Anybody who has the aspiration of being a teacher has to accept the grim truth that they are going to spend a reasonable proportion of their job getting irate with children. In some cases you are going to have to get Medieval on a kid when you don’t really care about their transgression; unlike any other profession in the world, being angry is intricately woven into your professional DNA. In response to the perfect predictability of teenage terrorism you have an array of behavioural throwing knives ready to pierce the armour of adolescent angst and arrogance. From timeouts, to moving seats, to ultimatums, to yelling, to contracts, to humour, to lost lunches right through to three strikes – the possibilities are almost limitless. And then there is a special set of disciplinary measures – only utilised in crisis scenarios – that would be best classified as educational black-ops, the equivalent of sending in the behavioural management SWAT team because all else has failed. These include tactics such as removing an entire class and leaving a transgressor in the room on their own, making grave phone calls to parents in the middle of lessons, and of course, the last refuge of the damned, the oldest of old friends: the detention.
A detention has a special meaning for almost of all of us. It is a semantic Rubik’s cube of seemingly endless possibilities. It conjures up images of lost and desperate children, abandoned to wildernesses of endless grey, sat poignantly wasting away as they consider what they’ve done. It speaks of a level of devilry that will make ordinarily reasonable parents threaten their children with military school and familial excommunication – you’ll be told that you have let down the entire family: the shame of your misbehaviour has given Granny a stroke, forced your sister to undergo corrective surgery so she won’t be recognised as your relative, and your Dad has taken a long walk in the woods with Grandad’s old service revolver for his inability to prevent your bastardism. The shame of it, the crying bloody shame of it. Most of all, a detention is a piece of temporal burglary, the robbing of something that can never be paid back. Time.
And this is before we get to the questions – like instruments of torture – that the teacher has to delicately select. When: Before school? After school? During breaktime? What: doing lines? Tidying cupboards? Undertaking exercises? Ritualistic humiliation? Who: individual detentions? Group detentions? Detentions for multiple year groups and genders? Where: your classroom? Outside the Head of Year’s office? In the dilapidated shed with the septic tank in it? Why: well, there are more possibilities and permutations here than at a pick n’ mix store situated on candy boulevard in the confectionary district of heaven. I’ll share a few of my favourite reasons for giving out detentions by way of example:
- For (correctly but ineloquently) referring to Mr. Birling in ‘An Inspector Calls’ as ‘a prick’.
- For telling a Bulgarian student that she wouldn’t get a prom date because there were no blind bears at the school.
- For asking me if I was ‘banging the drama teacher’.
- For writing an autobiographical episode entitled ‘My First Wank’.
- For using the excuse that a horse had eaten the coursework.
- For writing a dirty limerick about a girl in the class who apparently ‘once knew a fellow called Jock, and she just wanted to ….(see if you can complete the poem)’.
- For spitting on a learning support assistant and trying to claim that it was actually due to a leak in the roof (in the middle of a rainless June).
No matter how battle-hardened a kid is they will always be royally irritated to receive a detention. For this reason, if you take my advice, I would always wait until almost the end of the lesson, or even until after it has finished to issue a detention – because after you have done it a student is a lost cause. They are like a cornered criminal who has nothing left to lose and so, knowing their fate is sealed, they will find infinitely creative methods for wreaking havoc. For example, I once gave a detention to a boy about 10 minutes into a lesson who subsequently, amongst other things, went on to fart into a pencil case and hold it under the girls’ noses before spending much of the lesson headbutting his desk and snapping everything in his – presumably now foetid smelling – pencil case. I had revealed my secret weapon too early and been outplayed. And this is the focus for this week’s Fail Friday – when detentions go bad.
About fifteen minutes into a soul-destroying lesson on Much Ado About Nothing, teaching a Year 9 class who had attention deficits that would have made a hyperactive chimpanzee on speed look tranquil, one lad – let’s call him Jason Chamberlain – decided to draw a penis on the front cover of his copy of the play. In his erotic rendering, Benedict’s incredibly detailed and prodigiously sized member was stretching from his cod piece to the gesticulating hand of Beatrice, who – in a surprising contrast to her disdain for Benedict in their merry war – had induced climax in him and was basking in an ample shower of his reproductive fluids. In his infinite kindness and creative inclusivity, Jason had made sure that anybody who was not familiar with the nuances of modern art – so evident in the intricate complexities of his rendering – could easily understand the enigmatic scene thanks to the devilishly clever wordplay in the caption ‘Much Ado About Cumming’. Turner prize here we cum. Sorry. You deserve better than that.
Now, these kind of misdemeanours are incredibly delicate ones. The student has clearly created their masterpiece for public consumption and so drawing attention to it would be giving them an exhibitive platform that to them would be like receiving the gift of an installation at the Tate Modern of scumbaggery. So you don’t really want to call them out on it in the classroom; you certainly don’t want to ask ‘what are you doing? Or ‘what is that?’ Because the chances are that you will receive an even more instructive explanation than the aforementioned caption.
