In high school I had an art teacher (let’s call him Mr Pope). Mr Pope was older than the muddy gray river that hugged the west side of my hometown. He had taught my mother and my friend’s mother, and my other friend’s father… You get the idea: Mr Pope had taught at my old high school for years.
He was a thin man who smelled of pipe smoke and mints. He had a nervous tick that everyone agreed had been caused by ‘The War.’ Which war was never clear. Mr Pope was old; it could have been as a result of fighting at Gettysburg for all we knew.
We used to tease the art teacher with; “Mr Pope, you are really old, you taught my mother.” He would always reply, “Yes and one day a grandchild of a child I taught will walk through that art room door.”
”On that day”, he vowed, “I will walk straight out that same door and immediately retire”. It may be the stuff of small-town suburban legend, but I did hear, a few years after I moved away from New Jersey, that the prophecy had been fulfilled. At the same moment the grandchild of one of his original pupils walked into his class, Mr Pope immediately walked out into the sunshine of a South Jersey September and into instant retirement. I hear he kept walking all the way to Florida.
I experienced a bit of a Mr Pope moment today.
Late June is time of year when British schools are preparing their staffing for September. The resignation date has passed and schools are jockeying for new teachers to fill the voids. My school has proved to be no exception. One could argue that the recruitment task has been made even more difficult by the fact we are a failing school. Perhaps, also, the 7 heads-on-spikes outside my office have become their own urban-legend as word has spread around the locality.
I made a conscious decision to recruit a young teacher, directly out of university. This, I concluded, would present me with someone not only malleable but one who could bring an injection of fresh ideas to the school. That’s the official reason. The fact that Newly Qualified Teachers (NQTs) get the lowest salary and are therefore cheap to hire had nothing to do with it. Honest. No, really.
Interviews were held today. Nervous young professionals were outside my glass box, eagar to impress. They straightened their ties and tried not to look at the 7 heads-on-spikes.
A young NQT who had studied psychology and early childhood development at university entered the glass box. She spoke in a thick Essex accent, selling her skills as a piano-playing, bi-lingual, dynamic candidate for a vacancy in our Nursery. I remember little of her script other than that she used the word ‘stuff’ at least twice in every sentence. “I can play the piano and stuff and I am really creative; my friends say I am creative and I just say ‘Shut-up’ and stuff.”
Frankly, dear readers, my mind began to drift at that point. All I could think of was the large population of 3-year-old children who arrive at our school unable to speak English. By Christmas they would be saying to each other in Bengali accents; “This free school fruit is ream innit?! Be-have!”
I flicked through the several pages of documentation the young NQT had brought into the interview, silently correcting her grammar and punctuation in my mind. I noted that she had trained locally, lived locally. She had previously spent her summers working in the family business. She…..she….
There it was, undeniable, etched in blue ink. I looked up and blinked my eyes rapidly, certain I had misread the line. Glancing down again it became clear I had not.
This NQT, this professional, this potential colleague was born in the same year as my oldest daughter.
It was my Mr Pope Moment.
For the first time ever in my career, I was about to employ a teacher who was the same age as my own children.
The NQT could have said anything from that point forward. I heard nothing. In my mind she had morphed into my oldest daughter. I saw her mouth moving but her Estuary accent was no more. I heard my own daughter, as a 5-year-old, bargaining she would have a bath as long as she didn’t have to have her hair washed. I heard my own daughter, as a 3-year-old, whining that she wanted to watch her Noddy and Big Ears video for the fifteenth time that afternoon.
I looked out my window and past the school gates. I started intently; looking for the thin, frail figure of Mr Pope walking past. And if I had spotted him, dear readers, I would have surely got up and followed him. He would have furnished me with a mint but would have refused my offer of a cigarette in favour of his pipe. He would have finally told me stories of The War as I walked with him, all the way to Florida.
Keep the Faith,