Tired, tested but prepared to party with the kids

22nd May 2009 at 01:00

At first I thought he must have been trying to repair it. My colleague was bent forward, his upper torso resting on the top of the photocopier. I noticed that his head was in the palms of his hands and that he was not moving. I panicked in case he had caught his tie in the mechanism. Then I realised he was sleeping. Mr B asleep, head resting in his palms, the soothing heat from the machine's soft humming having finally induced slumber.

Utter exhaustion finds its way to us all. The summer term is, for those of us timetable-heavy with exam classes, the teaching equivalent of running the marathon. Hours, days, weeks, months of preparation. Building up the pace, becoming more mentally disciplined, trying to hone the academic skills of the pupils for those few life-changing hours in the exam hall.

Yet the constant stream of marking is enough to drown even the most hardy. Then sleep deprivation, caffeine and cheap chocolate take their toll. Every lesson the pupils spend sitting quietly writing against the clock; for us, every spare moment is spent with red pen in hand.

The last lesson before exam leave begins. "Will you miss us then, Mrs G?" I look around the class, trying to be optimistic about them stepping out of the door of English 2 for the last time and into the big, wide world. Research from 2004 suggests that in any secondary school of 1,000 pupils, 50 of them will be severely depressed, 100 will suffer distress, 20 suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder and 10 female pupils will have an eating disorder. Labelled the "disturbed generation" by the Daily Mail, the research estimates that one in 10 of their generation may be mentally ill. I look around the class and see them in a new light.

Surely they will be all right, though? This is, after all, 2009, not 1978 when I left for a summer of O-levels. Things out there must be much improved. Then, I recall the widening income gap between the rich and poor in Britain that has developed between 1975 and 2005. Inequality remains at levels almost unprecedented since records began - and higher than it has been for several generations.

They will be happy, though, won't they, with their life before them and youth on their side? Money is not everything, as those of us on a teaching salary know better than most. Then I recall the Unicef inquiry that placed the UK bottom in a league of "child wellbeing" out of 21 industrialised countries. Survey after survey tells us that Britain has the unhappiest teenagers in Europe.

I stand at the classroom door proffering handshakes and am met with bear hugs. "I'll be back for you when I am 21, Miss," quips George. When he is 21 George will, apparently, have made enough money to take me shopping in Westfield, the biggest retail centre in Europe, and let me run amok in the designer section with his credit card.

And then the leavers' prom. We spend years trying to get the boys to wear a tie and keep their shirts tucked in, but now they are suddenly transformed in dinner suits and bow ties, fussing over their appearance more than the girls. Girls no longer, but elegant, beautiful women looking sophisticated in full-length evening gowns. They circle one another, holding the orchids given as gifts by the boys. They look like a swarm of exotic butterflies. Staff have managed to stave off sleep deprivation for one last moment for this symbolic rite of passage. All is controlled until the dinner is eaten and the speeches are over, then we hit the dance floor hard.

The embarrassment of seeing their teacher dance and sing along to Abba passes. We mingle as one happy mass. Even then, though, the questions surface in our minds: "Have we taught them all that they really need to know to survive out there?" and "Is there anything more that could have been done to prepare them for the rigours ahead?" Yes, we realise there is one last lesson to teach. One last transformation to perform.

The music starts up and we assume the role of teacher to pupil one last time. Positions are assumed and then we are off, teaching them the dance moves to hits from Grease. "Summer Nights" and "Greased Lightnin'" are particularly memorable. There's even a touch of Saturday Night Fever-style dancing. Without such moves under their belts what hope do they have?

George, if you are reading this, I will be waiting in English room 2 in 2014 for the shopping spree. I will get my list ready in anticipation. And yes, the classes of 2009, I will miss you.

Julie Greenhough, English teacher at an independent school in London.

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