There is no escape

4th October 2013 at 01:00

Heathrow Airport, at the start of the summer holidays. Months away from the travails of teaching stretch out before me, but from force of habit I check my emails. Three of my tutees are asking when they will receive their Access to Higher Education Diploma certificates. It has obviously escaped their notice that they've been given the answer to this question twice in writing and three times (at least) in class. I also have an "empty" email - no subject line, no content - from a former student, Sebastian.

I arrive in Singapore. It's an unreal city - part Disneyland, part Hollywood film set - and everyone has a big smile on their face, which is slightly disconcerting. A rally is in progress in the stadium opposite my hotel, designed to enthuse young Singaporeans who are about to embark on national service. At one point the MC calls for a "big round of applause for the minister for education". Instead of booing, everyone stands up and cheers. Now that is unreal.

I receive another email from Sebastian, who left college more than a year ago and seems to have confused the role of former personal tutor with that of parent. He has finally managed to work out where he should type his message.

It reads as follows: "Sebastian here. Can you phone me as soon as possible as its urgent and i will explain every thing when i speak to you. I know your on your hoilday but its very important we talk. i know im asking much but untill I get someone to help me with my new e-mail layout it would be difficult to receive an e-mail. Thank lots and I hope I will here from you soon."

Reading this fills me with profound dismay - two years of my life were spent teaching Sebastian both English and information technology.

My next stop is Darwin, Australia. The population of saltwater crocodile in this area has grown to more than 100,000 since hunting was stopped in the 1970s. I see quite a few on a trip to the interior, but thankfully at a safe distance.

When I next log on, Sebastian has managed to conquer his email system and is at last being clear about what he wants: help applying to university. "I'm currently in Australia," I reply, "but will try to be of assistance when I return in late August." A further two emails have landed asking when the diploma certificates will arrive.

I travel on to the Queensland coast. Peace at last. The beaches go on for ever and a trip to the Great Barrier Reef offers sightings of whales and all the coral a man could want. But thoughts of work just won't go away.

On the news, a local college is having trouble with its enrolments. A clip shows a lecturer telling his students that, out in the bush, "five minutes before daylight is worth an hour after lunch". I make a note to use that one next term.

Sebastian gets back in touch - he has now lost his access certificate. Another former student, who left four years ago, has also emailed me, praising the part I played in her life and asking for a reference.

Back at Heathrow, I receive the usual message from our principal welcoming us all back for the new term. Funny, but somehow it feels as if I've never been away.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a further education college in London, England.

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