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Steve Lamb - “Set a better example!”

(March 01, 2018)

“Set a better example!”

After two terms in lodgings just a few hundred yards from the school I was keen to move to my own place and I went looking for a flat to rent. I was no longer short of money and the small overdraft I had negotiated while waiting for my first pay cheque had long been paid off. The cost of living in this mining town made budgeting easy for me. I had paid my landlady seven pounds a week ‘all-in’ as she would say. It was all-in: as much as I could eat (as proven by my expanding waistline), laundry, ironing and confidence building advice sessions when teaching effectively seemed to be beyond me. The flat above the town travel agents in the main shopping street was newly refurbished but rent, rates and utilities cost £30 a month. It was fully furnished and central heated but I had to splash out on sheets and blankets and a range of kitchen utensils. Welcome to the real world I could hear a little voice in my head saying. Perhaps I would regret leaving the care and warm generosity of my first hosts.

The flat was positioned strategically opposite the Cardiff bus-stop and the dentist’s surgery. I had university friends living in Llandaf and had got into the habit of visiting them on Saturdays. My new home would make that easier. I knew I ought to visit the dentist before my 21st birthday when free treatment would end so that was another, if less welcoming, advantage. School meals, especially in the school where I went every day to teach a lesson of maths, were generous and cheap. There was a bakery next door to the travel agents which sold sandwiches, cheeses, cold meats and various pickles as well as bread and cakes: I was not going to starve. There was a Co-op store just up the street which sold household items from curtains and bed linen to buckets and mops: in those days small towns had busy main streets occupied mostly by independent traders. The out of town shopping precincts had not been invented and it was still something of a day out to visit the unique, recently opened superstore in Caerphilly. There were no practical obstacles to successfully negotiating my move from dependence to independence.

There were other obstacles however: the one I remember most keenly was the problem of getting up in time for school. I had got used to being woken with a cup of tea and the smell of bacon frying downstairs. In six months I had become hopeless. Day after day I found myself running through the town and dodging across the traffic lights before cutting across by the swimming pool and up to the school. Luckily I had no register to mark but I crept too many times into the back of the assembly during the first hymn, trying to catch my breath. The ultimatum came one Tuesday morning when I arrived as pupils were filing out of the hall and making their way to the first lesson of the day. I tried unsuccessfully to merge with the flow but the deputy head called after me.

“Mr Lamb, Mr Lamb,” his voice was always harsh as if he was calling across a parade ground but there was extra edge to it that morning. “Call in to see me in the office at break time.”

This was no request; I knew there was music to face. I’d had many a call to the deputy head’s office as a schoolboy in Birmingham but I hadn’t thought that teachers could find themselves similarly dreading their inevitable punishment. The next hour or so dragged and pupils, sensing that my mind was elsewhere, were unsettled and troublesome. I found myself shouting and threatening ridiculous punishments for minor wrongs until time passed and I was standing by the deputy’s office door.

“Come in. Look Mr Lamb this cannot go on. It looks like there is one rule for you and one for the rest of the school. Staff and pupils know that you are late every morning.” I wanted to say that I got to school on time some days but bit my tongue in time not to look completely foolish. “You are on probation as a newly qualified teacher. If your probation is unsatisfactory your contract will terminate. I’m not threatening you, just explaining your position. Do not be foolish, otherwise the next interview will be with the Headmaster. You’re a popular teacher and one day you might be a good one – but not if you fail your probation. Starting from tomorrow I expect 100% punctuality. If there is likely to be a problem I want to know beforehand. I am not unreasonable. This is not a discussion so don’t say anything, but be in school on time tomorrow morning. If you are not then you and I will be seeing the Head. Off you go and for goodness sake sort yourself out. Get a haircut as well, set a better example!”

The day swung by like New Year’s Day after a wild party. I was burdened by self disgust and determination to adopt new resolutions. From today I would be the model teacher. I would be in school first and leave last. My planning, preparation, marking and correcting would be impeccable. The next day would be the start of a new professionalism.

My night’s sleep was troubled with repetitive running dreams: I was trying to reach a school that kept moving further away. Then there was a terribly realistic scene of me explaining to my parents that I had been dismissed from the job that made them so proud. I woke and saw on the alarm clock I never, ever heard, that the time was twenty to nine. I had only ten minutes to get from bed to school before the end of the world as I knew it.

I ran like on too many other days and like those other days there were no school boys and girls going in the same direction. It was too late for them of course: only stupid, immature, failing teachers ran to school at that time. I thought nothing could make things worse but then I found the gate to the playing fields adjacent to the swimming pool chained and I had to retrace my steps and go the longer way round. Sprinting past the Italian café, along the path by the railings, I crossed the road without looking and charged through the school gates up to the heavy wooden doors of the main, staff entrance. The doors would not open. I was panicking I know but even trying to be calm I could not open those doors. I had been locked out. It was as blunt as a message could be. I turned around to face the tennis courts wondering what I should do when it dawned on me that there were no cars where the staff cars were normally parked. Automatically I checked my watch and the situation changed and with it my whole state of mind. It wasn’t ten past nine but ten past eight. In my anxiety I must have mis-read the alarm clock and without any time to waste I had just rushed to work clutching a set of exercise books as usual. What wasn’t usual was that I was almost an hour early. Too early! What could I do? As a feeling of well being washed out the desperation of only moments before, the thought of a cooked breakfast in the Italian café close to the swimming pool became an attractive proposition.

I strolled contentedly back the way I had sprinted and pushed the door open into the smoky café. Most of the seats were taken by cheerful bin men eating sausage sandwiches but I found a corner to drop 2A’s books and went to order.

“I’ll have a full breakfast please with fried bread and tea as well, thanks.” I reached for my wallet but found nothing. I’d left the flat in such a hurry that it must have still been on the bedside table. With only a handful of change in my pocket I had to apologise and change my order to a cup of tea and a piece of toast. I finished marking the books, enjoyed my tea and toast and still got to school early. I had strange looks from the bin men and even stranger ones from pupils calling at the café who quickly turned and disappeared when they saw me. When the lady who cleared the tables got to me she told me that they normally did a good trade in single cigarettes for some of the older boys particularly but I’d dented their business that morning.

I strolled towards the redbrick building of the grammar school in spring sunshine feeling self righteous but praying that I could keep to my good intentions for longer than my new year’s resolutions usually lasted.

Steve Lamb, March 2018

Steve Lamb's new novel, Search, is serlialised in Cymru Culture.
Chapters 1 and two of Search are linked here.

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy Steve's previous stories:

     Christmas 1972; December 2017
On probation; September 2017
The school disco; June 2017
Exams, then and now; March 2017
The rugby tour; December 2016
The sponsored walk
; September 2016
A typical day
; June 2016

The school eisteddfod; March 2016
The school play; December 2015
Corridor duty; September 2015
End of an era; June 2015
Teacher training; March 2015
"... the best thing that happened to me in school"; December 2014
The punishment; September 2014
The interview; June 2014

Steve Lamb is a retired teacher who lives in south Wales. In a career spanning more than forty years he worked as a teacher, local authority school improvement officer and inspector of education services for children and young people. 

Steve Lamb - 2014 Steve Lamb - 1972
Steve Lamb ... now  ... and then (1972)

cylchgrawn Cymru Culture magazine
Published by/Cyhoeddwyd gan: Caregos Cyf., 2018

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