Ever wondered what the consequences of getting hammered on a school night are? Ever disrupted a group of 200 people in one regrettable moment? Curious about the finer points of exam invigilation? Then roll up for this week’s Fail Friday…
When you are training to become a teacher, most of your lecturers focus on the essential rudiments of classroom survival, pedagogical strategy and learning theories. You will soon know your Vygotsky from your Vonnegut, your Plath from your Piaget and your Thorndike from your Thackeray. What nobody dare tell you about is the work-life balance of a teacher. Because if they did then every chancer who is on the PGCE because they didn’t know what else to do, every middle-aged mother who signed up to do it not because she was passionate about teaching but because it suited her childcare arrangements, and every disinterested bloke who just wanted long holidays would go running for the cliffs like so many lemmings.
If we use the example of a set of scales to illustrate the work-life balance of a teacher it would look like this: on one side of the scales would be sat a kebab-chomping hippo with the words ‘marking, reports, planning and professional development’ tattooed on its heaving rump. On the other side would be a hamster wearing a tattered sombrero waving a dog-eared flag that says ‘fun’ on it. Just to be sure: the hippo is a transposition of work, and the hamster a metaphorical manifestation of life. The disjunction between these two old foes is one that dedicated teachers will put up with and learn to manage better as time goes by. It does get better! This week’s Friday Fail focuses on a time when work and life clashed like wave and cliff-side, leading once again to embarrassment, shame and two minutes stolen from a collection of GCSE History students’ final examination.
I have been teaching for eleven years. In those eleven years I have gotten drunk on a week night five times. On every one of those five occasions I have made it into work the next day. However, I don’t think there is a single worse profession out there for someone suffering from a hangover. Whereas most people can slip into the office and pass the day in headache ridden anonymity, or sit listlessly in front of a computer screen whilst blending into the background, a teacher has to be thrown to the proverbial lions in a decimated, attenuated state. It is like a heavyweight boxer preparing for their title fight by contracting polio. Everything is louder, everything is more annoying and time seems to set like clay. You are knackered, and worst of all, you have to perform a pantomime of faux enthusiasm and artificial competency, whilst trying not to smell like Shane McGowan’s going out shirt. Just don’t do it.
But I did it. I think it was my sister’s twenty-first birthday – something unavoidable – something messy. I arrived home from the revelries at 4am, the lock clicking behind me like the clucking tongue of a disapproving mother. And then it was the next day.
I won’t go into the finer details of what I felt like, because we all know how a hangover feels – like putting on a grim, heavy, grey suit of suffering, regret and self-loathing. In this state I arrived at school, having drunk seven litres of coffee, brushed my teeth 5 times, worn my most convincing ‘I wasn’t pissed last night, honest’ suit and having downed a couple of pints of water with rehydration salts in them. None of this, of course, made any difference.
After a colleague had told me not to go anywhere near any of my superiors because I looked like I was ‘staring at Australia’, I made my way to the main exam hall where I was to undertake a two hour invigilation for the GCSE History exam.
Now you may think that you understand the meaning of monotony, feel that you are acquainted with boredom and tedium, but you have yet to learn the language of perfect drudgery and dreariness until you have invigilated an exam. Time becomes an abstract concept, a trap, a myth, a fable, even the second hand on the bastard clock seems to move more slowly than a narcoleptic sloth on Valium. You ponder for a moment whether you died in your sleep and have ended up in purgatory. Row upon row of rigid uniformity sits in front of you like a frozen ocean, heads bowed, pens scribbling in freakishly uniform harmony.
And you walk up and down, up and down, up and down. Silence engulfs you with its remorseless tendrils, infests you, maddens you. This is about the stage when a student dropping a pencil on the floor is like God himself looking you in the eye and saying ‘you are my most favourite creation’, such is your warmth inside, your unbridled happiness, your relief at being able to do something, anything, to break the metronomic grind of nothingness.
Doing this with a hangover magnified it all. Purgatorial anguish punctuated by vodka-Redbull sweats that were barely masked by the industrial strength aftershave you doused yourself in to hide your sordid truths. Head pounding, mouth dry, the pervasive sense that this is never-ending. Not even the squabbles and yelling of the classroom to ignite the senses, keep the adrenalin pumping. I was running on empty. I had to do something.
