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Don't Hit Sir! - a chapter

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Jan 22, 1996, 3:00:00 AM1/22/96
This is the 15th in a series of pieces that I have posted here that
will eventually thread into a memoir.

They are not being posted in chronological or any other order.

Eric Eales


"Don't Hit Sir!"

"You were an answer to the Principal's prayer," the School Secretary
confided to me.

"He'd lost control of the corridors, he rarely left his office and the
Governors were demanding action. No-one knew what to do. Then you
turned up. So he announced at the School Board meeting that he had a staff
member who used braces and a wheelchair who was doing just fine.
Therefore," she continued after a small pause, "the rumors of campus
violence had to be ... malicious exaggerations?"

"Spread by the Communist National Union of Teachers to discredit
him," I added.

"A staff room plot to ruin his career," she said.

"I wasn't 'doing just fine'," I said.

"Who was?" she answered with a shrug.

So much for qualifications, interview technique and cleverly coaxed
goodwill procuring me a job teaching English in November 1975.

Brian Farminer, the Principal, was as well suited to Aylestone High
School as his generic old-school neckties. He was a tall, pompous
politician who's affected military bearing and pinstriped City attire
were betrayed by an irredeemably furtive gaze.

"Eric, I hope that the time will come when we are on first name
terms," he said enigmatically as we left his office after my

An eleven year old wearing a large band-aid across his forehead and
draped in an muddied shirt missing several buttons, stood by the
secretary's office. Farminer strode over to him.

"What is this, boy?" Farminer demanded, pointing to his
immaculately rendered double windsor knot.

The boy sucked his teeth and lowered his eyelids, called 'cutting
your eyes', both insults incomprehensible to the protagonist.

"It is a tie!" Farminer exclaimed. "See you get one!" and left me with
his secretary to arrange a tour of the campus.

Despite the Principal's talismanic rhetoric the staff of 115 was
beleaguered and the 1500 pupils largely out of control. Even an
attractive "London living allowance", accepted as danger money, and
certain promotion for everyone completing year's service, enticed
fewer than half of the staff to remain more than a year. Often 20%
of the teachers on duty on any given day were temporaries with
little incentive to keep disruptive teenagers inside their
classrooms. Packs of anonymous faces roamed the halls and gathered
in smoky bathrooms and stairwells.

The school population reflected the ethnic makeup of Willesden,
north west London: 75% West Indian, 10% Irish and the remainder
mostly non-native English speakers from more than 50 countries.
Their main contact with standard English, in language, dress and
social behavior, was the expectations of the almost entirely white
staff. Willesden was blighted by poverty and unemployment; where
the middle class aspirations of first generation immigrant parents
collided with their children's street-wise cynicism born of racism
and lack of opportunity.

Joan Finlay showed me round the campus. She was a Scottish
spinster barely more than 5 feet tall, who had taught several
generations of Aylestone children. She not only recognized faces, she
knew the names of siblings and relatives. Classrooms quieted at the
sound of her name, hoarsely whispered from door to door. Figures
muffled by overcoats and pizza sized knitted caps slunk into the
shadows: corridors cleared at her approach.

"You only need one rule," she declared. "No-one speaks when you do."
There was a pause. "And have something to say," she added as we
sailed our bubble of tranquillity along the hall.

The English Department had a covey of classrooms on the second
floor. My room was stark; 25 sets of randomly scattered desks and
chairs with a barricade of assorted broken furniture stacked
haphazardly against the back wall.

At the front of the room was a larger table that might have qualified
as a teacher's desk had there not been two gaping holes that once
contained locked drawers. The bookcases facing the metal frame
widows were empty, the notice boards bare. It had been a long time
since anyone had alighted in this room long enough to leave a
positive impression.

There was no class register, no obvious source of text or note books,
no chalk. Supplies were locked in the department's office, an
Aladdin's cave where Lyle Conquest, deputy head of department
vaguely suggested through a haze of cigarette smoke, I let someone
know what I needed.

Welcomes from the staff were friendly, if guarded. "It was like
this," Irish Jim Colley said later. "You fail and it's more work for us.
You succeed and it makes us look bad." I did not know that he had
already suggested a staff room pool on how long the guy in the
wheelchair would survive.

The first day did not start well. A 90 minute drive diagonally across
16 miles of London rush hour traffic took the edge off my energy. I
barely made it to my first class before the bell.

It was a 10th grade class of surly reputation, bitter that their
already slim chances of success in intensely competitive national
examinations had been irretrievably blighted by the absence of a
permanent teacher for the first two months of their final year.

I made a decision to greet them standing. I parked my chair in the
corner by the door, and stood propped against my skeleton desk. I
needn't have bothered. The dozen or so pupils that turned up ignored

"Last one in, close the door," I said. Around the door jam slid a slim
brilliantined boy in a bright brown leather jacket and large boots. He
took two steps into the room, pivoted on one foot and leaped in the
air, drop kicking the door into its frame.

