Parents, boyfriends and the art of conversation

6th May 2005 at 01:00
I sit, suited and expectant, in the dusty, dim hall. My hair is on and my make-up clean. God, I'm nervous. Where is he? Surely the first one isn't late? Clenched in my clammy hand is a ballpoint pen, with which to note down information from each of tonight's brief encounters. I wince at my yellow name badge, plastered across my lapel like a McDonald's badge.

Glancing up, I smile at an equally nervous, suited man who has just sat down opposite me.

"Sorry I'm a bit late. The traffic..." We shake hands then he sits down with a thud. We both wipe sweat off our hands, then look up, smiles fixed.

"How are you? What would you like to ask me first?"

It could be any teacher's first parents' evening. Except that it isn't.

It's my first evening of the strangely surreal world of speed dating. But these two events (the speed evenings and the parents' dates) are, in some respects, oddly connected.

There are a lot of single female teachers in London, where we're known, delightfully, as LOSTs (living on own single thirtysomethings). If you spend most of your time with children it is hard to meet a partner at work.

So, given the fact that there are so many of us speed dating, why the stigma? Granted, it isn't romantic, but it's fast and pretty successful. It isn't new, either. Film pitches, short interviews - and, yes, parents' evenings - are all brief, but do the job.

After the third "guest" moves on, I realise that I am getting quite good at chatting to my visitors. Teachers are skilled communicators; we are used to talking to complete strangers with only 10 seconds before the next appointment. The buzz that by now fills the hall reminds me of last week's date with the families of 2R. The conversation flows, notepads fill, and my visitors leave with firm handshakes, proffered business cards, and effusive thanks. Well, not always. There are exceptions. Like brooding planes stacking up at Heathrow, they loom by my chair as I try to get my chatterer to move. Then when the next man finally lands opposite my desk, he spends all his time complaining about the wait, while the rest of the logjam tuts.

Familiar? Then there is the note-taker who asks sharp questions and wants to be as efficient in his job of finding a wife as he is at work.

Both venues contain musical chair movements. Just as busy parents do the "teacher's desk shuffle", speed dating men perform a bizarre ballet of sitting down, shaking hands, chatting, standing up, shaking hands, moving on. This performance is punctuated by the school bellbar whistle shrilling at three-minute intervals, forcing us to stop talking and get moving.

Phrases like "Excuse me, I've lost my seating plan. Can you help?" or "How long have you been waiting?" could apply to either rendezvous.

However, you'd be worried if a dater shouted "Give me your prediction!", or if a parent told you that he loved your eyes (mind you, Jack Smith's elderly dad has said for three years running that he's sure he's seen me somewhere before).

Then the two worlds collide. A man sits opposite me. He looks familiar, in a "Don't I teach your little brother?" kind of way. Which I do. Ouch. Never speed date within 50 miles of your school. At the end of the night, I leave with my usual list of "boys to watch out for", telephone numbers, email addresses and ticked boxes. I've managed the flustered, the looming and the arduous. I am, of course, talking about dating. Aren't I?

Margaret Fraser

Margaret Fraser teaches in south London. She writes under a pseudonym

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