Saturday, 24 December 2016

Chapter 10 The 1990s, film, family, focus and France

Chapter 10

The 1990s, film, family, focus and France

Professionally speaking, the early 1990s was a bizarrely settled period – bizarrely because it was a time of great change (Revised Higher and Standard Grade were being introduced and developed), yet there was certainty and confidence about the direction we were taking as clear and concise documentation was produced, staff were consulted and changes in line with teachers’ reaction and recommendations were often implemented.
“Tour de France” was out and until we found an alternative that would fit our requirements (eventually “Métro” was published), we used the coursework I had produced before going to Rennes.

My own course and then “Métro” fitted the requirements of the new exams very well and we developed materials we were able to use (with updates) for a further ten years or so.

In line with the new Higher course, we were able to use French films toward fulfilment of requirements in writing and speaking, and that suited me very well. A long-time devotee of cinema in general, but particularly interested in French films and directors, I was delighted to be able to introduce film not just for background study and general interest, but for specific coursework purposes at Standard Grade, Higher and Advanced Higher (or Sixth Year Studies at the time).

I enjoyed and admired a number of films by Luc Besson and so I developed some ideas and notes for use with Advanced Higher students. I even suggested the pupil involved write to Luc Besson in the vague hope that the man himself might respond, and lo and behold, some four months later the pupil received a signed personal reply! It was a typed note thanking her for her interest and apologising for taking so long to respond (he had been preoccupied with preparations for his film “Leon”). The pupil kept the original and I had a photocopy on the wall behind my desk in my room for a couple of years.

Encouraged by this and subsequent success in exams, I used other films and made notes available to pupils on “Jean de Florette” and “Les Enfants du Paradis”, though these were restricted to Higher and Advanced Higher levels. I started using other films with lower year groups, and developing notes on them, though principally for fun, engagement and background information purposes.

At the same time my personal life changed irrevocably as my three children arrived – my oldest son in 1991 and my second son and daughter (twins) in 1993.

Allow me to state the obvious – children take over your life. Professionally speaking, things were going reasonably smoothly, but in a way having children only made everything go even more smoothly because I was so tired and so busy I had no time to be preoccupied with problems – I just dealt with them and moved on to the next one. They say that if you want something done you should approach someone who is busy. Well, I can vouch for that – apart from all the reforms and associated course developments at school, I also offered tuition (at its peak I saw people on four evenings in the week), and I taught an official evening class once a week.

Why? Because having children is not cheap and at one point all three of our children were in nappies and that alone was a considerable drain on our resources.

I think I also became more reasonable and accepting of people, largely because I walked around in a semi-permanent daze. My children did not sleep well through the night and I became accustomed to getting up two or three times every night, and that went on (though it tapered off in time) for close to seven years. I didn’t have the energy for arguments, so in general I reasoned with people and tried to remain calm, even under provocation.

There was, however, one occasion when I was bad-tempered and I snapped sarcastically at a poor pupil who only behaved as she normally did. When asked why I was being so nasty on that day, I realised the reason was rather unusual and ran contrary to expectation. I had had a good night’s sleep for the first time in months (maybe even years), and I couldn’t handle it! My mind and body felt out of sync, I felt excessively tired and ready to snap at the least provocation.

Naturally, I apologised to the girl, but when she heard me explain I was crotchety exactly because I had slept well, she clearly thought I had flipped and was in need of bed rest.

Sometime in the mid-eighties, I applied for a minor promotion (Assistant Principal Teacher) in a nearby school. I applied more or less because it was expected of me – I had reached the age and stage in my career where people seek advancement, but my heart really wasn’t in it. Promotion under the system in practice at the time seemed like a backward step to me, dealing with elements of administration and discipline that I have never found attractive, and effectively giving you less time to do the part of the job I did enjoy – class contact and teaching itself.

