I am on duty every break and lunchtime outside the Key Stage 3 toilets. The rules are strict. No phones, no food, no drink, no chewing – and they apply to staff and students, because consistency is important. I have mastered several jokes, glares, gesticulations and catch-phrases to keep me amused, and, as I stand in my orange gilet with my walkie talkie, I’m always slightly surprised that students, in 99% of cases, obey, and usually wfith a smile, and a ‘sorry Ma’am’. ‘Don’t TRY it, young man!’ ‘No, I’m not nearly as stupid as I may look’ ‘Turn around, bright eyes.’ As I say, it keeps me amused.
Yesterday, a couple of young men bowled through with sandwiches and drinks, and received the usual treatment, before they were followed hastily by a PE teacher, who informed me that they were in work experience. I complimented them on their studenty appearance, and they grinned and said, ‘thanks, Miss!’
North of London, I’m ‘Ma’am’, but in London, I was always ‘Miss’ and the rush of nostalgia took me by surprise. Miss was rather scatty, and could rarely find anything on her desk. Miss occasionally let the odd bad word slip out in class, and stifled laughter at an inadvertent innuendo (‘Just looking at you makes me hot’ was possibly not the most fortunate choice of expression for a child in a jacket and sweatshirt when it was 33 degrees outside). Miss hurled herself indiscriminately into the middle of fights, rarely thinking of the consequences.
I was ‘Miss’ to 6 foot 2 rugby lads who would suck their thumbs when they thought no one was looking, and to girls who told me I was ‘bare deep’ when I insisted that removing their chewing gum would not, after all, impede their ability to concentrate on German verbs. I was Miss to a young man who told me to f**k French before going on to become a management consultant based on Paris (whose French is now better than mine), and Miss to the girl who stormed into my office in fury when she heard I had the audacity to leave.
As Miss, I spent the last half hour at a central London school of five years playing ping pong across the classroom before placing the ball in a box of goodness knows what (have no memory!) and placing a time-capsule behind the slats in the wall. As Miss, I travelled to France, Germany, Spain and Italy with coach-loads of teenagers who’d frequently never left London, fell off surf boards and coated myself in French lake mud, surviving on little to no sleep, and inadvertently taking a group of young people to a gay bar for a particularly enlightening evening (it’s ok, I confessed to the Head and he laughed!). I explained to a group of boys that leaving bottles of urine outside the girls’ room would be unlikely to have the desired effect (and never told their parents, which makes for excellent blackmail material). Before the days of strict regulations, my husband and I drove a child home after his carer forgot to pick him up after a week-long trip abroad (last outside the gate, after 90 minutes wait) and on the way back, we talked about Zimbabwe and Mugabe and he told me that the black and white of the trees against the sky made him think of shades of good and evil.
As Miss, I rallied against causes for which I was passionate – the battle against PFI (we lost), the one against converting to Academy status (a good fight, but lost again) and ‘project Takar’, which saw me incite rebellion against the obsession with the C-D borderline and insist on celebrating students for whom it was an achievement to get Es (he got 5 Cs in the end). I protested against languages being made optional at KS4, and ultimately moved on from the school in process.
As Miss, I cared far too much what others thought, and lacked resilience, hating to feel criticised by others and sometimes shedding tears over a disappointing lesson. I spent far too much time in the pub, and not enough time marking books. I avoided difficult conversations and made someone else speak to a colleague about her visible pants…
As Ma’am, I’m wiser, more mature. I’ve truly earned the ‘stripes’ that my Head referred to when I was younger and more precocious (and not ready for leadership). I’m less hasty and impulsive – I anticipate problems and try to address them before they grow into bigger issues. I usually remember to consult the right people and I’m not afraid of angry and awkward people, preferring instead to speak to them directly to cut to the heart of the issue. I’m more measured, more careful, more experienced and a better leader for it. I’m more responsible and more efficient – I know my priorities and do my best to keep myself in check when the balance gets skewed. I’m old enough to be the mother of many of my colleagues, and rather relish my new middle-aged status. I’ve gathered a series of anecdotes and catch-phrases, and tell people that you haven’t lived lived until you’ve sobbed snot all over the office. I even make an effort to keep my desk tidy.
Of course, as I write now, I realise that, like the Russian dolls on my favourite dress, Miss isn’t actually gone at all. I’m still rash and impulsive at times. I still have to apologise for thinking or writing before I’ve thought things through. I still laugh at some of the most inappropriate things (though sharing the notion of ‘teabagging’ at @sltcamp may have been a step too far… my apologies!). And my desk, despite best intentions, is usually in default ‘mess’ mode.
As Miss, I always said that if I ever got bitter or jaded about education, I’d get out. And you know what? I’m still in. Because I’m still a stubborn optimist. So, I’ll forgive myself a moment of nostalgia and acknowledge that if it weren’t for all of those experiences, and thousands more, I wouldn’t be the Ma’am (or, occasionally, ‘Mum’) I am today.