Friday, 21 January 2011

The Torpor of Doreen Gray

Dearest readers, tell me, have any of you ever considered a job as a teaching assistant? I am desperate for a new one. My TA has just returned from a long absence and she is driving me potty.

Doreen, it has to be said, has the most tawdry and Bleasdale-esque home life. Her back story is one of tragedy, bereavement, addiction, poverty, crime and despair. Her debts are massive, possibly even larger than mine. At least I am only in the covetous claws of M&S finance and Santander, who may instigate court action to repossess my beloved Bobbi Brown lipstick collection and Hetty Wainthrop DVDs, but are unlikely to break my legs if I miss a payment. Doreen owes so much to various shady rogues that she cannot afford gas or electricity. She has to resort to pinching toilet rolls from the SOHK ladies' loos.

One of the (few) fringe benefits of working with Doreen is that as her life is saturated with so much personal tragedy, ill luck and misery she actually makes me feel rather jaunty and carefree. That is unusual. I normally feel like an embittered, emotionally crippled, socially inept and tragic recluse. Compared to Doreen my life is an Enid Blyton, apple-blossom scented, ginger-beer swigging romp. Part of me is very sympathetic to her sorry domestic situation. Indeed, if she were a character in a docu-soap you would be inclined to dismiss her as a grotesque caricature; it's impossible to imagine that one person's life could be so blighted by adversity. The thing is, Doreen makes it hard for me to remain sympathetic. Very hard indeed.

Now, I really don't want to sound like Penelope Keith's character from The Good Life, but Doreen is also 'as rough as a badger's arse'. Actually, I fear that is a cruel slur on badgers and their bottoms. (Apologies my snuffling little black and white babies. Please do not sue me.) Doreen can barely speak English. She speaks pure 'Geordie' (a Northern dialect as thick and viscous as tar). Her words are rendered even more incomprehensible as she only has one volume setting: screaming harridan. She roars at the kids constantly.

'Ere, will yooouse lot sit on your arses and shut up like, us is trying to learn youuse.'

Translation: 'My darling rosy-cheeked children. Kindly be seated and listen. Your divine teacher, Miss Underscore, and I are doing our best to educate you.'

Pompous Pilate, our buffoon-like Headteacher, is aware of the problem with Doreen, yet he seems reluctant to grasp the nettle and act. Doreen can be quite intimidating you see, even to an 18 stone Yorkshireman. When he allocated her to my class he said,

'I am hoping you will have a calming and refining influence, Miss Underscore. Try to get her to modify her speech please.'

Christ. It is bad enough that I have to act as some sort of Professor Higgins to my class of mini-mackems, but I am also expected to give elocution lessons to my TA. Often, during a literacy lesson, when I am explaining the enigma of the apostrophe or the power of the metaphor, Doreen will pipe up from the back of the class;

'Ya naaaaa Miss Underscore, I never knew that!'

I am utterly confounded as to how Doreen got a job working in a school at all. I can only imagine that the only other applicants for the post were Gary Glitter and Mary Bell.

Due to Doreen's long-term absence I had been without a teaching assistant for 4 months. I can't say I missed her. In fact, life was generally more peaceful and stress-free. Allow me to give you a breakdown of Doreen's 'working' day.

8.30 am: I am sat at my laptop, frantically trying to get all my resources uploaded to the interactive whiteboard. I have been in half an hour. Doreen has been chain-smoking by the school gate for half an hour. Finally she comes to class, pulls her chair up to mine. My heart sinks like a stone. What I need from Doreen at that moment is:
(a) photocopying
(b) a cup of tea.
(c) a quick tidy up of the classroom

What I get is
(a) a minute by minute account of the previous night's bedlam on the estate.
(b) a vitriolic and paranoid rant about all other members of staff at the SOHK, who she believes are out to 'get her'.
(c) a monologue about her latest problems with social services.

9.00am: Assembly. I am quite an 'old school' teacher really. I like my class to be respectful and well mannered. It is my belief that in order to achieve that I must always be respectful and well mannered myself. We sit quietly in assembly. Don't get me wrong, my mind wanders; I daydream. I have fanciful reveries about cherry scones, Rochester's stubble, Christina Hendrick's breasts, the cuteness of otters' whiskers, Chanel foundations . . but, to those who look upon me, I am simply transfixed by Pompous's swiney sermon. I adopt the persona of the most perfect, reverential and saintly 'Stepford' teacher. Since Doreen has returned, the peace of assembly is shattered: she does nothing but whisper coarsely in my ear and cackle crudely, like a crone at an execution. My class is unsettled by this. This is not how we should act. They know it. I know it. Pompous knows it. It's just that no one dares tell Doreen.

9.30am : Maths: Doreen disappears into the classroom cupboard. In theory, she should be working with a group of children. When I started working with Doreen I was flummoxed as to why she chose to spend most of her working day hiding in a cupboard. It is seemed rather unorthodox behaviour for a 54 year old woman. I wondered whether my cupboard was a portal to another dimension. The reality is that Doreen stores scavenged food in there. 9.30am? It must be time for a pork pie. 10am? Ginster's pasty time. Doreen spends the whole morning nipping in and out of the class cupboard, leaving a Hansel and Gretal trail of flaky pastry crumbs in her wake.

Lunchtime: Doreen is on yard duty. Her silken tones drift up through the staffroom window while I am sipping my tea. My fellow Stepfords shake their heads sorrowfully at me. Doreen loves yard duty though. She spends a blissful hour confiscating balls and skipping ropes and breaking up fights. The yard is the stage on which she can unleash her wild, indiscriminate rages and misanthropy.

Afternoon. Doreen returns from her own lunch break at the same time every day. That time is whenever the fuck she likes. Today she was 35 minutes late. Our afternoon was supposed to be a soothing one. We were doing portraits of Henry VIII and his wives for our own Hampton Court 'Haunted Gallery'. Setting up painting tables and resources for 28 children is no easy task. Doreen was nowhere to be seen. I ended up doing the whole thing myself. Supervising 28 children painting is also not a walk in the park. I looked forward to Doreen's return from lunch so she could help. Imagine my deeply internalised rage when she strolled in (sausage roll in one hand, can of Vimto in the other), took an Anne Boleyn colouring sheet, picked up a box of felt tips, and sat down to colour with the kids!

'Doreen, would you be able to mix a soft skin-tone paint for the children please? I don't want any bright orange or pink Tudor queens.'

'Do you not?' Doreen didn't even look up from her colouring sheet. 10 minutes later she was still engrossed with her felt tip masterpiece.

Eventually I angrily stomped across the classroom, clattered the paint and pots and mixed the colour myself. Doreen looked up,

'Ere, do yous not think that's a bit too pale like?' She returned to Anne Boleyn's petticoat.

By that time I was positively fizzing with passive aggressive fury. I plotted my revenge.

I waited till 14 minutes to home time: The classroom was in a paint splattered scene of devastation: we had letters and homework to give out, juice and biscuits to serve, prayers to say and children to organise and send home. At least 13 of those 14 minutes would inevitably be dedicated to matching abandoned school jumpers with their owners.

'Doreen, I have a meeting with the Head. Did I not tell you? Oh dear, I thought I had, sorry about that. Children, Doreen is in charge of tidying up, so listen carefully to her instructions. Have a lovely weekend everyone. Homework in on Monday morning please.'

With that I flounced straight out the door.

Oh, how I miss Eeeeee Hun, my ex-teaching assistant. We had such a wonderful time working together. I will never forget the morning we TERRIFIED an entire Year 3 class with the story of Hansel and Gretal. You can read about it here.

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