Learning to Teach


During my last two years at the poly, I moved into a bedsit at the top of a tall Victorian house in Demesne Road, Whalley Range. DT had gone off to Bristol to do an MA and the two of us had decided that we would get married the following summer. Despite the fact that our street was in fact pronounced De Main Road, all the bus drivers shouted ‘Dmeznee!’ as the bus approached the stop. Once, when I took a cab from town driven by a West Indian man, he drove to the nearest busy road.

‘Oh, I thought you wanted the main road.’

Whalley Range was an area that had definitely seen better days. It was not a place to be out in, alone, after dark, as I soon discovered. I had been in my new bedsit only a short time when, as I was walking home, lugging three bags of shopping, a car drew up slowly alongside me. In my innocence I went over to see what the driver wanted, thinking he was lost or something.

‘Are you all right?’ I asked. He stared at me and I wondered for a minute whether I knew him from somewhere.

‘I don’t know. Am I?’

‘I beg your pardon?’

Then something caught my eye, a flash of white in his lap, and there, caught in the cold light of the street lamp, was a very small, soft willy, about the size of a child’s forefinger, nestling in the folds of his open flies. I looked back up at his face, expecting an expression that said, ‘Please take pity on me, I am so small.’ Instead I got one that said, ‘Yeah, baby! What do you think of that? Get in the car and let me do you some damage!’

‘Do you think I’m a prostitute?’ I was furious.

‘I think you might be a dirty bitch.’

‘Do you honestly think I’d be touting for trade, carrying three bags of groceries? What did you expect? A shag, with a couple of pounds of potatoes thrown in? And as for that—’ I looked down at the teeny willy again, ‘I should put it under your pillow and smoke it in the morning if I were you!’

And I scuttled off, gathering speed as I went, in case he should turn nasty, but thrilled that I’d managed to think of the derogatory punchline.

All of us in the house in ‘Dmeznee Road’ were from the polytechnic and the place was presided over by Dolores, a kind of caretaker who lived in a tiny, cramped room beneath the stairs in the basement. She held keys to the bedsits, kept a stash of shillings for when people’s meters ran out, cleaned the common areas and took in parcels, etc. She was Irish, probably around her mid to late fifties, a thin, reedy woman with ashen skin, and eyes made most alarmingly pale by the black, smudgy pencil line she drew around them; a woman, in fact, after my own heart. She had long, dyed, blue-black hair, which after a week or two of regrowth would sport snow-white roots; these she would often neglect for months, so that the contrast of the two colours gave her a badger-like appearance. She wore her hair pinned up and you could plot her movements through the house by following the trails of hairpins that fell from her beehive wherever she went. Failing that, you could track her by the smell of stale cigarettes, as she was never without a Rothmans Kingsize hanging, seemingly unsupported, from her bottom lip.

Dolores was lonely and would often hover about at the bottom of the basement stairs, purporting to dust but actually waiting to catch people as they came in from college, whereupon she would pounce with tales of woe, often connected with the men who passed with some regularity in and out of her life, each one leaving her disappointed, each one a ‘loser’ and a ‘no hoper’, and ‘all of them users’. On the odd occasion the echoes of a drunken row with one of her beaux would float up the stairwell, usually ending with his being turfed out into the street at some ungodly hour with a bone-shaking slam of the front door.

We all tried to avoid having to go down to her room, knowing that it could mean being trapped there for at least an hour or so. She had an amazing skill for keeping people metaphorically pinned to the wall, unable to utter more than the odd word, while she unleashed torrents of verbiage at them before they had time to think of an escape route.

One Saturday night I was cooking a meal for a friend, not a particularly comfortable experience for me at the best of times, when the electricity ran out, so I was forced to go down and cadge some shillings off her to feed into the meter. When she opened the door, she had the look a hunter might have on spotting a prize prey.

‘Hello! Are you not out this Saturday night?’ She’d already clasped hold of my arm to prevent any escape.

‘No. How are you?’

As soon as I said this, I knew it was a mistake.

‘I have cancer.’ Oh my God and it’s a big one.

‘Oh . . . oh . . . I . . . I’m so . . . I’m so sorry.’

‘Yes, I had this pain in my chest for weeks and I finally went along to the doctor and . . .’

