No laughing at the back, this is a serious business

9th September 2011 at 01:00

"Miss, is Catatonia part of Spain?" You can't laugh.

"Look, I've just drawn an obscene triangle!" You know you can't laugh.

"Miss, why did the Greeks have biscuit-throwers at the Olympics?"

There is pure trust in that little face, and you just cannot laugh.

These are serious times. The country looks to us to save the young. We must teach them all to punctuate so they will save the economy and not set fire to things. "Don't smile before Christmas" is more crucial than ever. Trouble is, most of us will snort before lunchtime.

I cannot mark books in front of a class. "Endolphins leap about in your body when you exercise." They do when you mark 9F. "She had a baby in scissarean sections."

These are images from Salvador Dali: "Odysseus covered his manhood with a leafy borough", "Hundreds of romantic heroes have been basted on Mr Darcy" and "Baobab trees can break wind for up to three hundred yards." I never knew that "If a lion is not fed regularly he can turn violet."

There is better news for lions when pupils use formal English: "Lions are able to prepare their food themselves." Life is civilised: "Do not seclude puddings altogether." "They are all working hard. Virgil does not mention anyone being idyllic." Arty types still mean trouble: 'Poets put similes in sensitive areas." Ow.

When children do not know anything, they rely on logic. "Cranmer put his right hand into the fire because he was left handed." They have a cheery sense of cause and effect: "The Civil War was a good thing because it produced military bands and started jazz."

Teachers are not meant to laugh at pupils, which is why our job is so funny. What can you do when an innocent little paw gives you an unintentionally obscene drawing just as assembly is starting? What if, like me, you failed to see how alarming it was and photocopied it for the whole school? All I saw was a message about Amnesty International to put in the registers. It had a child's shaky drawing of its logo: barbed wire wrapped around a candle.

"How could you not notice that this does not look like a candle?" asked a weeping colleague. Male teachers winced, female teachers honked with laughter.

"Laughter is the shortest distance between two people," said Victor Borge. Every staffroom needs an exercise book near the kettle where teachers can write these things down and howl into their tea. "Concorde was unpopular because of its disturbing nose." "Gladiators only had a little bit of amour to protect their bodies." "Railways encouraged parents to send their children to boring schools." "Never end a sentence with a coma."

Read Anguished English by Richard Lederer, too: "Christopher Columbus discovered America while cursing about the Atlantic." We all have days like that.

This year will bring new leaping endolphins. One day, a sweet voice will tell you that "In the Industrial Revolution, people stopped reproducing by hand". And when it happens, you mustn't laugh.

Catherine Paver is a writer and part-time English teacher.

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