Trouble even unto the end

24th December 2004 at 00:00

I look forward to the last three days of term.

I suspect this will be my daughter's last season of belief in Father Christmas (Margaret is now 8) and Gail and I hope to enjoy it to the full.

Alas, our marriage has not been blessed by the arrival of any further Simpsons, so we hope to make the most of this year's episode of child-like wonder.

A child-like wonder is something that is regularly displayed by Susan Petrie of 2C, a particularly fragile child who seems absolutely consumed with embarrassment during the personal and social education classes that I am forced to deliver under our school's curricular strategy. To be honest, I can understand her position: I am not terribly comfortable discussing personal relationships with 29 adolescents. But, as long as I can get by on showing them the relevant videos and dishing out a few worksheets, then maybe I shouldn't complain.

It has struck me recently that Susan has seemed most uncomfortable during these lessons, so I took her aside this afternoon and suggested that she might prefer to opt out for a few weeks.

"It would be perfectly OK, Susan," I explained supportively. "A number of parents have removed their children from these lessons already and you could simply join them in the library."

She bit her lip uncertainly, so I tried to encourage a decision. "Look, I can understand how you feel. I've always felt that you had a certain air of fragility about you and I'd rather you felt able to opt out of these topics if they make you feel uncomfortable."

Her eyes opened wide and I thought I detected the onset of tears, so I brought the discussion to a swift conclusion. "Anyway, have a word with your parents I or rather, sorry, your mother" (alas, I'd temporarily forgotten that her father died last year) "and let me know what you want to do next term."

It probably wasn't my finest hour of pupil-teacher interaction but I think she'll have understood my honest intentions.

uesday Our headteacher has decreed the abolition of our school bell next term. Pat Gibbon's edict via the All Staff email has raised a few concerns, all of which she claims to have anticipated.

"I realise that this will not find favour with everyone," the newsletter proclaimed, "but I am introducing it to acknowledge the maturity of our students and the professionalism of our staff. I feel that to have our days regimented by the ringing of a bell has echoes of an institutionalism that sits uneasily on my shoulders. Furthermore, the pupil council has fully supported the suggestion, so it is with real hopes of a glad, confident and bell-free morning that I am announcing the cessation of period changes by the school bell with effect from our return to school on January 5.

"If any member of staff wishes to discuss this matter, remember that my door is always open."

"Of course it is," Simon Young said acidly. "Because she's never bloody there, that's why!

"Don't you remember the old days, Morris, when heads - John Ross or Tod or Dick - would at least have the bravery to stand up in front of us at a staff meeting and tell us these things in person? Now we've got one who just sits in her office despatching email to all and sundry, with never the chance of a genuine piece of feedback from us. Like, for example: 'That's a complete load of shite you're talking, Ms Gibbon!' " My principal teacher clearly feels strongly about the matter. I admit to a degree of unease myself but really can't be bothered worrying about next year's problems before we've finished with this year's.

ednesday This year's problems continue apace, even on the last day of term.

Christina Harry, of business studies, has been in receipt of an appalling email from one of her Standard grade administration students.

She has always been extremely uneasy about allowing pupils access to the school intranet, in particular to her own email address. However, the course requires that candidates demonstrate their ability to send email.

Young Dixon demonstrated these capabilities in full by alerting her to the reason for his non-appearance at a detention period yesterday. His email proudly (if inaccurately) proclaimed: "No way am I cumming to yoor detenshun, yoo big ugly cow!"

Mrs Harry has forwarded it to Mrs Gibbon and awaits a disciplinary response. I don't think she is likely to receive one this side of Christmas.

Meanwhile, I have had my own problems on the last day of term. Susan Petrie's mother demanded an immediate appointment to complain about my conversation with her daughter on Monday.

"Mrs Petrie," I assured her. "I was simply trying to put Susan's mind at rest about the PSE classes. She seemed to be a little uneasy about some of the topics we discussed, so I ..."

"Mr Simpson," she interrupted. "I know that certain things get discussed in these classes that never were discussed when I was at school. But I think it was completely out of order for any member of staff - especially a male one - to tell my daughter that she was frigid."

My mouth opened in automatic response, but no sound was forthcoming as the import of her remarks slowly dawned upon me.

"I'm sorry?" I eventually stuttered. "I told Susan that she was what?"

"Frigid. That's what you said to her. And that's why I'm here!" she crossed her arms and sat firmly upright in her chair.

I thought back desperately to the conversation and slowly, painfully, dragged the exact phraseology from the recesses of my mind. "Fragility, Mrs Petrie. I said fragility."


"I told Susan that I thought she had a certain air of fragility about her.

So I would understand if she didn't want to attend PSE classes."


"Yes. As in, I recognised that she is a fragile child. She has an air of fragility about her."

"So you didn't say she was frigid, then?"

I confirmed that and her anger seemed assuaged. In fact, we even ended up laughing about it as she understood how I had been trying to help her daughter, and I went on to recall the old joke about "sending three and four pence, we are going to a dance".

I decided against regaling her with the time when David Pickup, my old friend and mentor, was accused of calling a child a "f****** dormouse".

Although his actual wording had been: "Rose, I am sorry, but your faculties are dormant", it took a long time to persuade Mrs McShane in the truth of the matter.

hursday Suddenly, Christmas seems actually close, and I don't want to think about school again until it's absolutely necessary.

With that very firmly in mind, we took Margaret to see Father Christmas at the Parkland shopping centre this afternoon. It was a truly delightful experience, witnessing her eyes light up with eager anticipation as we stood in the snaking queue that took 25 minutes to reach the hallowed precincts of the Elf Land Grotto, and then another 15 to reach the portals of Santa's inner sanctum.

For obvious reasons, I had brought the video camera along to record the cute moment as Margaret approached Santa for a last-minute consultation about presents. So you can imagine my dismay when a rough-faced elf grabbed me by the elbow and insisted that I stopped recording forthwith. "Ye'll huvtae switch that oaff, surr. Now."

"I'm sorry?" I enquired.

"Turn oaff the vidjo, pal, ur we coanfiscate it. Regulashuns, pal. Nae videos in the vicinity o' Santa. It's coaza a' thae peedjafiles."

I couldn't believe my ears. "But I'm her father! And this is..."

"Duznae matter, surr. It's the rools. Canny be too careful wherr peedjafiles urr cunserned..."

I sighed and switched it off.

hristmas Eve Margaret doesn't believe in Santa any more. I discovered the truth when I overheard her chatting to a friend on the phone this evening.

"It was really funny," she explained. "Mum and Dad were, like, taking me to see Santa again. They still think I believe in him! Which is OK by me: double loads of presents! Then, like, one of the elves told Dad to switch off his camera. It was a scream. But I gave Santa my list an' I made sure that mum saw the ..."

I coughed loudly to let her know I was there. And - if I'm honest with myself - before she shattered any more of my illusions.

"Oh, hi, Dad!" she smiled brightly. "Is it time to put out the mince pies and sherry for Santa?" she asked innocently, before concluding the phone conversation and devoting her attention to me.

"I can't wait until tomorrow morning," she enthused. "D'you think he'll come here early or late? And d'you think he'll remember all of my presents?"

I bit my lip, wiped a silent tear, then shrugged my shoulders and said: "Who knows, Margaret, who knows? Christmas is all about surprises, isn't it?"

It was better to keep up the pretence, I decided, even if it involved a certain amount of personal pain. In education, it's often the way.

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