It was a building like many others.Modern, girder structure with glass sides and plaster board partitions, two storeys at the outer ends, a large hall in between the two ends making a reversed L shape. In the arm of the L, two temporary huts, two classrooms in each, to cope with the expansion of numbers as Basingstoke grew in the 1960’s: such was the structure of Daniel’s school.
She stood out like a sore thumb.Well, she would do, being the only black girl in a white group.Daniel came through the front double doors into Reception to come face to face with four of the school’s new teachers.Two were experienced, well at least two years he had been told, but the other two, a blonde girl and the black girl, were straight from college.
He groaned inwardly.Despite his comparative lack of experience, the Head had made him ‘responsible’ for the induction of new teachers that joined the school.It was tedious at times but Daniel hoped it would stand him in good stead when he needed a good reference to move on for promotion.In practice this meant the mundane but necessary practice of showing new staff where the stock room was, and how to order replacement pencils, exercise books etc.He needed to show them around the school so that they would become familiar with its layout- staff room, office, First Aid room, caretaker’s room and so on.He would also have to give them basic functional information about the timetable, playground duties and so forth.The really interesting work of monitoring their teaching abilities, checking lesson plans and classroom control, the Head shared that between himself and Yvonne Gordon, a teacher of many years’ experience.She it was who would decide whether the new teachers would pass their probationary year and then be qualified teachers, though the final say came from the Head.
So Daniel had his work cut out to do all of this with four new ones, all in the next day whilst he also had to get his room sorted after the summer holiday.He mused that it was a good job he had come in a few days before to start that task.
The door to the Head’s office opened and the school secretary came out, followed by the Head, Noel Askew and the Deputy, Ken Rutter.Noel was a tall dapper man in his mid-40s but Ken was a small rotund man with a full beard.His rugby playing days were over but not the traditions of heavy drinking that usually accompanied that sport for some people.
The school secretary smiled at Daniel.
’Hello Mr Whittaker.Back again so soon?’She giggled at her own humour.She was blonde, in her mid-30s and Daniel mentally noted that Noel liked to surround himself with young and attractive staff, though Daniel wryly reckoned he at least fitted the young qualification!
‘Hi Mrs Watson, Yes, I can’t keep away from the place!’
‘How’s your mum?’
’Mum?Oh, she’s fine thanks.’
‘I bet she enjoyed having you at home for the summer!’
Daniel laughed; ‘She did, though I think she’s glad of the peace now for a while.’
Noel cleared his voice. ’Ah, Mr Whittaker, can I introduce our new colleagues?This is Mr Anderson, Mrs Gregson, Miss Garfield and Miss Walker.This is Mr Whittaker who despite his youthful looks is a valued member of our team, and he will look after you while you get settled.For now though, come into my office and I will acquaint you with some of my policies and ideas for this school. Go through please,’ and he stood aside whilst the new staff went into his office. He nodded to Daniel. ‘I shall send them to you in about half an hour.’
Daniel nodded in return. ‘Fair enough, Sir.’
Noel went into his office and closed the door.
Ken raised his eyes. ‘The Gospel for today is taken from the works of S Noel!’
Mrs Watson giggled and Daniel smothered a smile.
‘Only you can get away with that, Ken!’ said Daniel quietly, as they went through the double doors into the large school hall.They stopped before they went in opposite directions.
Ken guffawed ’Yes, because he knows he needs me!You’ve got your work cut out today, Boyo!’ he added.‘Four new ones, and two as green as the grass, well one is, the other is as brown as s**t!’
‘I sometimes hate this job!’ replied Daniel, a little at a loss as how to counter Ken’s last remark.
‘Well, count it as brownie points to a good reference - literally!’ He guffawed again, and put a large paw on Daniel’s shoulder.‘Look on it as the white man’s burden, again literally!’He turned and still chuckling loudly at his own humour walked to his own classroom.
Daniel turned and went off to his room, confused by the tone of the comments that Ken had made.
He walked slowly, thinking.The School was hardly in a deprived area but it was not in the best area of town.The estate it was in had been built by money loaned from certain London boroughs, as a solution to overcrowding in London- the overspill coming to Basingstoke.So it appeared the local authority had planned to appease any racial tensions- black tenants coming from London would feel more comfortable with a black teacheron the staff.The reality of it was that they had just two black children in the school, and one of those was adopted.Daniel worried about the impact Miss Walker’s presence would have on the school community at large.After all, witness the comments from Ken!Daniel then remembered it was only last year that Noel had offered no help at all when Daniel had approached him with the concern over the adopted black girl.Daniel had been struggling to help her make progress in maths.He wanted ideas and guidance but all he got from Noel was a dismissive gesture and the comment, ‘Well, what do you expect; they have only just come down from the trees!’