I didn’t speak for another sixty-five minutes. Halfway through her monologue, around the part where she was describing what they had found on her first set of X-rays, I remembered that I’d left the sweet and sour pork that I’d been cooking bubbling away on top of the gas stove. I had to listen while she told me, verbatim, what the doctor had said of her prognosis, what the actual operation and her subsequent recovery would entail, plus the details of her Uncle Pat’s tumour, its removal and his eventual demise, before I managed to free my arm and get a word in edgeways about the imminent fire that was about to break out in the attic at the top of the house.

As I rushed up the stairs two or three at a time, clutching several shillings that I had promised to pay back on the following Monday, a dreadful smell of burning aluminium and melting plastic met me, full on. The sweet and sour pork was no longer recognisable and what you might call extreme caramelisation had taken place. From then on I kept my own stash of shillings. On hearing the radio playing in her room on the Monday, when I went down to pay Dolores back, I slipped the money under the door in a previously prepared envelope and raced back up the stairs. Halfway up I heard her door squeak open.

‘Oh, Julie, thank you, pet. I coughed up blood this morning.’

I could just see her face between the curving banisters of the stairwell, a Hammer horror shot of Bela Lugosi’s sister. Her skin was waxy and even paler than usual, corpse-white with what looked like the beginnings of a mystery black eye.

‘Oh dear, did you?’ Careful! Don’t ask questions!

‘Yes, awful big gobfuls, mixed up with green gunk.’ What did I tell you?

‘Oh . . .’

‘I could barely breathe.’ Yes, she is off.

‘Oh . . .’

‘And the pain was intolerable, intolerable!’ There were just six steps left to my door; I could see it, the heavenly gateway to a Dolores-free zone.

‘Well, I’ve—’

‘I had to take myself off to see the quack again.’ She lets out a loud rattling cough.

‘Oh, that’s—’

‘I don’t know why I bother. He’s no use to man or beast.’ Another long, bubbling cough. ‘All he can say is I ought to give up smoking! I ask you!’

Thank God there was nothing on the stove.

Dolores was a close relative of the theatrical landlady, a legendary figure in the acting world. I imagine there are very few of them left today, with the almost complete demise of the repertory system, but back then they were plentiful, as were the stories surrounding them. When I was staying in digs in Sheffield back in 1980, my landlady was a colourful, warm, if slightly brassy woman with what could be described as a bit of a twinkle in her eye. One night I returned to the digs rather late after the show and, entering by the back door, I snapped on the kitchen light to find the landlady on the kitchen table, going at it hammer and tongs, her big flowery skirt up around her chin, with the young stage manager, who had just moved in and who looked about twelve. Momentarily paralysed by shock, I stood there smiling and speechless. When I had gathered myself together I managed to murmur, ‘Oh . . . hello . . .’

I then snapped the light back off and tried to squeeze past them as if they were merely having breakfast. This meant a lot of chair scraping, with the landlady having to shift and move her knee out of the way and me trying to avert my gaze whilst muttering, ‘Sorry . . . oh sorry . . . If I can just . . .’

Then the woman looked over the top of the stage manager’s shoulder and with breath that, had it been said in close proximity to a naked flame, would have turned blue, said, ‘Oh goodnight, Miss Walters. Sleep well.’

The next day I tried to creep out of the house without bumping into her to save us both from embarrassment, but just as I was leaving she rushed down the stairs and said, ‘Oh, Miss Walters, I’m sorry about last night. You must think I’m a terrible flirt.’

On another occasion I was staying in a scarily neat and tidy house on the outskirts of Manchester, where an empty coffee cup would be whipped from your hand before it had even reached the coaster upon which you had been instructed in no uncertain terms to place it. One morning having finished my breakfast, in the bright, lemon-fresh kitchen, I repaired to the lavatory next door with my Guardian cross-word, leaving the other lodgers still sitting around the table with their cups of tea. All of a sudden there was a sharp rap on the door and within full hearing of all and sundry, the landlady called out, ‘Oh, oh, Miss Walters? Do remember, no solids in the downstairs toilet. Thank you.’

