Lesson 24 on the Consequences of Misunderstandings
Mandy’s group was only small, because they all had to fit into my office. I was seniorish by then, so I had an office of my own. I was responsible for teaching the least able groups, literally at the same time as dealing with all the external agencies involved in our pupils’ complex lives.
One of the warp speed changes to the estate the school served had been immigration from the New Commonwealth. There had been no preparation for this in schools, or anywhere else. Local authorities had to cobble together whatever provision they could dream up as the situation developed, supported grudgingly by central government grants. My post was funded by one of these.
Most teachers had never taught children from such a range of cultural and language backgrounds, so we just had to learn as we went along. My “least able” groups were mainly in need of learning English as a Second Language, with a few others along for the ride.
One day we were playing “Sentences”. My groups loved language games. Although grammar was deeply unfashionable at the time and we kept our work quiet, we found it fun to experiment with how words were put together. This particular game involved putting simple, short sentences into different columns – statement, question or order I provided a selection of examples to get everyone started and then they could add their own.
When we stopped to review and compare our lists, at the top of Shabana’s Order column was neatly written “Fuck off!”
“Oh Shabana, you can’t write that!” I exclaimed (These were innocent, sheltered times. Think Olivia Newton-John.)
“But it’s an order!” Shabana defended her position, “And English people say it all the time!”
“But it’s a swear word! ” I attempted to explain. “A really bad swear word”
“How bad?” Shabana demanded. By this time it had become clear that the majority of the group required this information.
I enlisted Maeve’s help. Maeve was one of the group’s fellow travellers. She was there because she fell into the “bad” category, outlawed from the mainstream class. She came from a notoriously tough family.
“Maeve, what would your mother do if you said that to her face?”
“She’d hit me MIss! Hard!”
This demonstrated the point adequately.
“So fuck is very rude then?” asked one of the others. It was evident some clarification was required to enable pupils to present themselves reliably to the English speaking world as the polite young people they actually were.
With Maeve’s help we arrived at a rough list in descending order of rudeness. The group left, armed with their new knowledge.
They had obviously shared this widely, because later on in the week a small deputation arrived at my door, indignant over some injustice.
“Mrs Briggs is picking on Anita! She’s had a right go at her!” (Pupils had been forbidden from getting into arguments with teachers. If they felt ill-done to, they had to come to me and if necessary I would sort it out with the member of staff.)
“OK,” I said, “Tell me exactly what happened.”
There was a sudden pause.
“Before we start, MIss,” asked one tentatively, “Can we just check on something?” I nodded.
“Is shit a swear word?”
That said it all really.