Odes to chalk and chickens

1st April 2005 at 01:00
I have to admit that I have never knowingly smouldered during the course of a parents' evening. I once nearly threw my arms round Mr French, but that was pure gratitude for his being the only teacher that term not to diss my younger child for idleness. After staggering from table to table having scrappy, doodle-strewn exercise books brandished at you by stern people in cardigans, you're tearfully grateful when a teacher says: "She's great".

However, it would seem that parents' evenings have more sizzling potential than that, and my eyes are open now to all those missed opportunities.

Thank Alan Friswell, one of the three winners of the Not in Term Time competition for teachers' love stories. There he is, glumly sitting through a grim evening session with annoying parents, and a mother turns up without a booking and grins at him. Whereon "My heart cracks. I fall in love.

Instantly and totally". Woooarr!

It was The TES which started this competition, by publicising online the plaint of teachers with no time or energy to fall in love. The Learning Curve producers on BBCRadio 4, strangely excited by the thought of all these lonely yet patently eligible pedagogues, offered a prize for the best three stories, in 300 words, about love in the educational world. It seemed a cruelly short word-count to stipulate.

But, as it turns out, teachers are brilliant at condensing fact and emotion into few words, presumably due to years of writing report cards with teeny spaces to sum up complicated children.

The winners were Alan, the one who fell in love over the report-sheets; Angela Horne, with a poignant tribute to a late husband; and Liz Eckstein, with a beautifully telescoped story of a marriage's decay, and the wonderful final paragraph: "You go on. You have no choice. One foot goes in front of the other. The kids make you smile and being back in school is the best, and the worst, and the best that life has. They save you. You are grateful. You go on. You plant a rosebush for the generation to come."

But some of the near-misses stay in my head just as insistently. It is hard to forget the lesbian eye-meet between the brisk new head and the crop-haired music student with CND earrings, a coup de foudre while the school orchestra limps through "Yesterday" with tambourines and recorders.

Our stipulation that it should be based on real life becomes worrying when you contemplate the tale of a head and a teacher caught in flagrante by the governors ("When the meeting reconvened, the agenda had changed").

There was a worryingly erotic encounter in the stationery cupboard between a bearded geography teacher and an object of desire who turns out to be a new box of chalk: "Silently, carefully her top is undone... she starts to crumble".

There are plenty of weepies: near-misses, chaps who seem all vulnerable then marry someone else, French teachers no one can ever forget, romances which begin when someone uses someone else's special mug in the staffroom, and of course the perennial fascination of PE teachers, male and female. I suppose they are literally the fittest in the school.

A few were memories of schooldays: the worshipped Miss White of Birmingham remembered by the boy who polished her shoes daily with his best hanky - he threw it in the canal in bitterness when she married Mr Brown. There was a cracking story from Belfast about a school trip to Paris and that heady sense of growing up, gazing at the eggshell dome of Sacre Coeur and being sent by the blushing young French teacher to buy rouge ... l vres. Disappointed then, the girls nonetheless "knew our time would come".

There was one poem creatively rhyming "erotic intention" with "detention", which may be a first in the history of the English love lyric.

And there is a secret favourite of mine from Staffordshire: an old memory of a soft, cooing voice, dark eyes, a proud carriage, a beguiling warm body and a fluttering heartbeat which transformed classroom life. The beloved in this case turns out to be a chicken called Pancake, which inhabited a primary school classroom in a free-range manner ever since the day she was hatched from the incubator on a snowy Shrove Tuesday.

Now that one really did bring a tear to the eye. Was there really a time, in vivid living memory, when you were allowed by health and safety regulators and salmonella-dreaders to have a chicken roaming free, pecking children's feet, being stroked and fluttering on to desks? Was life really so sweet and simple then, or has time rewritten every line? Ah, the way we were...

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