The medium is the poet's message

28th January 2005 at 00:00

Our headteacher's most recent publicity-seeking policy - the abandonment of a bell to signal the end of periods - has been running for just over three weeks now and is already leading to massive discord between staff and pupils. And even between staff and staff.

Pat Gibbon's stated aim in making the change was to "acknowledge the maturity of our students and the professionalism of our staff", as well as to stop any "echoes of institutionalism that surround the regimentation of ringing bells". Her first hope has proved forlorn on all counts and most of us long for a touch of regimentation again.

Of course, nearly every class spends the last 10 minutes of every period trying to persuade their teacher that the lesson is over (usually successfully) and then the next 20 minutes dawdling around the school on their way to the next class. Upon arrival, each and every member is prepared to swear blind that "Miss So-and-So's watch was running late", or some such tawdry excuse.

And woe betide any teacher whose class is near-at-hand to the laboratory inhabited by "Coarse Davie" McManus, our ill-spoken biology teacher. For these corridors are witness to the regular early departures of classes as he takes the chance to retreat to his preparation room, fling the windows wide and indulge in another Capstan Full Strength (in strict contravention of the school's smoking policy). Meanwhile, his released hoards are roving the school like herds of wildebeest across the Serengeti, causing havoc and disruption to anyone within earshot.

"For heaven's sake, Davie, can't you keep to the same timescale as the rest of us?" urged Mr Victor at lunchtime. "I was just coming to the end of some tricky chemistry experiments with my Standard grades this morning when your lot came charging past the door and ..."

"Sorry," McManus shrugged his shoulders. "But I'd had enough of them by ten to twelve so I just thought 'Sod it! Let the bastards get out there and ruin somebody else's day instead of mine'."

Our principal teacher of science seethed visibly and turned away. Clearly, Ms Gibbon hadn't had McManus at the forefront of her mind when she saluted the professionalism of her staff.


Mrs Gibbon's "all staff" email this morning has acknowledged the "teething troubles" surrounding the loss of our period bells but urges line managers to impress upon all staff the importance of "time-piece synchronisation" each morning.

Personally, I still believe that the most effective means of "time-piece synchronisation" is a mega-decibel signal around the whole school. But nobody's interested in my opinion.

Mrs Gibbon's other exhortation of the day concerned the catastrophic fall in uptake of school meals. Apparently, Mrs Hamilton's dining room has been deserted since the introduction of compulsory healthy options and the abandonment of all chips and sandwiches as menu items.

"Please encourage your students to use the school dining room," our head's email pleaded. "The school meals service has gone to great lengths in devising attractive menus to facilitate the Scottish Executive's vision of a healthier Scottish population. And they're offering free yo-yos with every lunch this week."

Moved by such laudable intent - and the promise of such reward - I took myself off to the dining room and was shocked to discover just how empty it was. Six first-year pupils were at one table, all viewing their meals with ill-concealed disgust, and a smattering of senior pupils were spread uncertainly across the hall, three of them returning their trays - contents virtually untouched - to the receptacle area.

I strode swiftly to the serving hatch. "What's on the menu today, then?" I asked brightly.

"Spicy chicken curry, Irish stew and bean goulash," Mrs Hamilton intoned lifelessly. "No chips. No sandwiches. No fizzy drinks. And nothing that anyone wants to buy."

"Oh dear," I sympathised.

"I can recommend the bean goulash," she lifted her spirits slightly.

"Hmm," I decided to venture an old joke. "But if it's been goulash, what is it now?"

"Sorry?" she looked puzzled.

"Never mind," I raised an apologetic hand. "I'll try the Irish stew."

She ladled an over-generous portion on my plate, which barely seemed to make a dent in the contents of the commodious heated tray, and invited me to take a yo-yo from the nearby box.

The stew smelled absolutely gorgeous and I could sense the vegetable-laced gravy tickling my taste buds. Unfortunately, my anticipatory excitement was disappointed terribly by the first - and second - cubes of meat that I attempted to chew. The first ended up on my plate as a well-masticated piece of gristle and the second defied all attempts to remove its stringy strands from between upper palate and dental plate without recourse to the privacy of the gents' staff toilet. I spooned up some gravy but left the rest of the meal untouched.

Like many of the pupils, I shall revert to my own packed lunch.


Period 3 was a welcome respite from folio preparation with my Standard grade class, who joined the rest of their fourth year colleagues for a visit from the up-and-coming poet Michael Taylor.

I do think that it is important for our English students to have experience of someone involved in the diurnal round of literary creativity, although I have to say that I left the lecture theatre uncertain about the likelihood of enhanced examination grades as a result of the session.

Initially, Taylor had them enthralled about the wondrous nature of a job that involved getting up mid-morning, then dashing off a line or two before retiring for a cappuccino at the local coffee shop and possibly a few hours' work before tea-time if nothing more exciting turned up.

Then he moved on to the issue of "writin' oan a variety o' mediums". I assumed he was moving into some kind of spiritual dimension, but soon realised he was referring to the textual provenance of media other than simple paper.

"When ah'm writin' poetry," he assured his adolescent audience, "it disny huvtae be oan paper. The medium dusny matter. Ah've wrote oan shoappin'

bags, ah've wrote oan T-shurts, ah've wrote oan sick bags."

The audience sniggered, and then he produced his latest masterpiece, holding a training shoe aloft: "An' ah've even wrote oan trainers."

A few further snorts were quickly silenced by the teachers in attendance, as Taylor turned the shoe a full circle and read his latest masterpiece, inscribed in felt pen around it. "Running. Running. Running. Is this what life's about? Run the race. Or die in the running ..."

The audience was silent. Until Michael Dixon shattered the peace.

"Whittae loadae crap! Dae youse get peyed real money fur that pish?"

Simon Young intervened with masterful precision, sending Michael out of the lecture theatre with one breath and thanking Taylor for his "invaluable contribution" with the next, before declaring the period finished and dismissing all of the classes (even if it was five minutes before time).

Personally, I had some sympathy with Michael.


Mrs Gibbon is reintroducing the school bell from Monday.

Apparently, she was moved to action after setting out in hot pursuit of 26 second years all on their way to the Rockston chip shop at lunchtime. Irritated that they had ignored her injunctions to use the school dining room, she was also furious that Sandra Denver had clearly let them out of her history class 10 minutes early so that they could "get furst in the queue".

They had been thwarted in this by the actions of Mr McManus, whose fourth-year pupils were well on their way back from the chip shop when both parties met at the junction of Parkland Row and Rockston Grove.

Mrs Gibbon thought better of continuing the chase in anticipation of walking into a confrontation between two year groups that would have challenged what little authority she possesses. So she did what any self-respecting headteacher would do and turned tail for the sanctuary of her office, whence she issued an email announcing the reintroduction of the bell. Thank goodness.


Simon Blake, a hitherto unassuming pupil, seems to have been inspired to literary endeavour by our poet's visit on Wednesday. Unfortunately, the particular source of inspiration concerned writing poetry on various media.

Thus it was that he arrived in my room this morning with a poem about water written on a mug, a poem about shopping written on a carrier bag and a poem about unrequited adolescent love. This last was written on a pair of underpants.

"Which wan d'ye think ah should submit fur ma folio, sur?" he queried earnestly.

"Well, I'm not too sure about SQA policy on this kind of thing," I started gently, "but I think that even if it does turn out it will accept them, it would have been better ..." I held the last poem at arm's length and wrinkled my nose, "... to have used a cleaner pair for this particular purpose."

In a peculiar kind of way, I just hope we get moderated this year.

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