The Best Person to Decide

‘How many today?’

‘I haven’t counted yet. Hundreds.’ She said.

“Said” actually implies something more positive, more certain, more involved than the way she spoke. “Sighed” might be nearer, but may be too polite, too slight in its ability to depict the awful weight those words carried.

‘Hundreds.’

‘I’ll cook. What do you fancy?’ I tried to put a bit of a smile in the way I asked. I don’t think she wanted smiles.

‘Anything. Nothing. Look you get yourself something. I’ll pick at something later.’ She started rummaging in the bag of papers she’d brought home tonight. ‘I’d better start. They’ve got to be with the exam board in a couple of weeks.’ She dumped a pile on the table. ‘And I’ve still got lesson preps.’

I went into the kitchen and left her to it. I would prepare a Bolognese. I’d do enough for both of us and I’d freeze the rest if she didn’t want it.

I’d had a bit of a hard day myself, but you couldn’t tell a teacher that. It was interesting seeing what went on through the looking glass. When I had been at school I can’t say I had much respect for teachers. Some I liked as people. Some I liked for their ability to convey a subject’s innate value. Some combined both feelings. The majority didn’t hit either mark. Many were just plain average Joes (boys only school, one female teacher and she was the most macho of the lot of them). Many were completely useless.

Just as “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, so all good teachers were alike but each bad teacher had their own particular way of making the day a misery.

The onion was going clear in the olive oil; I added the chopped garlic and looked for the oregano and basil.

I hadn’t seen Rebecca teach of course so I couldn’t tell what she was like in class. I’d seen the amount of lesson preparation she did, had  looked at the materials, talked over some of the curriculum she had to teach and ideas for engaging the little buggers. It all seemed as good as it was going to get given the weird concepts of what kids need to get on in life that passes for educational policy these days. But I’d ever seen the performance part. The bit where she tried to turn the theory into the messy practicality of imparting knowledge and enthusing kids to learn, to see that knowledge was only the first bit of learning, of knowing how to gather information, how to analyse it, how to use it and its products to do other things; how to think.

She’d practised run throughs of new material on me. They seemed cool. I learned some things. But I wasn’t thirty mixed ability, mixed enthusiasm, mixed aggression fifteen year olds. I liked learning new stuff. I loved Rebecca. I’m pretty sure a few 15 year olds would as well given half the chance, but that didn’t necessarily encourage the mind set for learning.

The minced beef was browned and I rummaged for passata in the cupboard.

I held the bottle aloft in triumph.

‘Do you want a bit of Bolognese love?’

I listened for a reply. Nothing but frantic paper rustling.

I poured the sieved tomatoes into the pan and put the water on to boil.

She was grading. Not papers, but pupils. This was like a meta analysis of someone’s evidence for life. Government dictat had swayed from exams, to exams and course work, to exam like assessments and back to exams over the decades but this was different. This was Covid induced surrender to the idea that “the best person to judge the pupil is the teacher.”

I put the spaghetti into the largest pan we had, the water roiling in its eagerness to consume the pasta. I’d always dribbled a little olive oil in with it until I’d watched an Italian chef on an online channel use quite a lot of rude words about that idea. So I just shoved the strands in and went to put the garlic butter into the bread for a quick oven heating.

I stuck my head through the door.

‘Ten minutes love, if you want to eat.’ I said. She grunted noncommittally and dropped another set of marks onto the pile of those who had been weighed in the balance. I grabbed a piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano from the fridge and wondered about what was going on next door.

Rebecca was stressed with the sheer volume of work at the best of times. The obsessive paperwork proving the prep work had been done, plus all the weird governmental obsession with various and multifarious metrics meant there was little time to actually teach. I wondered if the box ticking, hoop jumping and goal setting actually made weaker teachers better enough to balance out the drag on the better teachers. I couldn’t see it making any difference to the stinkers. They would always find a way to win the battle with the pupil.

I grated some of the cheese and checked the clock. Time to test the pasta. I didn’t adopt the Sweeney’s method of hurling a piece against the wall to see if it stuck to it, although that way no doubt still had it adherents.

My teachers had not been particularly aware or bothered about how I interacted with them and the school system. I was quiet and not problematic. That let me sit just above the middle of the pack for most subjects, below in some and near the top in a few. This largely depended on how confident and capable of controlling the class the teacher was. If I could concentrate and they inspired I would fly. If they were on the look out to pick on someone to cover the fact the class was a mess I slumped. I was lucky I guess, the ethos was to learn and only a few bothered with the idea that allowing pupils to “express themselves” was of paramount importance. It was my fellow pupils ‘expressing themselves” that bothered me most of the time.

