There was a young man of Surrey...

3rd October 2003 at 01:00
One hot afternoon in the early 1970s, in a secondary school classroom in Surrey, Jez Alborough got the giggles. He was sitting next to his best friend, Peter Pang, while their English teacher, Mr Dixon-Smith, played a reading of TS Eliot's "The Waste Land" on cassette.

"We were in first or second year, possibly a bit young for 'The Waste Land', and some background noises on the tape struck us as funny," Jez Alborough says. "We started laughing almost telepathically. It was a hot day and we were sweating from holding in the laughter, desperate not to set each other off because we knew we'd get into trouble. Mr Dixon-Smith was a great teacher and very encouraging but he would not tolerate any messing about. He was taking it all terribly seriously, which of course made us want to laugh even more."

Now an author-illustrator of children's books, well known in primary classrooms for his rhyming texts about Duck in the truck (who gets stuck) and his friend Sheep (who drives a jeep), Jez Alborough has turned the agony and ecstasy of sharing uncontrollable giggles with a friend into "That Thing That You Said", a poem in his new picture book anthology, Guess What Happened At School Today.

He had two breakthroughs at Beverley boys' school, New Malden: besides discovering in Mr Dixon-Smith's classes that "writing was something I could do", he learned that teachers also found school life funny. "Mr Dixon-Smith started off strict but turned out to have a fantastic sense of humour, and I noticed all the times that teachers were trying not to laugh."

"Are You Supposed to be Somewhere?" - "one of those rhetorical questions teachers ask, and children understand to mean something else" - is also rooted in his seven years at Beverley (he went on to study at Norwich school of art), but the fictional primary school at the centre of Guess What Happened owes more to his memories of Clarence Avenue primary.

There he encountered Miss Chadwick, whose name he has borrowed for the key character in the linked poems. "It's a nice name that has stuck in my head.

She taught me in my first year at Clarence Avenue, although in the book the children in her class are older, so she was the first grown-up I had much to do with away from home. She was young and stylish, slightly built with black hair in a pageboy style, and wore a lot of black."

The headteacher at Clarence Avenue, Mr Rimmington - "a lovely guy - he was clearly the boss but he had a great rapport with children and got us new kit for the football team" - is among others with walk-on roles in the book. Jez Alborough met Mr Rimmington at the 25-year reunion for Coombe Hill primary, which replaced Clarence Avenue in 1971, his 11-plus year. "I couldn't believe we were going to have carpets. Carpets were what you had at home. I asked if we had to bring in our slippers."

But he has never again seen the real Miss Chadwick, whose fictional variation has joined Allan Ahlberg's Mrs Butler and Gareth Owen's Miss Creedle in the virtual staffroom for comedy teachers created by poets.

Guess What Happened charts the school day from Mr Rimmington's assembly through mid-morning slump - "Miss Chadwick's in a Mood Today" - break, dinner, going home time and, finally, the potentially cringe-making embarrassment of seeing a "Teacher Out of School" ("a universal memory, I think"). It's published for children, but the glimpses of school life strike a chord with adults.

Jez Alborough developed his long-term plan to create a book of linked poems rather than a rhyming picture-book text by sharing memories of school and childhood with his editor at HarperCollins Children's Books, Gail Penston.

"Eventually you see the difference between the snapshot memories and something that will make a poem with a structure and a point to it." More ideas came from school visits. "I actually visited Coombe Hill, and they didn't know until I got there that I'd been a pupil."

His artwork for the book uses only torn paper - with no drawn lines - to create the school environment. The style echoes the sugar-paper collages he did at Clarence Avenue, where the store cupboard outside Miss Chadwick's temporary classroom seemed "a magic place".

Believing that every school day has potential for laughter, Jez Alborough joins us in inviting school staff to write funny poems inspired by their own Guess What Happened moments. He will help to select the winning poet and runner-up, who will receive HarperCollins books for themselves and their schools. More details on the entry form below.

Guess What Happened At School Today is published by HarperCollins Children's Books pound;10.99

Meet Miss Chadwick

Is she under too much strain?

Has her diet gone down the drain?

Has she heard some nasty news?

Did she step in doggy-doos?

Has she had a sleepless night?

Are her underpants too tight?

Does she need a great big cry?

We just don't know the reason why.

(From 'Miss Chadwick's in a Mood Today': 11.25am) Don't lean back on your chair, Claire!

Don't lean back on your chair.

Use all four legs that are there, Claire, don't lean back on your chair!

('Don't Lean Back on Your Chair, Claire!': 12.10pm) Now every so often Miss Chadwick sighs, She's developed that faraway look in her eyes.

Ten minutes to go and her battery's low so she slumps and she slouches and speaks rather slow.

('Ten Minutes to Go': 3.20pm) Watch out on the High Street, be wary in a crowd, there are teachers prowling outside school - it shouldn't be allowed.

Teachers should be kept in school, that's where they're meant to be, not pretending to be normal people - just like you or me.

('Teacher Out of School': 4.30pm)

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