A couple of heads turned towards the front of the room.

"What's your name?" I asked.
"Donald Duck," he sniggered.

That I could handle. "Good morning, Mr. Duck. Or do you prefer to be
called Donald?" He stared at me, a flicker of uncertainty spoiling the

A couple more heads turned.

"Well?" I asked. "Speak, or quack if you have to."

A girl wearing an indecently short skirt uttered a low throaty laugh,
crossed her legs and rested her hands on her knees. Each lacquered
fingernail extended at least three inches. I shuddered; she smiled.

"'Is name's Spiro, innit," she said, her north London accent breaking
the spell.

"Shut it," he hissed, but he visibly shrank as she raised a claw.

"Call me Pete," he said, turning his chair around and straddling it,
hands and chin resting on the seat back.

"Pete what?" I asked innocently.

"Peter Duck," someone called from the back. There was general
laughter. In that moment of goodwill I claimed a volunteer to get
text and note books from the English office.

"Pete wears a knife down his sock, innit," said Ms. Long Nails from
the middle of the second row.

I ignored the provocation. Pete was doing rodeo imitations, rocking
his chair back and forth. It was about to join the pile at the back of
the room.

I mounted my wheelchair and rode alongside him.

"Turn your chair round, Pete. Please," I added as I looked him in the
eye, my right hand dangling outside the wheel.

"Get out of my face," said Pete. He was right, it was about face.

I yanked hard on the chair leg and tipped him over backwards.
Protected from flailing limbs by the upturned chair, I briefly
grabbed an ankle then returned to the front of the class.

"By the way," I said, breaking the silence, "it is not true that Pete
wears a knife down his sock."

My second class, 6th graders, was easier. New books had arrived and
were immediately personalized. Natty Dread was a popular motif. I
drew up a seating plan so I would know everyone's names in a
planned question and answer session: kids deserve to know that their
teacher won't give them polio.

I was on familiar ground. Questions followed a predictable and
necessary pattern.

"What's wrong with you?"
"What have you got on your legs?"
"Why do you use a wheelchair?"
"How do you put your pants on?"
"How do you sleep?"
"How do you use the toilet?"

As the class relaxed, questions segued to competitive anecdotes.

"My auntie broke her leg. She let me sign her cast."
"Well my brother fell out the bedroom window and broke both his
legs. And his arm."
"My Mum was in a wheelchair when she came out of hospital with my
baby sister."
"That's not disabled, innit. The lady down the street was in a
wheelchair and she died."
"My granddad uses a wheelchair when he takes his legs off."

A couple of minutes after the classroom emptied, Susie Retiola's
head reappeared round the door. She was the one child that I had been
warned about: a vivacious but severely disturbed Nigerian eleven
year old with a habit of responding to teasing about her name by
standing on her desk and removing her knickers. The warnings did not
extend to what action to take should such an event occur.

African born children had not then benefited from the televising of
Roots, which was to grant them a huge uplift in status. They were
despised by the school's West Indian majority, themselves embroiled
in their island hierarchy; from Jamaica down through Barbados and
Trinidad to low caste Dominican Republic.

Susie had sat wide-eyed but silent through the class discussion.

"What do you want, Susie?" I asked encouragingly.

"Sir," she said, stretching out the sound as she hugged the door
frame and looked at her shoes.

"Come in, Susie, and tell me what you want," I said again, perched on
the corner of the table with one braced leg pointing towards her at a
45 degree angle.

Susie sidled up to the desk, fingers interlaced, wrists twisting. "Sir,
will you do me a favor, Sir?"

"If I can, Susie," I said, naively.

"Take your leg off," she said, suddenly belligerent and looking me in
the eye.

The change of tone took me by surprise. "It doesn't come off," was all
I could think to say.

"Yes, it does," said an adamant Susie. "I know." She sounded most

"How do you know?" I asked, stalling for a way to turn this into a
positive experience.

"My friend told me," said friendless Susie. "Take your leg off!"

"It doesn't come off, Susie," I repeated. Then I lifted my pant leg,
exposing three inches of shin.

Susie's eyes opened wider, and she gave my leg a sudden sharp poke
with her finger. I winced.

"Ooooooo," she said, adding as she left the room, "I gotta go tell my

My discussion with Susie meant facing my next class without
benefit of a mid-morning cup of staff room tea.

In came 28 hormone enraged 8th graders. They were not interested in
sitting down, shutting up, looking at the front, or hearing if I had
something to say. They could not be bribed with note books, nor was
there an obvious ringleader to fell.

Some girls braided hair, some boys threw paper. Two Asian girls sat
attentively at the front of the class looking as scared as I felt.

I tried standing, walking round the room, sitting, talking to
individuals, calling for order. Nothing worked. Then there was a
knock on the door.

I opened it. A girl with a large voice announced that she had a note
from Mr. Leovold. Luckily the name meant more to the class than it
did to me. They fell silent.

I unfolded the piece of paper.