In the first term of our second year at college, we were scheduled to do teaching practice. I was placed in a primary school in north Manchester and given several different age groups to teach. At this point both my brothers and my sister-in-law were teachers and, although they all taught different subjects, it gave me a peek into their lives. I loved teaching and saw how close in many ways it was to acting. It was necessary to give a kind of performance and to keep children interested in what you had to say. The six weeks’ practice culminated in a nativity play, which I had helped to get together, along with one of the class teachers, Mrs Forbes, a nice woman I immediately took to.

On the afternoon of the first performance I was in charge of the sound cues and sat to the side of the little stage with a small cassette player at the ready, in full view of the audience. With a sign from Mrs Forbes who was standing at the other side of the stage, also in full view of the audience, I pressed the play button. Mrs Forbes’s sign, although she was a matter of feet from me, was achieved by stretching her arm straight up towards the ceiling and waving it slowly from side to side as if she were on a crowded beach and needed to be seen, which consequently drew all eyes towards me.

My first cue was a beautiful rendition of ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, which in turn was the cue for Mary and Joseph to enter, which they did, trudging wearily across the stage. Then after another huge wave from Mrs Forbes on the far side, with the audience’s heads swivelling Wimbledon-like from her to me, I faded the music out and the narration began. This was read by one of the eleven-year-olds, describing how Mary and Joseph had walked for miles, Mary heavy with child, and how they had battled through the wind and the snow. This was my next cue, but instead of the sound of a howling gale, out from the little cassette, loud and clear, came instead the sound of pouring rain, accompanied by great claps of thunder. Mary and Joseph stopped in their tracks and looked helplessly towards Mrs Forbes, who was now standing opposite, doing big winding actions with her hand, interspersed with dragging her forefinger across her throat.

Now in panic mode, I tried to fast-forward the tape and, squeaking and squealing, Disney-like, it whizzed on to what I hoped was the next cue, but when I pressed the play button, blaring out into the hall came a police siren. People were beginning to whisper and giggle, at which Mrs Forbes’s winding action now went up a notch, into a rotating blur of overdrive. I then decided that perhaps rewind was the best course of action and whizzed the tape backwards, randomly stopping and inwardly begging the gods to make something sensible come out, but no, this time we were treated to gunshots and the galloping of horses.

However, Mary and Joseph, who had been glued to the spot since the thunderstorm had set in, decided to do a bit of improvising and on hearing the shots Joseph threw Mary to the ground, causing her to let out what sounded like a rather real scream. Covering her with his cowl, he proceeded to hold the unseen gunmen at bay and pick them off one at a time with his staff, which, miraculously, had turned into a rifle. Now Mrs Forbes was fairly whipping her hand across her throat, so much so that I feared she might do herself damage. I pressed stop, plunging us into a sudden and much appreciated silence. Everyone froze, Mrs Forbes, with her hand across her throat, looking as if she were striking an old-fashioned photographic pose, and nobody spoke. Joseph made one more half-hearted popping sound, directing a last shot at the enemy. Silence again. No one moved. Then from underneath the cowl Mary yelped, ‘Ow! You’re on my hair!’ And Joseph, raising his eyes to heaven, shifted.

Just as Mrs Forbes was about to come to the rescue, the narrator said, ‘And Joseph killed every one of those muggers, and they went on their way towards Bethlehem.’ And then as a little nudge to Mary, who was still under the cowl, and Joseph, who still had his eye out for stray ‘muggers’, ‘They went on their way to Bethlehem!’

My second and final teaching practice, in the third year, was a very different experience altogether. It was to take place at a girls’ secondary school, which pleased me because of its close proximity to my bedsit. I was teaching all years except the sixth form and, almost without exception, the bottom streams. On my first day, I was just sitting down for lunch in the canteen with the girls when an altercation started at the next table, gradually attracting the attention of everyone around. A male teacher, a man in his mid-forties, was asking a girl to leave as she was in the wrong sitting and she was refusing to go. Suddenly, a towering girl, probably about six feet tall, appeared seemingly from nowhere and, squaring up to this poor bloke, said, ‘You lay one finger on her and you got me to deal with!’