Daniel’s thoughts, as he labelled exercise books with the names of his new pupils, were interrupted by voices from outside. Daniel’s classroom was what was called a ‘Terrapin’ - a temporary classroom, one of four on the site, installed to cope with the overspill of children at the school.He looked out of the window and saw Noel leading his new staff across to his hut.He watched them approach and noticed the black girl hanging back, as the others kept pace with Noel’s brisk walk and animated manner- it was almost as if he was deliberately outpacing her to separate her and leave her behind, out of things.As she got closer he noticed her clothes. Of the four she was the most elegantly dressed, wearing a dark grey suit and a dark red blouse.She was slim and shapely, walking very gracefully. She had a beautifully formed face, almond eyes and black, curly hair tied up high.
Noel breezed into Daniel’s classroom, moving to one side to allow the others to enter past him.They all looked around, noticing particularly the stove in the corner behind its protective mesh.The blonde girl wrinkled her pretty nose at the faint smell of paraffin, whilst the black girl came in and her eyes widened in what Daniel could see was shock and horror at the primitive nature of the heating and the rudimentary furniture in the room. Her disdain was mixed with a sense of superiority and Daniel felt both rising irritation and a surge of protectiveness for his room and the school.
His sense of indignation was heightened when she opened her mouth and asked in very polished English.
‘We won’t be teaching in these… erm, rooms, will we?’
Noel missed the slight in her voice and said. ’No, these rooms are for the second year juniors, as they are smaller children.You have first years and they are in the main building, at the far end.’
The relief on both girls’ faces was both almost palpable, but also insulting.
’Right, I will leave you with Mr Whittaker.He knows what you will need and sort you out for tomorrow.If you need me, you know where to find me!’With a curt nod to Daniel he turned on his heel and walked out to his office.
The new teachers had wandered further into his room, running their fingers over the desks and gazing about. Daniel felt somewhat under inspection as they looked at his wall displays, such as they were at this stage of the term- a few posters and hand written signs.Both girls wrinkled their noses as they came to the heater.
‘Can I really smell paraffin?’The black girl, Miss Walker ventured, a smile playing on her lips.
Daniel frowned.’Yes, you can.They use paraffin heaters in these huts.’
‘A bit primitive, aren’t they?’ countered Mr Anderson, stopping and turning to look at Daniel.
’Depends what you are used to.They do work and keep us warm in winter, which is what really counts, even if they are smelly.’
‘Ugh! I am so glad I am in the main building!’ shivered the blonde girl.
‘You won’t be if there are power cuts!’ snorted Daniel.‘The heating in the main building runs on electricity!’
‘Who fills these heaters?’ asked Mrs Gregson.
‘Our caretaker, Mrs Jackson, brings it over at the end of each day.’
‘Oh, poor woman!’ sighed Mrs Gregson, and the other three seemed relieved that they would not have to do it.
Daniel thought, “At last, someone with a bit of humanity!”
Aloud he said, ‘If you are ready, I’ll take you over to the main building and show you where everything is.’
They all trooped over to the main building, Daniel was leading, with Mr Anderson on his right and Mrs Gregson slightly behind, but in front of the two younger women.
‘Have you been here long?’ Mr Anderson asked.
‘Four years, this is my fifth.’ Daniel replied.
‘What are promotion prospects like here?’ continued Mr Anderson.
‘Difficult to say, I suppose the same as anywhere else, but the Head, Noel, tries to get us to do extra things, like after school clubs and the like.’
They entered the main building and went along the one of the main corridor, Daniel indicating the caretaker’s room and children’s toilets. They entered the large hall and Daniel stopped.
‘What’s the night life like here in Basingstoke?’ smiled the pretty blonde, Miss Garfield
Daniel frowned.‘I’m not really sure, the usual pubs and discos I think, but you need to ask Julia Andrews about that. She’s one of the other Junior 1 teachers.’
Miss Garfield giggled.‘Julie Andrews, are you serious?’
Daniel wiggled his lips.’No, Julia Andrews,’ he emphasised.
‘I bet she likes the sounds of music!’ joked Mr Anderson.The others tittered at his joke.
