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The Frozen Fox

ImageBy the time I reached the classroom the rumour had evolved from gossip into gospel. Summonsed from my morning constitutional of greeting the children and their families at the main playground gate, I made my way as quickly as possible down the long, airport-like corridor that connects the four wings of my school. A child had passed the message to me, (in strangled English heavily laced with a Bengali lilt), that a fox was sleeping outside the window of class 6 Yellow.

The thought of a fox in the urban side streets of the city’s poorest district may seem farfetched. In reality, there is probably not a single Londoner who has not spotted one at some point in the past year or so. Steadily, the population of the much maligned mammal has risen as the environment provides plenty of shelter and food scraps.

What started as a group of three living in the thick undergrowth along the edge of the staff car park has risen to a skulk of 10 or more. As their numbers have increased, so has their bravado. They can be spotted several times a day, plodding along the car park, peeking into windows on their way to the neighbouring park. It is possible to spot individuals; the one with a damaged leg that limps along on three paws, the spindly and mange-ridden mother, the sleek and quick male who I remember as a cub last April.

I doubted the sleeping story immediately. The foxes don’t sleep in the open. The path between their car park den and the local park was a motorway to them; a means of getting from A to B. It was familiar to them but equally it was a place of danger. They seldom loitered let alone slept in the open, other than to boldly peek in a window or two as they padded down the cobblestones. No, the fox was surely dead I thought.

And sure enough dear readers, upon reaching the classroom window, I could see it was too still to be sleeping. By now Big Bert, the school caretaker had joined me with a makeshift array of equipment soon to be a fox-disposal kit. “Sleeping, eh?” he winked at me as we opened the classroom door and approached the lifeless body. Our collective breaths froze in the mid January air, as we circled the remains.

Big Bert poked the torso with a litter picker. It was hard, frozen both from rigor mortis and the blast of Scandinavian cold currently blanketing Britain. He lifted the animal up and the body did not change shape. Gravity has no providence in such matters.

I held open the rubbish sack but the weight of the body was too much for the litter pickers; they bent and strained. Bert’s baseball-mit-sized hands draped in thick industrial gloves grabbed the animal by its sleek tail and stuffed it into the bag. A chorus of disgust arose from 6 Yellow and I turned to see 30 faces pressed against the glass; processing the collective realisation that the fox was not actually sleeping at all.

Hello again, dear readers. I offer no apologies for my sporadic efforts in updating this blog. The blog has always and remains driven by catharsis and life has been quieter in the post-inspection era. The school is thriving. Just like the skulk behind the car park.

It was in that moment; the stiff and frozen carcass being lifted by its tail that my thoughts turned to this blog for the first time in months. Something so full of life, now dead to this world and frozen in an un-natural pose, how could one not have drawn parallels with the journey of this blog?

And so, another omen. I poke at these words with a cheap litter-picker to see if I can coax life back into the body. Perhaps I shall try again, when and if needs dictate. Perhaps the rumour was correct: it was sleeping, not dead. 

Keep the Faith,

The Head

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The Condemnation

Condemned to Hell by a five year old: strike that one off the Bucket List, dear friends.

The playground at lunchtime is a market place. Children of varying ages compete for the attention of staff. Children, each in their own world, dragging their own personal baggage and level of need. Some hold tightly onto my arms. Others side step my gait, eager to get face to face in order to pass on the details of every injustice bestowed upon them by other children. Others want confirmation that I am, in fact human, asking questions that seem obvious but shows they cannot separate the Head Teacher from the person: “Do you have children? What are their names? Do you tell them off?”

The games I play with them are designed to include as many as possible in a short amount of time. The aim is for dozens rather than a few being able to make contact before the playground bell marks the return to classes. Even then, they trip over my size 11 Doc Martens (equally at home defying the diagnosis of the Diabetic clinic or exiting the playground) as they squeeze any remaining attention from the sponge. “How old are you? My gran is older than you.”

One little girl and one little boy are the first to approach me every afternoon. Both are five and keen to take part in the game of Monster Chase or Sticky Toffee we will play each day. The girl is quieter.

The boy is inquisitive. He is stocky and thickly built. His halting Urdu accent reflects he is second generation Pakistani British. He smiles incessantly, obviously loved and nurtured at home and safe enough in his school persona to ensure he will flourish in the next 6 years with us.

Today he danced alongside me as the children funnelled from their classrooms onto the playground. It was not my daughter’s ages or the name of our cat that he wanted answers to. “What religion are you?” he asked.

The suddenness and bluntness of his question caught me off guard. I stopped and stooped so to look him in face. I had an innate sense that this was an encounter he might remember when he was 20, 40 60 years old and I wanted to handle it correctly.

“I’m a Christian,” I said.

“You will go to Hell,” he blinked back.

“Why do you say that?”

