Why pigeonhole footie has power to make us fly

6th May 2011 at 01:00

Scene: the staffroom soon after 4pm. "Superb shot. That means you're going out with Frank Harrison in maths." "Damn. I was aiming for Daphne Hayes in languages."

Pigeonhole football is to football what beach volleyball is to volleyball - a brighter and rather raunchier version of the real thing. The only differences are that no spectator is ever caught ogling our bodies and that we have not yet become an Olympic sport. I'm not sure anyone in the world would pay #163;450 a ticket to watch a final pigeonhole showdown in Horse Guards Parade.

The competitors are, nonetheless, similarly committed to their sport. It is the perfect after-school therapy. As with beach volleyball, there is a rich blend of reality and fantasy involved. Colleagues take it in turns to kick an old confiscated plastic football (c. 1997) towards the bank of letterboxes ahead of them. The aim is to make the ball come to rest inside one. Some staff employ a delicate touch, but those who have had a frustrating day tend to opt for a vengeful blast.

Then comes the fantasy bit. The player who eventually lands the ball inside a pigeonhole is obliged to invite its custodian out on a date - regardless of relationship status, sexual preferences etc. This never actually happens, but competitors enjoy the many engaging images that emerge.

Five minutes of this nonsense and everyone feels better and gets back to work. But pigeonhole football is more than just a restorative for staff. It offers a new lease of life for the increasingly redundant bank of pigeonholes, too.

In the new, tyrannical empire of email, this grand old example of post-war architecture has increasingly taken on the aura of a derelict block of flats. Each colleague is still the official tenant of one of its rooms, but it is rare to find any of them checking up on the property. Some residences never seem to be visited at all. In fact, I am not entirely convinced that all the named colleagues are still with us, in any sense. Previous proud occupants of those holes would be astonished at the casual neglect now shown. They would be staggered by the eerie silence that pervades what used to be the busiest, noisiest and gossipiest corner of the entire school.

Here was a place not just to keep up with the mail, but to keep up with everything else, too. Wonderful, alphabetically based friendships used to take seed there. The pigeonhole itself rarely brought much joy (no different from the latest flurry of emails in that respect), yet the venue pulled people together.

In one sense the change doesn't matter. Our internal mail now simply arrives a different way. Time moves on and email plainly has certain advantages over the pigeonhole. But electronic communication has, I think, reduced some of the old corporate spirit, even among the most vibrant of staff. Department teams are perhaps closer than ever, now they move around less, but I am not sure there is the same overall sense of staff community and commonality. Not, that is, until more teachers take up pigeonhole football.

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire.

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