So I took Jason outside, lectured him on destruction of school property, lectured him on sexual ethics, and lectured him on the importance of the play to his impending SATS. I finished off the tirade but issuing him a one hour detention, to which he responded like a Tasmanian devil that had just had its testicles twisted, spluttering, spitting, growling and gesticulating even more vulgarly then Beatrice had in his compelling portrait of eroticism. Eventually he calmed down, but a dark brooding fell upon him, like the shadow cast over a Japanese village by an approaching Godzilla. There was menace in his eyes – what Edgar Allan Poe would have called a murderous glint.
Yet when he returned to the classroom, to my great surprise, Hero managed to keep her breasts concealed on page 73 and Claudio’s sword managed to resist the fate of morphing into a different kind of weapon on page 76. The rest of the lesson passed without incident. In my naivety I believed that Jason had taken my deeply resonant messages on board, realised the error of his ways and had decided to turn over a new leaf.
But Jason had got a more creative, more diabolical slice of retribution pie slowly cooking in his oven of discontent.
And I was about to have it shoved down my gullet.
The lesson ended and the class headed off for morning break. I gathered in the few stray copies of Much Ado and prepared myself to make the short walk across the corridor from my room to the English office.
Little did I know the fate, waiting like a dragon concealed in the bowels of a cave, that was awaiting me in that corridor.
I stepped out of the door and almost instantaneously I heard an animalistic snarling that barely passed for a voice spit out ‘SIRRRR’! I turned my head to see Jason with a football lined up on the floor, flanked on either side by a couple of cronies, malevolent grins spread across their faces and the poison of underhanded anticipation virtually dripping from them. Before I could say anything, Jason took a step back and readied himself to unleash a retributive missile of a free kick. His right foot swung forward as if he had invested his entire soul into the exertion and a prehistoric grunt escaped his lips at the effort.
What happened next moved in such a rapid blur that it seemed to belong to a different temporal plane of existence.
The ball blazed towards me, its almighty velocity propelling it inexorably closer to my face. Soon the meeting of ball and face would surely end with a bloody thud and a mushroom bomb of humiliation.
But then something occurred that surprised even myself.
In my younger years I had been a reasonably handy goalkeeper, and a decent basketballer, so catching a ball was part of the bread and butter of the sports that I had played day in and day out for fifteen years. I may have made a few error-strewn performances but generally I caught more than I dropped. My body unconsciously entered fight or flight mode and made the split second decision that would define this encounter.
With my brain disengaged, my body acted for me. My hands sprung up in a visceral act of protection and a couple of decades worth of muscle memory sprung to my defence. I plucked the ball from the air in an instant of dextrousness that surprised me as much as anybody else. Now, like a line of dominoes, one falling after the other, an instinctive chain of inevitability had been initiated, and with my brain still on autopilot, I was powerless to stop it.
With the ball gripped tightly in my left hand – like King Arthur heaving the sword from the stone – I ripped my Parker pen out of the breast pocket of my shirt with my free hand. Then, with every shred of strength in my body, I thrust the pen into the ball like Norman Bates finishing off a victim behind the motel shower curtain, simultaneously screaming like a kamikaze pilot heading for an enemy warship.
An almighty bang reverberated around the English corridor. The force of the exploding football was so powerful that it actually blew the fringe from off of my forehead. It had also sucked every last drop of confidence and bravado from my temporary nemesis and his pack. For a nanosecond I looked up with an expression of Machiavellian delight staining my face, withering the hearts of my foes with the stare of a madman with nothing left to lose.
But as my cognisance returned, I looked down at my hands with the same horror, revulsion and regret of an accidental murderer who had throttled their lover in a fit of impassioned jealousy. Oh the humanity…
What had I done?
The boys ran off. I waited in grim resignation to find out what my fate would be. Bribery? Parental complaint? Escalating vengeance? Dismissal?
Inevitably, the deputy head arrived at my classroom with a suitably terse, judgemental expression on his face. The boys had gone straight to management and dobbed on me – relegating me to the maturity sphere of pimple-ridden 13 year old boys.
I explained the situation, most of which the deputy head knew already (with the obvious omission of the detention issued for Benedict’s equine genitalia providing Beatrice with a pearl necklace). I knew I was in the wrong, no matter how right it felt, and so I just had to accept the admonishing. I received a verbal warning, the reason cited as being ‘Destruction of student property.’ The indignation of a teenage boy returned to me, a sense of injudicious unfairness blazing in the pit of my stomach; I wanted to say it, and I almost did: HE STARTED IT. I had answered destruction of property with destruction of property, but I suppose, as Gandhi said ‘an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind’.
So remember to pick your battles, and carefully select your moments for them too. A detention is the educational equivalent of a death warrant to a kid, and at all costs you want to avoid creating a rebel without a cause with nothing left to lose. They are the most dangerous adversaries of all.
I learned the hard way about timing a detention, but I’m hoping that hearing about my experience might just help you to avoid having to suffer exploding balls before you learn yours.