It’s Groundhog Day at the turnstile of opportunity
THE MOMENT of epiphany came for me on a glorious summer’s morning while on duty at the school gate. As the young troupers ambled once again towards the great turnstile of hope and opportunity, an ethereal beam of sunlight suddenly began to cast a new light on the familiar scene before me: surely none of it was for real. I was merely caught up in some kind of mechanical loop.
It was not the fact that the same children turn up each day. Nothing weird about that. It’s a school, so we might reasonably expect that to happen. No, my sudden awareness that I am almost certainly in “The
Day After Groundhog Day” – or possibly the next unwitting subject in the The Truman Show – came from suddenly noticing the ridiculously orchestrated nature of their arrival each day.
It had taken a whole year of gate duty for me to realise that each cluster of friends always turned up in the same sequence, at exactly the same time, each day, with each group displaying the same characteristics every time.
I have now worked out, for example, that at 8.21am Charlie and friends will always be turning the corner, always swaggering down the pavement in exactly the same positions.
Daisy and Ella will then follow at 8.23, heavily engaged each time in the latest breaking gossip.
Always cutting it fine at 8.29 will be Laura and Izzy, who will offer their semi-apologetic smiles and then semi-accelerate to their lesson.
Just as I prepare to accelerate to my own lesson, the same dog-walker shuffles past and makes his routine joke about how my mug of coffee “looks like a pint of Guinness!” (It’s black with a white safety lid, you see.) “I wish it was!” is my equally predictable reply, every time. In fact, the only key difference to “Groundhog Day” is that I have not yet responded by thumping him in the face.
After I realised that I was simply teaching hundreds of programmed automatons, everything else also started to make sense. I understood why, at break times, each friendship group always headed to “their” own particular chosen space, regardless of all the variables. Venturing over to one such group, I asked them why they always chose to meet under a dark and dismal section of overhanging roof, rather than opting for the brighter and more attractive area just a few metres away. Their response was that they had always met under that roof ever since their very first day on the upper-school site, when it happened to have been raining. That first wet day had determined their break-time habitat for the next two school years. Surely real children would not behave in such a way?
Similarly, most of them are obviously programmed never to mix with students from “the year below”. Only a major mechanical fault will result in someone from the “X” half of the timetable fraternising with someone from the
“Y” side. It would be like mixing up Montagues with Capulets – and only exam boards ever do that kind of thing.
If these people are for real then maybe the implications are even more worrying. We all aim in school to challenge, to open minds and to break down barriers and insularity. Much of the teaching undoubtedly helps to do that. But maybe the very nature and structure of our schools encourages children to develop in the very opposite direction. Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams’s School in Thame, Oxfordshire. Michael Tidd is away. He will return at the start of term