I'm used to the reaction I get from people looking at my groceries, especially if I'm shopping late on a Friday night

29th October 2004 at 01:00
I moved house recently and Chris, the caretaker, has been saving boxes from school for me. I'm not sure what the new neighbours will think as I stagger into my new home with cartons labelled "twenty vibrating snakes - batteries included", "jumbo pads - night and day wear" and "latex examination gloves (unpowdered)".

I'm used to the reaction I get from people looking at my groceries, especially if I'm shopping late on a Friday night, when the single men peer into your trolley to work out if you're single too and what sort of a person you might be. The sort of person I am is someone who buys one potato, as spherical as possible (for printing), three differently shaped cheeses (for maths; three-dimensional shapes), a pot of bubbles (I'm never without a pot of bubbles), six family packs of smoky, melty, crunchy, thingies (they are all Jasmin will eat and we need to motivate her to try a communication system), a packet of cress seeds and a box of eggs, which speaks for itself (hairy eggshell people, in case you didn't know), a bumper pack of toilet rolls (snuffly nose season), a dog toy (I'm hoping Damien won't break this one), and a popcorn maker (the plan is to attach a giant switch so one of our most physically disabled youngsters can learn about cause and effect).

Funnily enough, I've never been chatted up in a supermarket. Well, except by a shelf stacker who thought I was the expected "mystery shopper" as I was "behaving unusually" at the fresh produce counter. I was finding matching pairs of peppers, bananas and kumquats and wanted to impress.

My new neighbour, as it happens, is curious and I brace myself as she leans over the wall for the usual questions: "What do you do?" "I'm a teacher." I wait for the look we always get; that odd mixture of bitterness, admiration and curiosity. Curiosity wins. "What do you teach?" This is always a tricky one for me. "A bit of everything, really." "Oh. Well, what age group do you teach?" "From three to 19." This is invariably met with an expression disbelief, so I explain that I work in a special school, that we take pupils from three to 19 and that part of my job is to free up teachers for their non-contact time (sniff from the neighbour), which is why I teach a bit of everything.

At this point people either try to relate my job to something they know - they might have an auntie with Down syndrome, a cousin with bad handwriting, a son whose special needs were never recognised by his idiot teachers - or they really want to know more. My new neighbour continues probing. "What's a typical day for you then?" I have to think. There is no such thing as a typical day, which is one reason I enjoy the job so much.

"Well," I say lamely, "a bit of teaching, a bit of paperwork, seeing parents, staff meetings, planning, you know..." I trail off as I get another box, the vibrating snake one, as it happens, filled with things teachers carry with them from house to house: presents from children, the book on assemblies I can't do without, the special mug, the sensible shoes, the relaxation tapes and the gin. "I answering the phone, writing adverts, getting quotes, reading reports, giving references, showing people round, assembly."

My neighbour stops listening. Her eyes are firmly fixed on the box.

"Another thing I've always wanted to know. What is it you teachers get up to on training days exactly?"

Maria Corby is deputy head of a special school for pupils with severe and multiple learning difficulties. She writes under a pseudonym

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