Notes from Lapta, Cyprus – “Those Who Can – Part 2” by Ken Dunn

With the job of the restoration of the chandeliers completed I was ready for a rest but none came. The same character at the kitchen shop had found another job for me. This was going to be decorating the inside of some offices. Simple I thought. Wrong! The offices were on two floors and huge inside. It was a large, building, an old Victorian house, which had been converted several times, rather badly. The last conversion had split the place up into several offices some years before.

A property developer had bought it and, instead of tearing it down had decided to reinstate it as a series of office suites. I met him on site and we toured the place. It was very grubby having been neglected for years. The structure and surfaces of the walls were sound but the atmosphere was extremely depressing. All it needed was a few licks of paint, some carpet running through it, a few glazed partitions erecting and he’d have a brand new office complex. Straightforward enough and I was only being asked to handle the paintwork.

The problem I had was timing, yet again, only two weeks before the carpets arrived, and I was on my own. The three ‘musketeers’ from the previous job had found another task somewhere else and couldn’t give me a hand. Although it was a simple paint job it wasn’t a simple interior. There were two floors to do, two sets of staircases, the walls of which were totally out of reach and the ceilings disappeared off into the gloom above. This was going to be another tower job and I had to find a method of covering the vast amount of wall space quickly.

I dismissed the idea of rollers, they’re fairly quick but wasteful of paint. I had to find another method. I found it in one of the local hire shops. Later that day I had erected the tower in one of the largest rooms, arranged all the other equipment, prepared the paint and began. Ten minutes later I couldn’t see across the room! The compressor and spray gun I’d hired was working well but I hadn’t reckoned on the cloud of paint particles it would give out so heavily. Thirty minutes of this and I looked like an off white snowman, the stuff was all over the place as well as on the walls and most of it seemed to have settled on me.

I had a hell of a job getting it off the windows! Even so I managed to get the job done in record time. In all the other rooms I masked the windows with newspaper before I started which did make life a lot easier. The only tricky time I had was driving home each night. The look on people’s faces as they saw this off white albino driving past them was something to see!

Sadly, shades of the past emerged over this job. The developer became a bit ‘picky’ over a few details but did pay up in the end. Then he asked me to install a new foyer for him in another building. He wanted a mirrored entrance, one wall like this with the rest in a wooden panelled finish, to complete the feeling of an exclusive office entrance. Again it was straightforward enough to do and it only took another four days to complete it. That’s when he really became difficult over paying.

This was the very thing I’d tried to get away from in the first place, all those months before and I was in no mood to have it repeated. His argument was that I hadn’t done this or hadn’t done that and it was obvious that he was going to mess about for ages unless I took a stand and did something about it. I did. I walked over to my tool box and found the biggest hammer I had. With this in my hand, leaning against the mirrored wall, I asked him again if he was going to pay me. I was gently tapping the glass with the hammer as I asked the question. Seconds later I had full payment in my hand. That worked!

The one thing I didn’t know about, but found out from the chap in the kitchen shop, weeks later, was that all the light switches in the building didn’t work any more. I’d forgotten to mask them, as I’d done with the windows, and not one of them worked any more! They were solid with off white emulsion! ‘Couldn’t have happened to a nicer chap’, was my only thought!

There were a number of different jobs after that from various bods but I was rapidly getting fed up with all of it. The same old thing began to happen. Arguments over payment. So, there I was again, wondering what else I could do. I turned down more than a few jobs in between taking others and then took some time off to ruminate about the future. The bank balance wasn’t too bad but that wouldn’t last. I had to find something else soon.

Then a small thought crept in to my consciousness. Years before, just after leaving college, I’d taken a post graduate teaching course. It had only been for a year and, by a miracle, I’d passed this, just, and had a teaching qualification which I’d never used. Was this the answer to my present dilemma? It was worth a try. I phoned the local authority, managed to get an appointment with the adviser for teaching Design at secondary school level and went to see him. By sheer chance I happened to have contacted them at a time when they were having difficulty filling one post in the local comprehensive school. Would I be interested? ‘Yes’ came out again before I’d really thought about it.

All that seemed to matter was that this wouldn’t be a situation where you had to haggle over money. This would be salary based, regular, solid, every week or month, whatever the system was that they used. All I needed to do now was to think ‘education’. It had been twenty years since I trained as a teacher and things had changed a bit since then.

We sorted out all the details, salary, role, responsibilities, and I found myself appointed as ‘Teacher of Design’ on a supply basis. This was a temporary position, subject to how I coped, to be paid weekly but with the prospect of becoming a fully fledged full time member of staff. Then I was introduced, at the school, to the Head of Department.

He was an odd character, slightly nervous and one of those types who never look you in the eye. The others in the department, three in total and all male, treated him with a heavy disdain which didn’t help. My arrival amongst them only heightened that feeling in my direction and it took a couple of weeks before they began to soften, all of them realising that I was relatively normal, seemed to know what I was teaching and talking about and was not the ‘great white hope’ that the adviser had suggested.

