Push back at parents
The gym is packed. I take a sip of my rough, powdered coffee and reflect that I (usually) enjoy parents' evening. You can find yourself forgiving a student once you've met their parents.
Of course, it tends to be the good students and their proud fathers and mothers who come, and it's a pleasure to praise from the heart those who deserve it. But the brave students who accompany their parents when they know their misdeeds will be raked over can at least be congratulated for turning up.
The Palmers are moving towards my desk. Their son, Callum, is a wonder, producing perfect copperplate maths every time. Mr Palmer takes a seat after shaking my hand. He looks successful, thrusting, businesslike. Mrs Palmer sits beside him, bright and vivacious, her bulletproof social skills already on display. They have that pushy feel.
"Callum, why don't you get a seat from over there?" I suggest. For all his brilliance, he's a diffident lad.
"No, that's OK, he can perch by my shoulder," says Mrs Palmer. "Can't you, love?"
Callum looks awkward as he leans against his mother. I plough on.
"So, where to start?" I say gamely, smiling at Callum and then at his parents. I trot out superlatives and the parents nod. They've heard it all before; it's simply a question of whether I can outdo the legions of teachers who've lauded Callum's work. They watch me intently and I falter.
"Does this fit with your perspective?" I ask hopefully. "Does Callum talk about maths at home?"
Mr and Mrs Palmer pause and exchange a glance. Callum shifts his weight from one foot to the other.
"Yes, Callum enjoys his maths," says Mr Palmer, "but we wonder sometimes, is he being stretched?"
I pause to picture my bulging briefcase full of scripts to mark. I think to myself, "Callum may not be being stretched, but I am."
"Oh, there's always extension material available," I reply. "There's the extracurricular group on Tuesdays that Callum comes to. And he's wonderful at teaching his peers. If you can teach a fellow student, you can be sure you understand the material. Isn't that right?"
Callum nods. He senses that he's caught in adult crossfire.
"What do you plan to do with your life, Callum?" I ask. "Because if you go into maths you'll be snapped up."
"What careers does maths lead to?" asks Mr Palmer. "Beyond being a maths teacher, of course."
Of course. What kind of loser goes into maths teaching, after all? I briefly consider giving Mr Palmer this reply, before deciding that my career is worth holding on to. Instead, I tell Callum: "There's a marvellous website. I'll give you the address tomorrow."
"We'd like to look at that together," says Mrs Palmer. "The three of us."
I muffle a sigh. What I am hearing is: "Callum is our creation, we have no intention of allowing him to choose by himself."
I think of the parents who look amazed at their offspring's feats and say "Where does he get it from? Search us." I find some courage. "Sure, but it's your life, Callum," I say, looking him in the eye. "Don't you agree, Mr and Mrs Palmer?"
Jonny Griffiths can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org