Gemma Warren spells it out for Year 7

7th January 2000 at 00:00
I first started to take notice of the millennium in my Year 7 spelling class. We were looking at an article that talked about famously misspelt words. There were all the usual suspects - surprise ("r where you least expect it"), separate ("think of an r keeping the a's apart"), definite ("that's spelt wrong in the book, Miss". "Er, why?" "They've missed out the r altogether"). I could see that we were struggling a bit, so I drew their attention to "millennium". "Why do you think people spell that wrong?" I asked. "It's because you only really need it every 1,000 years, Miss," they pointed out, quite correctly. Shame on anyone who still thinks that spelling ability is an indicator of intelligence.

It got me thinking about some kind of celebration. After all, it seems as if there isn't a minor festival or obscure commemoration day that doesn't escape the attention of schools, so the resource manufacturers must be having a field day. We seem to spend every week doing some kind of special activity for Poetry Day, European Day, Vegetable Awareness Day, International Gerbil Protection Day; schools have become the target for any politically correct consciousness-raising group who happen to be motivated enough to produce a teaching pack.

As a new teacher, I was always impressed by all these glossy brochures that found their way to the staffroom. First, anything that seemed like a photocopiable resource that I didn't need to generate myself was a sure-fire winner. Second, I was desperate for one of my kids to enter a competition and actually win. I figured that the reflected glory would definitely be worth a couple of English lessons devoted to writing an essay entitled "Why I think root vegetables are misunderstood by the general public". True, most of these days seem to end up with teachers participating in some kind of humiliating ritual. Dressing up as your favourite character from a book would always involve me walking around in a black bin liner trying to look like one of the witches from Macbeth. "Lik your outfit, Miss," sniggered Year 7 as I struggled to unpeel myself from a particularly hot and sweaty plastic chair. "It's International No-Homework Day," my Year 10s said the other week. "Sod off," I told them.

Sure enough, there turned out to be a millennium teaching pack. Unfortunately, my class, WAR 11, weren't that keen to evaluate the events of the past 1,000 years on the reasonable grounds that they'd only been alive for 15 of them. My millennium capsule ended up being used as a rubbish bin. You don't need to be an English teacher to understand the symbolism in that.

I don't think that children have much of a sense of the hand of history. It wasn't pastorally correct to point out that WAR 11 sometimes have more in common with our Anglo-Saxon ancestors then they might imagine - especially in terms of their propensity for inciting violence and lack of table manners.

I suppose that I was the same - if we had any conception of the future, I would have been a hell of a lot nicer to my teachers. The furthest my lot can think is to the next episode of Neighbours or the next coursework deadline. And who can blame them? We spend enough time in school setting targets that are only likely to happen in a thousand years. So I've decided to abandon history and posterity for the moment. One of the things that I like about school is that we deal in small victories. Each term and half-term gives us an automatic chance for renewal, and there's something more organic about living life according to the academic year. Resolutions ought to be made strictly in proportion to the number of daylight hours available.

I'm happy for us to get the spelling right, and leave the people at the Millennium Dome to look after posterity for me. So when people ask what the millennium means to me, the best I can come up with is "double l, double n". I'm relaxed about the next 1,000 years. Not an r in sight.

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

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