Saturday, 14 March 2009


When I was in the fourth form, an English teacher with a knack for laddish talk characterised Keats to us as ‘airy-fairy and a bit of a pouf’. Shortly thereafter, a teacher who definitely did not have the knack for passing as one of the lads was ascending B staircase, followed by members of my form who were chanting sotto but audibly:

Airy-fairy, bit of a pouf…
Airy-fairy, bit of a pouf…
Airy-fairy, bit of a pouf…

The teacher was clearly determined not to react, but a deep, dark blush pumped up from his neck to his hairline, as if his head were being filled with grenadine. I was not one of the chanters – too much of a goody two shoes. In any case I must have been in front, not behind, to have clocked that blush. Even so, I’m pretty sure I found the spectacle as hilarious as everyone else did. Pretty sure? OK, I enjoyed it thoroughly. That all these leering, heartless, utterly unlovable little shits would very soon be reasonable young men was of no comfort to that teacher at that moment.

Teenagers were a mystery to me even when I was one, so it should come as no surprise to learn that I was no great shakes at dealing with many of them in my early days in a language school full of eight to sixteen year olds. After twelve years of working with self-starting adults on teacher training seminars, I was not well equipped to deal with that alternation of exuberance, sullenness, dependence, resistance, flashes of maturity and sheer bloody nastiness that adolescents present. I was also aware that some teachers in the school couldn’t wait to see me fall flat on my arse. This foreigner with his diplomas and big ideas, who’d been down here from Athens before to lead seminars at the school owner’s invitation, who was paid a fortune every time and regaled with vats of Johnny Walker at the owner’s home... now here he was on a permanent contract as Director of Studies, if you don’t mind, getting his hands dirty in classes of kids for the first time. We’ll see if he can hack it.

Petros was a bright, specky, cocky, insecure little misfit of thirteen, who could, when the spirit was upon him, be a royal pain in the neck. He was not popular with the other kids and he retaliated by being an even bigger pain in the neck, a vicious circle I recognised from my own days as a bright, specky, cocky, insecure little misfit of thirteen. I veered between the desire to protect him and the desire to smash his teeth in. One evening Petros was deriving such innocent pleasure as he could from repeatedly snatching books off his neighbour and poking him with the pointy end of his pencil. The neighbour was gratifyingly rattled by this, so Petros redoubled his efforts. I asked him to desist, but he went right on snatching and poking. Now, the best course of action would have been to ask Petros to bugger off home and annoy his mother instead, but this did not occur to me at the time. So I got him to take up his book and pen and parked him in the teachers’ room to finish the task on his own. I offered him a glass of orange juice from the fridge as I sat him down, but he had turned from giggly to sullen, and refused it. Separating him from the class was a mistake – Double Mistake on a Bun with a side helping of Fries and extra Ketchup, in fact, although that didn’t occur to me at the time either. I went back to the classroom to finish the lesson, checked on Petros’s work before he left, did whatever I did after that, then went home.

Next day in the principal’s office Petros’s mother, in her quiet, nervous way, made much of ‘the incident with Petros’ and how it had upset the poor mite. She suggested that I might have reasoned with him, cajoled him. Bollocks, I thought, but did not say. Petros, she went on, liked the way I did my lessons and had great respect for me. I pointed out that if this was the case, he had a bloody funny way of showing it. Anyway, she gave me to understand that the kid had felt humiliated in front of his peers, and as politely as I could I gave her to understand that he should get over it, and stop getting on people’s tits.

A few months later my mobile phone went AWOL. One missed call, three missed calls, seventy missed calls – the numbers racked up as it sat there on silent through the summer course lessons. I had at the time a class of six fairly mature, biddable sixteen year olds, and wondered aloud to them about the reason for the ever increasing numbers. They said nothing, just smiled and shrugged and looked at their shoes. Later, during the summer holiday, I began to get call after anonymous call, numbers withheld, different teen voices asking me in English and Greek ‘hello, are you gay?’ ‘Hello, is this Mrs X?’ and various other puerile taunts about my sexuality. It was like being fourteen again.

I could never prove it, but I am quite certain that after I had sat Petros down in the staffroom and left, he had keyed my mobile number into his phone from the contacts list on the wall. By September all my students knew of the wheeze, and there was much guffawing and giggling for a period, and the word ‘gay’ scratched on my classroom door. Anyone experienced with teenagers would have told me to get over myself and stop feeling so angry and humiliated, but that is how I felt for a while, especially as ‘gay’ was for these provincial innocents the most contemptuous term they could lay on me.
Two years later I saw Petros in the street, and whereas earlier he came only up to my shoulder, now I would barely have come up to his. He did not see me. I wonder if he is gay. Whether or not he is, the issue was certainly salient enough to him at thirteen to push him to taunt me with it for a summer. If he was, how much more useful if I could have reasoned with him as his mother suggested, but on the lines of, look, this is no big deal, you will be able to get away from here at eighteen and be yourself, and it will be nobody else’s business, and you have been given the opportunity to see over the top of the clannishness and conformity of this backwater.

In your dreams. A year or two before this, I had taught a course in study skills for kids who were about to leave for universities in the UK. One day I drew up some thumbnail sketches of imaginary flatmates of the kind they might be thrown together with in the coming months. We would discuss how they might react and handle each one. The list included, inter alia, a boozy Brit rugby hearty, a noisy untidy party girl, a half-Greek girl who was ashamed of her Greek side, and a boy who was gay. I handed out the list for the students to read. After a few minutes there was a collective gasp of incredulity, and every male in the room was guffawing, and looking round the room to make sure every other male saw he was guffawing. There was absolutely no possibility of discussion, and the activity was dropped.      


P.S. December 31st 2015

In September this year I found 'Petros' on He's studying social and political philosophy in the Netherlands. He said: 'You were really great as a teacher, probably the best we had. It's kinda lame admitting it after all these years and a big shame that we were so immature and overdid it at certain occasions. We weren't able to appreciate many things back then. I guess many of us had serious oppression issues coming from our homes and the school and tuition centers were just playgrounds of rioting appeasement.'  By this I think he meant places for letting off steam. That was nice to hear, and I was delighted to learn of his academic success. It's nice to grow up.

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