We travel in darkness at this time of year so the short days take on a sort of flicker-book illuminated urgency. We rush about doing and talking constantly, then it goes dark again and we wait for reanimation in the morning light. Time telescopes once you get to December and the pull of the exams gets stronger. Nothing’s new anymore and we’re starting to feel tired, especially year 7s unused to the distances and the sheer physical demand of secondary. Diversion is welcome.
Oblivious in my lair two weeks ago I was surprised to hear and feel a bang like the trump of doom. I rushed to the window and saw the smaller lunchers jump a bit, look around for entertainment, not find it and resume annoying each other. I put my whistle on for protection, just in case the end of the world needed whistling in, jammed hands in pockets and strolled (never run towards potential disaster in school for fear of gathering a crowd) downstairs to find - nothing. Business Director, usually clued up, was also missing, presumably vaporised in the boom. It took some time for her and I to stop calmly chasing each other and eventually coincide in block 5. The bang was, of course, that chemical, the one that caused all the trouble somewhere else (I’m not a chemist). Anyway, Science found it, told Business, who rang 999. By the time she got from her office to reception – admittedly a bit of a trek through a lot of doors – to warn of imminent constabulary, the Bomb Squad, good grief, had arrived. Minutes later a hole was dug on the back field, the offending stuff carried carefully to it and then exploded safely at a distance. 15 minutes from call to bang.
Musing over the sequence of events on the stairs we happened upon some year 10s, fresh from a triumphant Talent Show production with Barclays mentors the previous night, and deranged with curiosity. They questioned me closely and found me wanting. One tossed his curls: I’m going to ask Sir about this. Thank the lord for Sir, who could explain the bang without using a frankly unsatisfactory phrase to hear from a headteacher ‘it was stuff that might explode’. What isn’t?
Children need the world interpreting for them. Not everyone heard the bang, so we could have ignored it, but we didn’t. Science explained it on Monday and there was general discussion and wry amusement.
Later that week, another explanation, another explosive issue. This time it was sexual and relationship danger with a fabulous theatre company doing Chelsea’s Choice. Four actors slipping in and out of two or three roles each telling of a terrifying slide into abuse and desperation. When each scene ended with review by the actors of the play within the play the audience visibly relaxed. Some apprehensively chewed their jumpers, or their neighbours’ jumpers. Girls held hands. Rapturous applause and a great q and a at the end. Fifteen-year-olds think they’ll never make mistakes, but I’m old and I know that they will, and their optimism is heartbreaking.
Year 9 saw it before lunch, brilliantly, year 10 after lunch. Well. Let me just say that they certainly benefited from the show but also from the bonus opportunity of 20 minutes lining-up-and-entering-the-hall-in-silence practice while we reinstalled a piece of operational software that must have been dislodged by the bang.
This darkness takes me back to an Advent 37 years ago, on the Strand when I first heard Geoffrey Hill’s poem that begins:
What is there in my heart that you should sue
so fiercely for its love? What kind of care
brings you as though a stranger to my door
through the long night and in the icy dew
seeking the heart that will not harbour you..?
We throw ourselves at the education of the young in the hope that some of it sticks. There’s so much to tell them and we have to get it through the noisy clamour of living, the insults and chasing, the cheering as well as the darkness, just to make them safe for life. What is there in their hearts for which we sue so urgently? The flickering urgency that illuminates our days, the best hope for a better world.