the leisure game
as played in
|staff vs pupils|
Up on the flank of Brinkie’s Brae, the Slow Bicycle Race is finished, Throwing Up The Welly Boot is over, and now it’s the Staff vs Pupils hockey match, staff dressed in nappies as babies, pupils dressed as themselves except for three senior boys supervising the game dressed, Godfather-inspired, as Mafiosi.
This is Stromness Academy in play mode.
Of course "school" derives from the ancient Greek word for leisure and the Latin for "school" was ludus, game. Hmm. Irony?
Another day, in work mode: O-Grade Latin have been writing up their account of the episode where Julius Caesar, held hostage by pirates, promised to return and defeat them and crucify them; “how amusing,” said the pirates; they were less amused when he defeated them and crucified them. Ishbel has written it as a square dance, brilliantly. I wish I’d kept a copy because now I can remember only two lines:
Take your pirate, five and six
And nail him to his crucifix.
Another day: an inspector is asking the class questions which I know they are well able to answer, but they sit, round-eyed and silent, watching the smartly-suited, fast-speaking foreign animal inviting them to think about Galatia in the Roman Empire (now part of Turkey), and how the Galatian language was a Celtic language which developed into Gaelic. From round-eyed, his hearers descend into apathy: Gaelic happens some other place, the inspector has not done his homework, this is Norse territory where the old language was Norn, and the place they feel connected to is Norway; quite a few are learning Norwegian and some go to Norway to learn how to play the Hardanger fiddle; there are plenty of European connections, only not where the foreign animal is thinking.
Had he realised it, their interest was easily aroused by the gorier bits of Roman history, Caesar crucifying the pirates, Nero offing his mother, Claudius offed by his wife; or by Catullus sailing his boxwood yacht from Turkey to his pad on the shore of Lake Garda, or the cheating in the boat race in Book V of the Aeneid, the sort of things they knew from their daily lives.
But whatever topic the inspector had tried, he wouldn’t have got them speaking, for they needed several months at least before they would relax enough to speak to a newly-arrived creature fae sooth.
One year I had a C-stream third-year class for maths; they named themselves Thick Maths, inscribed the name on a placard and stuck it in the window of the portacabin that was their classroom. They were lovely people: boys who were well able to discuss the finer points of the John Deere versus the Massey Ferguson and which was the better beast, Charolais or Simmental, and they could do quite complicated calculations so long as it was to do with the farm, the fencing, the amount of feed; girls who loved to do bills, to write down purchases, prices, amounts, totals, in round, neat handwriting, every letter i having a little flower instead of a dot, the addition reliably correct, chatting softly all the time, admiring their friends, shredding the characters of their enemies. I came to believe that they already knew everything they needed to know for a good and satisfactory life in Orkney, and to try to “stretch” them (such was the educational buzz-word) was not only cruel but pointless.
One small group, four girls and one boy, were with me for extra arithmetic tuition, and I had a little room with a computer for which I wrote a program that would screen a simple calculation question, such as 9 X 7 on the screen and give, say, five seconds for an answer. After ten such questions a mark out of ten appeared, and the next pupil had a shot. They were all fine at doing this, and could all get 10/10. Then it gradually speeded up, and the slower ones began to drop by the wayside; there would come a speed where no-one had time to key in an answer; the winner was whoever was last able to get 10/10 – calculation speed plus physical typing speed.
The fascinating thing was that Henry was the slowest of the bunch, but the girls wanted Henry to be best. So Laura and Susie sat each side of him, took a hand each, pressed his fingers on the keys and made him the winner. Henry, a most amiable boy, was pleased with the attention; the girls were content that the boy was best and that they had made it happen.
Those girls were women who had the power to achieve their ambition, and the knowledge of how to use that power. They already knew all that was necessary to live the kind of life they wanted. What use was school to them, I wondered.
Among the pupils were a number of very talented musicians, some of whom are now playing in orchestras. At one time my room was next to the music room, and it was a pleasure to hear the startlingly professional-sounding flute, clarinet, trumpet, violin and voice coming through the wall.
The staffroom of course thrummed with knowledge and elevated discussion; three of us, however, Gordon, Pie and I, preferred to play bridge, sometimes joined by Crommy which would make a proper four, otherwise one of us bid two hands, an exercise in phased forgetting if it was to be done fairly. We had only an hour, and needed to play as many hands as we could in the time, so the bidding was fast and extravagant to a degree that would curl the toes of a proper dedicated bridge player. Some staff did not approve of our evil card-playing and once we were glowered at, our poor tattered coffee-stained cards castigated as “the devil’s picture-book”; but at that moment we were engaged in a 7-no-trump doubled and re-doubled, and hardly heard the words.
R.E. teachers came and went rather briskly: came with joy and enthusiasm, went with sadness and disillusion and (sometimes) haste. One was unlucky enough to have the same name as a TV cartoon character: if the cartoon had been South Park (which had yet to be invented) his name would have been Cartman; this happy coincidence led to him being tormented ruthlessly. He was misguided enough to warn senior girls about the shortness of their skirts which might reveal their knickers; the next week the senior girls turned up at R.E. wearing skirts rolled up at the waistband to űber-mini-level, revealing vast purple bloomers; they sat at the front crossing and uncrossing their legs, staring at him with hard and lustful eyes. It was not long before he fled across to Caithness, where he lived in his tent notifying the Education Office that he was taking sick leave and requesting that his pay be sent to the nearest post office.