“Because you don’t have my God,” he offered. “You are not Muslim so you will go to Hell.”

To witness someone so young indoctrinated and intolerant drew a sigh from deep inside my lungs as I said, “I think God loves everyone.”

The child, a five year old, shook his head to confirm my damnation.

By now the quiet girl had joined us. I knew her story well as I had been briefed before she had even started her first day at our school. Born in Kabul the young girl knew only war. The same was true of her parents before her and her grandparents before them. She joined us 8 months ago with no English, no writing. The Taliban had banned all girls from education so she spent her days holed up in her Kabul house playing games with her mother.

Eight months on; she speaks fluent English. She writes beautifully and frequently brings her work to my office to admire and discuss. She writes about life in London and how much better it is. She is joyful at the idea of going to school, of being free to walk down the street and feel her hair in the unseasonably cool July breeze.

She is my personal battle with the Taliban. She is one who got away from Afghanistan. She is the one we will save and teach to read and write and think freely without fear of judgement in the name of God. She is proof I will not go to Hell. 

 

Keep the Faith,

 

The Head 

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The Radio Mast

It was the farm hands’ Eiffel Tower. Just beyond the swampy edges of the small American town where I was raised, the lattice and clapboard mast of the local radio station jabbed at the sky.  Flashing its call letters above the cattail reeds it would send out a crackling mixture of country music and live broadcasts of our local high school football games. The radio waves would no doubt bounce around those low-lying swamps and fall mute on the ears of muskrats, opossum and deer.

Nobody listened. The big radio stations from the city 30 miles away would shoulder barge the feeble local signal and belittle its small town ways. But the mast kept churning out its radio waves year after year.

It had to.

Because there were occasions, dear readers, when the local station would become the centre of our universe.

Should the New England winds mix with the wet air from Virginia, you could be sure the station would be the sole source of announcing the Snow Day. Should the roads be deemed impassable, this small radio station would inform our local populace immediately that the local schools were closed. To the big radio stations from the city our swampy town was an afterthought. To La Tour Agriculteur we were not just the big story, we were the only story.

So we would huddle around the kitchen radio; blankets around our shoulders as we waited for the news. The radio turned to 1510 AM as it would only be for high school football and blizzards.  And when the announcement came, dear readers, when our school was cited by name, it sparked the sweetest celebration or bitterest disappointment. The taste of snatched time and the world turned upside down; of school work giving way to sleds and toboggans and snowmen. Or conversely; the austere and practical perseverance of school in session with a wonderland outside the classroom window.

Far past the point where the swamps empty into the river, which in turn empties into the estuary which in turn empties into the sea: all the way across that sea, I sat last night and watched the falling snow. It was my decision now. I could not wait for the disembodied, faux country accent riding on the milky sky from the town’s edge. The radio station on the edge of town could not compete with the city. It would not stand a chance against Europe.

Here things work differently. Here each Head Teacher decides for themselves whether their individual school remains open or closes due to the snow. Most Heads play a cagey game of wait and see, surveying what other local schools do before making a decision.  But I tend to be the catalyst, the first domino. I will call it first.

I sent a text to every member of staff asking for a report on the road conditions where they lived. I weighed up the factors; would travel be safe for children and staff? Would the ice keep many children away regardless? Would parents be able to get to work if they suddenly became responsible for their child’s care?

The staff, sensing my question and where it could possibly lead responded with “Horrible here, can’t get down the side roads.”

At 7pm last night I called school open. So did everyone else. The main roads were passable and the forecast was for cold dry skies.

This morning the ride to East London was only slightly slippery. On the A13 I head out of central London and into the low-lying docklands of the East End. I prod the car radio tuner searching for our high school football game or even Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Patsy Cline…

I remember that the road to the county hospital passed by the radio mast of that hometown station.  We would go by in my father’s car on the way to visit sick aunts or grandparents and I would see the great citadel. It held magical powers to bring about snow days.

And this morning in some East London kitchen a child sits with a blanket around his shoulders. He is not huddled around the radio but waits for his mother’s mobile phone to buzz and play an electronic xylophone tone. He will be disappointed.

The decision will be for school with a wonderland outside his window.

I am the man behind the curtain. Ignore the man behind the curtain.

Keep the Faith,

The Head

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The Technician’s Transfer

I’m a busy man. That is the weak and watery excuse I use in circumstances such as these. I should be more of a people person, I know, but I have limited energy reserves and I prefer that energy was put into the children, not the staff.

The reality is not as harsh and cold as it might seem. I am a different person at work than at home but I am human. I laugh and joke with my colleagues at work BUT I simply do not want to hear their problems. I can’t hear their problems. Full capacity is the mode at which I operate in regards to problems. There are the children’s problems, there are the school’s problems; all vying for attention, all dropping on my shoulders as soon as I walk from the car park. I am at saturation point. I cannot take anymore problems on board.

