On Being A Bad Person

Lesson 2/2. Making the best of a bad job


From when I was very young I knew I was a bad person.  Not seriously wicked, but definitely willing to resort to low cunning.

When I started school, I used to travel on a tram, by myself. (These were more trusting times, when little children frequently went to school on their own).  For this I was given my tram fare.  I worked out that it was possible to walk home, cutting through various back street short cuts, thus saving enough money to buy a weekly copy of The Beano, a corrupting publication my parents had vetoed.

I even selected a back street newsagent on the route, one that my mother would never visit, so that my deception would go undiscovered.

Later on I made good use of an undated doctor’s note to be excused games.  This enabled me to escape the sports field for two winters and avoid being frozen to the bone by the merciless wind straight off the North Sea.

Thus I recognised early in life that I would never make it as a good person.  I could never emulate my contemporaries who worked diligently and consistently to achieve their success. I needed guile and good luck to get there.

I couldn’t understand people who wept because they didn’t make an A grade.  I was just grateful to scrape by!

But over time I discovered that being a bad person has its rewards.  It makes you less ready to judge others. I might have plenty of opinions and be only too willing to air them, but I could never be secure enough to feel superior about the weaknesses of others.

Being a less than perfect person also gives you a healthy appreciation of luck, good and bad. Over the years this can help avoid fruitless heart-searching. You did what you could at the time, but you were dealt a bad hand.  Sometimes luck goes against you.

This doesn’t stop you feeling sorry or guilty when you mess up, but it does make it easier to accept that sometimes things just go wrong.

And when they do, you make the best of a bad job.

Lesson 105 Everybody Needs A Good Checklist

Lesson 105 on Drills for everything


When I think about best practice in the places where I worked, it almost always had to do with basic organisation and culture. There was an attitude that certain things were expected of all staff and that particular key things must be done to a specific pattern.

As a result these things just became second nature.  However inconvenient or awkward it might be, you followed the drill.

In Mandy’s school we had a non-accidental injury checklist which was treated as holy writ, but we also had an attempted suicide drill.  In a school full of adolescent girls from difficult home situations, attempted suicides were not uncommon.

It was usually somebody’s best friend who alerted a teacher or Mrs Nurse, and the moment the alarm was raised, the drill was followed to the letter.  Not a minute was lost.  Medical assistance was obtained with the least hold-up possible. 

The worst time was Friday afternoon, when Mrs Nurse went home early, and the designated First Aiders were busy teaching. Normally one or other of these would accompany the pupil to A&E, while a senior teacher contacted the parent or guardian and also tried to glean any helpful details from the informant.

There was no panic or rushing about.  Everybody knew what to do. No energy was wasted on dramatics.

But on a Friday afternoon it would end up being me who went to A&E.  On one such occasion it was Kirsty who said she had taken “some pills”.  Quite honestly I didn’t believe her.  She couldn’t give any details of what she had taken or where she had got them or what sort of container they had been in or what she had done with it. But the drill had to be followed.

Halfway to the hospital, she told me she was lying.

“It doesn’t make any difference, once you’ve said it, we’ve got to go!” I wasn’t feeling overly sympathetic. 

“But I don’t want to go to the hospital.  They might pump my stomach!”. Kirsty had heard tales of this from others.

“Saying that just makes it worse! You might be lying now, because you’re scared of what might happen at A&E!  It’s too late – I’m afraid we’re both stuck with it now!”

Kirsty looked miserable.  I was fed up too. Together we were a gloomy pair.  We sat in A&E waiting for her mother to arrive. She wouldn’t be best pleased either.

Kirsty sat close to me and sniffled.  “I’m sorry Miss!”  I began to stop feeling bad tempered and gave her a friendly nudge instead.

“Well, next time just come and tell one of us what’s upsetting you. Then we can try and do something about it, without having to spend hours in A&E first! OK?”. Kirsty nodded, and we resigned ourselves to whatever action the medical personnel might decide take.

The following Monday morning my group were sorting themselves out and chatting.  Balvinder had had a bad weekend.  She sympathised with Kirsty.

“I was so fed up of things on Sunday” she said matter of factly, “I decided I would kill myself!”

“That sounds a bit drastic!” I exclaimed.

“Well, they drive me up the wall!  You don’t know my family! I can’t get away from them!  Weekends are worst, all the aunties and their horrible children come round.”

“So how come you’re still here?” asked one of her friends with interest.

“I went to the bathroom to find some pills, and I was going through the bathroom cupboard, but it took a while because the names on the labels were hard to read.”

So?” prompted her friend.

“People kept knocking on the door and asking what on earth I was doing in there and when was I going to come out, because they needed to use the toilet.”

She tossed her head in disgust as she gathered up her things for the next lesson.

“See, Miss, you can’t even get enough peace and quiet in my house to commit suicide!”

Lesson 102 Recognising Guardian Angels

Lesson 102 on People who make a difference


After I retired for the final time, somebody asked me how I felt to have reached this point in life. 

“I just feel relieved to have made it through this far!” I replied

But there were a lot of people who had helped along the way, people who had no particular reason to go the extra mile for me, but had done it just the same.

