Dear Dave

Wednesday 4 November 2009

Herding short Vikings

Dear Dave,

Getting twenty-three seven-year-old school children onto the top deck of a bus is... an interesting experience. Oddly, the kids who've been wandering off and causing trouble all the way along the street are fine at this point - it's the ones who've been dutifully following instructions since leaving the classroom who cause the issues. They insist on holding hands even while going up the stairs and then refuse to sit next to an adult they don't know despite there being nowhere else to go.

It's a conflict of programming worthy of Asimov.

They stand on the top step and argue about stranger danger while clenched in the vice-like grip of a heavier 'friend' who's been distracted by his own nose and has forgotten to hold on to the handrail. Meanwhile, another twenty kids are all lined up behind, ready to go down like nine-pins as soon as the driver has checked all the tickets and the bus lurches off along the road...

So, Dave, you may be having a few issues with Sam's teacher this year but, honestly, you should fob Daisy off on the in-laws and volunteer to help on a school trip. You'll find it a real eye-opener, I can tell you. If you feel Miss Green is giving Sam too much of the wrong kind of work and that she isn't entirely engaging with his educational needs, you ought to try a visit to the museum with his entire class. By the end, you'll have a new appreciation for Miss Green's ability merely to stay sane on an on-going basis. Forget the excessive colouring in - it's a miracle she gives you (and 20+ other parents) six hours of childcare a day and hasn't yet locked herself in the supply cupboard to have a mental breakdown and then play quietly with the finger-puppets.

Heck, if worst comes to worst, you can always teach Sam to read yourself. I doubt it'll come to that, though. Even if it does, having somewhere cheap and away from home for him to go to and be socialised with other kids while learning about papier-mâché is still something to be thankful for.

Of course, if you did manage to off-load Daisy on unsuspecting relatives for a few hours, I can see why you might want to lie around having a rest rather than accompanying a horde of children across town to learn about Vikings. Maybe I should just tell you what happened to me when I went with Lewis' class, his teacher and Kerry's mum (the solitary other parent helper). I certainly needed to lie around having a rest afterwards.

As I said, the bus journey had its moments. The walk at the other end wasn't so bad. A couple of kids picked a fight while crossing the road, most had forgotten where we were going and one was a little cold because he'd tried to put his coat on over his enormous backpack. He'd got into the sleeves up to his elbows but the rest of the coat was hanging round his waste as he wandered along with his upper arms pinned to his side and his forearms sticking out in front of him. When I offered to rescue him from this absent-minded escapology experiment, however, he didn't seem fussed. I left him to it and concentrated on keeping a watchful eye out for cars, kidnappers and open manhole covers.

When we finally reached the museum and the children had been given stern warnings by Mrs Rogers not to get too boisterous, we were greeted by a couple of guides dressed in animal skins and wearing helmets with horns on. Well, I say 'greet', they actually leapt out at us waving plastic axes and roaring. Half the children jumped out of their skin, the other half didn't really notice. Then we were all forced to wear horned hats too, and sit down ready for a talk.

The talk began with a long explanation of why real Vikings never wore horned hats. Sadly, that didn't mean we got to take our hats off. Instead, Erik the Goat-Slayer and Sven Bottom-Thunderer as the guides called themselves, gave us a quick and lively rundown on the standard Viking topics: the names of the days of the week, longboats, runes, Valhalla and lots of roaring. Essentially, it was everything I remembered learning about Vikings when I was seven. Next term I predict a project on Romans featuring gladiators, togas, eating dormice, Hadrian's Wall and catapults.

Once the kids had been suitably wound up with roaring and period-appropriate fart gags, we had a hands-on session with Viking artifacts. We were divided up and I got to tell my group of six boys about the items they were handling as I hastily skim read the info from a help sheet. Since the objects included knives, shears, needles, drinking horns and various other sharpened bits of dead animal, this activity turned out to be more life-threatening than I'd initially envisaged. Nonetheless, we all survived with only minor injuries.

After the kids had done some drawing and then been turned upside down and shaken a bit to empty their pockets of any lingering Viking weaponry, we went to eat our packed lunches.

First, though, I got to supervise a dozen boys going to the toilet (in groups of two and three, thankfully). A couple of them couldn't reach the taps and at least one got mesmerised by the running water halfway through washing his hands and had to be reminded to stop. One thought the best way to check if a stall was free was to peer underneath the door. (Because, although sitting next to an unfamiliar granny on the bus is clearly to be avoided, placing the side of one's face on the floor of a public lavatory is apparently perfectly OK...)

After lunch, we did a quick tour of the Viking exhibits but they didn't hold the kids' attention long. It wasn't time to head home, however, and seeing as we were at the museum already, we went to look at some robots. We got to press buttons, waggle levers and play with touchscreens. This was more on my level. The kids ran riot but I could cope. It was a contrast to when I went to the modern art gallery with the Primary 5s. On that occasion, my own bewilderment made it harder to keep the children in line. I really couldn't explain why someone had painted three orange squares and hung them on a wall. I muttered something about the explanation being as important as the actual art but I'm not sure I was hugely convincing. As for the stairwell lined with the names of all the people the artist had ever met, laid out like a war memorial, in some ways it was thought provoking, in others it seemed like nice work if you could get it...

(I'm from rural Norfolk. If it's not a landscape involving cows, I'm not interested.)

Once the Primary 3s had had a while to play with the exhibits, their excited chatter began to turn to whiny bickering. Mrs Rogers gave me and Kerry's mum a look and we knew instantly to start rounding everyone up to go. The kids were approaching a level of tiredness where they were liable to descend into complete meltdown. If we didn't get them on a bus soon, we might not be able to do it at all without the aid of cattle prods and the Territorial Army. We were suddenly on a time limit.

Within three minutes we had them lined up with their coats (mostly) on. After a couple of head counts we were away.

We still barely made it.

Getting them on the bus was manageable, getting them off the bus again was challenging but getting along the street to school was almost unending. I had to keep saying, 'Keep up!' and 'Pay attention!' to every child in turn. Like ageing lettuce, they were all past their sell-by date and looking extremely tired. Those in the group with anti-social tendencies were picking fights over nothing and the space cadets were stopping in their tracks at the sight of anything bright or shiny, including, somewhat unfortunately, the sky. Every step became a battle.

When we finally reached the school gate, I was mightily relieved. There was forty-five minutes before I had to be back to collect Marie and I hurried home for a strong coffee and a chocolate biscuit, glad I wasn't Mrs Rogers. She had another hour to keep the Primary 3s amused.


They may have long holidays and excellent pensions but teachers deserve sympathy and understanding all the same...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Having now been on a trip with each of my children, I can verify that every age group presents its own difficulties to those in charge. When given instructions, Primary 5s argue, Primary 3s don't listen and Primary 1s sing and do a little dance.

I think I'll be getting all my kids' teachers bottles of wine for Christmas.

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