He tried to ignore her and carried on, in a calm, quiet voice, trying to reason with the girl who wouldn’t go. Eventually he made the mistake of touching her lightly on the arm, whereupon the Amazon launched a shocking attack, hurling punches and kicks, and lashing out at his face with great curled talons painted blood-red. Girls and staff alike were standing open-mouthed as the two of them became locked in a fierce struggle in which his shirt was ripped from button to armpit and her blouse was torn open, sending buttons flying, Incredible Hulk style, in all directions and revealing a bright-red bra beneath.

They fell to the floor, the girl viciously grabbing at the man’s face and hair. Some people began to cheer and egg them on, while others got up on to the benches to get a better view. They were right next to a set of stone steps and, suddenly rolling over and over, they began to tumble down them. Every time she was on top as they rolled, she would grab his hair and bang his head with a sickening thud on the stone step. This finally stopped when they hit the bottom and for a few seconds they lay there without moving. Then the girl stood up and, with a half-hearted attempt at adjusting her clothing, she swaggered off, complaining about a broken nail as she went. The teacher got slowly and unsteadily to his feet and stood there for a moment, stunned and ashen-faced, his hands trembling, staring at the floor, his hair, which had been neatly combed flat, now standing up in messy, spiky clumps. There was a trickle of blood from his nose, which had dripped on to his shirt, his lip was cut and he had bitten his tongue. When at last I could speak, I turned to the teacher standing next to me and said, ‘Please, tell me I won’t be teaching her.’

Fortunately, I wasn’t. The police were called in, which resulted in her exclusion, but I was given what they referred to as ‘the Easter leavers’. These were girls who were not going to stay on and do their GCEs or CSEs, but would instead leave at Easter, some of them aged just fifteen. This meant that they had absolutely no incentive to learn and therefore no interest whatsoever in any form of schoolwork. I knew that if I was going to survive this, I had to get them on my side. So the night before my first lesson with them, I wrote my script.

The next day, I went in and told them how I was on teaching practice and my every move was being watched, so I needed their help. I asked them to each get out their Shakespeare textbook and have it open on the desk as if we might be discussing it, should the teacher that was monitoring me walk past and look through the window. It was a gamble on my part but one that paid off because they thought the whole subterfuge was a gas. I then assured them that we wouldn’t in fact be studying Shakespeare because I knew very little about it and what I really liked in terms of Drama was modern stuff about real people’s lives. That was it; from then on we were friends.

We talked, very casually, with girls sitting on top of their desks and lounging about with their feet up on chairs. This normally frowned-upon informality was a battle I was prepared to forgo in exchange for their participation and interest. One girl kept watch; every time a teacher came down the corridor our lookout would alert us, and the girls would jump down behind their desks, burying their heads in their Shakespeares. We discussed everything, from their feelings about being ‘left to rot’, as one girl so aptly put it, because they weren’t academic, to abortion and racism, and we started off with the fight in the canteen.

‘Did anyone see that fight in the canteen? Blimey! What was all that about?’

And they were off. Should teachers be allowed to manhandle pupils? Should men be allowed to teach in a single-sex school? Was there a racist element, with the girl involved being black and the teacher being white? How do black girls view white men in authority? What constitutes assault? How are teachers meant to keep control? Every time they got loud, I’d ask them to pipe down, reiterating the fact that I would be in trouble with the teacher if she heard the noise and as most of them were in constant trouble with the teachers, they were totally with me.

After a week or so I got them to act out some of the topics that we were discussing. Mother-daughter relationships is the topic that has stayed with me. A small black girl, looking much younger than her years, improvised a situation between a mother and a daughter, and brought in elements that had obviously come from her own life, living in a one-bedroom flat with her mother who was a prostitute and drug addict. It was some of the most honest, raw and moving acting I have seen to date.

These girls weren’t going to get their GCEs but they were highly intelligent, articulate and passionate once they engaged. I became hugely fond of them and felt that I had shared real intimacy with them in these classes, brought about by the power of Drama. They could express their fears and hopes through it and it promoted discussion and understanding of some of the bewildering elements of their lives. And I, personally, learnt that Drama was concerned with more than just being an actor and acting lines off a page. It was therapeutic, cathartic; it helped to develop emotional intelligence and the use of language and communication skills; it was educational for both performer and audience alike. I think, if taught moderately well, it is a vital part of a healthy education, and it is sadly and foolishly neglected today.

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