My train journey home from York this morning was one of those where you climb aboard and every seat has a card sticking up to show that it is reserved from Doncaster to Grantham, or from Edinburgh to Kings Cross. By the time I arrived in Coach C, the best spot available appeared to be a not-so-enticing space in the corridor outside a sliding toilet door: just the place to rest a tired, cold-filled head. Then there it was – an empty seat with no reservation card. I eased myself into it, thinking I could get some work on this post done using the train’s wifi. But it didn’t work. So I snuffled and fulminated gently, and then was eased from a tired and slightly crotchety mood by my neighbours, a group of old ladies from Sunderland with names like Rita, Doreen, Joy, and Nora. They were off for a jolly in London, and in possession of a seemingly infinite supply of Mars bars, strawberries, and Rich Tea biscuits, of which I was eventually persuaded (“have a go, Joe”) to take my share.
I’d been in York for a year 7 trip: the final act, quite literally, of the last three years as a teacher. At times like this I tend to start looking back over whatever I’m leaving and wondering what I’ve gained from it. First and foremost, I think, is confidence and the resourcefulness to survive no matter how things are going. When I think back to my training course, and how I came out of it not really believing I had what it took to do the job (16 unsuccessful interviews before I finally got an offer!), I am really amazed to be leaving knowing that I do have it. There have been some lovely cards from pupils (also, in some cases, unintentionally hilarious: “thank you for everything you have teached me”), some random presents (wine, a monogrammed leather washbag, a poker set, and some very comfy Ralph Lauren socks!), and some touching words from colleagues and friends. But what really cheered me up as I climbed into my taxi to York station? The actions of the boys from my year 7 form.
It’s fair to say that I haven’t gotten along terribly well with my form this year. As with all groups of children in a school, most of the individuals are at least fairly pleasant individually. As with all groups of children, though, the mixture of personalities is what really counts, and this particular bunch, while not being outright nasty, have been sufficiently mad, disorganised, and chaotic to create a lot of extra work and stress, and it has been a source of annoyance that in this, the year when pupil behaviour ceased to really get in the way of any of my lessons, I have only really been able to get them to do what I ask by dishing out punishments. Reasoning, entreaties, rewards and encouragements have not worked; they have needed a lot of (metaphorical) arse-kicking, and sometimes I’ve felt pretty drained by this.
This hasn’t been true when I’ve taught them history – generally then they have been well behaved – but in dealing with their misdemeanours and general lack of respect in form time and elsewhere, I have had to expend a lot of effort and a lot of time, when it might have been easier to ignore it and just lower my expectations. My perception has been that they were very fed up with me, as well, and I had pictured them heaving a big sigh of relief as I exited stage left from their education. But instead, after all the kids, I think at my colleague’s prompting, had sung “Happy Leaving Day to You” over breakfast, my form started banging their tables and chanting my initials (also the moniker for their form) to a variety of football tunes. As I carried my luggage outside, I was presented with a leaving present so lacking in foresight, so slapdash, as to perfectly express their personality as a group: a battered, sat-on, and biscuit-crumb-infested hat in the shape of a birthday cake, which one of them had had for his birthday on the weekend before the trip, and which he probably now didn’t want to keep, and chanced upon the idea that perhaps giving it to me might be better than leaving it somewhere like all of his other possessions. They apologised that it had the wrong message written on it, and invited me to play American football outside the hostel, a game that lasted just an instant because I managed to immediately throw their ball onto the roof of one of the coaches. Then the taxi arrived, I climbed in, and they chased me up the drive, shouting, “BJA, BJA, BJA, BJA”, and trying to reach in the windows like crazy miniature paparazzi. It all seemed somehow appropriate.