus story before we broke up, and I think, as they left school, gloomy and loaded down with books for revision, they must have understood the idea of bondage. I felt a bit mean telling them to enjoy their holidays when I knew full well that they wouldn't, either from too much work or guilt at not doing enough. The Seder ceremony teaches us about empathy, and it doesn't take too much effort for me to remember that awful Easter of GCSE revision. I know that my form see the remaining few weeks of their school lives as one final push until the slavery of exams is over, and they can escape into the promised land of the summer holidays.

It's a funny feeling, knowing they can't wait to get rid of me. My first form will always hold a special place in my memory. One of the hardest things about being a teacher is staying put while the children move on. There's a horrible finality about realising they've just started their journey while you've already reached your destination.

But still, Passover is about spring, and spring is about rejuvenation and renewal. My next form are busily occupied somewhere in Year 6, and I'm looking forward to moulding them in my own image. This is a philosophical time of year: exams, religion, end of term. Things pass through, pass on, pass over. I'm happy to take refuge in a plate of chocolate digestives.

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

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