There was the school secretary at my first school who turned up on my doorstep one lunchtime when I was off sick and miserable.

“I’ve just come to make you a cup of tea,” she said cheerily, “Because I know you’ve got nobody here to make one for you!”

There was the Lollipop Lady at the crossing by my daughter’s school, who brought her all the way back up to the school where I was working one morning. The note to inform parents that the Juniors was to be shut that day had been lost on the way home.

A next door neighbour, when I moved to a new area, took me on the bus to her doctor’s surgery and insisted I was seen straightaway, because she could see I was in no state to be able to speak up for myself. She had just come round to introduce herself!

Out of the kindness of their hearts, two children in my teaching practice school, who had a view of the carpark, used to give me advance warning of when my supervisor was coming.

In fact, whenever I was under pressure or having hard times, people would just turn up, like personal guardian angels in all sorts of unexpected guises.

I remember a friend, who had been forced to return to her parents after a violent marriage, telling me what had turned her life around.  She was in her early twenties with two small children and one day when she was making her weary way back home on the bus she overheard two women in front talking about her.

“Poor soul,” one was saying. “Have you seen her? She looks dreadful, trailing around with those bairns. Of course, her life’s over now. She’ll never be able to work with those two to bring up on her own!”

She was so furious that she went straight to the chemist and bought some hair dye.  That very night she went blonde.  Then she looked for a job and a childminder.  She never set foot outside the door again, without first checking that she didn’t look like a “poor soul”! 

Lesson 100 Surplus to Requirements

Lesson 100 on Learning what lasts

Early retirement is something that isn’t likely to be offered to another generation.  But it happened to a whole cohort of teachers in the mid-nineties.  It was something to do with the Teachers’ Pension Fund.  It couldn’t afford to keep going as it was, so we were offered the choice to go then and there, or keep working until whatever time in the future the pensionable age might be.

Normally I was very, very cautious of anything that threatened my nice regular salary, but suddenly I felt certain I had to take the chance and go.

But when you unexpectedly become surplus to workforce requirements, it makes you think.  All the work, effort, study and training you put into your career counts for nothing.  Nobody needs any of it any more.

It reminded me of when we culled the stock in the college library. All those books that people struggled to write, putting down the ideas they really cared about, probably giving up hours of time with their friends and families to do so.  And there we were, bagging them up and throwing them away.  Surplus to requirements.

Retirement, early or otherwise, makes you wonder what, if anything, was worthwhile about what you did.

I could only come up with one thing. For a few people at a certain time in their lives, I was able to make things a bit better.  Perhaps they are out there somewhere now, enjoying their lives a little bit more, because of it.

Now that’s something that doesn’t get thrown away on the professional rubbish heap.

Lesson 99. A Cautionary Tale

Lesson 99 on Learning to be servile

I was lucky. I grew up with free state provided Cod Liver Oil and Orange Juice and a ration book controlled diet so I was healthy. I had to walk, run or pedal everywhere, so I was fit.  Relentlessly upbeat Pathe newsreels kept me ignorant of any nastiness in the world.

When I was old enough to buy my own clothes, it was the sixties and I could squander my full student grant on miniskirts and kinky boots. For the modest entrance fee at the local dance hall or jazz/folk club we could hear the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and the old blues singers touring from America.  Drugs were still a minority interest, so all you could do to harm yourself was get drunk, and we never had enough money to poison ourselves with alcohol.

On the work front, it carried the blessing that I was well into my fifties before I finally acquired a line manager.

You may wonder how the world functioned before everybody had line managers. In schools it was quite straightforward. You had a head teacher who appointed you, then said good morning if he/she bumped into you in the corridor. There was a deputy who organised things and ran around a lot doing most of the work. Then, if your school was big enough to have departments, you had a head of department who held meetings now and again and worried about how much paper you were getting through.

I didn’t have a line manager till my second post-early-retirement job.

When I first went to work in this office it was a cosy, homely place. All the old junk and furniture from the outgrown town hall premises had been moved into a soulless open plan block, so the areas had been divided up by ancient, tall metal filing cabinets with cardboard boxes of assorted items balanced on the top. I particularly remember a large soft toy tiger and the football scarves from when Bobby Moore’s England won the World Cup.

But then we were restructured!  We got line-managers, instead of just the old departmental head, who let you get on with things and trusted you to come to him if a problem arose.

I couldn’t really see the point of my line manager. She knew nothing about the actual work of our team and her only qualification to be in charge was that somewhere along the way she had risen to the next highest grade, so she got paid more.

Once in post though, she had to do something. So she meddled and micromanaged. And, from being the sort of work you could take a modest pride in, the job became a burden.

I could never work out whether she had been promoted beyond her ability or out of her own area of expertise, or if she was just nasty. Whatever it was, she made our life difficult.  We ran an efficient service. We knew our stuff and we kept up-to-date.  But now we had to fit into a whole new set of imposed management boxes. Our clients found us reliable and helpful, but their needs now came second to those of the system we had to operate.

Now there is a language for it, of course, but there wasn’t then. We were just bemused and unhappy.

But I was lucky. 

I was almost sixty before I finally encountered disempowerment.