Guy came home today, smelling of sulphur, saltpetre and soot," begins Mrs Fawkes's diary. Sulphur, saltpetre and soot are the ingredients of gunpowder, but Mrs Fawkes doesn't know that. Nor does she know that her husband is trying to blow up the Houses of Parliament. To her he's just a good Catholic, a nice guy. As do all diarists, she tells it her way, naiveties and all. Of course, there isn't really a Mrs Fawkes's diary. History doesn't mention Mrs Fawkes. It's too busy with her husband, his execution and the display of his entrails.
But my wife is real and she has a diary. It's up to date, too. I envy her persistence. A year ago, we both bought diaries for the new millennium. Mine has entries up to January 12, petering out with the pathetic, "Today I wrote in my diary". That's when I realised that to keep a diary you need a life. Maybe teaching for 27 years in an FE college has been a contributory factor; it is time for a change.
My wife made the change and it is recorded in my 2000 diary, after months of gilt-edged blankness: "Thursday, July 13. Wife left her college today. After 21 years. Colleagues were touched by her speech."
She had run the speech past me the night before. The last paragraph was pure Shakespeare. "Do you think the ending's all right?" she asked modestly. It was just as a leaving speech should be: sentimental, honest, political. It recalled how a few years earlier she'd been interviewed for an internal promotion and was told in her debrief that she failed on one answer. "What is your worst fear?" had been the question from a local councillor, a loud voice on the governing body. Quick. Think. Unexpected question. The worst sort of question. A little voice inside her should have said: "Tell them you hae no fears. Lie for once. You are in an interview, remember."
She could only say: "Being in a roomful of angry people." Clang. "Well that did for me," said my wife in her speech. "I answered honestly, not politically. But now I am in a roomful of loving and supportive people."
I have met people since who said colleagues wept in corridors and drove home in tears.
I have a new writing project for the new millennium - the one that starts on January 1, 2001. I will start a new job and will have a second chance at writing a diary. But no, I'll write a book instead. A book of Pedagogical Leaving Speeches Throughout the Ages (email address for contributions below.) I'll start with my wife's. I'll add my own (that's easy, this is it). Some will be happy, some witty, some bitter. I'll include the one made recently by a friend leaving a job teaching rural studies after 20 years. "I am leaving," he told gathered colleagues, "because of the behaviour of a handful of uncaring yobs." He was referring, of course, not to the pupils but to the senior management team who, in his own words, had left him exhausted and disillusioned by behaving worse than his animals. At least he released his feelings in a leaving speech and didn't let the bull loose in the study.
The book will have a message. Go before you're bitter and twisted. Go with good grace, in style, if possible. Don't go out with a whimper. Don't spend the last few days raking over the past, going home smelling of gunpowder, treason and plot. Go out with a bang, but not that sort of bang. You're too nice a guy.
Richard Hoyes teaches at Farnham College, Surrey. Email: email@example.com. From January, he will be teaching at Alton convent school, Hampshire