Rather predictably, the interview did not go particularly well. I was nervous to star with, but when the Head of the school directed a question at me and proceeded to stare unflinchingly at me – not a single blink of an eye or hint of a smile – I felt I was under intense scrutiny and the resultant sense of pressure caused my mouth to dry up and my brain to scramble. I managed to answer questions, but even I felt I was just going through the motions and my lack of enthusiasm and initiative must have been clear to all.

Needless to say, I did not get the job and I decided there and then not to apply for any further posts unless it was something I really wanted and believed in.

In the late eighties/early nineties a new grade of teacher was introduced – that of Senior Teacher. The original idea behind the post was to reward “good” teachers and encourage them to remain at the “chalk face” rather than apply for promoted posts which then took them away from the very thing they were good at. Of course, unions and education authorities fairly quickly stipulated there should be extra duties attached to the position in order to merit a wage increase, but nonetheless this appealed to me as it did not involve (in theory) having to spend extra time on administrative or discipline matters. Essentially, it meant developing teaching strategies and possibly sharing them with others, and I found that very attractive so I applied for the position (still in Invergordon).

The interviews were announced for February 1990 and I was in Rennes at the time. Fortunately, a mid-term holiday fell at exactly the right time and I was able to return home not only to attend the interview, but also to attend the wedding of my mother and Fred.

This time I was keen to do well and I prepared thoroughly for the interview. I believed in the job and in myself, and curiously I was not especially nervous, in part because I wanted the position and had things to say, but also because I was based in France at the time and that seemed to lend distance and a sense of proportion to events.

Questions were asked and I was able to give confident and detailed responses to them all, though the Head cunningly incorporated a question on the one area I had not discussed in my application because I had been unsure of the definition of a term used in the job description, but I had done research at home and put some thought into that aspect, so I was able to respond adequately. That is, until I had to make reference to the position of Depute Head (an essential point as he would be my line manager), and I could not think of the term “Depute Head”.

I was so accustomed to speaking French that French was the language that came into my head first. I had already experienced a few “blanks” when speaking English with friends and family, but at worst I recovered after a moment’s hesitation and I was able to laugh it off. Here, in this situation, it was different – formal and potentially far more embarrassing. I could only think of the French for “Depute” – sous-directeur. I was aware of this gap in my vocabulary as I formulated the sentence but I hoped that by the time I reached the end of the sentence it would come to me. It didn’t. My sentence was left hanging in mid-air, incomplete.

“I could speak to the ……”

The interview panel (the Head and one other member of the senior management team) looked up from the notes they were taking in expectation, waiting for the words that would not come.

I repeated (in the hope the words would come of their own accord) ….

“I could speak to the ….”, but still I just fizzled out.

Suddenly I felt hot and clammy, and the puzzled looks and expressions of wearing patience only increased my sense of growing panic (I was the fourth applicant and therefore this was the fourth time they had asked this question and heard the expected response).

I could think of no way round it. I had to confess I couldn’t think of the English for the term I wanted to use, only the French.

This was clearly new to them. An English speaker who couldn’t continue in English, but who could do so in French.

“What’s the expression in French?” asked the Head, bemused but at the same time fascinated.

“Sous-directeur”, I replied

“You mean the Depute?”, he asked, quite astonished that such a small and common piece of school vocabulary could have escaped me.

“That’s it!”, I exclaimed in sheer delight and relief at being able to complete my sentence.

I got the job, despite my minor display of linguistic incompetence.

Part of my remit was to establish a code for equal opportunities in the school, and then I was invited to develop a new region-wide initiative, Highland in Europe. Initially, I looked into ways in which knowledge and awareness of all things European could be advanced within various subjects and eventually this led to developing links in Rennes to enable an exchange of work-experience placements between Invergordon and Rennes. While the principle was much lauded, in practical terms the whole project had to be shelved due to a lack of available funding. However, as a school we did manage to send two pupils to Rennes and they successfully completed work placements with a newspaper publisher.

