Black leg

My local rep is holding an NUT meeting in Walthamstow Town Hall. For months there have been rumblings of discontent. People are disillusioned with pay and working conditions and want change. I squeeze into the back of the gloomy hall. There are no spare seats and people are jammed together. The fat man on the stage thumps his fist on the table and rallies us to take strike action. All NUT members must come out. Ra, ra they chant. As a new teacher, I find all this rather threatening.

When I started teacher training in 1970, we are told that all teachers join the union, which supports us in difficult times and makes sure we get a fair deal. I sign up and pay my dues unaware that I had a choice. Now, in the news there are loud rumblings of strike action from teachers and many other unions.

On strike day our school stays open for those teachers who do not belong to unions or have joined professional bodies.  Students have a day off, and the staffroom becomes busy with teachers making placards and banners ready for the march.

I don’t want to go. If I strike I lose my pay for the day, but that is not the reason. Deep inside I can’t do it. I don’t want to follow the gang and march on Parliament. Surely change can be effected without this thumping, shouting and marching? I tell the union rep that I’m coming into school. He looks bewildered and cross.

Then things get nasty.  When I go into the staffroom, friends turn away.

And it gets nastier. As I’m taking a class, a teacher comes by and thumps on my classroom window and shouts ‘Scab’. The class looks to me for a reaction. I’m shocked, weak and ashamed. Voiceless in this angry protest.  Then things get nastier still. More teachers bang on my classroom window. This time shouting ‘dirty blackleg’.

The union rep comes into my room at the end of school.

‘Jenny, you can’t belong to the NUT if you don’t join in the protest. I suggest you follow the rest of us.’

He’s clearly not pleased when I say no.

On strike day I come to school. The NUT members will march in Trafalgar Square, banners and placards waving about their rights and more pay. And I worry for my future. What will my days be like if I don’t protest with the majority.

Len, one of my CSE students comes into my room. I’m busy dragging wet tea towels and dishcloths out of the spin dryer.

‘Len, you’re not supposed to be in school. Students stay at home today.’

‘Shall I make us a cup of tea, miss?’

Len busies himself putting the kettle on the gas stove and searching the stockroom for cups, saucers, milk jug and a teapot.  The atmosphere is sad. Len’s sad, and I’m sad. Len sprinkles the tea leaves into the warmed teapot and leaves it to brew, then gathers an armful of dishcloths and hangs them on the bars of my gas dryer. 

Len often stays behind and helps me clear up at the end of the day and never takes his cooking home.  Somehow it feels like Len and I have things in common and we offer each other wordless support. I wonder if, like me, there is no-one at home to welcome Len after school. What will happen when he leaves school at sixteen, barely able to read and write?

Len stirs three large spoonfuls of sugar into his tea and we sit and drink together. No words. Just thoughts.

On TV that night I see the fighting and punching as teachers and police come face to face on the marches.

Next day in the staffroom, they are all too excited to notice me.

‘Did you see me knock off the policeman’s helmet?’

It’s Lynn who only last week invited me round for tea in her lovely family home.  I wonder if my friendship with her and other staff members is damaged forever.

The next time the union calls a strike, I don’t go into school. I agree to join the strike, if only to stop the bullying and the insults. My pay is docked and I spend the day wandering around Hampstead Heath, breathing in the city air.  It is time to leave the union, and maybe time for me to leave London and have a complete change.

That Friday in the Times Educational Supplement there’s an advert in the back section for a job in Jamaica. Teaching home economics in Kingston on a two year contract with living expenses and accommodation included. It would give me the chance to save some money for a deposit if ever I return to buy my own place.

I’ve taught a lot of children from Jamaican parents in my previous school and if the island is as charming as some of my students, it will be fun.

I ring up the telephone number in the advert and ask them to send me an application form. Sunshine island with salt fish and ackee, welcome me! I’m meeting Mark for a drink tonight at The Flask in Highgate. My Carribean departure might swing him into action!

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