There comes a time in every young man’s life when living in a squat and signing on is no longer enough. When – as mid-twenties slip into late twenties – a new sense of purpose settles upon his underused shoulders: An urge to pass on the wisdom attained on the mean streets of London. To inform the young. To – yes – educate.
And so I became an RE teacher.
I’d been out of university for four years and nothing much was happening. The prospect of forced labour loomed in the distance like a moody cloud at a free festival and I began to look back fondly at my student years: The lying in, the staying up late and all the naps you could fit in between. Could I, I wondered, do it all again? Perhaps under the guise of ‘advancement’?
I looked for courses that a) came with a grant and b) would have me. Teacher training seemed to fit the bill. You needed a degree to apply and after a year’s ‘study’ and some practice, you’d gain another qualification – a Post-Graduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) – and have another handful of letters to put after your name on a CV. Brilliant.
There was one problem. Almost all PGCE courses, it seemed, were ‘coursework assessed’, two words that strike fear into the torpid heart of the professional student. I knew I could be very effective over a three-hour exam, but coursework assessment sounded like something that could only take the edge off the year I had planned.
But there was one establishment – the last in the UK – that offered an examined PGCE. This was more like it. Clearly an invitation to mess about all year and then bone up for a quiz in May, probably the night before. The place in question was Cambridge University. Come on. This CV of mine was shaping up very nicely.
As is my nature, I was late to the application game and I discovered that all the Cambridge PGCE places in subjects I knew anything about (English, er, History?) had already been snapped up. I was left with a choice between Religious Education and Physics. As a lazy atheist, my path was clear.
‘And do you hold any religious beliefs?’ I was asked, towards the end of my interview the following week.
‘No,’ I replied, simply. Possibly even mysteriously.
‘Then may I ask why you are considering a PGCE in Religious Education?’
‘To understand religion is, I think, to understand the minds of men,’ I said, which I’d had the good fortune to read on a matchbox in the pub the night before.
That seemed to do the trick and less than a month later I had swapped Camberwell for Cambridge, buses for bicycles, tumult for tranquility. In that first week I recall strolling through the edifying ‘Backs’ of Trinity and King’s Colleges in the early autumn sunshine, wondering what unknowable but munificent force had led me to this promised land. Then I remembered. It was me. And I treated myself to a lovely pint. If you’re going to worship anyone, why not start with yourself?
I took a room in a shared house on the Histon Road, opposite a pub and next to a chippy. Many great revelations have occurred at Cambridge, but few rival my realising I could break an egg into a hot frying pan, pop next door for chips and be back in time to flip it. Genius is an overused word but that doesn’t mean it sometimes isn’t the correct one.
I was introduced into hitherto unimagined social circles. Prince Edward was a friend of one of my housemates and once I came home to find him in our kitchen, eating a baked potato. ‘Prince Edward?’ I said, pointing at his spud. ‘King Edward, more like!’ Which I think went down well. I never saw him again.
But I spent most of my time in my college, hanging out in the common room bar, getting to know my new college-mates and signing up for every game going. I have written before about my brush with croquet glory but another favourite was table tennis, which was played in the Bursar’s office, out of hours. This was a delightful set-up as we discovered the Bursar kept an excellent cellar and the completion of each game was marked by a glass of sherry or rare claret.
Splendidly, before our pilfering could be discovered the Bursar was fired, along with the social manager, for financial irregularities involving the college bar, which opened up another opportunity for the enterprising student body. We took over the running of the bar, made it the cheapest in Cambridge, and hosted packed houses every night.
We put on an array of card schools, darts competitions and shove ha’penny championships to subsidise our grants, culminating in the day we charged college members £3 to come into their own common room to watch the FA Cup Final, albeit with a free sandwich.
Man, this beat being on the dole in South London.
But then there was the small matter of teaching practice. After some rudimentary classes on how to teach – most of which I missed due to my Cuppers croquet commitments – we were obliged to undertake placements in the academies of the surrounding Fenlands, where I quickly learned that teaching was not for me.
First, there were children. Millions of them. And all determined to have their sport with the new guy. In my first lesson, by the time I’d finished writing my name up on the blackboard, the entire back row of the class had escaped out of the fire exit and were running amok in the back field. I made the rookie mistake of thinking I’d simply become friends with the children and learned the hard way why teachers say ‘Don’t smile until Christmas’.
Yet even experienced teachers feared the effect of the ‘Fen Blows’ – the East Anglian winter winds that viscerally remind you there’s nothing between you and the Urals. These would whip up the kids into psychophysical frenzies, during which the best option was to hide in the stationery cupboard, funnily enough the only place where anything remained stationary.
‘Where’s little Samantha?’ I once enquired of 4A after a blustery morning break.
‘She got blowed away over a hedge, sir. You better fetch that, do farmer’ll use ’er for mawkin.’
‘Or a dickey chase ’er for a fingerin’.’
‘I see,’ I said, not seeing at all. ‘Anyway, back to the Five Pillars of Islam…’
Then there were the teachers. Morale was low in the staff room and my put-upon fellow teachers implored me not to enter the profession if I could possibly avoid it. Words, of course, I was only too happy to heed. Apart from anything else, school seemed to start at 8.30 in the morning, which was certainly not what I’d signed up for.
In the evenings, my fellow students and I would find solace at The Eagle, the famous old pub in which Watson and Crick announced that they’d discovered the life-giving properties of the double helix and where I discovered the life-giving properties of the double whisky. Teaching may not have been in my DNA, but Scotch certainly was.
The ceiling of The Eagle’s RAF Bar was adorned with the names and numbers of World War II British and US airmen, hand-written before they flew off on their next – and often last – mission. We shared the daily sense of dread and duty that these brave young men must have felt, though our mortality rate was, I accept, much better.
But soon it was over. Teaching practice was done, the sun reappeared and I could get back to the serious matter of cricket, boating and picnics. And a spot of partying.
It turned out that my guys, the RE Group, were a pretty wild bunch. Having turned down several invitations to ‘RE Dinners’, fearing they may involve bible study or hair shirts, I was delighted to discover they were full-on Bacchanalian romps. Someone would cook, then out would come the tequila and before you knew it, you were playing spin the bottle or Postman’s Knock, featuring long involved snogs with blue-stocking girls in ball-gowns, before puking up on Parker’s Piece.
At the year’s end, came the exam. We’d heard that an ancient university law allowed students sitting papers to demand a flagon of ale for mid-exam refreshment. I waited a polite five minutes before putting up my hand and making my request to one of the invigilators.
‘I’m unable to comply with that, I’m afraid, sir,’ he replied.
‘But is it not my right?’ I said, like a monster.
‘Indeed it is, but only if sir is wearing his ceremonial sword.’ Damn. I’d been outwitted. It remains the only sour note of my year.
And so my time at Cambridge came to an end. I never used my PGCE in anger, at least not in the UK. Instead, I stuck ‘and TEFL’ after ‘R.E.’ on my CV and went to Portugal for another year of messing about, which is another tale. But while I may not have become a teacher, I did learn. I learned that if you’re feeling a bit directionless there is nothing like leaping out of your comfort zone in an unexpected direction and shaking up your life, especially if you can get someone else to pay for it.
You may not get a career out of it, but thrills, giggles and new friends await. Not to mention a vague sense of belonging. Only last year I was invited back to my Cambridge college for the launch of a new Women’s Eight rowing boat. It was an early start but we arrived at the boathouse for 10.30am to find Champagne and bacon sandwiches waiting for us and proceeded to get right stuck into another freebie all-dayer. My year of skiving religiously just keeps on giving; it provideth and I shall not want. Maybe there is a God.