Updated: Jan 22, 2020
A Herculean, freckle-faced Year 11 student came up to Miss Starr on the corridor to say how much the school had improved. None of the pupils had volunteered to act as a prefect, so I asked him to help out on the doors. Miss Starr was scandalised. “You don’t know who that is, do you? That’s Nathan James. He broke a kid’s nose last term for calling him ginger. His dad’s a bouncer at ‘The Green Banana’. The whole family’s trouble.”
Nathan and his friend were to report to the teachers on duty at the playground doors every morning break for a couple of weeks. At the moment the bells rang, they were to push open both the double doors and stand in front of them. Hopefully, the children would know better than to shove against a tough guy like Nathan. This would allow the duty staff to line up the kids and form a queue.
It was another gamble, taken in ignorance, but it paid off. Five minutes' work every morning over the next fortnight transformed movement into school. A look from Nathan immediately quelled the melee. Three Year 8s started barging against the teacher on duty, but Nathan backed him up, even giving the teacher their names. They were isolated for the rest of the day and told they would not be readmitted to the school until their parents brought them in. Next time Nathan’s dad came in, he promised to give him a pound for every teacher commendation until he left school. He began doing homework and attending extra classes, eventually leaving with enough exam passes to start an A level course.
My breakthrough with the Year 11s came in the second lesson. Half the class was missing. They had had to catch up with an oral exam in French that they had missed before the Christmas break, but the remainder were on time. I reminded them of the five new rules, then asked them to revise one of the poems in the GCSE anthology: Andrew Marvell's sexually explicit ‘To His Coy Mistress’.
“The rhyme on the word ‘breast’ makes it sound so palpable, but there’s also a sense of bathos. Marvell’s being witty at his own expense. He’s saying there’s a fat chance he’ll ever caress it. He’s just like us, a frustrated teen at heart,” Errol Samson commented, as I threw him a chocolate bar. Despite the noise of internal truants clattering down the corridor, concentration was intense.
Not wanting to be outdone, Gillian Newsome put her hand up next. “You speak for yourself. If the woman of Andrew Marvell’s dreams were indeed ‘coy’, the physicality of the rhyme would scare her off. He is never going to send this poem to a real woman. Not if he has any sense, that is.” She too got a reward. Half a dozen hands went up when we started the second section of the poem:
But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near
“I agree with Gillian,” Ming Lee commented. “Marvell was writing a hypothetical argument, not a love poem to a real woman. “There’s the link between the structure of ‘Coy Mistress’ and the imagery of ‘Letters from Yorkshire’. Both are about virtual reality. The woman in this poem doesn’t exist. Marvell is not addressing her. She’s an avatar, and he’s writing a witty academic argument, designed to appeal to his male friends. Marvell’s composed the poem to be read out loud to them at the university bar.”
There were fierce arguments about whether the image of a graveyard embrace was morbid. Alice proved the most articulate: “Marvell is using his apparent desire for this probably quite ordinary young woman to tell us something existential. Life is precious and over so quickly. Faced with death’s ‘iron gates’, we have to grab our opportunities while we can!”
Errol, Gillian, Ming Lee and Alice became the band of four who transformed Eydon Vale's exam results.