It is nearly 12 years since I last taught in a classroom, which is really weird because I still feel like a teacher. There are parts of teaching that I still miss—like standing in front of a room of stroppy 13-year-old boys and having them completely enthralled by what I’m teaching them. Or that wonderful feeling of triumph when the child who has struggled to grasp the essentials of reading suddenly ‘gets it’ and you know that they are off on an exciting journey of discovery and will never remember the agony of stumbling over words. There are those precious times when you know you are part of the stability that is allowing a child to grow up feeling secure, and the times when something funny happens and you can share a laugh with a whole room of eager individuals.
But there are the low times too. These are epitomised for me in recorder lessons.
I was a young teacher, in my first job in a village infant school, and the headteacher suggested that I could teach the recorder. There was no way to refuse such a suggestion, though I knew it would be awful from the outset. Teachers are not paid any extra for things like that, nor do they receive time away from their class to make up for the hour normally spent preparing for other lessons; they are simply expected to give up one lunchtime a week and teach a small group of children. At least, that’s how it was in my day.
The recorder lessons were advertised in the weekly newsletter, and the children began to return their parental-signed white slips cut neatly from the bottom. My heart began to sink. Let’s just say, it was not the most intelligent children who were returning their permission slips. I dutifully collected them all, ordered the correct number of plastic recorders and hoped the school might burn down before I had chance to actually start teaching. It didn’t.
Thursday lunchtimes are indelibly etched in my memory, and so are the children I taught. There were the twins—attractive children with vacant expressions. The little girl learnt fairly quickly, the boy never managed to do more than blow tunelessly through the mouthpiece. There was the child who was struggling to read, who stared in horror when I tried to introduce written music, and who lost every illegally photocopied piece of music I ever gave him, and the children who discovered with delight they could push the recorder into their noses and still play a tune, and the children who frowned with concentration while making the most ghastly noise imaginable. But there was one child who stands out above all others. We will call him Nigel.
Nigel was very sweet, and I rather liked his sardonic view of the world, but he was not what you would call an intellectual. He would arrive for the lesson, give me an open-mouthed grin, and fumble in his recorder bag for the screwed-up paper that was meant to be the notes to practise at home, but which often turned out to be an old shopping list or part of a comic. He seemed to feel that by bringing something on paper, he had done his part.
Nigel also had a real issue with his nose, which dripped continually. It didn’t matter how many tissues I gave to him, he always had a runny nose. Always. When he blew the recorder, half the air came out his nose, and large green bubbles formed. He was fascinated by these, and would stop blowing (the only good thing about the situation) to stare in glee at the slimy green bubbles growing from his nose.
Nigel was very disorganised. He never managed to bring the whole recorder to a single lesson. I believe it is now possible to buy a recorder that doesn’t come in pieces, but in those days we were stuck with recorders that came in three parts, and Nigel never brought more than two pieces to any lesson. Sometimes he only brought the lower sections (I never felt very inclined to lend him my mouthpiece). Worse was when he arrived with just the mouthpiece, which he would toot happily in time with the tuneless screeching that the group produced.
The absolute worst time was when the headteacher suggested (in that ‘it’s not really a suggestion’ way) that the recorder group should play a tune in assembly. I suggested in turn that they were not really ready for public performances. This was ignored, the big day arrived. I prayed even harder that the school would burn down, or that all the children would catch chicken-pox—but there they were, excitedly hurrying across the school hall to sit in a group at my feet while the rest of the school filed in for assembly. I introduced them, and told the school they could all try to guess the tune we were going to play. The recorder group stood. Nigel was at the end of the line, nose oozing, recorder clutched in damp fingers. The group played ‘Three Blind Mice’ and I managed to not flinch or worse, giggle, as they screeched their way to the end. A plethora of hands shot up, the whole school eager to name the tune.
“Was it London’s Burning?”
We were never invited to play in assembly again.
Those children must all be in their late thirties now. I hope they are all well and happy. I doubt any of them are professional musicians, but I do hope that Nigel has mastered the use of a handkerchief.
Thanks for reading.
Have a tuneful week.
Love, Anne x