The vicar drops in;Opinion

26th February 1999 at 00:00
Assemblies great and small, recalled by Mike Smit

School assemblies come in all shapes and sizes. At one extreme is a hymn, a prayer and a quick moral lesson. At the other is a full-scale dramatic production en route to the West End with costumes, scenery and specially written music for guitar, recorders and percussion.

Some teachers hate taking assembly even more than hymn practice. Publishers know this and produce Do It Yourself assembly books such as, "How the Giraffe Got its Neck", "Learn from the Ant" and "How an Apple Fell on me and I Discovered Gravity". I know how inspirational these books can be, having once done the same assembly two days running. Nobody noticed. The sad thing is that your own brilliant idea is no guarantee of success. I once spent ages preparing an assembly. I managed two words, "good" and "morning", then a boy in the front row vomited over me. Critics!

Some of my colleagues relish the opportunity to lead collective worship, as required by the 1944 and 1988 Education Acts, and spin sermons that would make the Pope feel inadequate as a preacher. Mere mortals like me survive by adapting stories; so "How the leopard got his spots" became "How the leopard got his spots on the road to Damascus". With all this, the local vicar became a particularly welcome visitor. He was an assembly supply teacher. And he was free. In my school we had a number of vicar visitors.

The trouble is that vicars come in all shapes and sizes too.

One vicar was scared of children and talked to them as though he was addressing the General Synod. In one assembly he told the story of Christingle, lit a candle stuck in an orange and set light to his tie. Soon after, he retired.

His successor was fresh out of theology college. He was very keen and had obviously been on an assembly course. He would have been better prepared for the realities of school life if he'd been on an assault course. His speciality was using props. He once brought a telephone and pretended to ring various people. He rang a pop star and a footballer and finished with God. The vicar's course had clearly not prepared him for what was to follow. Perhaps he had anticipated silent prayer. Instead he was bombarded with hundreds of questions ranging from "Where does God keep his telephone?" to "Is God in the phonebook?" In his best-remembered assembly his prop was a fountain pen. In front of the whole school, he filled his pen with black ink. Apparently it made him think of his body being refilled with God's love. He waved enthusiastically and knocked the ink over. One boy in front burst into tears - his shirt was doomed. The vicar was distraught and speechless. I had to rescue the assembly and gave a quick moral based on not crying over spilt ink based on the fact that the vicar was almost in tears. He never used props again and soon applied for a job in another parish.

As an adviser, I have had the chance to watch a number of assemblies taken by local vicars.

One school I visited had a flight of very steep stairs. I was just about to climb up these when the visiting vicar appeared at the top of them.

What happened next is a bit hazy, but somehow the vicar tripped and plummeted towards me. The Advisers' Handbook did not have a section on falling vicars. I didn't know whether to catch him, or duck. Before I could decide, he landed on top of me. As I said, vicars come in all shapes and sizes. This one was fat and tall. I collapsed under him. Everything went black - I was under a cassocked body. For some reason, the headteacher found it all hilarious. He lifted the vicar up and said, "Nice of you to drop in, Vicar."

My one consolation was that I had a theme for my next assembly: "How a Vicar Fell on me and I Discovered Gravity".

Mike Smit is primary literacy adviser with North Yorkshire County Council

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