... but I never thought my career would turn me into a domestic goddess
I had a friend round for tea the other day. As we were eating our biscuits, she asked me whether I had a cleaner. This innocent question was enough to make me choke because anyone who's had a close look at my bank balance would know that there's hardly enough in there to buy a can of Mr Muscle. But I was also trying to quell the rising feeling of panic that her question provoked: how could I let anyone loose in my kitchen or my bathroom? It's not that I'm ashamed of them - I know people who vacuum before the cleaner comes - it's because, quite simply, I like doing it myself.
I have turned into many things since I became a teacher. A coffee and chocolate junkie. An early riser. A bore in the pub at nights. But I never thought that my career would turn me into what I am fast becoming: a domestic goddess. I love cleaning. I love cooking. I love scrubbing out my fridge and cleaning round my skirting boards. I like hand-washing my delicates, and I don't even mind disinfecting the loo. I love anything, in fact, that can be done with the radio on, and does not involve intellectual activity. I love anything that isn't marking. I am a 1950s housewife.
Discovering this side of my personality has come as a shock. When I was younger, my mum was forever complaining that I didn't do enough around the house. This developed into a virulent feminism on my part, as my brothers were allowed to do sod-all, and praised for it into the bargain. Once I knew that cleaning was expected of me simply because I was the daughter, I became more determined not to do it. I spent most of my sixth-form years reading angry female writers. At university, my flatmates and I were happy living in squalor because none of us could be bothered to do any tidying up, and it would have seemed like a horribly stereotypical female thing to do. Like all 19-year-olds, we were hellbent on proving that we were teenagers unlike any others.
If I could have looked into the future and seen myself on a Saturday morning, happily mopping the kitchen floor, I would have presumed that something had gone horriby wrong. Back then, I knew that I wanted to be a teacher, but, of course, I didn't have the foggiest idea what it would entail. I had this vision of wearing Laura Ashley skirts and being inspirational. I didn't think about the piles of books, the moderations, confrontations, prevarications and DfEE initiatives.
So, a strange thing has happened to my brain over the years. It's discovered the joys of being switched off, and it's embraced the tranquillity of not having to think about anything in particular. I like doing housework because I can become absorbed in a physical activity that has nothing to do with education and everything to do with concentrating on something else. I don't do it because I'm house-proud, or because I have this desire to serve home-made cakes whenever anyone comes round for coffee. That's a bonus. I do it because I need a counter-balance to the hysteria of the teaching week, and I think that the intellectual buzz that comes with planning and delivering a good lesson is great, but it's not all that it's cracked up to be.
I know that there must be other ways of relaxing, but I think I've reached a stage of realising that relaxing is important. There's been a lot of talk about people "rediscovering" the domestic sphere: I think it's about acknowledging that there can be something else besides work. That's an important admission for a teacher to make. When I was a student I hated people who enjoyed switching off. I've realised now that I didn't know what it was like to be switched on. I didn't know the meaning of hard work. Now I understand about exhaustion, and you need to have something to balance it with.
I sometimes wish that I'd found something rather less open to interpretation than cleaning: a friend can't wait to let someone else clean up for her while she's out hang-gliding. In the meantime, my boyfriend thinks he's met the ideal woman. I want to let him know that I still have my feminist agenda - somewhere. I only clean because I want to, and that toilet is sparkling for me and me alone.
Gemma Warren teaches at the Latymer school, Edmonton, north London. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org