Taking a coachload of kids to the RSCat Stratford - or any other major school trip - requires meticulous planning. John Davis sets the stage for his annual class outing
It's been a full teaching day, followed by an intensive Year 10 parents' evening. At nine o'clock I'm ready for a drink or two - just to reassure myself that there is a real world out there. The pint is drawn, the glass is midway between beer mat and lips.
"Oi! What's this about a shopping trip?" "Sorry?" "I've just had to cough up 60 quid for your bloody shopping trip!" Mr Taylor is addressing me from a distance of 20 yards. All other conversation stops. I explain that Amy may have misinterpreted the purpose of the Stratford visit.
We are, I inform him, intending to visit a Shakespearean property, experience a backstage tour of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and watch an acclaimed production of Romeo and Juliet, all of which will prove invaluable to Amy when she eventually gets round to doing some coursework.
There may be time for a little shopping. And, by the way, why wasn't Mr Taylor at the Year 10 parents' evening?
I have lost count of the number of theatre trips my colleagues and I have organised: West Country venues frequently, Stratford almost annually, and London occasionally. Living in the far tip of Cornwall means there are few opportunities at home to watch high-quality live theatre.
We offer the popular Stratford "shopping trip" to Year 10 students. We try to offer an attractive value-for-money package, but spoil ourselves with an overnight stay in a decent hotel, including dinner and breakfast, and the best seats at the RST. Some of our students may never have the opportunity again, so we must do our best to make them want to repeat the experience.
The organisation need not be too irksome, provided that you learn from previous mistakes. It is impossible to cost a trip accurately unless you have watertight figures for who's going. Best, therefore, to obtain the number of tickets that corresponds to the number of seats on the coach. Most theatres will supply tickets sale-or-return, provided you request them well in advance.
You should then "sell" the tickets to the students on a first-come, first-served basis - on the pretence that availability is severely limited. This will usually result in a queue outside your office at 8am the next day.
Insist on a non-returnable deposit that covers the cost of the theatre tickets, but keep a reserve list of disappointed students. Encourage parents to spread payments over a period of time but request that instalments are made in round figures. This avoids having parents send an embarrassed child to school with pound;7.39 in loose change tied in a knotted hanky.
Remember to book the coach and accommodation well in advance. Keep a checklist. The following are essential: large black plastic bags for rubbish; travel sickness pills; sick bags - supermarket bags will do, but check for holes; air freshener; an "out of order" notice, which can easily be attached to the coach's radiocassette player before the children board; spare cash; ear plugs and, oh yes, the theatre tickets are handy.
When I arrive at school at 7am on the day of departure the queue for the back seats on the coach is already forming. The children are looking reasonably neat and tidy in their "smart casual dress". Some of the girls appear to think they're about to embark on a grand tour: most have brought two suitcases for the overnight stay - one for clothes, one for make-up.
Inevitably Wayne's idea of smart casual dress differs from the norm.
"Wayne, where do you live?" "Belgravia Street, Sir".
"Then you've got 10 minutes to go home and transform into a human being. I said 'smart casual'."
"This is my 'smart casual'. " "Nine minutes and 50 seconds."
Eventually we're off.
There appear to be two species of the genus "coach driver". One is an affable sort of chap, quite likes children and once was one. The other makes Atilla the Hun look like Little Bo Peep. He derives sadistic pleasure from undermining the teacher's authority. He not only drives the coach, he is convinced he owns it. He hates kids with a vengeance. He has never been one.
It's pot luck. If you find a good one, ask for him again. It's amazing how much difference the driver can make to the overall feel of the trip.
With any luck, the journey (in our case five-and-a-half hours to Stratford) will be uneventful - perhaps the odd puking pull-over and a motorway stop.
If there is only time to see one performance, make it an evening rather than a matinee; there is so much more atmosphere and sense of occasion, and the theatre is not packed with badly behaved kids from France. Perhaps "badly behaved" is a bit strong. It is rather a lack of theatre etiquette.
Romeo: "O! she doth teach the (crunch!) to burn (rustle) It seems she (fizz of opening Coke can) upon the cheek of (rip!) Like a rich (slurp) in an Ethiop's (belch) (scrunch) too rich for use, for (emission of wind) too dear." And so on.
Yet another tip. A synopsis of Titus Andronicus on the coach really won't do. If possible, take them to see a play they know. Then, at the interval, you will hear remarks such as, "Did you notice the way the lightning changed when Romeo first saw Juliet?" rather than, "What the hell was all that about?" Even Wayne thinks that "the fight scene where that Tybalt bloke got dun over was wicked". There are fewer more rewarding experiences than seeing and hearing the students' reactions to a performance they have really enjoyed.
The magic wears off a little on the way back to the hotel. You are bombarded with questions which all begin with, "Have we got time to...? Just repeat "no" firmly until the message is received.
We give them a deadline for lights out. There's not much else you can do unless you want to spend the night patrolling corridors. Learn to trust, but sleep with one ear open.
I do recall one rather embarrassing incident. After one Stratford trip I was summoned to the head's office.
"John, I've got a bill here from The Coach House in Stratford for a repair to a door which had to have a new lock. I think the children in that room should pay the bill."
"Ah, well, in fact Mrs Woollard got up during the night because she thought she heard noises. Unfortunately she managed to lock herself out of her room and broke the door down in a fit of temper. I think it comes under contingencies."
Whether it's your first time in Stratford or your 51st, the place has a certain buzz. The kids sense it. Eyes widen.
When you arrive at the hotel, let children choose with whom they want to share, and don't rattle off a list of things that they are not allowed to do. The list is bound to include things that they would never have thought of.
Also, give a precise time at which they are to gather in the foyer. "We'll meet down here in 20 minutes" is not good enough. "I'll be calling the register at 12.27" is much better.
When Wayne arrives at 12.28, give him a telling off of nuclear proportion. This should ensure punctuality throughout the remainder of the stay and it also impresses the hotel staff - "not like that lot of lunatics we had in last week".
Not everything can be squeezed into a brief visit. Experience has taught us that the backstage tour is a winner (book in advance), and the Shakespearean properties tend not to be. They love pacing the stage and peering out into the vastness.
It is easy to tell those who may go on to become actors since they are very blase about the whole experience; teenage rule number one - never appear to be impressed in front of other teenagers.
Amy's big moment has arrived. There is time for a couple of hours' shopping before returning to the hotel for dinner. "Make sure you go round in groups of three or more. And, not that it would apply to any of you, this is "free time for shopping" not "free shopping time". (the brighter ones will understand ).
"There will be a roll call at 5.17 in the hotel foyer." My female colleagues go off to buy underwear of a type apparently unavailable in the far West. I go back to the hotel for a snooze.
So to dinner - and here's another tip for you. Ask the manager to serve dinner well before you think you'll need it - no later than 6pm for a 7.30 performance. This avoids an unseemly last-minute dash through the streets of Stratford with the female staff struggling in underwear that has not yet been properly broken in.
"Miss, why are you going red and walking funny?" "Shut up, Wayne, and drink your gin."
The kids will have smartened up. The average age of the girls seems to have risen to 22; they look immaculate and smell delightful - "all the perfumes of Arabia". Even Wayne has exchanged his T-shirt for something with sleeves and a collar. Pity about the jeans.
John Davis is head of English at Humphrey Davy School, Penzance