What did you say about my mum?

Tony Blair wants children to show more respect. Good luck, Tony...

Thieves are like buses. Nothing for ages then three (or in this case four) come along at once. Over the holidays, 10 laptops were pinched from the learning resources centre. On the first day back, a digital camera was taken from the PE department and a tray of 50 Stanley knives disappeared from technology. Then my wallet, left for a moment on the desk, went missing after a Year 7 lesson on war poetry.

Year 7s are the worst. Older boys have a degree of respect; they can be trusted to guard your belongings for a few minutes and can generally be relied upon to grass up their mates. But the freshly arrived 12-year-olds are loose cannons: indiscriminate in direction; loyal to nobody. And if they are not sat upon, by the time they reach Year 9 they will also have lost any residual vocal timidity. Their repertoire of responses to teachers' requests will include: "Don't tell me to be quiet, man!", "Get off my back, man!", and even sometimes, "My mum 'ates you!" Oh, and they might be carrying a fake gun and smoking grass.

In short, they will be prime candidates for a bit of Tony Blair's "respect" treatment. But as most teachers know, macho bravado is often a disguise behind which hides a sensitive, friendly boy who, deep down, wants to learn. The most effective way to deal with the "my mum" merchants is not through knee-jerk sanctions but by outdoing them at the banter. Of course, occasionally you have to show them you're serious... Take Trevor from my Year 9 bottom English set. A large, mixed-race boy who combs his Afro hair in class and refuses to squeeze his legs under the table, Trevor likes to watch people boil. "'ow old are yer, Miss?" he asks towards the end of a lesson preparing for Sats. He glances round slyly under the heavy lids of his eyes. "Bet yer 50." Since survival depends upon my flummoxing him I reply that no, I am 55 (in truth I'm in my early 30s).

Then I repeat it. Seeing my straight face the boys, at first dismissive, begin to waver: perhaps it is true? "I've had a few face lifts."

Derek, a dark blond boy, comes to Trevor's rescue from the other side of the room. "'ang on," he says slowly. "Yer daughter's two, innit?" I nod.

"So," he continues, in the kind of voice some people use when they are delaying the pleasure that will come with the triumph of catching you out, "that means you must 'ave 'ad sex when you was 53." I nod again. He stares.

"What? Yer tellin' me you did?" All around him come good-natured guffaws.

"That's disgustin', man!" "Too old, man!" Trevor absorbs what he has just learned about the human race. "You shouldn't tell us things like that. It ain't right." I shrug, gathering up papers. "Only answering the question."

He tuts. "I'm gonna tell my mum. That's abuse, man." "Yeah!" Derek recovers himself. "I'm phonin' ChildLine."

A lesson on Macbeth turns their thoughts to our precarious world. Hamed, who has been restless today, suddenly shouts (unnecessarily as he sits at the front). "Miss, innit, when there's a war people 'ave to get evacuated? Where to?"

"Yeah! Where to?" Trevor repeats. Avar looks up. "Is there gonna be a war? What, over 'ere?" "Are they gonna bomb us?" enquires Derek. There is a scuffle towards the back. Ryan, one of a pair of tiny, pointy-faced twins (the other was permanently excluded last month) is at it again. "Your mum sucks pigs!" he calls out to no one in particular and grins round the room.

Mum-cussing usually ends in fights, but for some reason Ryan is tolerated by the other boys.

"Why can't you just write, like everybody else?" I reprimand him. He looks offended. "Is everyone else writin' or what?" Then he grins again and his blue eyes flicker round the room. "Your mum's a donkey." The boys laugh.

Ryan tries again. "You dad's got ballbags." I send Riad, one of the quieter boys, to reception to fetch a member of senior staff. When he returns he announces that the deputy on duty is in the middle of dealing with a "worser" incident but will be up in a few minutes.

Later in the week, in careers, I hear the visiting speaker ask Trevor what he wants to do when he leaves. He shrugs. "Join Bin Laden, innit?" He expands. "Fly a plane into the school." The head is on duty today, and when he arrives, Trevor affects outrage through the laughter of the class.

"What, man?" "Out!" the head orders. "But I was just answerin' the question, innit?" And he grumbles his way out of the room.

The new head is determined to hit not only the craze for fake guns but also the growing drugs problem. He has discovered that three boys are the main dealers of grass in the school. All are Year 9s, although the leader, Fabio, looks older than 14. His parents are both drug dealers in rehab; he lives with his gran. Recently there's been a spate of Year 9 boys being sick in class in the period immediately following lunch. The head says it is because they have been smoking joints. On the way upstairs I pass Fabio snarling at Liam in the corner of a landing. "Don't get mad, man!" He towers over the other boy. "Don't run up yer mouth."

On the English corridor, my GCSE Year 11s are waiting. Among them is Mutahar. Tall and broad-shouldered, he glances at me. I frown. "What are you doing here?" "Can I come in, Miss? Please. I'm sorry." "That's not good enough," I reply. "No, you can't." Last week I repeatedly asked Mutahar for the coursework on 20th century drama he owed me from the previous term. He called me a "fucking slag" and walked out. He has been working alone in the detention room since.

"Don't let 'im in," Zakwan tells me." "Too rude, innit." I tell Mutahar he can come in only if he can find a way to show true repentance. I do not advise him how to do this and expect him to slope away. Suddenly the corridor is filled with raucous, mass appreciation: Mutahar has fallen gently to the floor. "I apologise, all right? I'm sorry." He lifts himself on to his knees and slaps his forehead. "I'm ashamed. Honest." I unlock the door and Year 11 files in.

The writer teaches in an inner-city comprehensive. She wants to remain anonymous

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