Hence I don’t watch Eastenders at home. Fictitious problems are not entertainment. There are enough problems in the world without fabricating more.

But in the spirit of self-improvement, I confess I could be more vigilant of my surroundings and changes to the people within.

Mrs Head laments the fact that I am not the most observant of people. You can be pretty much guaranteed, dear readers, that after a party there will be a conversation more or less like the following at our house.

“Did you have a chat with so-and-so’s new girlfriend?”

“Which one was she?”

“She had a blue dress on. Black shoes”

“Uh……”

“ She stood in the kitchen all night.”

“Uh…. Was she Australian?”

“No that was the neighbour from downstairs.”

“I chatted with someone from Perth, I remember that.”

“So and so’s girlfriend. Blue dress. She spilled her drink all over the host.”

“Nope….sorry.”

Indeed the Assistant Heads at our school comment on the fact that I never notice changes to staff colleagues.

That probably stems from the fact I have a reputation for not entertaining anyone who is crying. So usually if someone has a personal or emotional issue they see one of the Assistant Heads who will give me a 8 word appraisal of the situation in language I can understand.

“X wants to go home early. Women’s problems.”

Women’s problems are a generic phrase which, in my book, requires no further extrapolation. In fact I think the staff suss this in me fairly quickly. That is why I can’t stay in one school for too long; eventually the staff work out that they can use women’s problems as a trump card.

The worse case I can remember was when a member of the support staff came to say goodbye as she was off for a year’s break. I asked her if she was planning to travel or do some research when she indicated her very pregnant belly. I hadn’t noticed. For eight months I hadn’t noticed.

In a sad attempt to counter this flaw in my character, I pretend to be observant when I am not. For example, while walking down the corridor and passing a colleague I might say “Oh, new haircut?” or “have you lost weight?” The response is usually confused dismissal. I walk off smug in the fact that I planted the seed in their head; that I might have taken an interest after all.

Today the IT Technician solemnly entered my glass box and shut the door behind him. His face was a tempest of strain and regret. For a moment I thought he was crying.

“I have some bad news, I have been transferred to another school. Today is my last day.”

I continued pouring a fresh cup of coffee as he told me that his bosses would be contacting me in the next few days and that the re-deployment was to a school where he wouldn’t be as happy as he had been with us.

I shook his hand and slapped him on the back and wished him luck. Wrongly assuming that was the end of our exchange, I returned to my work. The stern reality being, dear readers, that another IT Technician will arrive in his place and we won’t notice the difference. It was only when I spun my chair towards the door a full 45 seconds later that I noticed he was still there, head bowed.

“Was there something else?”

“I am sad to be leaving.”

“Oh well, we can’t stand still forever. Onwards and upwards and all that…”

Eventually he left the glass box; but at the pace of someone dragging a large boulder.

It wasn’t until the PA came in from her adjoining office that I knew.

“He has been seeing one of the support staff for the past two years- he doesn’t want to leave her.”

Once the PA informed me, dear readers, all was clear. Images began flooding my mind of the young Teacher’s Assistant in Year 3, the one who wore too much makeup and must have spent half her salary having her hair styled. On the days the IT Technician was on site, she seemed to be lingering in the main office far too long. I would sometimes see them, through the wall of my glass box walking off through the gates at lunchtime. He frequently seemed over-dressed for the working day.

“Ah! I see,” It was my Eureka moment.

“Two years it has been going on? Am I the only one who didn’t know?”

Apparently I was the only one, dear readers.

My lack of observational skills, my inability to actually see what I had been watching, had saved me from the demands of someone’s crisis.  Phew.

And 8 months from now when the young Teaching Assistant from Year 3; the one that wears too much make-up and probably spends half her salary on her hair comes to my office to say goodbye, cradling her protruding abdominal bump with her hands, I will be prepared as I wave her out the door.

“You’ve had your hair done a different way,” I’ll offer.

Keep the Faith,

The Head

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After a Fortnight

Two weeks; a fortnight as a non-smoker. In short it has been easier than I expected. Weekends are harder. The pace and thrust of the working day has proved to be a welcome distraction rather than a catalyst for craving. In weak moments, I raised the nicotine spray to my mouth and emit a short squirt on the tip of my tongue. It works.

The ease at which the two weeks have passed are almost guilt-ridden. It feels as though it should have been harder. The emotional battle has been one way traffic as I bull-dozed my way towards daily goals.

Physical changes have been the greatest. For the past two weeks my respiratory system has shed its inner skin. I have no symptoms of a cold but have sneezed a dozen times a day. At the risk of passing on too much information; I have generated bloody mucus at an alarming rate. But even that is starting to go. I breathe clearer without the constant rattling in my chest. And somehow, quite inexplicably, I am thinking more clearly.

