My best worst school trip

8th August 2008 at 01:00

BEST - I love it when pupils pull out of theatre trips. Even when their excuses are lame, such as: "My mum's cooking goulash" or "drama's gay". Fewer pupils equals empty seats and empty seats equals my comfort zone.

On a trip to watch The Late Henry Moss by Sam Shepherd, three pupils and I met Edward Albee, writer of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The theatre's education director gh-osted over at the interval to report that the playwright (visiting as mere audience) was willing to chat. Of course, my pupils offered nothing. Albee was great - droopy moustache and leather jacket like he'd flown from 1970's San Francisco. I managed a question.

"What do you think of the play?"

His response was coolly urbane.

The pupils looked bored and Albee asked my thoughts.

I, shamefully, replied: "Like what you just said." Please don't think any less of me, I was tired and nervous and snarling at the mute pupils, willing them to speak. They didn't respond, and the writer moved off, but at least I felt tingly that I had met someone important.

However, the empty seats and famous playwright weren't what made the trip special.

The education director gave me six drink vouchers. Six. She'd been expecting more staff. I had two triple gins and tonic and it was wonderful. I slept through the second act and dreamt of impressing Tom Stoppard at some showbiz party.

WORST - Gorillas. I loathe them, with their stupid eyes and bananas and amazing throwing skills. Year 7 and I were being led through a zoo. The guide was sexy, the sun was shining and I'd seen my first puma. Life was great.

And so we approached the gorilla enclosure, a hut with a see-through wall on a slope down to a muddy field. "Gordon the Gorilla," purred the guide, "was saved from a village where he was tied to a post for the local children to tease him." The pupils muttered. She added: "Sometimes with sticks."

As if these words were a magical incantation, the gorilla materialised, its shoulder against the screen - a slagheap of hairy muscle staring nowhere. The pupils hooted and waved, desperate for reaction. The ape blinked, smashed a palm against the screen and lumbered off to its garden.

From a vantage point we found the animal sitting on a log some 20 feet below. He was having a think. Pupils hooting from a safe distance, my mind wandered: I contemplated chatting to the guide (what's your favourite animal?).

The flight of the black substance hardly registered. There was no sound, no warning. It hit my suit jacket like wet smelly chocolate. I've never seen a group so quickly reduced to hysterics. Pupils rolled on their backs, pointing derision. Even the zookeeper smiled.

"They often throw their faeces when threatened," she said, as if her words could remove the sticky mass from my jacket.

Falling asleep that night, three showers later, I could still hear the laughter.

Tom Mitchell teaches at Eltham College in south-east London.

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