Stories of 1970s food lessons in a London school
It’s the mock Home Economics exams in freezing January. Judgement time for me. And judgement time for them. I’ve taught for just one term. In two hours they must spill out the limited knowledge that I have drilled into them over the past few months. They may be able to cook two course meals and serve them with a flower arrangement, but if they don’t pass this theory exam all is lost. And some of them can barely read or write. Failure for them is failure for me. Results matter.
Mr Nunn comes into my room as I’m scrubbing down cake encrusted baking trays in the deep butler’s sink.
‘Jenny – can you take the invigilation session this morning? The other teacher’s not turned up.’
Bloody hell. It’s not fair. I’ve longed for this free morning and a chance for some staffroom gossip and a smoke when I’ve done my chores. And now I’m going to be stuck in a freezing, dingy hall watching my classes as they struggle to answer the questions that I’ve set for their exams.
‘You’ll be on the stage and supervising the morning.’
Mr Nunn gives me a confident smile. Oh that’s great. No early warning to bring long johns and fingerless gloves for this freezing task. Instead I’m in my shortest mini skirt with white boots and will be perched on stage above a group of bored teenagers.
I pick up work to mark and set off to the examination hall. As chief invigilator, I walk sternly past my chattering groups, through the doors and down the neat rows of hard chairs and splintery desks, which the caretaker puts out especially for the exams. Their wooden tops are scratched with years of frustration.
Bill woz here! I hate maths! Get me out of here!
And other fierce gouges too rude to mention made with a frustrated penknife or compass point.
Up the stairs to my position at another uncomfortable desk, centre stage.
‘Open the doors, Mr Page, and let them in.’
The shambling queue idles down the aisles searching for their names. Cries reach me on the stage.
‘Miss I ain’t got a ruler. ‘
‘Miss me pen won’t work!’
‘Miss I need to go to the lav!’
I hand round spare emergency tools that I keep in my handbag, and let Lenny go to the toilet. It’s time to start but several desks are still empty. The rowdy, naughtier boys have not turned up. Nor have Liz and Cath. Those two are probably dreaming of making babies and several boys think exams are a waste of time. Just messing about before real life begins.
‘OK it’s time to start. You have two hours. No talking and you can’t leave the hall until the time is up.’
‘Ugh’ groans Gary. ‘This is the only exam I’m doing. I hate exams.’
‘Turn your papers over, read all the questions and please do your best.’
I want to add ‘For me, please try.’
The ancient hall radiators ooze out little warmth on this freezing day. It’s like sitting in a fridge. Mr Page paces up and down the rows and the metal studs on his boots clack soldier-like in the silence. Gary sharpens a pencil and coils of wood spiral down from his desk onto the parquet floor. I glower. My mouth commands ‘Get on!’. Gary continues his sharpening.
Suddenly the hall doors burst open. Kevin, Gavin and the missing girls explode into the hall.
Shouts of ‘Miss,the bus!’
‘Sorry we’re late.’
More likely they’ve been puffing fags behind the bins and deciding if they’ll do a bunk. Mr Page scowls and gives me a ‘Shall we let the buggers in?’ look. I nod and he raises his eyebrows in despair. The late comers smirk their way to their seats, clatter down and rustle for writing tools.
I mutter in desperation ‘Get started!’ and bang some pens on their desks. For the next half hour boys and girls scribble away and a cold calm descends on the room. From my exposed perch I watch and wonder how I’ve taught them so many words that I will now have to mark over the weekend.
At a desk beneath me a handsome man-boy with dark floppy hair glances up. He’s one of the sixth formers taking mock A level maths. Bright boys don’t choose my classes. They are siphoned off to study more useful subjects. The man-boy must be nineteen and he has the most startling grey-green eyes. Must be boredom to notice a boy’s eyes. Or a lack of a boyfriend of my own. I push the edge of my mini skirt down my thighs and hope the ribbed top of my tights is not showing. The boy smiles and resumes his calculations. Pull yourself together! Stop dreaming. Handsome young men who are four years younger must not be considered. I’m sad and single but I’m a teacher. If such thoughts become actions I’d lose my job and be in The News of the World.
Half an hour passes. Mr Page stops click clacking and leans despondently against the frame of the exit door. We’d both rather be drinking coffee and smoking in the staff room than pacing this dreary place.
Many of the boys are stretching, packing their bags and yawning for attention. They mouth ‘Miss let’s go! It’s done.’ Mr Page slides over to the noisiest.
‘Have you finished?’ Yes! Yes!
‘OK, go quietly and don’t disturb the ones still working.’
They lumber out, banging against the rows of desks and leaving the earnest behind. The remaining time passes slowly. What are they writing about? There’s no point dreaming of plans for my weekend. I’ll be locked away with piles of marking. No wine bars or parties for me.
‘Time’s up, pens down.’
‘Miss I haven’t finished ….’
‘Too bad, pens down.’
I gather and stack the piles of answer papers as they file past, happy to be free.
Round the corner outside the hall the floppy haired man-boy is waiting.
‘Hello. Are you a new teacher? We haven’t met before.’
He towers over me and looks delicious. If he was four years older… Don’t be stupid. He’s a student and you are the teacher.
‘Yes. I mean no.’ I reply. ‘Yes, I’ve been here – just a term.’
He wanders off smiling, then glances round. His eyes are green in the winter light.
Cheeky boy! One day he’ll break someone’s heart. But it mustn’t be mine.