Secondary school is a scary place for 11-year-olds
That fixed, benign expression held by the secondary schoolhead during those supposedly reassuring open days for the new intake last term did nothing to reduce their trepidation.Mischievous tales from the playground mean that many arrive expecting war.
They have been told that older pupils will either try to padlock them to the school railings, dunk them in lavatory bowls or - if they get off lightly - make them stand as goalposts in break-time football. Their property will be equally at risk. Many a neat and immaculately-started new exercise book will be forcibly taken away by the notorious Maxine in Year 11, and that beautifully and fearfully presented first homework will get no further than the school incinerator.
The scare stories add to the psychological turmoil and upheaval of changing schools. From being in a school of perhaps 100 pupils, they will find themselves in an emporium of perhaps more than 1,000. At their last school they had perhaps been figures to be feared, but now they are just figures of fun. They once walked tall, feeling old and wise, but now they feel young and wet behind the ears again.
Consequently, a typical new class sticks closely together in the first few days. They move from one lesson to the next in one long and jittery train - which will often head in the wrong direction, occasionally mistaking a cupboard for a classroom. But they always arrive at the right destination long before the next lesson starts as they do not yet deem it safe enough to stand around during a break.
The teacher meeting them for a first lesson is always taken aback by the overwhelming silence. And in truth, most of them will not tak in a single word, their minds perhaps more occupied with working out how they will avoid having their index fingers ritualistically broken by the rumoured "mad science teacher" timetabled to greet them in the next lesson - one of their older siblings has said he was sacked from his last teaching job for violent misuse of scientific instruments. Others may be listening but are simply too scared to confess that they have no idea what the teacher is talking about.
Future school miscreants are not obvious at this stage. One possible sign of future behavioural deviancy is the grinning character who, within a week, is proudly asking the teacher whether he remembers teaching his two older brothers. For good educational reasons, the teacher affects to have only a vague and positive recollection of the older siblings, however many recurring nightmares the names may conjure up. The younger brother sees through this pretence and the teacher just prays for a benevolent development on the genetic front.
As the worries begin to dissipate, new emotional problems appear. For example, the person Sarah was made to sit next to in the very first lesson may have seemed a good enough companion when the going was tough, but it wasessentially an artificial, alphabetical alliance and Sarah wants out of it now. But how does she do this without hurting the other's feelings?
The alphabetical arrangement may have helped the form teacher to learn names, but this convenient colonial-style creation inevitably leads to heart-rending division when the old primary school tribal loyalties and enmities start to re-emerge. Joe the midfield footballing dynamo breaks free from Ian the Inter-nerd, and skateboarder Zoe decides that she has had enough of Dawn the Girl Guide. The class is beginning to find its feet and the silent September days will soon be a dim and distant memory.
Stephen Petty teaches at Lord Williams's comprehensive school in Thame, Oxfordshire