Jim Mannell : I Write

Extracts from A Chalkie of the State

 

     In the months following Nicola’s appointment, I sat with her for hours at a time and suffered through long phone conversations, explaining, suggesting and demonstrating ideas. She rarely gave the slightest indication she understood the point I was making, and if she did, she forgot what it was, even if I wrote it down for her. Sometimes I said: “Don’t you remember?”  or  “We’ve been through this before.”  In response she gave me a look of perplexity, as if she’d never been told any such thing.

     Very quickly I’d moved into damage control with her, hoping to manage her well enough to minimise complaints from students or their parents. The faculty teaching allocation for the following year was going to be a real challenge and, I suspected, for every year after that. Unless she transferred out or resigned. Or the Languages department went the way so many other Languages departments were going all over the state.

     Very soon after Mrs Snape arrived at Wares Bay, a state of war existed between her and her youngest students. They hated her and tormented her, but it was reciprocated. None of the strategies I’d imparted to her had made any impression; she must’ve thought they weren’t for use in the classroom. The commonsense rules of engagement that the greenest of trainee teachers tried to observed weren’t part of her arsenal and, as with her other classes, I had to leave my staffroom or classroom to intervene and sometimes to quell a riot. If I didn’t, Nicola would leave the class on its own to physically drag some noxious gnome down to the staffroom. Sometimes she hauled a struggling kid right into the staffroom at the start of recess, just when the rest of us were sitting down to a tea break.

     “Mr Mennl, this child vouldn’t do any vork! He and his horrible friends scream insults at me!” she screamed at me, while keeping the 13 year old under arrest by scrunching up the top half of his school shirt in one hand. Her histrionics caused me to reach for my pounding head.

     “You can let him go now, Mrs Snape. He’s not going anywhere.”   

     I asked the boy for an explanation, but when he tried to provide one, Nicola seized on his every word and shouted him down. When I tried to question him, she interrupted with venomous outbursts, pouring on him all the pent-up anger she felt for his whole class.  Sitting a few metres away, Louise and Irene looked on in disbelief.

     “I vont you to do something to him, Mr Mennl!!” she shrieked at me, sending another bolt into my brain.

     “Well,” I said, “execution’s out of the question, I’m afraid.”

     The other two teachers turned their heads and struggled not to laugh. They were almost used to Nicola’s behaviour.  I suggested she leave the student to me and calm down by having a cuppa. As usual I had to punish another offender in Nicola’s endless procession of offenders. There was also a steady stream of students of all ages coming up to me to beg me to make somebody else their teacher.

     Back in the staffroom, I told Nicola that the boy was reporting to me at the beginning of lunch.

     “That child…” she began.

     “I’d like you to write a report on him, rather than tell me right now. And by the way, you can’t manhandle kids like that…  No, I don’t want to discuss it. We’ve been through it before.”

      The Languages staffroom was no longer the refuge we expected it to be. Nicola Snape was unlike any other teacher I’d ever known. Her battle with the kids aside, there was no basic idea or instruction I could relay to her without re-visiting it, no routine task I could leave to her without explaining every angle more than once. The time I spent with her caused me to fall behind in my own demanding work schedule. I entertained vague notions about not being her head teacher next year. The daily futility rites had pushed me a step closer to seeking greener pastures.

     On the way to B Block, I was passing the classroom in which Mrs Snape was teaching 8 German when an all-too-familiar screech of rage stopped me in my tracks. The class was in an uproar. Nicola’s back was turned to me as I appeared in the open doorway and she was too busy haranguing a boy in the front row to notice I was standing behind her.

     “I told you to copy this from the board!” she bellowed.

     That was when I noticed she had hold of the student by the hair and to make her point she suddenly yanked his head down, bouncing his forehead off the desk. I sidled up to her.

     “What are you doing?” I asked as nonchalantly as I could.

     Dumb question. She was making this boy say uncle.

     It was a serious incident, but just for a moment it struck me as funny and I had to make an effort not to show it on my face. At the end of the period, I had to go over with her yet again the definition of assault and child abuse and warn her to remove head bonking from her repertoire of classroom management strategies. Then I recorded the incident in the performance dossier I’d recently started to compile on her. A week later I was called to the boss’s office because a complaint had been made about Nicola Snape for hitting a Year 8 kid with a four feet length of timber, which she’d confiscated from another Year 8 kid. I made a mental note to add that to the list I’d given her of banned practices in her classroom.  No belting students with chunks of building material.