Latin and Greek were the subjects I was initially qualified to teach, but when Latin stopped being required for University entrance, and Science became three subjects instead of just one, it was clear that the numbers choosing to learn a dead language were going to decline sharply; up in the seats of educational power the classicists tried to postpone the death of their subject by making it easier: no longer did a pupil have to learn to write the stuff, no more worries about gerund and gerundive; even translation became easier, since a lot of it was now from a set book; questions on historical and cultural background were introduced. All, predictably to no avail: the patient was doomed, and no reduction of the effort required to grasp its subtleties was going to restore it.
So naturally I had a worry that I might find myself being slid over into the R.E. slot. My knowledge of gods and their habits was restricted to the kind of episodes that Greek writers found hilarious, for example:
|role model celeb: Dionysos, god of wine|
Vulcan is miffed because Venus (his wife) is shagging Mars, who is athletic and beautiful, unlike himself, who is lame and ugly though awesome at metalwork; so Vulcan makes a net of wire mesh and catches in it Venus and Mars in flagrante delicto, hauls them to where the gods are banqueting (a thing they did a lot of) and dumps them on the table - an early version of writing to an Agony Aunt, I suppose, hoping for sympathy for himself and a ticking-off for the captives; but the gods just roar with laughter and sink some more wine and Jove himself is heard to say “I wish it was me in there with her”.
Well back into B.C. the serious thinking was done by people like the inventor of the atom, or the chap who proved why, if you organised a triangle with sides 3, 4, 5, you’d got yourself a right-angle so that the sides of your house would fit together. The gods seemed to fill the slot now occupied by celebs, providing entertainment and awe, fodder for fans. The really powerful entity, before which even celebs were helpless was Necessity, which meant something like “the way things work”, the laws of nature that govern existence.
|godly behaviour: Zeus carries off Europa|
All of which seemed to me to make quite a bit of sense, but fearing that this kind of godliness, while it might have appeal for pupils, would surely cause trouble up among the authorities, I started an Open University Maths degree course, simultaneously enabling me to teach Maths rather than R.E. and letting me study my favourite subject once again. Double whammy. Hence Thick Maths and Henry, Laura and Susie, as well as Ishbel square-dancing Caesar and his pirates.
There came a year when it seemed an idea to take some of the Norway-orientated young to Italy, to get a taste of the different life south of the Alps, and I organised a trip to Venice and Florence during the Easter holiday. To get there we had the ferry crossing, followed by train to Edinburgh and thence to London, a night there in the Youth Hostel, flight to Milan, coach across Italy to Venice, arriving 2 a.m., walk to hotel, baggage coming on a gondola – a long, strange journey for most, who had never before even seen a train.
With us came Ian MacInnes, head of Art, himself a fine painter, his wife Jean, Susie Johnston, the doctor’s wife and a doctor herself, Frank Eunson (Geography) and his wife Clare; and their expertise was most welcome.
Several posts would be needed to do justice to that trip, just as a lifetime would be too short to comprehend all that was on offer: all I can do here is scamper briefly across the scene as it unfolded .
|St Mark's, Venice|
In Venice, Ian conducted us all round the Accademia, telling us what and why and how; and we were awed by the sheer size of Tintoretto and Titian on the walls of churches just a step away from our hotel, gobsmacked by the magnificence of St Mark’s, charmed to see mussel-gatherers in the lagoon rowing standing up and facing forwards, impressed by the glass-blowers of Murano, incredulous about Attila the Hun’s bum-print on a stone outside the cathedral on Torcello. Everyone will likely have their own favourite pieces of wonderment; mine was the fleeting notion, contemplating the complex group of domes on St Mark’s, that a person with a sleeping-bag and a wee primus stove could live up there quite cosily, hidden from public view, roasting a pigeon or two a day culled from the hordes down in the square.
|view from top of Duomo|
And we had still to sew up Florence: train from Venice, sleeping quarters in a vast flat near the centre, enormous famous paintings in the Uffizi, gripping ascent of steep winding stair inside the double dome of the Duomo, emerging outside onto a perch with vertiginous view down to the street below, spectacular art and architecture everywhere.
Bus to Fiesole up in the hills, peaceful Roman theatre, great view of Florence down below.
Day in Pisa, up the eerie winding stair of the leaning tower, steps either very steep or almost flat depending where you were in the circuit, faintly vertiginous feel at the top – what if it chose this moment to finish its topple?
|Pisa cathedral and leaning tower|
Into the cathedral to watch the swing of the mighty pendulum, as Galileo had done 400 years earlier. Discover a new favourite food – ice cream with brandy (adults only).
Then coach to Milan, flight to London, quick tour, courtesy of Jo Grimond (our MP) of House of Commons, train to Edinburgh, train to Scrabster, discovery that the Ola had broken down, oh no, how to get across to Orkney … unless, yes, headmaster MacLean arranged for us to be picked up and flown across, hurrah! Back to the centre of things, brains almost swamped by the many marvels we had momentarily touched the tips of.
And, for one boy, near starvation because of a disinclination or inability to eat pasta.