Various offshoot schemes came about as a result of the Highland in Europe initiatives, including one plan to encourage teachers and pupils in different schools (and countries!) to share resources and work on projects together. Within our school this was largely the responsibility of our geography teacher, John, and he invited me to participate in a trip to a secondary school (a lycée) in Troyes, not just to help linguistically, but to look into the possibilities of establishing links across the board between our two schools.
We received a very warm welcome and embarked on several excursions in and around the area, visiting the historic city itself (including a square in which, I was told, Victor Hugo witnessed the guillotining of a prisoner and acquaintance, Claude Gueux, a visit that would soon have particular significance for me), the gothic cathedral and a number of champagne vineyards.

I videotaped interviews with several pupils in English and in French with a view to producing comprehension exercises and encouraging pupils to do the same thing in Invergordon. I also filmed various places (especially in the school) and people to provide background information for pupils at home, and I hoped pupils might produce a similar documentary-style video about life in Invergordon that could be sent to Troyes. Despite initial enthusiasm and a genuine desire to communicate and develop correspondence, the whole project gradually lost momentum as pupils moved on and the pressures of time and schoolwork came to bear, forcing this linguistic luxury into the background.

When Arthur heard that we were going to France, he took me aside to ask if I could do him a favour. He was very fond of an exclusive eau de toilette for men called “Bien-être” (Well-being) which he just couldn’t find in this country. He asked if I would be kind enough to hunt some down for him while I was in France, and he offered to give me some money there and then as it was likely to be rather expensive. Of course, I agreed and told him we’d settle up on my return.

I don’t know anything about aftershave or eau de toilette as they tend to make me sneeze, (my wife once bought me some expensive Aramis which I duly put on just before going out to dinner whereupon my neck erupted in red blotches and I sneezed for twenty minutes before washing it off again), but I took careful note of what to look for and promised I would seek it out.
Sitting with John in a café in the centre of Troyes, I looked across the street and spotted a swanky-looking pharmacie (chemist’s) with upmarket products in the window and freshly painted bold lettering above it, which did a very good job of drawing my attention. It looked like just the sort of place that might carry the exclusive product Arthur was looking for.

A bit anxious about asking for something about which I knew absolutely nothing except the name, I pushed open the door and entered the plush premises. I had hoped to be able to look for “Bien-être” on the shelves without having to engage in conversation with an assistant, but as soon as I entered and realised I was the only customer in the entire place, I understood this was unlikely. A very bored-looking man sporting designer stubble and an air of superiority (I was in very casual clothes and must certainly have given the impression of being of limited means) saw me come in and, almost in relief at having something to do, he instantly asked if he could help.

I told him I was looking for an eau de toilette called “Bien-être”.

He hesitated and then gave me a look which combined disbelief and annoyance at having his time wasted.

“Monsieur, pour cela il faut aller chez Monoprix …. ”

Translation: Sir, to get that you’ll have to go to Monoprix (roughly an equivalent of Superdrug or Woolworths).

So, not quite as exclusive as Arthur thought …. I thanked the man and left his shop, then headed for the nearest Monoprix about 200 metres to the left.
I entered the fairly run-down and tremendously busy Monoprix and headed straight for the toiletries section. There, on the second shelf of a badly stocked display, lay two plastic bottles (one on its side) of the much desired “Bien-être”. I grabbed them and looked at the price on the shelf. I looked at it more closely and couldn’t believe my eyes. I found the price label on the bottles themselves and it confirmed what I had seen on the shelf – the decimal point was indeed in the right place. The bottles cost 20 francs (about £2) each.

Even as I handed them over to the assistant behind the cash desk, I expected her to tell me there had been a mistake, but no – it came to 40 francs (just under £4).

I spent the rest of the trip worrying I had bought the wrong product and Arthur would mock me for weeks afterwards. But no …. Arthur was delighted with my purchase and of course wanted to reimburse me.

I just couldn’t bring myself to tell him the price, so I asked him to accept it as a gift. The poor man clearly thought I was being very generous …. until now!

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