Alarms and excursions

Friday 9th March 2012

FIRE practice: when we’d all troop out on to the field, stand in lines for ages while registers were checked, heads counted and numbers collated, be congratulated or admonished on our behaviour, then wander back in: all very routine – except once, when mischief was misinterpreted as malice.

It is a statutory requirement for schools to hold at least one such drill a year. Many wisely choose to have them more often. Timetables, senior staff and weather forecasts are consulted to ensure minimum disruption.

Sometimes I’d let a class know in advance, especially sixth formers who tended to regard bells not as a call to arms, but more in an advisory capacity – like a landlord’s shout of ‘Last orders!’ – meaning they still had a good five minutes before needing to contemplate rising from common-room armchairs, returning coffee mugs to kitchen, retrieving relevant files and books from lockers, saying long, lingering farewells to friends they wouldn’t see again for as long as an hour and a half, and trudging off to endure the excitement of analysing Chaucer or studying the molecular structure of enzymes.

Headteachers are uncomfortable with the megaphone; rightly so, for it hides much of the face, modulates the voice, and hints at urban disorder; they are educators, not riot police: loud hailers are for herding relay teams on sunny sports day, not cautioning fidgety third years on a chilly afternoon in November.

“Find out who that was, Mr Rutter, and send them to me immediately!”

This time it was serious. You could tell by his tone, the stern faces of the office staff… and the approaching police car.

I never saw the evidence, but colleagues said they’d even written the word BOMB on the shoe-box containing wires, batteries and what-have-you found under one of the terrapins – barracks-like huts installed as temporary classrooms that often became permanent.

The lads owned up immediately and, from memory, were suspended for a week. I wonder what punishment they’d be given today.





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