February is upon us. At last we have broken the back of that interminably dreary stumble into the new year and can start to look forward to Spring.
With half-term just around the corner, a benchmark for the education world (congratulations to all those graduate teacher programme recruits who are still in the game), the days are getting longer, moods are getting lighter, and staffroom conversations about detox diets are, thankfully, getting fewer.
New year. New you. If your staffroom is anything like mine, the dominant topic of conversation for the past few weeks has been food. Eat radishes, seaweed, and a mystery product called quinoa for a month and you will emerge from your stagnant cocoon of a body with a miniature waist, pearl-like skin, and boundless energy. Are you in the club: do you measure your lunch with a ruler? Do you know your nutritious green algae from your common-or-garden mould? Or, like me, do you sit back and wonder what is wrong with good, old-fashioned eating?
According to a well-known nutrition expert, a whole red pepper makes an ideal mid-morning "treat". Perhaps I am not the best authority on dietary issues, but "treat" to me is sugary and brown. Diet doctors may sneer, but hey, live life to the full, and discover the great motivational force that is cream cakes when you have a morning of science assessments to get through. Especially in the winter, when all of your senses say hibernate under the duvet rather than throw yourself at the mercy of radiators in freezing classrooms. That extra layer of insulation comes in very handy.
Workplace food fascism is spreading its grip. Never mind the fear of bumping into pupils while buying cheap underwear at the market, now I suffer from UIVFT (unplanned interaction with vaguely familiar teachers).
Last week, at my local Sainsbury's checkout, I found myself making polite eye contact with a pale-skinned waif from the geography department. Then I caught her peering, yes peering, into my basket. She gave a supercilious smile. What did I have? Two bottles of Malbec and a Crunchy. (The wine was on offer, the chocolate was medicinal: honeycomb is good for the immune system, you know.) Back in the staffroom, there are two kinds of conversation. There are the people who endlessly "try" but never seem to lose any weight. Then there are the ones who simply do not need to lose it. If I hear one more fatty complain about lack of progress, while tucking into their daily microwave curry, or one more thinny panic because they have scoffed a break-time biscuit, I shall rip down their slimming charts, tamper with their scales and threaten to force-feed them peanut butter. Stop obsessing about food and start living!
Truthfully, I don't have a problem with healthy eating. If I really am what I eat, yes, I would be shaped like a wine bottle and wrapped in a piece of purple foil saying Dairy Milk. But I would also have an organic carrot running through the middle of me. Balance is good. Extremism and denial are the things that make me cross. I shall not be convinced that a bag of cucumber sticks is enough to see anyone through a busy school day. It just won't do. A slim, young English teacher has a wobble at her whiteboard:
"Quick! Miss is having a breakdown!" And the reason? A diet of grapes, and nothing else but.
The mediapublic fascination with external beauty has often been cited as a source of body-image pressure for young people, but it seems that we all risk being sucked in. We, the educated educators, people who should know better. I wonder if there is a link between the amount of diet-talk taking place, and the number of gossip magazines strewn about the nation's staffrooms. Why are teachers so endlessly fascinated by weekly features on whichever "celebrity" has lostgained pounds over the holiday period? Or by pictures of snap-thin girls who are "lucky enough to eat whatever they like". But then they clearly like little bits of cardboard mixed with air.
As a healthy, wholesome, happy food fan, my contribution to the staffroom chat has been somewhat limited of late. In fact, the other day I was so reluctant to talk about the five best foods for colon cleansing, that I decided to lunch in the school canteen. One look at food that's round, grey, or watery, however, made me think that my detoxing friends might have a point. Suddenly that whole red pepper seemed rather appealing.
Louisa Leaman is an education writer and part-time teacher.Her latest book, Classroom Confidential, is published by Continuum