The young blonde woman kept glancing at Daniel while the black girl just seemed to find him a hindrance.Not that he minded.Since his fiancée had dumped him over two years ago he had tried to avoid complications of the heart - they hurt too much!It was irrelevant she had dumped him for a car salesman (what did they talk about at night he wondered, how to keep the latest chrome fittings shiny on the cars on sale?) the fact that he had loved her and lost her had hurt badly, but he was over her now, he just didn’t want to repeat the experience…
‘Harrumph!’ went Daniel. ’Here is where we keep the PE equipment.You will be timetabled for that.’
He pointed out the PE equipment, the storage of table and chairs for the school dinners behind some screens, and the corridor that led to the staff room.Then he turned left to go along its perimeter and pointed through the next set of double doors.
‘Through there are two of the rooms for Junior 1 and upstairs Junior 3.’
‘Is my room down there?’ asked the black girl, Miss Walker.
‘No, I don’t think so.’
‘Oh! Well where is it then?’
‘It’s back through the doors we just came through, and right on down to the end.’
She pouted.’I wish you had told me then.I am going to go and look at my class list, and see about arranging my furniture.’
‘But what about your pencils?’ asked Daniel plaintively.
‘Education is not just about pencils and exercise books!’ she said, turning to go.She paused and said, looking haughtily at him, ‘I’m sure you can manage to bring me the requisite number of pencils that I need, can’t you?’
He felt himself reddening with embarrassment at her condescending attitude.
‘I’ve got to get my own room ready to start tomorrow.’
‘It’s only some pencils isn’t it…?’ her eyebrows rose in provocation.
‘I can bring some down to you when I get mine, if Mr Whittaker is too busy…’ interposed Mrs Gregson, trying to keep the peace.
Daniel felt really embarrassed now.It seemed he was making a big fuss over three dozen pencils!
‘No, it’s fine, I’ll pop them down on the way back to my room, it’s no bother.’
Miss Walker made a face and said, ‘Right! That wasn’t too hard, was it?’ and turned on her heel to walk away.
Daniel turned away to hide his irritation and gruffly said, ‘Down here is the staff room.’
He took them down the corridor to open the staff room door.It was large by school standards; it had to be with over 20 staff.There was no one in as the few staff in today were in their rooms.He turned around and opened the door next to the staff room to reveal a large cupboard, almost a room in itself, with tiers of shelves.
‘This is the stock cupboard,’ he explained. ’I know it may seem a petty thing to some but stock costs money and the Head tries to keep things in check.We are issued with basic stock at the beginning of each term and if we need any extra we ask Mrs Allan, our Teaching Assistant.That way she knows what we have and also if we need to order more, and Noel can then allocate his funds accordingly.He likes to give us some extra money so we can buy things we want extra, like books or maths equipment or whatever.’
‘Don’t we have maths equipment and stuff like that in our classrooms?’ asked Miss Garfield.
Daniel smiled, ‘Oh yes, but the Head likes us to be able to add extra if we have a particular interest, say in science, or art, or we have seen something in catalogue that we think may be useful.’
‘Oh… I see.’ said Miss Garfield, mollified.
Daniel gave everyone their set requirements of pencils and other stationary sundries, then set aside some for Miss Walker.
’Oh!The Head has an assembly the first day back at five past nine.Just bring the children in straight away and then do registration after his assembly.That allows for late comers.Normally we do register first then assembly.’
The others nodded and went off to their respective rooms.
Daniel picked up Miss Walker’s stock and walked down with it to her room.
He went straight in and saw she was standing on a desk, trying to put a sheet of paper up, to cover her display boards.
She had taken off her jacket and was standing in her stockinged feet on the desk.He could not help but notice she had a nice figure.
She saw him and staggered, putting her hand out to the wall and tearing the sheet of paper, almost falling off the desk.
‘Don’t you know how to knock before you come into a room?’ she snapped at him.
‘Erm, yes, I do usually but as there were no kids around and I had my hands full it wasn’t very easy!’
‘Well, look what you have made me do!’ she threw the torn sheet down in disgust.
‘Don’t you think it might have been better to use the stepladders and the staple gun?’
‘You have a staple gun?’
‘Yes, each year group has one, and there is a spare that Mrs Allan uses.’
‘Who is Mrs Allan?’
‘She’s our teaching assistant who looks after the stock and helps with displays too, when we can’t do them.’
She looked for the best way to get down, and decided on a nearby chair.‘What is this preoccupation with stock in this school?’ she muttered to herself.
