Out of the mouths of babes

4th April 2003 at 01:00
JOAN, my neighbouring heidie, called for me at some ungodly hour and we set off for my very first National Conference. The 7.15am had been delayed, but the complimentary coffees went down well.

We were both dressed well enough to pass as young executives - well executives anyway, and I tried unsuccessfully to contain my curiosity and excitement. I scanned the list of attendees, and I recognised the names of the great and the good of Scottish education.

Registration proved fascinating, and despite the misspelling of my name, I engaged in a bit of talent-spotting egged on by an excess of caffeine and schoolgirl nervousness.

All was activity, inane chatter and feigned bonhomie. Superficial pleasantries were exchanged, mutual "friends" routinely assassinated and scurrilous gossip exchanged before we assembled in the "fit for purpose" conference suite. Black suits abounded, and the room was awash with the exotic fragrances of aftershave, perfume, stale tobacco and hotel aerosols.

The opening welcome from the university was excruciatingly embarrassing, and they could just as well have held up a placard which said: "Nae money, will sell anything." If I had asked if they did courses in early stages astrophysics, they would have obliged.

Irrelevance, pretentiousness and sheer unadulterated twaddle exuded forth.

Joan and I survived by playing buzz-word bingo, as "partnership", "process" and "permeating" tripped off forked tongue after forked tongue.

This was a national conference? One speaker could have prepared her contribution in the ladies, such was the totally rambling nature of her input. Each fawning aside, every in joke and most of the references to well-known personalities were lost on me. The reporter from The TES Scotland had stopped scribbling, and I noticed he had started to write down the names of his Hibs All-Time Greatest Team.

Lunch provided a blessed relief from the tedium, and I noticed a few of the great and the not so good heading for the exits, to answer some mythical crisis back at the office. Academic drift was the main theme of the afternoon session, as we were herded into so-called break-out groups. If only.

The atmosphere was uncannily like a doctor's waiting room, but not so funny. We had paid for this.

I had counted 345 roses on the wallpaper behind the facilitator's head. She explained her role was that of an enabler. She certainly enabled me to see what a complete phoney she was. Job done.

I had just started to count the holes on the sides of my neighbour's brogue shoes, when I heard a distant voice. My neighbour coughed and nudged me.

The facile one repeated: "And what do you think, Mrs McElroy?"

Every eye in the room was on me. I sat bolt upright, opened my perspiring palms, shrugged my padded shoulders and blurted out: "I think we need to give it a chance to bed down. It's too early to tell."

To my amazement, every head started to nod in agreement. Directors of education, Her Majesty's finest, Scottish Executive officials, union leaders and even the guy from TESS. They were agreeing with me - Bridget McElroy, novice headteacher, rookie, novitiate, innocent - well almost innocent.I wonder what the question was? To this day, I do not know, and I don't care.

The lady from the curriculum resources and policy (sic) department of the university thrust an evaluation sheet under my nose, as Joan mercifully stopped me from entering the plenary session.

"Come on Bridge, Rose Street beckons!" I was an easy follower.

In the Abbotsford, we met the guy from TESS. He was obviously researching next week's headline story, and pointed at my lapel. I still had my name badge on, revealing my origins and details, all too accessible for a Jotter entry.

I struggled to come up with a witty remark, and, pointing to his half-full glass of ale, I stupidly stammered: "Is it a good pint?" Licking his lips, and about to order refills all round, he said without a hint of sarcasm:

"It's too early to tell." We both collapsed into fits of laughter.

When the train finally arrived back in the deserted station, my beloved was there to greet me. "Well, what was it like?" he asked, without wanting to know the answer. I smiled.

Bridget McElroy

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