The tea-tray on which I began my descent of the slippery slope (at the bottom of which we now lie) was a detention a friend and I received for damaging institutional property. So record-breakingly long was it by our school’s standards that, on running out of cruel and unusual curricular punishments, the deputy head resorted to lobbing dusters at us, along with instructions on how to clean the bookcases in the panelled library. The topmost shelves were out of reach and, though our last grains of social responsibility howled “Nooooo” at the order to do so, we realised we had no option but to remove our shoes and stand on chairs.
And what of that? Well, in order to identify the most disgusting of our number, several of us childebeests had spent the preceding weeks competitively wearing unwashed socks. Indeed, with laurels not yet bestowed, some of us (fellow detainee and myself included) remained actively involved in this medically-inadvisable research. There are people for whom revenge, carefully planned and executed, tastes sweet; for us, it was unintended and smelled horrific. As we loosened our laces, a stench filled the air – the olfactory equivalent of a time-lapse movie charting the decomposition of a rat’s corpse. Those hitherto ignorant of our co-curricular efforts didn’t remain so for long, and the library was cleared long before it was cleaned.
Obviously, this occurred in so other a time that it may as well have been another place. Shoe removal would, today, be considered a paltry nod indeed towards Health and Safety; without an embarrassment of carabiners and the kind of immovable wedgie that can only a hyper-enthusiastic belay can achieve, it Just Wouldn’t Happen Now. Nor is a sock war, to the best of my knowledge, among the challenges in which young people of a competitive bent engage these days. Those, I am told, consist largely of death threats even greater than an acquaintanceship with my hosiery, delivered via etherweb and comprising punctuation, misspelling and smiley faces. LOLZ :o>
What dates this tale more than anything, however, is that it harks to an age of sanctions, also known as the Mesozoic era. Back then, doing something wrong resulted in punishment. The foolishness. As schools now concern themselves primarily with headline figures, things would be much easier for my teenage self in the current climate. I detach a page from a textbook weighing half a Zeppelin; my target grades, and proximity thereto, are established; staff are obliged to prove that they have done everything in their powers to ensure that I am ‘realising my potential’.
And thus is my act of vandalism transformed from a clear example of Selfish Little Shittery that fancies itself an ingenious solution to a carriage problem, into a symptom of disaffection induced by teacher incompetence. For, in the way of things like sunrises, the teachers’ efforts, however assiduous, will be deemed insufficient. As copping-
out management goes, this is great, being equally applicable to the naughty-lazy daft, the naughty-lazy bright and their distant lazy-naughty cousins. Those cries for help, cunningly disguised as igniting each other’s hair extensions for fun, are just waiting to happen when Miss and Sir fail so comprehensively to meet their students’ needs.
We know that poor behaviour is one of the reasons for which teachers often leave their jobs – nay, profession. We know this because departing teachers tell us so, though they often go unheeded. Having created the category of ‘low-level disruption’ for the purpose of calibration, we now find that it is tantamount to an excuse, enabling senior staff so inclined to pile all responsibility for behaviour management onto the shoulders of classroom teachers, whose requests for help are re-interpreted as admissions of incompetence and logged in big, black folders of evidence.
The construction of improbable façades also leads many schools to believe they can ill-afford the appearance of any crack. Misdemeanours may go unpunished to ensure that no paper trail attests to behaviour issues. Line managers, rather than supporting staff by tackling the miscreants who prevent others from learning, hide in alcoves or barricade themselves inside meeting rooms. So dedicated are some to replicating those awful ‘living statues’ in Trafalgar Square that I’d have a fair chance of scot-freeing my way through fashioning a Camberwell Carrot from a textbook, lighting it off a classmate’s hair and partaking of its vapours in the playground.
Or, proving that the Yoda garb is nothing but a costume, some turn what should be opportunities for behavioural sanctions into rocket-booster sessions in which – defying fripperies like exam board regulations and gravity – grades already achieved may be…erm…revisited. So, yet more lunchtimes/after-school hours/weekends/holidays are given over to catch-up (or copying, as it’s also known) for those not yet hitting the mark; or, for those who’ve already done so, an expectation of “stretch and challenge” only achievable, in truth, on the rack.
As Meatloaf, junior lecturer in the Life Lessons Faculty, almost said, one out of two ain’t bad. My sock drawer may still smell apocalyptic but, in the light of the punishment inflicted upon me, I’ve not defaced a book since.