Daniel pretended not to hear.He was getting more irritated with this young woman.As she was wearing a suit her skirt was a bit tight and as she climbed down she could not stretch her legs out far enough and would have fallen but for Daniel putting his hand out to take hers to save her.
She staggered into him then pulled her hand back sharply.
‘Oh how embarrassing!’ she said, smoothing her skirt.
‘What are you trying to do?’ he asked.
’What do you think I am trying to do?I am trying to make this classroom a room where the children are comfortable, so it’s a place where they want to be, and enjoy coming, where they can enjoy learning.Have you never done Child Development?’
’Yes, of course.We covered it at college!’
‘Which college did you go to?’
‘I... erm I went to university, then did a post graduate certificate in teaching.’
‘Ah!’ and her face took on a rather supercilious expression.‘So you didn’t do Child Development as a course in itself.’
’No.We just covered it in general, I suppose.’
‘And how many teaching practices did you have?’
‘I had one, the Lent Term.’
’The Lent Term, very posh!You mean the Spring Term?’
‘Just the one teaching practice?’
Daniel saw the thrust of her questions.He found himself becoming irritated again with this presumptuous young woman.
‘Yes, but it was a big one, it was virtually a term.’
’So you had three years at university, one term in college learning about education, and then one term in a school, them another term in college…no wonder you ask what I am trying to do!’
‘Look, it wasn’t such a daft question as there are other ways of putting up displays.’Daniel was getting quite uptight with this disparaging attitude to his school training. ‘We have large rolls of corrugated cardboard that can be used for display areas and corners. Only we don’t get stuck up on desks, and we dress more appropriately!’
‘What’s wrong with what I am wearing?’
’It’s fine for interviews but not always right for the classroom when you have to get down on your hands and knees sometimes!You should know that as you are so up on Child Development!’ he said with a slight sneer.
’Well, I will remember that in future!Where are the stepladders?’
‘The large ones are in the stairwell at the end here, but there are some smaller ones in the caretaker’s room, just along here.’
‘Are you in charge of that as well as the stock room?’ she asked with a smirk.
‘No, I am not.’He was rising to her baiting.’So tell me about your training then?How come you are so up on Child Development?’
‘My training was over FOUR Years, so I have had three long term teaching sessions teaching in schools, not to mention the volunteer work in my local school.’
‘You have been busy then!’
’Yes, and I managed to hold down a waitress job in the evenings and at weekends. I wasn’t born with privilege like you.It’s hard work going through college when you are black!’
’I wasn’t born with privilege either!My mum and dad split up when I was ten and I have worked in the holidays just like you!Anyway, there were lots of black people in my university!’
’Haven’t you got work to do?You said you were too busy to bring me my pencils.Have you counted them out for me by the way?I wouldn’t like to have too many!’
He felt his colour rising again.How did this young woman, this black woman, get under his skin?
’You may not think that pencils, or more correctly the careful allocation of stock, can make a difference to your child development - but when there aren’t any, or just stubs, the kids don’t like it! And, while I may have had only one term on teaching practice, I have been four years in this school and experience, coupled with the suggestions of colleagues, goes a long way to keeping a class busy!’
She stood, hands on hips, and looked at him; her disdain and disapproval of him quite apparent.
He frowned.Dammit, he thought. She’ll kill herself if I don’t do something, and then the boss will hang me out to dry!
‘Right,’ he said.‘I will get you a small pair of steps and then you can climb with less of a chance of falling off!’
‘There’s still a chance I can fall off, though?’
He shrugged.’Yes, of course, it’s the risk we take!Why are you being so pedantic?’
‘Because I like words, and to be precise with words!’
He raised his eyebrows.‘Wow,’ he said, ‘that’s one thing we have in common.’
‘Sod you!’ she said.
‘I beg your pardon?’ he was staggered by her aggression.
‘Granted! Just because I am black does not mean I have no feelings, don’t bleed when I am cut, don’t breathe, don’t have a heart that hurts, don’t have hopes and aspirations like you, or likes and dislikes…’
‘Hey!’ he called suddenly very uncomfortable and on the defensive, ’don’t be like that.I didn’t mean it to be racially prejudiced! I’m not like that!’
‘Well, don’t be so presumptuous and assume that we only have only one thing in common, just because I am black…, like I am an animal, or an alien…’
‘Me, presumptuous?’He huffed. ‘Look,’ he said, ’if you take everything the wrong way here you won’t fit in!This is basically a happy school and if you take issue with everything then maybe you are in the wrong school!’