And that was my mistake.
About halfway through the invigilation I decided to hop up and sit in the little alcove hatch that was once where the school dinners were dished out. It was comfortable. Too comfortable. I got drawn into one of those great battles for consciousness, the ones where your head slowly lowers and your eyelids droop and you fall asleep for a millisecond before your chin hits your chest and you snap back into the waking world with a sharp jerk.
I lost the battle.
I slipped out of consciousness and into the land of dream. I’ve got no idea how long I was out for, but what I definitely do remember is how I woke up.
I got pulled into a rich and lucid dream. Flying high above a city in an aeroplane, I was about to take a parachute jump. Fluffy clouds and a cobalt blue sky were the vista laid out before me as I prepared to take the plunge. In a rush of lightness and exhilaration that was the antithesis of the exam hall, I dropped out of the plane, surging into my skydive. But then things started getting ugly.
I pulled at the ripcord and, inevitably, nothing happened. The ground was heading towards me like a granite fist moving at the speed of sound and about 10 metres before I got mushed into pulp I went to let out a scream of terror but instead found myself incapable of doing anything other than spewing forth silence and dead air. No matter how much I tried to scream, I was muted.
However, sadly for me, I had not been muted in reality. No. In reality, things were rather different.
In reality I had let out a low groan, the type that resonates from deep in the belly of a dying whale, the growl of buckling timber on a capsizing tanker, the cry of pain from a cave troll that’s just stubbed their toe on a granite sofa. This very real groan woke me up; it also reverberated around the exam hall like a sonic boom, unceremoniously puncturing the studious silence. I jolted back into reality to see two hundred eyes curiously, and mildly furiously staring at me.
The History exam had been unceremoniously and unwillingly hijacked by my vile profusion of tiredness, ebbing drunkenness and the repugnant depths of my unconscious imagination .
The lead invigilator’s gaze joined those of the students, and the potency of that stare would have made Medusa herself return to the mirror and work on giving the evils. Like the claw above the little green aliens in Toy Story, every eye laid expectantly upon me, as if the Neanderthal growl I had just unleashed contained some sort of great hidden truth about to be revealed.
I attempted to pull myself together and tried to make it look like anything other than exactly what it was, swinging my head, and my gaze, across the exam room as if I had perhaps gotten the sniff of some phenomenal act of collective plagiarism. I hadn’t. And everybody knew it.
Eventually the heads returned to the exam papers and time, once again, continued to pass at roughly the same pace as the heaving revolutions of the outer stretches of the universe. I pulled myself out of the alcove and made sure that I committed myself to tirelessly trudging up and down, up and down, up and down, lest I stole any more precious minutes away from Hitler, the Viet Cong and the Russian Revolution.
The end of the exam finally arrived. The prospect of what the lead invigilator would have to say to me filled me with a familiar sense of dread. She motioned to me with an ominous nod of the head, and I mentally prepared myself to have my rear end handed to me on a silver platter. But it never happened.
‘You probably don’t want to make a habit out of falling asleep at the back of exam halls’ she said to me, as I noticed that her eyes were looking a little more blood shot and jaded than usual. ‘Luckily for you, I know how you feel. Last night was Mr. Jones’s annual Navy ball and I’m feeling a little worse for wear myself’. The bleary eyes managed a mischievous twinkle, and I managed to make it out of the exam hall without being sentenced to a ‘chat’ with a superior, or, pain of pains, being ‘frowned upon’.
The moral of the story is to find ways of enjoying yourself in the exam hall (and also, you know, try not to get hammered on school nights). It’s tough but it can be done. Try finding out who you’re on invigilation with and then organise games like ‘who is the most likely to’ as in ‘which student is the most likely to bareknuckle fight for cash’ or ‘who is the most likely to live with their parents until they’re 50’ etc. and then get your partner to go and stand behind the person they feel is the most likely to.
It sure as hell beats plummeting into concrete towards your certain death.