The Principal has just mentioned paper airplanes flying out
your window. Careful they aren't carrying passengers.

Give a note to Sandra if you need reinforcements.


"Hi, Sandra," I said.
"Hi, Sir," said Sandra with a knowing smile.
"Tell Mr. Leovold, thank you and I will be talking to him later," I said
in as loud a voice as I could manage without appearing to shout.

I gathered names and distributed books in the ensuing quiet, and
opted to fill out the remainder of the lesson by reading a story.

I had barely begun when there was a rhythmic scraping sound from
the side of the room. Scrape, scrape, scrape.

I walked over to the window. The sound continued. Scrape, scrape,

I moved down the row. Aston Lewin was sitting sideways to the
class, chair tilted against the wall, desk balanced on his knees. He
had a penny coin under each index finger and was moving them like
windshield wipers in crescents across his desktop.

He paid no attention to me. Scrape, scrape, scrape.

"Aston," I said quietly, for the scraping was the only sound in the
room. "Stop doing that."

"Cha, guy," said Aston, refusing to look at me. There were several
intakes of breath. I guessed he wasn't being friendly.

"Aston," I said, "put those way." The voice of doubt added a silent 'or

"I ain't bothering you, guy" he replied. I think he believed it. He
kissed his teeth. Someone giggled. From the back of the class came a
clicking sound of someone flapping their wrist and making the index
and middle fingers snap together. It was a neat trick, and a gesture
of solidarity with Aston.

"Give me the coins," I insisted, trying not to raise my voice.

Scrape, scrape, scrape. Aston's hands had not stopped moving.

I swung one crutch up between Aston's knees and whacked the
underside of the desk. The empty chamber amplified the sound. It
was an impressive noise.

"Stop that now," I demanded, "and give me those coins."

Aston shot up. His chair flew back and the desk sailed forward. He
was large. He stared down at me, finger jabbing just short of my

"I've had enough of you!" he screamed. "I'm going to kill you, I'm going
to break you and kill you and kick you and kill you! I had enough of
you, guy."

Before I could think of a reply, two equally large girls came from the
back of the class. One grabbed Aston's left arm, the other the right.
They heaved on him.

"Don't hit Sir," said one.
"It's not worth it," added the other.

Aston gave a shrug and sent one 150 pound rescuer flying. The other
wisely let go.

I retreated to the front of the classroom and slid into my
wheelchair. I had less far to fall sitting down. I left my legs braced
straight out in front of me; meager defense. Aston advanced down
the aisle. No-one else moved.

"What you do that for guy? I weren't troubling you! I'm gonna ......"

There was knock on the door. Aston stopped mid-threat. I let out my
breath. Everyone turned their head. The door opened and Ms. Finlay
took one step into the room.

"I am sorry to bother you, Mr. Eales, but do you think I might have a
word with Aston?" she asked in her low voice.

Aston deflated quite suddenly and slouched meekly towards her
beckoning finger. As he reached her, she took firm hold of his earlobe
and led him away. She didn't wait to see if I had anything to say.

That afternoon as the staff room filled with silent smokers waiting
for the pubs to open, Irish Jim invited me for a drink to celebrate
the end of the day. I told him about Joan's intervention.

"It's a funny thing," he said, "how a career can hang on that thin a

"Thank you, Jim," I replied. "I needed that."

© Eric A. Eales - All Rights Reserved

* -------------------------------------------------------------------- *
| Eric Eales * "One only understands the things that one tames," |
| * said the fox...."If you want a friend, tame me." |
| * The Little Prince : Antoine de Saint Exupery |
* -------------------------------------------------------------------- *

Apr 27, 2013, 5:51:59 AM4/27/13
Well that brought back a few memories.

Brian farmer was exactly as you described, I'd forgotten the old Scottish lady, but once again you have her exact, Lyle Conquest was my form teacher, interesting guy shame his bitterness and drinking prevented him form following his dreams. Shit teacher really.

I hope you'll be covering the staff's sex and potsmoking parties where one lucky lad... [no sadly not me].

Do you remember Mr Bader - the only teacher in the school who could teach with the classroom door open?

Jim Colley seems very familier - did he wear a short beard?

Also Miss Roe who burned all her hair off in a science 'accident' left, then reappeared months later?

The way-hot Ms Richards; 'friend' of Bob Marley's, and the even hotter black woman with cheekbones that made iman look like a bowling ball - and THAT voice. She was a school boy crush that'll never die!

Will have to search out your other writing,

Jan 31, 2018, 8:40:13 AM1/31/18
hi Eric,

I'm working at Queens Park Community School (QPCS) which is now on the site of the old Aylestone School. I'm working on their Alumni programme and researching the history of the school. I would love to know more about your writings and your time at Aylestone. I'm hoping to get a collection of memories and potentially organising reunions as well.

It would be great if you could get in contact with me on this email or

Look forward to hearing from you,

Best wishes,

On Monday, 22 January 1996 08:00:00 UTC, EalesOnWheels wrote:
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