The phone call arrived, as usual, at around 7 in the morning - like all phone calls for casual teachers. I had been asked to fill in for a teacher at RTHS, one of worst government schools in the Hunter Valley.
So off I went. It was early-April and, while Summer had gone, the weather was still fairly warm. On this day, however, some evil low pressure system was hovering somewhere and blowing a strong, ever-colder wind.
As all teachers will tell you, teaching school students on a windy day is not fun. For some reason, the teenage brain, already mooshed around by uncontrollable hormones, goes even crazier. I was not looking forward to the day at all.
When I got my class list for the day it seemed sweet. I was replacing a year 11 Drama class in the morning, a year 10 drama class after recess, one period off, followed by 2 periods of English/History for a year 7 class in the afternoon before knock-off time. Year 11 students were always easy to handle, and the year 10s could often be controlled by the use of reason. It was the year 7s, though, that had me worried.
The Drama classes were easy. As per usual, the teacher who I was replacing that day had asked me to do tasks that the class had already done. Besides, both year 10 and 11 had some long-term drama project that they were working on. All I had to do was sit on a chair and make sure the different groups were working properly.
But the wind had got up year 7 - big time.
When I walked into the class for the first time, the entire class was screaming abuse at some poor 12 year old girl sitting in the front row. The language they used was probably the worst I had ever heard a classroom of kids use - and these kids were 12 going on 13. I won't repeat what they said, but I will say that the kids essentially claimed that she had a "part-time evening job" that was so enjoyable that she quite often worked for free. Moreover, she was also quite skilled at the job, and was quite creative in what she was able to do.
And yes - all this from a bunch of 12 year olds.
Obviously the girl was getting more and more upset. Tears were welling up in her eyes, but also anger.
She was then approached by a pipsqueak from the back of class. A "pipsqueak", in my terminology, is one of those incredibly small year 7 students who has yet to begin any form of growth spurt. Pipsqueak year 7 boys are usually the smallest in the class.
This pipsqueak started yelling at her even more, describing in accurate detail her preferred method of evening employment and how he felt that she would not be worth the money and so on. The girl got up and pushed him to the back of the class.
She then got the pipsqueak's head and slammed it into the brick wall at the back of class.
What was I doing during all this? What I have described to you is merely the first 5 seconds of my entry into the classroom. I was still trying to get everyone to be quiet.
Naturally the pipsqueak was hurt and began crying. When his head hit the brick wall I swear I could see the wall move. On one side of his head he had scratches and blood where his little skull had impacted the hardened clay.
He complained of dizziness and asked to go to the sick bay. Because of the noise I had to take him outside to speak with him. I agreed that he should go to sick bay, whereupon he began to head in the correct direction - although I reckon he found it hard to walk in a straight line.
I walked back into the classroom and found it in an even worse state of affairs. The entire class was repeating their assertion that the girl had regular evening work, although this time they claimed that she actually paid her customers. The girl was weeping uncontrollably. She asked me to leave the classroom.
I decided not to let her go. I felt that if I allowed her outside she would continue her vendetta against the pipsqueak. Besides, I was able to silence the class somewhat and begin the lesson.
Within ten minutes a new problem emerged.
Because of the wind, many trees around the school had deposited leaves. Some trees even dropped their seeds. There is one tree - the name of which escapes me - which has a seed pod the size of a golf ball. For some reason, these pods are covered in spikes. Unfortunately, some students had smuggled in about 100 of these seed pods and began throwing them around the class. I remember as a kid being hit by one of these things - they really sting. And so a seed-pod war developed between two sides of the classroom.
At this point, pipsqueak turned up from sick bay, a small band-aid on the side of his poor sore head.
Every time I confiscated 10-20 seed pods, more would appear. Eventually one student got up out of his seat, went to the other side of the class, and threw, at full strength, a seed pod into the face of another student who was sitting less than a metre away.
The riotous behavior then turned into a major fight. The student who had been hit by the pod stood up and began laying into the other student as hard as he could.
Now I'm a big bloke. 186cm tall and over 100kg. These kids were 12-year old shorties. Despite the use of my booming voice, the fight continued. I walked up to the back of the class where the fight was going on, grabbed each student by the collar behind their heads, and forcibly separated them.
Which was fine... except that the student on my right, after being forced back, tripped over a schoolbag and fell, cracking his head against the hard concrete surface of an underfunded NSW government school classroom.
At some point I lost it. I began yelling at the top of my voice. It was the only thing I could do. The kids listened and were quiet for a while.
The problem is that the school is located in an area known for high unemployment, high rates of welfare dependency, high rates of crime and high rates of drug use. Many of these kids in this class came from abusive homes where their parents had no jobs and/or took illegal drugs. I wouldn't be surprised if many of the kids themselves were addicted to something.
The lesson began to proceed normally, with the occasional seed-pod delivery and derisive comment about the girl who worked evenings.
Then four kids on the side of the class decided to do something that boys their age quite often do - something really disgusting.
I knew there was something up because the four kids had stopped talking for about ten minutes and were sitting still. When I looked over at them, I realised what they were doing - they were moving their mouths like they were swooshing water in them. They had stimulated their saliva glands and filled their mouths up with the substance. Occasionally, one of them would open his mouth and gape at a neighbour, who would respond with some sort of comment like "ewww! That's gross!".
Eventually one of them put his hand up and spoke to me.
Boy: "Shir, can we shpit out the window?" (saliva dripping from mouth as he speaks)
Me: "No. You cannot. Just swallow the stuff! Now!"
Boy: "Yucstch, thash disgussing! I wanna shpit out the window!"
At this point the boy and his three cohorts opened up the side window and delivered their oversized gollies into the outside world.
Now I need to remind you of something - it was a windy day. A very windy day.
Needless to say, the oversized gollies did not travel far. In fact, due to certain laws of physics and thermodynamics, the delivered objects actually reversed direction and collided with the very people who had launched them.
No one except me could appreciate the irony of seeing four boys having their faces covered with their own spit - although I have to admit that poetic justice, rather than irony, was my major feeling at the time.
The bell sounded and the class was over. I had survived perhaps the worst day of casual teaching I had experienced, at one of the worst schools in the Hunter Valley.
I decided to never go back to that school again. Years later I met a teacher from the school who told me that many teachers have had nervous breakdowns from working there - even teachers who had transferred there after 15-20 years teaching experience.
The great thing about the experience is that I was able to tell it as a story to many classes in other schools. "How would you like to know what RTHS is like?" I would ask. The kids always love hearing about how bad other schools are, and would ask me to tell them. I would tell the above story to the class, with students gaping in amazement.
And it would kill ten minutes of class time - always a good thing when you're a casual teacher with no lesson plan...
From the Blogososphere Department
© 2005 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.5 License.