                            

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     “Oh, Mr M’nell,” Brian Hathaway said, as he caught up with me on my way to the admin block one day not long after I took over from Len Randall, who’d never actually arrived.

     “That’s Mannell, Brian, rhymes with flannel.”

     “Just wondering if you’d be interested in looking after Discipline and Welfare. You know, reviewing policy, breathing some life into school discipline….” 

     Our mild-mannered and courteous DP was decidedly Old School, but without the Old School steel and I wondered how he coped with the role of school sheriff. And how would he survive the future wave? Looking at him, I figured he was close to retirement, which might just come in time to save his life.

     “Do I have a choice?” I asked

     “Oh…, of course,” he replied, a little taken aback. “It’s only that we thought you were just the man for the job…..”

     “Especially if I want promotion one of these days?”  I asked, with a sickly smile. 

     I was being type-cast again, but I reluctantly agreed to do the Extra Stuff and found myself chairman of the discipline committee and head of a panel that processed the bad apples of the student body. For good measure I became the organiser of the Year 12 Farewell dinner and a member of a timetabling team of two. In due course the other fellow dropped out and I became a solo act. All for the cause of a promotion that I thought was in the Well Nigh Impossible category.

     The next thing I knew all these Chinese troops were massacring student protesters in Tiananmen Square, the Ayatollah Khomeini was dying (to Salman Rushdie’s great relief) and I was left alone to the task of maintaining peace in my teaching block and trying to overcome my appalling staffing crisis. The Department of School Education, as They now called Themselves, threw me a succession of casuals who either had no language qualifications or who did, but turned out to be in transit. It was left to me to find somebody who could teach seniors, but in ’89 they were as scarce as an emu with keyboarding skills. The DSE wasn’t interested in my problem and sent me a booklet of registered casual teachers to consult. And every time I found one, They pilfered him or her for Themselves, so They could plug another hole somewhere else.

     Wardlow Bedford-Ewell was one They didn’t want to pilfer. They were happy to leave him with me. I’d been without a single fully qualified European languages specialist for so long I was out of options. Wardlow found out and phoned me to say that although he was a history graduate, possibly from the last century, he assured me he could speak French and German. He would have been OK if I’d never met him, but a five-minute chat with him was enough for me to restrict him to a two-week probationary period and very soon I was wishing I’d made it two hours.  His age wasn’t really the problem, even though he could’ve been anywhere between 65 and 90 years old.  His manner towards me was acceptable, but at the end of his first day, Rose, my other casual, who was unqualified in languages but could handle a roomful of kids, confided to me that he was a misogynist who didn’t try to hide it. She added that he was a couple of snags short of a barbecue. For a couple of days I watched or listened to him from the wings. His mere appearance put the kids in just the right mood for an insurrection. When he spoke, it sounded as if he’d OD’d on something strong and by the time he got a sentence out, his students had moved on to the next level of unrest. By the time the lesson got underway, the classroom noise had reached an intolerable crescendo that made the Vietnam War sound like a baby farting.

     “Now really, boys and girls,” I heard him telling 8L4 one morning. “You must be good.  Now, now…no, no….I’ll tell you why you must be good.  God wants you to be good for me.”

     Outside the room, I winced and castigated myself for ever putting him there, even if he did have a DSE approval number.  

     One very hot Thursday I went out to do a playground duty check, mainly on him, but couldn’t find him in the area assigned to him, so I checked the staffroom. I asked Rose, who turned out to be my longest-serving part-time casual, if she’d seen anything of Bedford-Ewell.

     “The old fart? More than I needed to,” she replied. “He went out on duty.”   

     “Are you sure?”

     “Yep. His clothes are here, so he must be on duty.”

     For a second or two my spiked hair stood even more on end. I followed her pointing finger and saw a jacket and a shirt and a tie and a pair of black shoes. Rose rolled her eyes. I hurried out to the playground and finally tracked him down. He was in the wrong part of the playground, standing under a tree only a foot or so taller than he, fanning himself with a book and looking like an overfed version of Spike Milligan’s Eccles. It was beyond unbelievable. He was in his Chestless Bond singlet, a pair of dirty joggers and the braces that normally held up his trousers had been pulled down around his backside. To complete the ensemble he was wearing on his bald head a knotted handkerchief.  