My wife’s success has been even more dramatic. She has stopped wearing the nicotine patches as they had become redundant in her personal battle. We discussed our progress last night as we lounged in front of the telly.

I confided in something I have been pondering for a week. “It has been easy because of the school”, I confessed. “You mean the stress is less,” my wife auto-corrected.

“No. It is a confidence thing. If I can do what we did in East London then stopping smoking is a piece of piss; a walk in the park.”

But I will not be sanctimonious, dear readers. I will not. Instead, I google local gyms with the intension of losing some weight. I reminded of the old saying, “Heads change schools but schools change Heads.”

 

Keep the Faith,

 

The Head

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The Christmas Card

School finished for the Christmas holiday today. We call it the Christmas holiday at our school even though only about a dozen families will be undertaking any specific observance of the great Pagan-hijacked-by-Early-Christians festival. Eid is the big one around these parts and that was earlier in the term.

But much of our work is to prepare the children for life in Britain. For that goal to be realised, knowledge of how Western culture is deeply connected to the Christian cycle of feasts is necessary. And let’s face it- who doesn’t like a party?

Our school and its 94% Muslim population didn’t blink an eye when we erected a 8 foot Christmas tree in the main foyer. No one protested when we decided to organise a nativity play. (The central plot was certainly what one would expect: Mary, Gabriel, donkey etc. but I especially loved the secular clashing with the spiritual as the angels glided onto the stage in Santa hats).

Exactly 27 of the children even went as far as to give me a Christmas card. A half a dozen or so marked the occasion with a box of chocolates or a coffee mug. They know I will be keeping Christmas well. The crucifix that hangs on the wall of my glass box has not gone un-noticed it seems.

The gold cross that follows me everywhere, from school to school, was acquired at the Sacre Coeur- the great Parisian church where I proposed to my wife 20 years ago. My experience of Islam as a peaceful religion is reinforced as fathers in jubbas enter my office and seeing the Christian symbol smile and say in broken English, “Men of faith respect men of faith.”

This afternoon I stood at the school gates seeing the children off for their (and our) two week break. A father (articulate and an unofficial spokesmen for other men in his community) came over and handed me a card with a traditional, twee,  snowy cottage on the front. Inside he had written:

“Thank you for all your obvious hard work and for confirming your promise of lifting the school out of special measures. We have thanked the staff who work directly with our children but often the Head gets forgotten!

A ship needs all its crew to operate but without a captain it is rudderless! After all your efforts since you arrived you deserve a happy holiday. And so we wish you and your family a happy, holy and peaceful Christmas and even better 2012.”

Men of faith, dear readers, respect men of faith.

 

Keep the Faith,

 

 

The Head

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The Falling Light

These are the days of lamps and light. Small flickering, twinkling and flashing pinpoints cut through the darkness; a concerted effort from every theological tradition to counter the thick black shroud of December. We commute to work before the British sun can turn the sky the colour of overly-milked tea. By mid afternoon the light’s feint heartbeat slows, fades and then succumbs to the darkness. The electric candles are lit in windows, mimicking the sweeping headlights of cars as we make our way home. It is the light of heaven; manufactured and uniform. It is Rama and Sita’s triumphant journey home. It is oil sucked from the streets to keep the menorah burning.

Londoners, perpetually dressed in black, shuffle across those oily roads. They are barely glimpsed in the car head lamps. Shadows compete in the glare turning the pedestrians into ghostly shadows roaming purgatory and searching for some homely peace.

We are moths. Fluttering and darting through the inky city streets we seek out the pinpoints of light. It is safety and comfort. It is responsibilities put down for a collective breath.

In the school’s Year 3 classroom, today, the lights came crashing down. This was no symbolic act, dear readers; no. This was literal and real. The long fluorescent strips which turn the whole building the same uniform colour were somehow faulty. Some might call them jealous that their constant, unwavering, industrial and institutional light was over-looked for Christmas’ gaudy sparkle.

But the lengthy tubes of white chose today to make their presence felt. How long one dangled over the head of 8 year olds in a geography lesson will remain unknown. Perhaps it had hung like the Sword of Damocles yearning to be stared at by some young eye bored with making paper-mache maps of the River Ganges. And when no glance was forthcoming, it carried out its unknown threat: crashing down on the head of two young pupils.

Luckily no one was hurt. Not badly. A small cut on the hand for one, an even slighter bump on the head for the other. We were lucky. The local government inspectors will be on site in the morning, well before the British sky accepts its first steep from a tea-bag sun. They will carry clip boards and look up at the ceiling. The other long fluorescent strips will hum to each other, smug in the martyrdom of their fallen comrade and now with the full attention of a holiday-dazzled populate.

 

Keep the Faith,

 

The Head

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