It’s eight o’ clock of a July morning in Southern Greece and the air in the school is like greasy, luke-warm stew. You enter the classroom and there you find ten or so fifteen-year olds whose silence and stricken, defeated bearing might lead you to suppose that their families have just been wiped out by an earthquake. The truth is far worse: they will have to stay here for a whole two hours, which is a hundred and twenty minutes, that is to say seven thousand, two hundred seconds, before it is ten o’ clock and they are released. (But only until tomorrow.) First thing is to cool the place down a bit, because your clean and freshly-ironed clothes already feel like cling-film, and you would swear that there are great flabby spuds and squashy carrots afloat in the room. You aim the remote control and activate the elderly air-conditioning unit, disturbing the peace of its resident cockroaches. The air stirs slightly; a stale, spooky waft of old churches. Then, because eight other teachers in eight other classrooms have just done the same thing, the air conditioner packs up and instantly it’s as if a hot, wet dishrag has been flung in your face. Nothing else for it, the sooner we begin, the sooner we dissipate this stony-faced gloom.
We make it through to ten o’ clock, and even the too-cool-for-school boys have occasionally been cajoled into looking as if they were interested. Teachers get a break before the next bunch of students arrives. I am the only English member of staff and so the only one who drinks hot tea in forty degree heat. I tip the chalky water and drowned cockroach out of the kettle, and brew up. Yes, I know it’s forty degrees. No, if you drink hot tea, you radiate heat and feel cooler. No, I bloody hate iced Nescafe.
Round two. ‘Sir, I’m ill, can we turn off the air conditioning?’
So long as we open the window.
‘But sir, there’s a draught.’
That is the point of opening the bloody window, it’s forty two degrees Celsius in here.
‘But sir, I’m ill.’
It is widely believed here that if you sit in a draft, change your socks, open a window or drink cold water on a hot day, you’ll be floored by fever and it’ll be your own silly fault, or mine, for abusing kids by opening windows in a heat wave.
You’ll live, I say, hard as nails.
We play alibis, which is a laugh, usually. Kids in groups imagine they were together the previous evening and must all have the same watertight story. The group is then separated and interrogated by another group of ‘police’ who try to trip them up to expose discrepancies in their stories.
‘Sir, I’m sitting with my back to the air conditioner. It’s dangerous.’
Turn round, then.
‘Now I can’t see the board.’
Your case is parlous indeed.
‘What does that mean?’
It’s finally twelve thirty. Ite, missa est.
They leave, squabbling about the alibi game. At least they are squabbling about something connected with the lesson.
Evening. The school has been shut up between one and six, and as it is on the first floor of the building, rising heat has been gathering and festering for five hours. You feel as though you have been brushed with melted butter and had a fan heater trained on you. This evening I have bagsed the computer lab. A bunch of fourteen-year olds are preparing for an exam in which they might be required to ‘write a report for a boss’. Fourteen-year olds do not write reports for bosses, so in an attempt to introduce the idea, I have given them in pairs a letter from me, pretending I am the boss of a travel company. I’ve asked them to imagine they are in England and they have to supply me with various bits of info about various cities, which info they will find online. Later on we’ll try to knock up a report. It’s not only the concept of report writing that puzzles them.
‘Sir?’ says Panagiotis, who is looking at the website for the Arundel House Hotel in Cambridge. ‘It says here it’s a ‘nineteenth century building’.'
‘So how come it’s got telephones?’
Eight o’ clock! Right, everybody sod off. They’ve gone before I can phonate the /f/, or the final phoneme of what I actually did say.
I live five minutes from the school. I take the stairs to my flat, avoiding the lift because once I spent three quarters of an hour trapped in it when the power failed, as it frequently does in summer. (People came to check on me periodically: ‘can you breathe?’ I considered not answering, to see if they would call the fire brigade to get me out quicker.) Home! The best part of the day is shutting your door on the rest of the world. First I cuddle the cat, then have a cold shower and after that I can finally dive into the sequence of icy vodka and tonics I've been fantasising about since six.
Αυτά, για την ώρα. That’s it, for now.