     “Look, Wardlow, I’m sorry, but what you’re wearing is hardly appropriate, even if it is a hot day,” I told him. “I’ll take over your playground duty so you can go back to the staffroom and put your shirt on at least. And then could you go to area C behind the canteen? This area is being supervised by that young lady over there.”

     “Very well, Mr Mannering…ah, John…I’ll be back in no time at all.”

     "Jim,” I corrected, but he was doddering off, a coterie of revolting year 8 boys dogging his heels, making fun of him. He was heading in the opposite direction to the staffroom, but when I yelled after him, about forty adolescent voices chimed in with: “Hoy, Mister! Hey, Nude Nut!” and the like, so I gave it up.

     “That’s enough, you people!” I snapped. “Show some manners, please.”

     “That old geezer’s a Fruit Loop, Mr Mannering,” opined a kid I’d never taught, but who’d been up before the discipline committee numerous times. 

     “Coming from you, that’d be a compliment, George,” I said dryly.

     “My name’s not George!” he retorted.

     “That’s OK. My name’s not Mannering.”

       Exit Wardlow Bedford-Ewell, stage left….

 

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     At any time other than when I was on detention or on a class, I was under siege. If I wanted a short break for a cup of tea, I had to go into hiding, usually in the Science or the PE staffroom, where there were only Allies, but that hiding place eventually became common knowledge. The windowless Languages bookroom was dusty and too far from the office. The disabled toilet behind the gym wasn’t the most salubrious place to take high tea. For a while I tried the library above my office, but it was too busy and I was easily spotted in the glassed-in library office.

     In desperation I tried the library lift. It had originally been installed for disabled students but we rarely had any on our books. It was close to my office and its use was restricted to teaching and library staff. Washing down a couple of biscuits with a mug of tea took a little over five minutes. I rode the lift to the first floor, closed the doors with me inside and settled into a nice padded chair I’d pilfered from the library. But Maggie Belloc kept stealing it back. Not unexpectedly the occasional lift user reacted with surprise or amusement when the doors opened on the deputy, sitting back sipping tea.

     “First floor….books, AV materials, neuroses…,” I chanted.

     A couple of well-dressed visitors to the school who got into the lift tried to pretend there wasn’t a man in a jacket and tie there, sitting in a padded chair, dipping a ginger nut into a mug of tea.

     “Therapy for the mental cases,” I explained with a smile.

     By the end of the term I’d abandoned the claustrophobic lift, not only because people kept pushing the button on me and not only because I was sick of reclaiming the chair I stole, but also because of the desperate souls who complained to Helynne that they simply had to see me and had looked everywhere for me. Unfortunately Helynne was a softie.

     “Have you tried the lift?” 

     Despite my worsening sleeping disorders, I was yet to fall asleep on detention. I had to be alert enough to stop any of the kids from nodding off because if they did they earned themselves a second detention. Most of the kids were reasonable detainees; it just took them a while to get the message that their DP was fair dinkum about attendance and good behaviour. One day a fearsome-looking senior student had taken a little while to settle because I wouldn’t let him wear his sunnies.

     “Aw, sir, how come?”

     “How can I tell if you’re still awake with those on?”

     A few days later the same boy sidled up to me one afternoon after school when I was supervising the boarding of the buses.

     “Hey, Mr Mannell, sir,” he said in that sardonic way I knew so well, “Are you into martial arts?”

     “Nah, small arms, mainly.”

     It was one of my silly throw-away lines.

     “Yeah? Were you in Vietnam, sir?”

     I looked straight at him and couldn’t resist.

     “Do the tunnels of Cu Chi mean anything to you?”

     I soon forgot the brief exchange at the bus bay. But he must have checked out Cu Chi. And what was created that day was a myth that took on a life of its own and lived on for the rest of the decade. Word got around. Mannell was a Vietnam vet. Give him a wide berth. It joined some of the other fictions that accumulated over the years. One desperate one was the Myth of the Skateboarding DP. I was occasionally known to sprint after fractional truants, arresting some of the slower ones and one afternoon I was seen by a group of students coming back into the school grounds, driving a couple of miscreants before me and carrying a skateboard I’d confiscated from one of them. That incident also took on a life of its own after that.

 

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