I’d been at the front of the peloton, just behind the teachers’ pets in junior school. Until the 11 plus which as an IQ test of sorts. I was top of the school and nobody, least of all the teachers, liked it or believed it.

I continually did better in most exams than I did in class with teacher assessments.

The steam billowed up from the colander before I returned the pasta to the pan and poured the Bolognese on top of the pasta. I stood it to one side, snatched the garlic bread from the oven and put the butter and lemon zucchini into a serving dish.

‘Ready if you want love.’ I smiled.

She looked up, hurled the latest paper down on the decided pile and stood up.

‘Sod it. That little bastard’s done nothing all year anyway. Let’s eat.’

RTFQ: READ THE QUESTION

I was reading an article that popped up the other day when I was doing a search for something else (procrastinating as it happens, but not for once about writing- ironic the theme of the article was: why writers procrastinate). http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/02/why-writers-are-the-worst-procrastinators/283773/

I got to the bit where the author said re authors: ‘We were too good in English class. This sounds crazy, but hear me out. Most writers were the kids who easily, almost automatically, got A’s in English class.’

And I nodded sagely and was about to pass on when I thought – ‘hang on I got a 3’

I probably need to clarify for those younger than me –nearly everybody – GCE O Levels, forerunners of GCSEs were graded 1-6 pass (GCSE A-C equivalent although you aren’t supposed to think like that) and 7-9 fail and then a whole series of other things about unclassified or too horrible to sully the markers pen. (Nobody softened the blow in those day – pass/fail/beyond the pale). I had been tipped for a 1, equivalent today of an A (I know it’s all about to change back to numbers again – plus ça change and all that).

Come the day of the exam however and I sat down and looked at the paper and answered the comprehension, and then the composition based on a drawing, and then a whole raft of other stuff, and my hand was flying. It needed to. As I looked at the clock, my calculations that this was going to be very tight, were proving correct. I finished, just, but my handwriting had been reduced to a horrible scrawl by then and my hand was in spasm.

As we walked away after the exam, the chatter was about what a fair paper it was. I was a bit bemused; I had thought it a complete *******. ‘Oh no, it was great!’ my friends said before asking: ‘Maybe you picked a different bit. What did you choose for Part II?’

Pick?

Choose?

I scrabbled in my pocket and turned to the relevant bit of the paper: ‘Choose ONE section only of Part II and write…’

ONE! I’d answered it all! No wonder my hand was doing an impression of the Monkeys Paw (Brilliantly scary little horror/supernatural story by WW Jacobs- if you haven’t read it yet: read it- preferably on a dark winter night by a fire side – but lock the doors first!).

I had a horrible summer waiting to find out the damage. There was a tale going around that if you ignored the instructions they failed you stone dead, without even reading the rest of the paper. Fortunately that turned out to be a schoolboy rumour on this occasion and they must have taken the first bit they got to, and could still read, as my answer. On the whole I thought a grade 3 for being an idiot and not reading the question was pretty good.

This was made all the more relevant because my daughter got her GCSE results last week (she heeded my dire warnings re reading the question – mostly! And is going to Sixth form next Monday)

I did have some very good advice in later years from a lecturer. If only he could have passed on this little acronym before my English O Level:

RTFQ: Read the Question.

 

PS: I like the idea that it is a fear of failing to live up to your natural standards that puts many writers off committing to paper/screen. I can definitely relate to that. The bit where it turns into yet another self improvement piece worries me. These things always turn into a ‘hard work will overcome all’ – ‘embrace failure to move on’ pep talk. This one does just that. It’s all about ‘Embracing Hard Work’. Now I’m not against hard work (I am but let’s pretend) but these pieces are so often part of an ethos that striving can achieve anything and (the sting in the tail) the unspoken (not always, sometimes its right out there) corollary is that if you don’t achieve you didn’t strive enough. Sometimes that may be true, but the impression (more than that – it’s the main thrust) of the attitude in these pieces is that you could have succeeded if you had ‘wanted it enough’. This ideology is so barren (apart from forcing people to work more for less).

People need to look dispassionately at why they are not achieving what they wanted. It may be impossible. It may be that they are using the wrong study method or approach. It may be that the advice they are getting is really bad.

It may be a case of RTFQ.

Smarter not harder.