What can teachers do to escape the yatta tat tat of the classroom?
I have made a number of escapes throughout my life, both literal and metaphorical. I have never raced a motorbike up an Alpine slope and attempted to jump over ten feet of barbed wire, but it is safe to say that I once had the tee-shirt, and the chinos.
My greatest escapes have been to foreign lands.
London, although not another country, was an alien environment. My love of Hemingway had led me to believe that experience was essential for understanding who you were and what the world was made of. The industrial landscape of West Yorkshire had not prepared me for the vastness of what lay beneath Watford. London, in the early eighties, was not the place it has since become. Back then it was shrouded in a greyness that sat upon its citizens like a weight from the past. Blair Peach, a New Zealand teacher and left-wing activist, had been killed by the Metropolitan Police’s Special Patrol Group. It had happened close to Southall police station during a protest march. Southall was a Sikh area that had experienced its fair share of racial incidents. There was little doubt that many of these incidents had been fuelled by a repressive police force. After Sixth Form, I joined the Met in a vainglorious attempt to put things right. Three years later, found me retreating back north and regrouping.
My memories of the Met are like pages that I have read from a book; long, long ago…
There was the initial interview at Scotland Yard in which a medical involved bending over and having your backside inspected. This had nothing to do with concerns about northern cleanliness but they were bothered about unauthorised entry. At Hendon training school, we learnt to march. We exercised and expended ourselves to the state of exhaustion under the neo-sadistic eyes of our instructors. We learnt to understand the salvo of barks and orders that were constantly fired at us. We pressed uniforms and shone boots to mirror-like quality and we studiously digested each page of the police instruction manual. We played at being policemen in mock-ups. I began to understand how stupid my accent appeared to others and started to smooth it down. More than any other thing, we were slowly being inducted into an order of authoritarian, misogynistic, racist, rightwing and wrong-minded Visigoths from another era. Life on Mars got it spot on with its depiction of characters who belonged to that time.
I use my experiences in the police as anecdotes that are rolled out on different occasions to shed a little more light upon my past. I try not to embellish these tales but am well aware of what time does to ancient events. Playing the role of storyteller amuses me. It’s a story, my history, an evolving narrative that has been changing and adapting; at both chronological ends for some time. The further I get away from the opening, the closer I get to it. This is the paradox of time that shortens the lens of experience and changes horizons and limits. The defeats I suffered during my earnest spell in the Met should have set me up for the rest of my life, but I was always an optimist who thought that things would definitely get better. Like Santiago, the old man of the sea, I have the worst type of bad luck; never knowing when I am beaten.
A fellow whom I met when my wife and I worked in the Basque Country of Spain once noted that we were always striving to better ourselves, always talking about the future as if it was a world waiting to be shaped, never sitting back and letting the tide do the work. It was perhaps easier for him as he was of the upper-middle classes and had chosen to slum it as a teacher of English as a foreign language. He couldn’t ever understand the need to make things better. He could not contemplate the desire to build defences for that time in the future when outrageous fortune might wash against them. Jacob (double-barrelled surname) had a pile to fall back on and could therefore fail in comfort. For us, failures howled in our dreams and shook us from sleep with the cold sweat of realisation that it would be like this for life. So, every day became a battle to hold our ground and to move forward, inches at a time. Stoicism can get ever so dull.
Sophie takes charge of our operations on the battlefield.
My wife is tough, resilient and generally forgiving of my escapist nature. Life has been very difficult for her with almost all of her original family now dead. Ironically, the only one still living is her natural mother. The clue lies there in so much that the woman gave birth to her, looked after her for several months, brought her to a state of malnutrition, and then handed her over to her own mother and her step-dad. My wife was adopted and then grew up wondering why her parents were so old compared to those of her school mates. There is a stagnant sea of loathing that now stretches between Sophie and her birth-mother and it is safe to say that we will never cross that vast expanse any time soon. Whatever life throws at her, she continues. I, on the other hand, have a tendency to throw it back, slam the door open and start again.
All of our escapes had been prompted by me.
I am thinking about the parachute and the German airmen in that garden all those years ago. There is me, tail-end smoking, guns stuttering and half a squadron of enemy planes swarming. I have my parachute and am pressing the ejector button. Soon only the air will be between me and the freedom of the ground. Sometimes however, they attack a helpless escapee and, when they come again, there is nowhere to hide and nothing to hide behind.