City comprehensive schools can be the graveyards of ‘new’ teachers. Kids do not take prisoners. They have a knack of finding any weakness and targeting any poor soul who can’t cope. I wondered how I’d get on. The cross section of kids is always wide in these places and in this one it was extremely varied. Of the full complement of eleven hundred children only about ten percent were recognisable ‘British stock’. The rest were a total mixture of Chinese, Greek, Turkish, Japanese, West Indian, Indian and a sprinkling of East European for good measure.

I remembered an unofficial piece of advice I’d been given, all those years ago, when I was training to be a teacher. One of the older members of staff at the college, nearing retirement, simply said, ‘When in doubt, intimidate the little sods and, this is important, never leave any marks on them if you have to ‘apply’ discipline!’ That, for me, seemed to work. Either way I didn’t have any discipline problems.

The funniest of the racial groups were the West Indian kids. Lively, enthusiastic and all with a great sense of humour, they didn’t want to be at school at all but with strict family backgrounds they knew better than to try playing truant. Instead they enlivened the lessons by converting everything they did during the day to ‘rap’ or ‘reggae’. That was usually picked up by the rest of the class but I didn’t care. As long as the information sank in I wasn’t too bothered how.

A year later I was still there having been appointed full time Head of Design, much to the irritation of one other in the department who had been there for almost ten years. This slight acrimony hovered in the air for quite a while before it slowly dispersed. There’s something about teachers which places them apart from ordinary mortals. Many, but not all, have this ‘unknowing’ or, at worst, a naive look about them however qualified they are. That tends to manifest itself in behaviour which is, to say the least, petty. That began to get on my nerves a little but it was a different experience every day with the kids and I had to admit I was enjoying myself.

The N.U.T. members on the staff were the most spectacular for escaping after the school day. The sound of burning rubber and the skid marks in the car park still bear testimony as to the ‘dedication’ of ‘caring staff’ anxious to spend their time after school marking, preparing and discussing all matters educational. They were usually gone, seconds after the last bell of the day had sounded.

Time rolled on and into the second year I thought about moving on. It was a bit early to do so but cutbacks had begun to bite and the school was looking a little seedy, not being looked after as much as it should have been. There were also rumours of redundancy as the local authority was looking for ways of reducing its overall expenditure. As one of the last in I could well be one of the first out. That’s when I spotted the job in the Times educational supplement, the escape route of many staff in the past and the future.

It was the only design job in the independent section of the paper. A school in the west country were looking for a Head of Department in Design which would also carry responsibility for Art, Home Economics and Technology. I didn’t think I stood much of a chance with less than two years experience under my belt but applied for it anyway. A couple of weeks went by and I’d given up on it when the letter arrived inviting me for interview.

The school was one of those ancient cradles of academe, founded centuries ago and rambled all over the place. The contrast between the place I was teaching and this was as marked as black and white, chalk and cheese. The kids were docile, the staff laid back and the atmosphere was quite serene. This was another world. I didn’t have an interview as such. It was more of a relaxed walk around the place, being handed over, one by one, from the Headmaster, round all the staff of the Department and back to the Head. That was it.

Driving back home I wondered which part of all that had been the actual interview and judged it as a lost cause. There should have been something of a formal question and answer, I had thought, but nothing like that happened. Two days later, in the evening, the phone rang at home. It was the Headmaster offering me the job! I couldn’t believe my luck. What had swung his decision my way was all that ‘experience’ I’d had over the years. Just what they wanted for the department, the subject and the school.

And there I stayed for almost eleven years. However, during that time things changed. Not dramatically but in a subtle way. It became obvious after the first year I was dealing with people who were even more remote from the real world than in that, comparatively, down to earth comprehensive. Any suggestion of criticism was viewed as near heresy and the parents, bless them, as fee paying customers, always wanted ‘results’ which is another way of saying they demanded their pound of flesh on a very regular basis.

I won’t bore you with the other irriations the place had in-built into the daily routine but I got to the point where I needed another horizon to cross but what to do…?

They do say, ‘Those who can do, those who can’t teach.’ I’ve been in both places and there’s actually not a lot to choose between them. They both have their drawbacks and I’m not sure which is better or worse. The only saving grace I have is never being able to say, ‘No.’ to work of any kind being offered.

The trouble is nobody has asked me that kind of question for a long time. I have wondered if they will…. again? With such a depressing thought there was only one thing to do. Seriously look for something else. That’s exactly what I did for a couple of months and then I think I found the ideal solution.

There are ‘positions’, with all my experience, which I would find so easy to cope with. They wouldn’t demand anything like the effort I’ve given to other things over the years and they all have the advantage of having other people to follow decisions I could make, carry out the work and generally take the ‘angst’ themselves, in a suitably ingratiating fashion.

I’ve seen a few of these advertised in the national press and I applied for the more prestigious of them. I had two interviews so the chances of getting the job were as good as I could have hoped for. I could have had the next best thing to being totally independent and relatively free from all worries.

What was I applying for? The position of a Headmaster, anywhere!

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