She looked at him open mouthed.’How dare you say that?I came here for a purpose.How many black, non-white children are there in this school?’
’TWO?Just TWO?’She looked incredulous, and then waved her hands around as she stalked around the room in her stockinged feet.’Two?I was told this was a London Overspill School, that it took kids from some of the London Boroughs….’
‘It does, but no black ones, I’m afraid,’ and he started to smile despite her frustration.
‘This is not funny!’ she stamped her foot in anger.‘I came here with a purpose, to make a difference…’
‘To the black children who you thought came here.’
‘Yes, that’s right!’
‘But what about the other children here?’
‘That’s different; I thought it would be good for the black kids to have a black teacher.’
‘But what about the others?’Daniel persisted, ‘don’t they have feelings, and don’t they bleed when they are cut, don’t they breathe, don’t they have a heart that hurts, hopes and aspirations like you, likes and dislikes…?’
She stared at him, then a slow smile spread over her face, and despite the tension of the situation Daniel thought it was a beautiful smile which lit up her features. ‘Touché!’ she said.‘You are right.’
He gave a quick shrug of his shoulders… ‘Really?’
She frowned and her smile disappeared as she thought of something.‘How many black children are there next door, in the infant school?’
He shrugged again in a non-committal way.‘I don’t know.’
She frowned again. ’You don’t know?Next door is your feeder school, and you don’t know about the children that will be coming through?’
‘No, I… we don’t have much contact with them… the Head…’
’That is a terrible state of affairs!How can we have full Child Development, continuity, if we don’t know what has been going on for the first three years the kids have been in school?I am going to have to do something about that!’ she muttered to herself.She looked at him.‘The steps?’
He sighed, ‘I’ll get you those steps.’He turned and went out of the door muttering, ’A please would have been nice!’
’I heard that!Please!’
The following morning Daniel arrived early as usual and set about getting ready for his new class. They had exercise books with their names written on neatly by Daniel, place tags on the tables and name cards written out to be stuck onto their locker trays.He went onto the playground to join his colleagues as the whistle went.The children stopped and most stood still.The teachers noted who did not for a quiet word later.
The children trooped in to their classrooms by class groups and took off any coats they had- it was still a warm September- and dumped any bags in the cloakrooms.
They then lined up by the door and class by class marched into the hall to sit in lines to await the Head’s entrance.Noel walked along the side and then took his place at the front, looking over his charges.He frowned, as there was a gap at the front.A class was missing.
He perused the staff standing at the edges.‘Where is Miss Walker’s class?’ he asked everyone. Then he looked at Daniel.He did not look pleased.This was disturbing his ritual!
Daniel said ‘I will go and find her.’
Noel Askew nodded; his lips in a thin line.
Daniel rushed down the corridor and remembering his experience of the previous day knocked loudly.He heard her say - ‘please come in.’
He entered and there was her whole class of junior one sitting meekly on the carpet in front of her.
She looked at him expectantly. ‘Yes, Mr Whittaker?’
‘There’s a whole school assembly now, we are waiting for you.’
‘For us?’ and her head went back in shock.‘I didn’t know.’She sprang into action.
Standing up she said quietly ’Right children, this is your chance to show me how grown up you are now that you are in the juniors. I want you to line up quietly and sensibly at the door.This group first.’It took a couple of minutes and Daniel was impressed by her control and ordering of the class.
They walked down the corridor, she hissed at him.‘I didn’t know about this!’
’Yes you did.I told everybody at the stock room when I gave the stock out.’
She glared at him.‘I wasn’t present in your little empire of the stock room if you remember; you brought me my stock later!’
He slowed down as he realised his gaff, and she went past him.As she held the double doors open she saw everyone was looking at her.The whole school had turned their heads and some of the children were grinning but some were in shock as they realised that a black teacher had joined them.She went up nearer to Mr Askew and said, ‘I am sorry we are late, Sir, it won’t happen again.’
’No? I hope not.Thank you, Miss Walker.’
She turned and went to sit down on her chair.
She was obviously fuming throughout the welcome speech by the Head, for as she passed Daniel on her way out some twenty-five minutes later she said, under her breath, ’Thanks for nothing!I will not forget this!’
Ken also heard her comment and said cheekily, sadly within her earshot, ‘Oops, there’s a black mark for you, boyo - literally.’Daniel frowned as some of the older juniors heard and some understood, so they smiled.
Miss Walker threw him such a look that… if looks could kill…!