One of the things that put me off teaching for many years was how stressful the job seemed to be. I never met one teacher for whom the words "stress" and "work" weren't synonymous. Now, I know there are a good number in my staffroom who'll kill me for thisI but I came across stress for the first time in my two-year career last week. It wasn't the 120 reports that needed to be done in four days; nor was it the Year 10 class who wouldn't be quiet enough for me to carry out their speakinglistening assessments. It was wondering what to wear for my Inset day.
It's Monday morning and a decision has to be made. You're 37. There are certain considerations. You don't want to look like a 37-year-old trying to look 23, nor do you want to look as if you're trying to dress inappropriately above your rank. For the last Inset I went for my football top. I always thought footy tops were for the under-30s, but the more I see of the man who lives opposite, the more determined to wear mine I become. Because I'm a real supporter. He has two Manchester United tops, has never seen a live game and switches the telly off when they fall behind.
But, age aside, there are two big problems with the footy top. First, you need a T-shirt underneath, as it's very rough and scratchy and you look silly having to take it off in the heat of the staffroom. Second, since my team is Blyth Spartans, there are the Celtic comments to deal with from teachers who can't tell a green hoop from a white stripe.
Also, if I do go for the footy option, there's the jeans issue: do I wear my black 501s, which only go with black shoes? But, as my desert boots are scuffed up, black shoes mean Dr Martens and, as I wear them for work anyway, it'll not feel like an Inset. So, if it's black jeans,it needs to be desert boots. Desert boots? Hang on. The Year 9 girls laughed at them only last week when I put them on with chinos. And do footy tops look better with blue jeans anyway?
Options are falling away already. Try the blue Levi's. Safe choice? If so, what shoes? Do we go for the sandals? (I read in Marie Claire that women love men who don't wear socks - second only to male nurses, and I've tried that career already and know it isn't true.) Sandals? No, I can't. My dad wears sandals. And so do I. But only out of school. Properly, miles away, out of school. Canvas pumps? But they'll look silly without socks, and Inset day doesn't feel "un-worky" enough to leave off the socks. So, I go for the blue jeans. But which pair? The ones with or without the rip across the left knee? The unripped will look better with a checked shirt; the ripped with... a footy top. But that's already been ditched. Well, I say ditched. It's still on the bed with the shirt and, well, the away top too. And the club T-shirt if I'm honest.
Time's running out. The luxury of being able to leave the house 15 minutes later is fading. I'm almost dry from the shower and walk into the bedroom still pondering, reminding myself of my sister, who used to ring her friends to check what to put on or to avoid. I rang my head of department last night, but it was useless: she always wears the same thing.
So, it's on with the hole-less Levi's and the desert boots before I walk to the wardrobe again. You see, the rules are strange with Inset day. It's not a footy match. It's not an expedition to Tesco. None of the conventions that make males feel secure exists. I cannot hide behind my usual blue shirt, five pairs of Gap trousers and a silk tie. I'm on my own. I'll be judged not as Sir, but by my peers: those teams of coffee-slugging graduates who group themselves according to gender, subject or nicotine intake.
What will the rest be wearing? There are a few certainties. There'll be the man with a shirt tucked in which would look better left hanging out; there'll be a man in a polo top (who's still young enough to leave it hanging out but tucks it in - tightly); and there'll be someone in shorts, almost certainly fluorescent shorts at that. And he'll be the single one who's old enough to have more kids than many of us.
And what about the women? There'll be the one with a "look-how-many-miles-I-can-run" half-marathon T-shirt; the one who looks like she's just come out of a nightclub; and they'll be next to the woman who looks exactly the same as she did on Friday. Except maybe for the tights.
This doesn't make me feel any better. Vanity? Lack of confidence? Call it what you like, but I feel safer when bound by convention. In that respect, I feel we have one over on the children, who hate their lack of choice. They're at the age when most of them don't appreciate how much easier it is to conform; to not need to strive to be individual. There's no uniform for anyone today, no safety net. But inside my bag, stuffed in next to the GCSE assignments, there's a Blyth Spartans away top and a pair of worn Levi's - just in case.
Martin Grace teaches English in the north of England. He writes under a pseudonym